WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Rawhead and Bloody Bones

Why on earth was the idea of scaring children into proper behavior ever deemed a good idea?

Rawhead and Bloody Bones (nouns)

A bull beggar, or scarechild, with which foolish nurses terrify crying brats.






This week’s monsters – and that’s exactly what they were – have been skulking and threatening since the middle of the 16th century. Sermons were built around them. Children were admonished with their tales as often as necessary.

“There is not that Discretion or Consideration, by which they may…put a difference betwene their Grandmothers tale of Bloudy Bone, Raw head, Bloudelesse and Ware woulf, and the Churches Doctrine of Hell and the Deuill.”
Thirde Bk. to Bewaare M. Iewel f. 9v, J. Rastell, 1566

Rawhead would seem to be a character that could easily feature in the next Rob Zombie or Guillermo del Toro flick. This beast would kidnap naughty children from their homes and drag them back to his lair, never to be seen again. The earliest versions of Rawhead don’t seem scary to our modern, jaded imaginations. He was either tall, putrid-smelling, and covered in animal tails, or short, hairy, headless, and resembling a feral hog. He could also be any combination between these two. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, relays this updated, grisly description:

A bugbear or bogeyman, typically imagined as having a head in the form of a skull, or one whose flesh has been stripped of its skin, invoked to frighten children. Also occas.: a skull. Freq. used in conjunction with bloody-bones Cf. raw-flesh n., raw neck n.

Good heavens. I would eat my peas.

headless skeleton
Bloody Bones, by comparison, seems rather tame: a dancing, headless skeleton. The fact that the adjective bloody is used suggests he is no bleached-boned anatomy specimen, but rather a gruesome and red skeleton, but the dancing makes me picture a more benign “haint,” as we say in the South.


Truly desperate nurses combined the descriptions for both monsters into one, making for a truly hideous beast. A nursery rhyme originated in Yorkshire to complete the incantation for good behavior in their charges.




Rawhead and Bloody Bones
Steals naughty children from their homes,
Takes them to his dirty den,
And they are never seen again.





After stumbling across said rhyme, I decided that the villain in my Lords of Oxford series would resurrect this childhood monster to torment his sister. Not because she would still fear the repercussions of bad behavior, but because she would know her brother had found her. Here’s an excerpt from my upcoming release, Earl Crazy.


In goodly form comes on the enemy . . .
William Shakespeare, Henry IV Part II, Act 4, Scene 1

A horrifying scream broke the silence of the night, jarring Margaret from her sleep on the chaise. She stumbled to her feet, her legs tangling in her nightgown and dressing gown as she pitched into something tall and firm in her path. She reached out with her hands to grab purchase and found only bare arms. Margaret smothered a scream of her own as she realized she had collided with Aylesford somewhere in the middle of his room.

As her vision swam into focus, the banked fire allow her to barely discern the features of the husband growing steadily more familiar to her. His hair was endearingly mussed, his eyes mounting a struggle similar to her own in their opening. The arms she clutched were unclothed, as was his torso, and she was surprised to find herself fascinated by the sight. Her eyes swept a path across the light dusting of hair that narrowed into a straight line down the center of his chest, over muscled dips and valleys, going all the way to – have mercy! Though the firelight was dim, she could tell Aylesford had not a stitch of clothing on his person.

“Your lady—I mean, my pardon,” he sputtered, spinning to snatch the banyan draped across the bottom corner of his bed. Margaret felt herself flush to the tips of her toes but could not stop her stare from following his every movement. His back rippled with nearly as many muscles as his chest. His robe blocked her view before her gaze could drop any further, and she silently allowed the admission that she was sorry for it. Another shrill cry echoed throughout the house, breaking Margaret from her trance.

Aylesford secured his robe and grabbed her hand. They exited his chamber together in time to see the housekeeper escorting Margaret’s maid, Grace, toward the servant stairs at the end of the hall. “Hold, Mrs. Snowdon. Whatever was the cause of those screams?”

“Nothing to concern yourselves over, my lord, and we apologize for the disturbance of your sleep. Lady Aylesford’s maid had a bit of a fright, but nothing that a dram of warmed milk won’t settle.”

Margaret studied the face of her heretofore implacable maid. The fear displayed there was unmistakable. “Grace, what frightened you?” she asked gently.

Her maid looked to Mrs. Snowdon for permission to answer, and upon receiving her nod, launched into an impassioned explanation. “Oh, my lady, I never feared so much in me life. Twas the worst beast I ever did see.” She shuddered then continued. “I’ve heard the stories all me life but never paid them too much count.” She paused her account to take in an unsteady breath. “I saw Rawhead!”

Mrs. Snowdon’s countenance reflected her embarrassment. “I’ve assured her it was just a dream, my lady. She knows it is just a story, a tale employed to scare naughty children, and that her sleepy mind conjured up a memory. I will have her settled again in no time.”

Margaret heard her maid’s revelation and felt the words physically, as if she had been slapped across the check. “Describe exactly what you saw,” she demanded, her grip tightening unconsciously around Aylesford’s hand.

“I noticed me room was cold of a sudden, and maybe a scratchy sound woke me up, too. I crept out of bed to sneak into the hallway, but as soon as I opened the door, there he stood. He was awful, my lady. He had sharp teeth, bloody arms, and animal tails hanging off him,” Grace ended on a sob, turning into Mrs. Snowdon’s shoulder for comfort.

“Again, my lady, I apologize for–”

Margaret held up her free hand to stave off the housekeeper’s apologies. “Grace, did you smell anything?”

“Yes, my lady,” she replied, peeping through wet lashes. “It was the worst sort of stink I ever did smell, like the most rotten of mud!”

Margaret paled and dropped Aylesford’s hand, raising hers to cover her mouth. “How many animal tails did you see?” she whispered between her fingers.

Grace paused for a moment to remember. “Three. And he waved a candle at me. I thought he meant to catch me afire!” Her wails resumed in earnest at this.

Margaret gasped and paled further, stumbling back two steps, her hand outstretched as if to ward off an attack. Aylesford gathered her in his arms and issued instructions to his staff.

“Thank you Mrs. Snowdon. It is a frightening story, no matter the age of the listener. Please settle Grace then put yourselves off to bed.”


Margaret trembled so violently Aylesford feared she would tumble in a heap to the floor. Without nary a second thought, he bent, catching Margaret behind her knees, cradling her in his arms. He strode back to his chamber, surmising the fire had long since died in hers. He kicked the door shut behind him then lowered himself to the seat closest the hearth, gathering Margaret in his lap. Tremors wracked her frame and he tried to soothe her with his touch, running soft caresses up and down her arm.

“Was that a frightening story from your childhood as well, Margaret?” he asked quietly. “I’m so sorry her nightmare stirred painful memories.”

Margaret sat up sharply in his arms, her face a mask of terror and leached of all color. “I fear no scare-babe tale, my lord. I know all to well that reality is always the greater threat in life.” Her eyes widened and she clutched his shoulders as she made her startling declaration. “My brother is somewhere loose in this house.”


Definitions and examples taken from the Oxford English Dictionary and 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Clues to Rawhead and Bloody Bones culled from The Demoniacal and Deep South Magazine.