Many people throughout the American South grew up hearing that if they didn’t behave, Rawhead and Bloodybones would come to get them.
These two terrifying creatures were often imagined as parts of the same monster, Rawhead being the bare skull and the headless skeleton being Bloodybones. The origins of this tale go back to England, with the Oxford Dictionary tracing mentions of the phrase back as far as 1548. But, in spite of the longevity of this bogeyman, the original tale has been forgotten. The only remnants we have are an old nursery rhyme from Yorkshire:
Rawhead and Bloody Bones,
Steals Naughty Children from their Homes,
Takes them to his dirty den,
And they are never seen again.
Even though the original tale was lost, countless numbers of stories in the American south involve Rawhead and Bloodybones. One from the Ozarks even reimagines him as a skeletal boar-hog created by a witch. The story I’m going to share with you comes from Kentucky.
Once upon a time, there was a woman who married a man that had a beautiful daughter named Mary. The woman also had a daughter named Suzy, who looked like she’d fallen out of the ugly tree and hit every limb on the way down. Folk around town said that one glance at Suzy could send a freight train down a dirt road. None of that would’ve mattered much if Suzy had been a nice girl, but she wasn’t. Both her and her mama hated Mary on account of her beauty. Mary, on the other hand, was both beautiful and kind. She did her best to return Suzy’s and her stepmother’s hatred with good deeds.
After a couple of years of living under the same roof, Mary’s step-mother got tired of watching her be more beautiful than Suzy. So she went to see a witch and told her she had a hateful step-daughter that she wanted to be rid of.
“Here’s what ye need to do,” the witch said. “Have Suzy pretend she’s ill. Have her lay down in bed and tell Mary that unless someone brings Suzy water from a well on the other side of the mountain, she’ll die. Send Mary to get the water and I’ll take care of the rest.”
“Well, I want to know how you’re going to get rid of her,” the stepmother said.
“If ye must know,” the witch said, “the well on the far side of the mountain is where Rawhead and Bloodybones lives. If Mary is as hateful as you say she is, he’ll take care of her.”
“All right,” said the stepmother.
She went home and told Suzy her plan. Suzy laid down in the bed and began to groan. When Mary came inside she heard Suzy moaning and asked what was the matter.
“She’s ill,” said the stepmother, “and nothing can help her except for a drink of water from the well on the other side of the mountain.”
Well, Mary being a kind and good girl who liked to help everybody, said she’d go over the mountain to get the water. So she got a bucket and a biscuit and started out. As she came to the base of the mountain, she saw a small dog in her path.
The dog trotted up to her and whined. “Please, Miss,” it said, “I have a terrible itch on my belly. Could you scratch it for me?”
“Of course I can,” said Mary. She put down her bucket and scratched the dog’s belly. She did such a good job that the dog’s leg started pumping back and forth in delight. Once his itch was gone the dog stood up and thanked Mary. “You smell better than a bush full of roses, “ it said, “and may you smell twice as good when you go home.”
About halfway up the mountain, Mary sat down to eat her biscuit for dinner. An old man with a long, dirty beard came out from behind a tree and sat down next to her.
“What do you want, Sir?” Mary asked.
“I’d like to eat dinner with you,” the old man said.
“All I have is this biscuit,” Mary said. “But I’ll share it with you.” She tore the biscuit in two and gave the old man the larger half.
“Thank you for your kindness and being so good to me,” the old man said when they’d finished eating. “You’re as pretty as a speckled pup. May you be twice as pretty when you go home.”
As the sun sank low, Mary finally found herself on the far side of the mountain. She saw the well, wreathed in evening mist. Mary let her bucket down into the well and cranked it back up. she could see that there was something in her bucket, but it wasn’t water. As she pulled it from the well, she saw it was a human skull. A sinister light shone from its eye sockets.
“What do you want, Mr. Skull?” she asked.
“I want you to wash me, and dry me, and lay me down easy,” said the skull.
