This figure was once common in cautionary nursery tales, used to keep children from being naughty. If a child didn’t behave, legend said “Rawhead and Bloody Bones,” would come and take them. The legend was prevalent in the Appalachians throughout the early 1900s, however eventually faded into oblivion. While not nearly as obscure as North Carolina’s “Cow Doctor,” who abducted naughty children and carried them in a “bloody sock,” Rawhead and Bloody Bones was common enough to be remembered by many.
One historic nursery rhyme featuring this fearsome character goes:
“Rawhead and Bloody Bones
Steals naughty children from their homes,
He takes them to his dirty den,
And they are never seen again.”
There are many misconceptions about the origins of Rawhead. There are some modern notions that this bogyman was an African-American creation, however, the legend goes far back in European history.
The exact age of the legend is unknown. From available documentation, it was an old legend when first documented. The Oxford Dictionary states the term’s first written appearance was in 1548. In 1550, Bloody-Bone was the “Devil’s Secretary,” and appeared in the “Court of Hell.”
In 1598, he was Rawe-Flesh and Bloodie-Bone. The name can be found again in 1622, when he was Bloody Bones and Raw-Head. He was also written about in 1693 and in 1870.
This creature has never had a concrete, consistent description. He was called a masculine water-demon. He’s been called Tommy Rawhead, Blood-bones, as well as the traditional Rawhead and Bloody Bones. One historical line regarding Rawhead is:
Raa! Heed aen bloote-beens! [Look there! Take care of Bare Bones.]
“Bare Bones” was often said to be a skeleton, possibly those of an old man, but always meaning death. It is possible that “bloote beens,” or bloody bones, many mean naked shanks or bare legs. There is suspicion the term may have been a derogatory term for feared English King Edward Longshanks.
While much of what is known about the term hails from the United Kingdom. There was also such a figure in German, “Knecht Ruprecht” (Servant Rupert) was a companion of St. Nicholas. He punished the naughty children. More modernly, he’s just called “Krampus.”
Rawhead was featured in a work by John Locke, in 1693. He also appears in Washington Irving’s Spectre Bridegroom. Butler also mentions Rawhead in his Hudibras.
Some historic books attempt to pinpoint the legend as going back to the scene of a murder, where the phantom of a murdered man haunts the scene of his demise.
In the book Ancient Mysteries, by William Hone, the legend of Rawhead was regarded as “ancient” in 1823. In history Rawhead is equated with a “Bull Beggar,” or “terrifier of children.” This is a corruption of the Welsh “bwbach.”