Sunday, November 16, 2008

Raw Head Bloody Bones

It's a story, not a description of what I look like this morning!

Recently Mary Jane over at Blind Pig mentioned Raw Head Bloody Bones in a blog post. In her family, it was used as a threat to make children behave (as in 'if you don't be good ol' Raw Head Bloody Bones will get you!"). I knew it as a story, and she and I discussed it via email. In the course of that conversation, I turned up the following information about the story:

For one thing, the story is very old.

The blog Ghost-A-Go-Go Toons credits the story to Celtic roots. (The images of Ol' Raw Head on this blog are interesting, too).

In the book Faiths and Folklore, (first published in 1905 and still in print) author William Carew Hazlitt notes that William Butler referenced the term "Raw Head" or "Bloody bones" twice in his book Hudibras, which was written between 1660 and 1680, another indication of the possible Celtic origin of the tale. And in Oral and Literate Culture in England 1500-1700 (published in 2001 by Oxford University Press) , Adam Fox notes that "another spectre which had been a particular terror of children at least since Reginald Scot's childhood in the 1540's was Raw-head and bloody-bone." He goes on to say that servants often used the term to frighten children, and that the creature was often said to inhabit ponds and to pull in children who got too close the water's edge.

Zora Neale Hurston collected the story in South Carolina, and credited it to African roots. You can read a fascinating interview with her here and read her version of the story. An African origin of the tale seems likely to me; the story could have traveled through African servants to the Bristish Isles. Or perhaps it was the other way around, and the servants or slaves learned the story from their British employers or owners? Another African-American version is included in Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural by Mary E. Lyons.

There is an online version of the story on the American Folklore site, attributed to Missouri, but the story is at home in the south as well, and may have been spread across the United States by early settlers.

Another version, from Alabama, is included in the collection Ghosts and Goosebumps: Ghost Stories, Tall Tales, and Superstitions from Alabama compiled by Jack Solomon and published by University of Georgia Press, 1994. In all versions, the tale is intended to frighten children into a certain behavior or action, and falls into the cautionary tale category.

The way I've heard the story (and this is a composite of several different versions from different books and storytellers) is that there is a little boy who is lazy and won't do his work. He sasses his mother, granny, etc, doesn't do what he is told, and they tell him that if he doesn't behave old raw head bloody bones will get him. Either he meets old rawhead and gets so scared that he's a changed boy, or he continues to be a brat and old rawhead carries him away.

Have you ever heard this story, or did someone say the name to you as a scare tactic? What child would not conjure up terrible images if told "old rawhead bloody bones is gonna get you!"

I think I'd be minding my manners, absolutely!


  1. I'm going to have to mentioning Raw Head Bloody Bones sightings around here. Even if he doesn't show up, it's a great legend and lots of fun to say.

  2. I believe I've seen it in collections by Missouri storytellers Richard and Judy (Dockery) Young.
    I don't really do very scary stories; it just isn't in me . .
    Maybe assigning homework all those years took care of all need to scare people . . . ;-)

  3. Thank you for shedding light on my bloody bones story!!

  4. Thanks for posting this blog. It seems I can't ever get enough info on Rawhead and Bloodybones. Been researching it online and everyone seems to take direct quotes from Wikipedia. I guess it's off to the biblioteca.

  5. We were told stories of "old bloody bones" as children. Usually before bed presumably so we'd be good quiet children, sometimes when we weren't so good. She'd sit us down to tell us some stories and remind us of bloody bones creeping. My grandmother relished in scaring the bejesus out of us. I can still hear her laugh. I never realized (until an odd notion to Google it today) that these weren't just her own made up stories. Pretty cool to know there is so much history behind it.

  6. I remember my dad and my older cousin telling us kids that "Raw Head and Bloody Bones" will "get" us, but I never remember a story told to us that went along with the threat. My dad and cousin and all their families grew up in and around Brentsville, VA, in Prince William County. My dad's parents grew up in Shenandoah County, VA, and were from Celtic, German, and French roots. Not sure when or where the story started in my dad's family - Raw Head and Bloody Bones was just THE goblin of choice to scare us with.

  7. I am from N.C.; when I was little my aunt used to tell me that red-eys and bloody bones would get me for about anything that I ever did. She used to even draw pictures of a square headed monster with bleeding eyes and bony fingers with claws. We were of Scotch
    Irish decent so maybe it came from that area but we are also from the south.

    thank you for sharing the story and best wishes for healing for your husbands surgery,

    Take care,

  8. My grandma from KY would tell us this story. Is was born in 1905 and moved to IN in about 1948 or so.
    There was a knock knock knocking at the door
    There was a tap tap tapping at the window
    Little children don’t look out it’s raw head and bloody bones
    He name was Maude Marie Maggard. Yeary was her married name. She lived in Maggard Kentucky. Her mom’s family’s last name was Lewis


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