So she washed it and dried it and laid it down easy. Then she dropped her bucket down the well again, and this time pulled up a bone, then another, and another. They all wanted Mary to wash them and dry them and lay them down easy. All night she worked, pulling up bone after bone, washing them, drying them, and laying them gently on the ground. As the morning sun peeked over the horizon, the bones began to assemble themselves with a click, click, click. Soon a headless skeleton was complete. It got to its feet and lifted the skull in one hand.
Mary gasped in terror. Before her stood Rawhead and Bloodybones. The skeleton took a step toward her and held up the skull until it was staring straight into her face.
“Don’t be scared,” said the skull. “You have done me a great kindness, and for that, I say when you get home may gold fall out of your hair when you comb it. Now you may take your water from the well and leave.”
Later that day, when Mary arrived back in town, everyone noticed a wonderful smell. They thought that a florist shop must be moving in. They looked out on the street and saw Mary, more beautiful than ever.
When Mary got home, her stepmother was surprised to see her, very much surprised.
“What are you doing here?” she said.
“I’ve got the water for Suzy,” Mary said. She went on in, and gave Suzy a drink.
Suzy, who wasn’t sick at all, got out of bed and started playing.
“I’m glad to see she’s better now,” said Mary.
“Oh, go on and shut up!” said the step-mother. “I wish you hadn’t’ve come back. You just bring hatefulness into this house.”
“I’m really tired,” Mary said, ignoring her step-mother’s meanness. “I just want to comb my hair and go to bed. Can I comb my hair in your lap?”
“No, I won’t let you comb your hair in my lap,” said the step-mother. “What do you think I am, a garbage pail or something?”
“Well, I guess I’ll comb it in my own lap then,” Mary said. She went off in the corner and started to comb her hair. And when she combed it, gold fell out! Her step-mother saw this and said, “Oh, honey! Come here, I’ll let you comb your hair in my lap!”
“I don’t want you too, now,” Mary said. “I’ll comb it by myself.” She kept combing until she had a big pile of gold.
The stepmother realized that the well on the far side of the mountain must be responsible for this magic, so she wasted no time in sending Suzy to fetch a bucket of water there, and she packed a big, fine meal for Suzy to eat along the way.
At the base of the mountain, Suzy met the little dog, who asked her scratch his belly.
“Scratch your own flea-bitten belly!” Suzy said. “I’m in a hurry to get my gold!”
As Suzy walked away the dog looked after her. “You smell worse than perfume on a pig,” he said. “May you smell twice as bad when you get home.”
Half way up the mountain, Suzy got hungry and sat down to eat her meal. The old man with the long beard appeared and asked to share her meal.
“I don’t want your dirty beard dragging in my food,” Suzy said. “Go on and hush up! I ain’t going to let you eat with me!”
“Well all right,” said the old man. As he walked back into the woods he looked over his shoulder and said, “You’re so ugly you could back a buzzard off a meat wagon. May you be twice as ugly when you get home.”
Suzy made it to the well on the other side of the mountain. She rushed to it and dropped her bucket down inside When she drew it up, she found the skull inside.
“Wash me, and dry me, and lay me down easy,” said the skull.
“What do you think I am? Your maid-servant?” said Suzy. “I don’t want to put my hands on you.” She picked up her bucket and hurled the skull out on the ground. Suzy kept sending her bucket dowm, and just like Mary, brought up bone and after bone. Each one of them asked to be washed, and dried, and laid down easy, but Suzy threw each one of them into a pile by the skull. When she pulled out the last bone, she final got her bucket full of water and turned around to leave, only to find Rawhead and Bloodybones standing behind her.
“You hateful, little girl!” said the skull, it’s eyes glowing angrily. “When you get home, may snakes and frogs fall out of your hair when you comb it.”
When Suzy got back to town later that day, she cleared the whole street with her stink. People covered their eyes and pinched their noses as she walked past, saying they didn’t know what was worse, looking at her or smelling her.
When she got home, her mother was waiting with a comb in hand. “Come here, sweet-pea! Let’s comb you hair,” she said. Then the greedy woman began to comb Suzy’s hair, only to get a lap full of snakes and frogs. Suzy and her mother ran away screaming, and Mary lived happily ever after.