previous next

Mrs. Mary E. Tyler.

Somerville is rich in historic associations. We have the Old Powder House, where the ammunition was stored previous to the Revolutionary War, and Prospect Hill, where the first flag was raised in 1776.

Great men have walked our country lanes, Washington and Burgoyne, of olden times; Enneking, the artist, John G. Saxe, the poet, and Edward Everett, the preacher, have lived in later days within our borders. Even the Pundita Ramabai from the Far East has paid a flying visit to our city. No poet, artist, preacher, or historian is so well known among English-speaking people as the subject of this paper, the ‘Mary who had the little lamb.’

It was by no conscious activity on her part that she became famous. She was one of those rare creatures who have greatness thrust upon them. Yet she bore her honors meekly.

Mary E. Sawyer was born in 1806 in the town of Sterling, Mass. It was through this town that King Philip marched, burning the houses and killing and taking captive the white people. She graduated from the schools of her native town, and then for a while taught school in Fitchburg. Her love for her little charges made her very popular, but her health failed, and she was obliged to seek a change of occupation.

In 1827 she secured a position in the McLean Asylum, [27] where she remained thirty-five years, the greater part of the time as matron. In her long career of usefulness she ministered with skill and affection to the sick and unfortunate. In 1835, while in this institution, she married Columbus Tyler, who was steward there at the time.

Mrs. Tyler and her husband were among the first founders of the Unitarian Church in this town. For many years she superintended the infant class in the Sunday School, and also interested herself in the larger work of the denomination.

When Mr. Tyler resigned from the asylum he built a spacious house on Central Street, and there Mrs. Tyler dispensed a gracious hospitality. She was interested in most of the city organizations, particularly the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Woman's Relief Corps.

On the north side of their house was a wild wood garden. In it she had every variety of fern and delicate wood flower. In her summer journeyings, when she saw a rare plant, she secured a specimen for her garden. Those most difficult of cultivation responded to her care. She gladly welcomed her little friends in the neighborhood to assist her in her work, and their assistance was not always helpful. On one occasion she left two little boys of five and six years to amuse themselves with shovel and wheelbarrow while she took a nap. When she came out she found the ferns entirely cleaned from one bed and thrown on the rubbish pile. Her only rebuke was a gentle: ‘My little dears, you have done a great deal of mischief, but you did not mean it.’ These two boys were Rollin T. Lincoln and Edward B. Raymond, who are now married and have children of their own.

Her friends were often the recipients of a beautiful bouquet, arranged with the skill of an artist, and the birthdays of the boys and girls in the neighborhood were always remembered with flowers. The lonely and bereaved welcomed her sympathetic visits. Always thinking of others, and never of herself, she lived a life of beneficence and charity, and died lamented by all who had the pleasure of her acquaintance. She died December 11, 1889, and was buried in Mt. Auburn. [28]

The following account of the lamb is from the pen of a cousin, William Brewster Sawyer, and was published in the Boston Transcript:—

‘Mary had a little lamb.’

The famous history from the lips of the original Mary.

There are floating about in the great ocean of literature stray chips of song or story, which from their wit or wisdom, or from some unaccountable reason, become popularized and cherished more carefully than whole navies of world-renowned authors. Their parentage unknown, they come as literary foundlings to our doors, and, once admitted, command their own place in our affections. Among such is the poem, “Mary had a little lamb.” There is hardly a child in the broad land who has not become familiar with the verses, nor a college student but has sung them to a dozen different tunes. It has been parodied, paraphrased, and translated into the dead languages. And yet scarce any one knows who is its author, or whether it is fictitious or founded on fact. It is perhaps in the truth of the story that the secret of its popularity lies. For it is the true account of an incident that happened years ago, not fifty miles from the Cradle of Liberty. The writer, on a recent visit, craved from her own lips the true story of the affair, and will reproduce it as nearly as possible.

