The popular nursery rhyme “The Muffin Man” supposedly originated as a caution to children, warning them to beware of a 16th-century baker-turned-serial-killer who enticed his young victims by pulling a muffin down the cobblestone streets of London with a string.
At least, that’s one version of the origin story.
In a widely shared TikTok video posted on Jan. 16, 2021, self-described “CEO of History” Jack Williamson claimed that the song originated as a warning to children to avoid England’s first known serial killer. At the time of this publication, the video had been shared more than 8,700 times.
“So, as you might have already learned, the muffin man was indeed a serial killer. He killed 15 children and seven rival pastry chefs,” said Williamson in the recording.
“His name was Frederick Thomas Lynwood and the children’s song was made to warn small children and to help small children identify his MO so that they can report him to authorities.”
But we found no records documenting murders committed by a man of that name, or that he even existed. Williamson did not note his sources, and our own search of the internet returned no legitimate results. As such, we rate this claim as “Unproven.”
It appears that the account Williamson gave was based on an entry posted to Uncyclopedia, a parody version of Wikipedia. According to the comedic online encyclopedia, Lynwood also went by the nickname of “Drury Lane Dicer” and was known as England’s first documented serial killer. A quick look at the entry showed a mug shot of the alleged “Muffin Man” — but of course cameras, photography, and mug shots were not available in the 16th century. The parody website goes on to describe the childhood and adult life of Lynwood, including his supposed death from choking on a dumpling.
When it came to the origins of the children’s song, Uncyclopedia mockingly claimed that the Muffin Man title came from the manner in which he killed his victims:
His nickname The Muffin Man is actually a reference to how he committed the murders. By local folklore, it is said Frederic would tie a muffin to a string, and as a child tried to get it, he pulled the string, eventually luring the child to his house and giving him ample time to knock the child out with a wooden spoon. However, people often question whether these children actually died from being beaten with said wooden spoon or if the Muffin Man would kill them some other way.
“The song Do You Know the Muffin Man? was used as a warning to small children of the presence [sic] life of crime, and to help identify his modus operandi so that children can report him to the authorities,” joked the website.
A Medium essay written by Sarah Cottrell, meanwhile, reported the legend is either “one hell of a folklore story or one of history’s most creepy mysteries.” In her piece, Cottrell also claimed that Lynwood, who supposedly was born in 1563 and died in 1612, delivered his freshly baked goods to homes on Drury Lane.
But according to the book “The Singing Game” by Opie & Opie (page 380), “The Muffin Man” was first recorded in a British manuscript in 1820 and was preserved in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. In its original form as a poem, it read:
Do you know the muffin man?
The muffin man, the muffin man.
Do you know the muffin man
Who lives in Drury Lane?
Still, there are small grains of truth to the rumored claims. A passage recorded in the Cambridge World History of Food confirmed that households during the Victorian period — which spanned between 1837 and 1901 and not during Lynwood’s alleged reign of terror — would often have fresh foods delivered door to door by a “muffin man.” The “muffin” of the rhyme is believed to have been an English muffin baked of bread, not the sweeter U.S. version. And the rhyme could very well have been inspired by a real muffin man of Drury Lane, which is a thoroughfare bordering Covent Garden in downtown London.
Another English version of the song substitutes “Drury Lane” with “Dorset Lane,” an area of east London. Dorset Lane was once reputed as the “worst street in London,” marking the 1888 murder site of Mary Jane Kelly — the youngest of Jack the Ripper’s victims.
But that’s where the similarities stop. There are no historical accounts of the so-named Lynwood rumored to have been the first serial killer in England. In fact, that title goes to Mary Ann Cotton. At the time of her 1873 hanging for the murder of her fourth husband’s son, the 40-year-old Cotton was known to have committed at least 21 murders, including 11 of her 13 children, three of her four husbands, one lover, and her mother, according to Huffington Post.
It appears that nobody really knows the muffin man, after all.
Snopes contacted historical literary experts at the University College London and Oxford University for more information about the origins of the nursery rhyme. We will update the article with any new information.