Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Who Was The Lady With The Alligator Purse In The "Miss Lucy Had A Baby" Rhymes?

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part II of a three part series on the playground rhyme which is called "Miss Lucy Had A Baby" and other similar titles. In this post I present seven theories about the role played by the lady with the alligator purse in "Miss Lucy Had A Baby" rhymes.

With two exception, the quoted comments in this post are from two Mudcat Cafe discussion threads about this rhyme. The links to those posts are found below.

Click Part I of this series. In that post I critique the Wikipedia article about "Miss Lucy Had A Baby".

Click for Part III of this series. That post features several variant text examples of "Miss Lucy Had A Baby". Two videos of this rhyme are also featured on that post. That post also includes comments about the possible date of "Miss Lucy Had A Baby".

The content of this post is presented for folkloric and sociological purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

WARNING: Some of the content of this post might be considered inappropriate for young children.

Miss Molly had a baby,
The baby's name was Tim,
She put him in a bathtub,
To see if he could swim.
He ate up all the water,
He drank up all the soap,
He woulda ate the bathtub but it wouldn't fit his throat!
Miss Molly called the doctor,
Miss Molly called the nurse,
Miss Molly called the lady with the alligator purse!
Measles said the doctor,
Measles said the nurse,
Pizza said the lady with the alligator purse!
Miss Molly shot the doctor,
Miss Molly stabbed the nurse,
Miss Molly paid the lady with the alligator purse!
-Guest, "Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho, I Bit the Teacher's Toe!"; April 13, 2005

Note: There are LOTS of different examples of "Miss Lucy Had A Baby". In some of those examples the woman who had a baby is named "Susie" or "Molly" or another female name. In other examples of this rhyme the baby who almost drowns in the bathtub is the brother of the person who is voicing the words of the rhyme. Furthermore, there are other examples of this rhyme in which the "baby" isn't a person but a puppy or a turtle. Other similarities & differences between versions of this rhyme are discussed in Part II of this series.

I'm assigning numbers to those quotes for referencing purposes, although they aren't placed in any order of preference - except that I've assigned my theory about this rhyme as #1 ;o)

1. Alligator Purse Carried By A Herbalist or Another Non-Establishment Health Practitioner
Here's a comment that I wrote on this Mudcat discussion thread:
"Subject: RE: Lyr Add: Kids' songs: Miss Mary Mack & Miss L [hereafter given as Mudcat: Miss Mary Mack & Miss Lucy]

From: Azizi
Date: 25 Mar 05 - 08:04 AM

"I am STILL trying to track down the meaning of reference to "alligator' in the "Miss Lucy Had A Baby" children's rhymes:

Miss Lucy called the Doctor
The doctor called the Nurse
The Nurse called the Lady with the Alligator Purse!

By happen chance I was reading a paperback historical romantic novel-yes I do read these sometimes :O)

And there was mention of a woman who was a herbalist who put her things in an alligator purse when she went to visit someone who was sick..I assumed that "alligator purse" meant a purse made out of alligator skin.

Could it be that an alligator purse was the 'signature' of an herbalist way back when? This would fit well with the central theme of Miss Lucy calling people associated with health care to help her with her baby who almost drowned.

BTW, Iona & Peter Opie mention what they call the strange reference in the USA to "the lady with the alligator purse' in this "Miss Lucy had a baby" rhyme but give no explanation of its origin or meaning.

I remember saying the alligator purse line during my childhood in Atlantic City, New Jersey in the 1950s."...
This comment was also posted in 2005 on the Mudcat discussion thread "Folklore: Lady's alligator purse? Her own thread". That thread is hereafter given as "Mudcat: Alligator Purse".

Clearly Miss Lucy called one person after another to help treat her baby. When the doctor didn't give the right diagnose -or the diagnosis she wanted to hear- Miss Lucy called the nurse. And when the nurse didn't give the diagnosis Miss Lucy wanted to hear, Miss Lucy called the nurse. In most of the examples I've come across the doctor and the nurse didn't recommend the treatment that Miss Lucy wanted to hear, but she was happy with the treatment reecommended by the lady with the alligator purse.

My theory is that this rhyme differentiates between "establishment" healthcare practitioners [the doctor and the nurse] and the non-establishment health care practitioner [the lady with the alligator purse].

It's tempting to wonder if in the days when this rhyme was first composed* people trusted non-traditional health practitioners more than they did establishment health practitioners. Could this rhyme be a reflection of the concerns people had that doctors or nurses were trying to diagnosis serious conditions when the person feeling sick really wasn't that ill?

Some contemporary examples of "Miss Lucy Had A Baby" include the line "Pizza! Said the lady with the alligator purse". The doctor in the 19th century song "Shortnin Bread" also recommends food for ailing children:
Three little children, lyin' in bed
Two was sick and the other 'most dead
Sent for the doctor and the doctor said,
"Feed those children on shortnin' bread."

Could the "Miss Lucy Had A Baby" rhymes reflect the suspicions of those times that doctors & nurses were trying to rip "common people" off, charging them money for medicine and treatment when all that the person needed was food?

Or could this rhyme reflect the desire that people have to minimize any illness they or their loved ones have, and/or reflect the desire that people have to hear that nothing is really wrong with them or their loved ones who appear to be ill. If "Miss Lucy Had A Baby" rhymes were first composed during epidemics of Diptheria as alluded to in "the bubble in the throat" phrase, people would certainly want to hear that their loved ones had nothing wrong with them rather than to hear that their loved ones had that once deadly disease.

*I haven't yet found any exact date for the earliest documented "Miss Lucy Had A Baby" rhyme. However, exaiming "Miss Lucy Had A Baby's sister rhyme "Miss Lucy Had A Steamboat" may provide clues about the probably dates for both of those rhymes. For instance,the line in "Miss Lucy Had A Steamboat" that goes "Hello Operator, give me #9" suggest that this rhyme was composed between 1878 and the 1920s as the 1920s was when direct dial telephones began in the United States. And since the steamboat era was in the later half of the 19th century, that fact also helps date the "Miss Lucy Had A Steamboat" rhymes.

Furthermore, 1902 is firmly established as the date of the earliest documented example of "Bang Bang Lulu" [which is "Miss Lucy Had A Baby"'s and "Miss Lucy Had A Steamboat"'s "brother song"]. That date is well documented because one "Bang Bang Lulu" verse was included in the Western novel The Virginians which was published in 1902. Because the numerous "Lulu"/"Lula" songs are clearly the core source of those above mentioned rhymes & song, the 1870s or so composition dates also help calculate probable dates for those two playground rhymes.

The Diptheria epidemics in the United States which occured in the the late 1880s and the early 1900s might also have sparked the composition of the "Miss Lucy Had A Baby" rhymes.

More comments about the possible earliest date for "Miss Lucy Had A Baby" are found in Part III of this pancocojams series. More comments about the earliest dates for the composition of "Miss Lucy Had A Baby" can be found in this pancocojams post: "Similarities & Differences Between "Bang Bang Lulu" & "Miss Lucy Had A Steamboat".

2. Alligator Purse Routinely Carried By Social Workers
This is the position that appears to be held by the author of the Wikipedia article about "Miss Lucy Had A Baby". I strongly disagree with most of that article, including the theory that the lady with the alligator purse is a social worker. Here are the reasons why I don't agree with that theory:
a. In "Miss Lucy Had A Baby" rhymes, the people are called to the home to diagnosis and physically attend to a person who is in physical distress. That isn't why social workers are called to a home. In many cases, social workers [or "child welfare workers"] come uninvited to a home to investigate alleged child neglect and/or child abuse.

b. In many examples of this rhyme, "Miss Lucy" treats the lady with the alligator purse better than she treats the doctor and the nurse. However, in most communities if a doctor or nurse came to a home, they would likely be treated with much more deference and respect than treatment social workers investigating alleged child abuse or child neglect would be treated. Those social workers are likely to be treated with suspicion and hopefully contained hostility. This isn't how the lady with the alligator purse is treated in those rhymes.

c. To date, I've not found any online documentation that social workers in the past or the present routinely carrying alligator bags as part of their professional "uniform". The two citations that were included in the above linked Wikipedia article are weak sources for reasons I indicated in Part I of this series.

3. Just A Woman Carrying A Purse; That word is used just for rhyming purposes

[Mudcat: Alligator Purse]
Date: 10 Apr 06 - 12:55 PM

"Well, if you've ever tried to compose anything that rhymed, you've probably noticed that it's hard work. So here we have a bunch of kids trying to rhyme something with nurse. How many words rhyme with nurse? Not many.


That's all I can think of. Now look at the list and see how many words can fit into a list of people (doctor - nurse - disburse? No.) Factor in the need for rhythm, and an alligator purse is just the ticket."
[Mudcat: Alligator Purse]
Date: 10 Apr 06 - 05:02 PM

"But why an alligator purse?

Why don't these rhymes have any other type of purse or description of purses?

I don't know ,leeneia. Your explanation sounds too reasonable.

Maybe that's why it doesn't feel right to me.

[and you can read into that all you want, and you'd probably be right on the money]."

4. The Alligator Purse As Representative of American activist Susan B. Anthony
[Mudcat: Alligator Purse]
From:GUEST,Nancy Silverrod
Date: 31 Oct 11 - 12:30 PM

"I have been trying to verify a claim that the lady with the alligator purse was suffragist Susan B. Anthony who supposedly carried her speeches with her in an alligator purse. The claim is that this dates back to the California woman suffrage campaign of 1896, and that the last line is "Vote! said the lady with the alligator purse."

I have found this ending among the many variations, but, so far, nothing to link it to Susan B. Anthony"....
For what it's worth, unlike this commenter, I've not found any examples of this rhyme with the line "Vote! said the lady with the alligator purse." And there doesn't appear to be any other documentation of this theory apart from The Susan B. Anthony House.
Here's that comment from The Susan B. Anthony House
"The traveling champion of the women’s rights movement, Susan B. Anthony, was recognized by two trademarks: her red shawl and her alligator “purse.” You can see the famous alligator bag she carried across the United States and to Europe when you visit the Susan B. Anthony House at 17 Madison Street in Rochester, NY. You may recognize this children’s jump-rope rhyme that was recorded by the press when Anthony was campaigning for suffrage in California:

Miss Lulu had a baby, she called him tiny Tim.
She put him in the bathtub, so see if he could swim.
He drank up all the water! He ate up all the soap!
He tried to swallow the bathtub, but it wouldn’t go down his throat!!
Call for the doctor!
Call for the nurse!
Call for the lady with the alligator purse!
“Mumps!” said the doctor. “Measles!” said the nurse.
“Vote!!” said the lady with the alligator purse!!

Anthony used her alligator bag more like a briefcase or backpack than like a purse. In it, she carried her speeches and pamphlets, a copy of the transcript from her 1873 trial in which she was found guilty for having voted “illegally” in the 1872 federal election."
It just occured to me that if there really is a 1873 newspaper article that includes this example of "Miss Lulu had a baby" then this would be the earliest documented version of that rhyme. As I wrote as a guest posting on that discussion thread in 2012:
"It might have been a coincidence that Susan B. Anthony's purse was made of alligator skin and there was a pre-existing line in a playground rhyme about "a lady with the alligator purse". And some enterprising, creative reporter could have made up the "vote said the lady with the alligator purse" version. Indeed, I think it's likely that that is what happened."

I'd love to know the name, date, and page number of that newspaper article that included an example of "Miss Lucy Had A Baby" AND included a reference to the "lady with the alligator purse".
Hat tip to Jon Corelis for his comments in that Mudcat post which questioned the connections between "Miss Lucy Had A Baby" rhymes and Susan B. Anthony.

5. The Alligator Purse As A Rich Woman's Accessory
[Mudcat: Miss Mary Mack & Miss Lucy]
From: CapriUni
Date: 19 Oct 10 - 04:56 PM

..."As I understand it, shoes (for men) and purses (for women) made from alligator leather were such a status symbol of wealth that it actually contributed to alligators being endangered -- much like ostrich plumes in ladies' hats.

I don't know if there were any magic or symbolic connection between alligators and herbalism, but it might be a clue that the herbalist in question was making a lot of money off her business, and that she wasn't just doing it out of the charity of her heart"...
That theory doesn't explain how & why "Miss Lucy" knew to call the rich woman and why the woman was called came to the home to help the baby. However, here's a similar comment:

[Mudcat: Alligator Purse]
Date: 27 Feb 11 - 04:38 PM

What about the alligator purse being an attribute of wealth: expensive, fashionable, and presumably well-filled with cash? The child would be malnourished rather than ill, so that the philantropic rich lady is the only one who can help. "Pizza" has probably been patched in later, but may nevertheless convey the original meaning. Now you may ask why in some versions she is being paid instead of paying - that must be corruption (not of social welfare workers, but of folk verses).

Just a completely uneducated theory."

6.[Mudcat: Alligator Purse] UPDATE 10/16/2013
From:Jon Corelis
Date: 13 Mar 12 - 10:56 AM

I know this is an old thread, but since there's been continuing interest in it, I thought I'd add one piece of information which a search indicates hasn't been included before.

The rhyme occurs at a significant place in Alfred Hitchcock's film Marnie, where a group of girls skipping rope chants it in the following form:

"Mother, Mother, I am ill.
Send for the doctor over the hill.
Call for the doctor.
Call for the nurse.
Call for the lady
with the alligator purse.
Mumps said the doctor.
Measles said the nurse.
Nothing said the lady
with the alligator purse."

The lady, I think, is death.
I disagreed with this commenter in that discussion thread & still disagree because in many examples of this rhyme that I have read, including the one given above, the lady with the alligator purse indicates that there's nothing wrong with the baby or recommends some beneficial treatment [such as "Pizza! said the lady with thee alligator purse".

7. A Woman Who Just Happened To Have An Alligator Purse
Maybe this lady was a neighbor of Miss Lucy's. Maybe she had all differnt types of purses, and just happened to carry her purse made out of alligator skin that day wheen she came to that house in response to Miss Lucy's call.

Although alligator purses were considered fashion accessories by wealthy women, maybe that woman in this rhyme wasn't rich. She could have received that purse from someone who caught that alligator, skinned it, and made that purse, and gave it to her as a gift. Maybe the lady with the alligator purse collected anything associated with alligators and had numerous replicas of alligators all throughout her house. Maybe she was known as "the alligator lady" throuhout her neighborhood. Maybe she also was the one who neighbors called when they needed help.

Maybe that's all that rhyme is about.

UPDATE: 10/16/2013
Here's a comment and examples from "How Miss Suzie and Tiny Tim got clean(er)"
..."Miss Suzie had a baby
she named it tiny Tim
she put it in the bathtub
to see if he could swim
he ate up all the water
he drank up all the soap
now he's home, sick in bed
with a frog in his throat.
She called for the doctor
she called for the nurse
she called for the lady with the alligator purse
mumps, said the doctor
mumps, said the nurse
nothing, said the lady with the alligator purse

"[There are] Plenty of variations of this [line from "Miss Lucy Had A Baby"] such as "he tried to eat the bathtub, but it wouldn't fit his throat." It's been sung in about that way since at least the 1920s in England, but it's actually a variation of a whole series of bawdy drinking songs about a prostitute name Lulu, according to Iona Opie's "The Singing Game." She sites one particular version:

Lulu had a baby, which was an awful shock
she couldn't call it Lulu cause the bastard had a____

You can guess the last word. By the 1920s, it had morphed into a rhyme set-up not unlike the "Steamboat" song:

Lulu Had a baby, she named it sunny Jim
she took it to the bathroom to see if it could swim
it swam to the bottom, it swam to the top
Lulu got excited, and grabbed it by the
cocktails, ginger ale, two and six a glass....

By the 1950s, the lady with the alligator purse was showing up in versions of the song. The "cocktails" line was still being recorded in England in 1950s, and in New York in the late 1970s, though in the states it morphed to "two bits a glass"...
By the 1950s, the lady with the alligator purse was showing up in versions of the song. The "cocktails" line was still being recorded in England in 1950s, and in New York in the late 1970s, though in the states it morphed to "two bits a glass"...
-end of quote-
If it's true that the lady with the alligator purse didn't show up in "Miss Lucy Had A Baby" until the 1950s, maybe those purses were a fashion statement during that time. I was a child in the 1950s, but I can't remember any fashion trends -except patent leather Mary Jane shoes for girls.

My thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

Thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. When I was a child in 1950s eastern Massachusetts, my older brother's contemporaries were reciting the "Cocktail, ginger ale" rhyme as "five cents a glass." This would argue for a much earlier origin, the price having subsequently inflated to a quarter (or, in the UK, two shillings and sixpence, i.e. a half-crown). Compare the rising price alluded to in "Here I sit/Broken-hearted/Paid a ----/ and only...," the dashes being a dime in my youth but a nickel when my father learned the same doggerel in the 1930s. Plus ├ža change....

    1. Thanks for sharing your memories of those rhymes, Anonymous.

      I agree that the amount of money mentioned in rhymes can be a clue as to when those versions of the rhymes were "coined" - if you will excuse my ending pun like I excused yours :o)

  2. Perhaps the alligator is a reference to Voodoo. If you call the lady with the alligator purse, maybe you are calling very strange things indeed.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous.

      Are alligators references to Voodoo? And if so, is Voodoo in those references considered something good and not something strange. I ask those questions because "the lady with the alligator purse" in those "Miss Lucy (or Miss Suzie) Had A Baby" rhymes that lady appears to be viewed quite favorably.

  3. My mother (born in 1937) told us as kids that the lady with the alligator purse was the head of the hospital charity board. She was called because Tiny Tim's treatment would be expensive and Miss Lucy was poor. Since Miss Lucy was a "Miss" or unwed mother, the alligator purse lady doesn't think her child deserves care so she says nothing is wrong. Miss Lucy is mad so she hits the medical team because they called the lady. She pays the lady for the diagnosis and takes Tim home still sick.
    Mom was a nurse for many years so this explanation is most likely coming from a hospital environment.

    1. Thanks. Jenn for sharing that explanation from your mother.

      It adds another possible piece of the puzzle about who was the lady with the alligator purse.