“It was when I was nine years old,” she said, “and we lived upon the farm. I used to go out to the barn every morning with father to see the cows and sheep. They all knew me, and the cows, old Broad and Short-horn and Brindle, would low a good morning when I came to their stables. One cold day we found that during the night twin lambs had been born. You know that sheep will often disown one of twins, and this morning one poor little lamb was pushed out of the pen into the yard. It was almost starved and almost frozen, and father told me I might have it if I could make it live. So I took it into the house, wrapped it in a blanket, and fed it peppermint and milk [29] all day. When night came I could not bear to leave it, for fear it would die, so mother made me up a little bed on the settle, and I nursed the poor thing all night, feeding it with a spoon, and by morning it could stand. After this we brought it up by hand, until it grew to love me very much, and would stay with me wherever I went unless it was tied. I used before going to school in the morning to see that the lamb was all right and securely fastened for the day. Well, one morning, when my brother Nat and I were all ready, the lamb could not be found, and supposing that it had gone out to pasture with the cows, we started on. I used to be a great singer, and the lamb would follow the sound of my voice. This morning, after we had gone some distance, I began to sing, and the lamb, hearing me, followed on and overtook us before we got to the schoolhouse. As it happened, we were early, so I went in very quietly, took the lamb into my seat, where it went to sleep, and I covered it up with my shawl. When the teacher came and the rest of the scholars, they did not notice anything amiss, and all was quiet until my spelling class was called. I had hardly taken my place before the pattering of little feet was heard coming down the aisle, and the lamb stood beside me ready for its word. Of course the children all laughed, and the teacher laughed, too, and the poor creature had to be turned out of doors. But it kept coming back, and at last had to be tied in the woodshed till night. Now that day there was a young man in school, John Roulston by name, who was on a visit to one of the boys, and came in as spectator. He was a Boston boy, and son of the riding school master, and was fitting for Harvard College. He was very much pleased over what he saw in our school, and a few days after gave us the first three verses of the song. How or when it got into print I don't know.”

Thus she ran on, telling of the care she bestowed on her pet until it grew to be a sheep, and she would curl its long wool over a stick; and it bore lambs until there was a flock of five all her own; and finally how it was killed by an angry cow. Then she brought out a pair of her little girl stockings, knitted of yarn [30] spun from the lamb's wool, the heels of which had been raveled out and given away piecemeal as mementoes.

John Roulston died before entering college. What the world lost in him, who wove into verse that immortalized them both the story of Mary and the lamb, no one may say.

The teacher was Miss Harriet Kimball, who afterwards became the wife of a Mr. Loring, and their son was the proprietor of the well-known circulating library in Boston.

John Roulston was the nephew of Rev. Samuel Capen, who was then settled in Sterling. The day after the lamb's visit to school young Roulston rode over to the schoolhouse and handed Mary the first three stanzas of the poem:—

Mary had a little lamb,
     Its fleece was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary went
     The lamb was sure to go.

It followed her to school one day,
     Which was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play
     To see a lamb at school.

And so the teacher turned it out,
     But still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about
     Till Mary did appear.

Of its snow-white wool she knitted some stockings, and in 1886, when the patriotic women of Boston wished to raise money for the preservation of the Old South Meeting-House, they asked Mrs. Tyler to assist by giving a pair of these stockings. She complied with their request. The stockings were raveled, and bits of the yarn fastened on cards on which she had written her name. These sold for a hundred dollars. A second pair was raveled, and another large sum was raised.

John Roulston gave Mary the poem in 1815. She and her [31] friends naturally inferred that he was the author of it. No question as to the authorship was raised till in 1829 Mrs. Sarah Josepa (Buell) Hale, afterwards editor of Godey's Monthly, published a volume of poems for children, and included in them were six stanzas, entitled ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ The additional verses are:—

And then it ran to her, and laid
     Its head upon her arm,
As if to say, “I'm not afraid, You'll keep me from all harm.

“What makes the lamb love Mary so?”
     The eager children cry;
“Oh, Mary loves the lamb, you know,”
     The teacher did reply.

“And you each gentle animal In confidence may bind,
     And make them follow at your will,
If you are only kind.

If this was an incident in Mrs. Hale's life, as some of her friends assert, why doesn't the poem begin with ‘Sarah had a little lamb’? It has been printed ‘Lucy had a little lamb.’

Mrs. Tyler's friends and Mrs. Hale's unflinchingly maintain their position. Mrs. Tyler's cousin, who lives in the same house in which she was born and married, deposed before a notary public that he attended school in the same schoolhouse, and that the facts referring to the incident of the lamb and the poem are true.

Both parties are honorable people, and the reasonable solution is that the verses are so simple that they almost make themselves, and when Mrs. Hale heard them in her childhood they became a part of her mental furniture, and for a time were forgotten. In later years memory unconsciously reproduced them as original forms, and she added the other three stanzas, believing that the entire poem was her own.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Sterling, Mass. (Massachusetts, United States) (2)
Fitchburg (Massachusetts, United States) (1)
hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
December 11th, 1889 AD (1)
1886 AD (1)
1835 AD (1)
1829 AD (1)
1827 AD (1)
1815 AD (1)
1806 AD (1)
1776 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: