STERLING, MASS. — Mary had a little lamb;
Its fleece was white as snow;
But just who Mary really was,
The world may never know. STERLING, Mass. -- It may not be the most weighty debate, but the question of who wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb" is consuming the folks in two small New England towns.
A century and three-quarters after the poem was published (give or take a few years, depending on which version of the story you believe), residents of Sterling, Mass., and Newport, N.H., are still arguing over ownership of the famous little ditty about a faithful lamb and an unwelcoming schoolteacher.
The debate gets wild and woolly. Sterling (north of Worcester, population 6,935) claims the poem was written by a schoolboy who witnessed an incident involving a girl named Mary Sawyer. Newport (in the southwest corner of the state, population 6,110) insists it was written by a prominent writer and editor who lived there.
Proponents from both factions have produced what they say is definitive evidence for their case. Insults have been exchanged, allegations of plagiarism and lying have been tossed about. No one is backing down; in both towns, being known as the birthplace of the poem is a primary draw for tourists.
"I've seen people go livid over this," says Lee Swanson, a Sudbury, Mass., historian with an interest in Sterling history. "They actually get red in the face."
Most recently, passions have flared over the formation of the nonprofit Mary's Little Lamb Association, a preservation group of 12 Sterling residents who hope to parlay the Mary's-lamb connection into a campaign to raise at least a quarter-million dollars to restore a farmhouse said to have belonged to the original Mary and make it a historical site.
"Everybody, including both sets of my grandparents, knew" that the poem is part of Sterling history, says Diane Melone, a sixth-generation descendant of Mary Sawyer. Denying it is "like living in Gettysburg and saying the Battle of Gettysburg didn't happen there." She has never been to Newport to hear their side of things. "I'd probably get murdered," says the Sterling resident.
According to Sterling's official account of the matter, "The True Story of Mary and Her Little Lamb," the Mary of the poem was a girl named Mary Sawyer born in 1806 in Sterling. One day in 1815 her devoted lamb followed her to school and up the classroom aisle when she was asked to recite a lesson. The teacher, alas, "turned it out," as the poem would have it.
The incident so amused and inspired a boy named John Roulstone, who happened to be visiting the classroom that day, that he dashed off the first three stanzas of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Since then, the booklet states, three other stanzas have been added.
"I don't have just one thing I wave under people's noses," says Melone, who with her sister owns the Sawyer homestead. Evidence, she says, includes the fact that car magnate Henry Ford "believed it totally." Ford, who once owned the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, purchased the framework of the original schoolhouse in 1927 and had it moved to the inn, where it still stands.
Plus, Mary Sawyer herself said Roulstone wrote it. The Historical Society archives contain a copy of an 1879 letter written by Sawyer in which she described the incident and confirmed Roulstone's authorship.
Today, Sterling promotes itself as the home of Mary and her lamb. A small bronze lamb statue stands in tribute on the town common. A plaque in front of Mary Sawyer's house identifies it as "the house of Mary Elizabeth Sawyer, who was made famous by the poem 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.' " The Sterling Historical Society sells Mary's-lamb T-shirts and note cards and fuzzy lamb statuettes.
"Mary wasn't your simple country bumpkin," insists David Gibbs, Mary's Little Lamb Association board member who would like to see the Sawyer homestead listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "She went on to become matron of McLean Hospital. I believe if there is such credibility to the New Hampshire story, Henry Ford would have gone to Newport to obtain a schoolhouse."
In Newport, they are equally certain: Every word of the poem was written by Newport native Sarah Josepha Hale.
Easily Newport's most distinguished citizen, Hale was from 1837 to 1877 editor of the publication called Godey's Lady's Book. She wrote 20 books and hundreds of poems. She also is credited with successfully campaigning for Thanksgiving Day as national holiday and for pushing the completion of the Bunker ** Hill monument.
The proof that she wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb"? It was published in 1830 under her name, in a collection called "Poems for Our Children," says Andrea Thorpe, director of the Richards Free Library in Newport, and chief proponent of the pro-Hale side of the lamb debate.
Most important, Hale said she wrote it, in a signed statement that appeared in the Boston Transcript in 1889, written by her son on her behalf shortly before she died.
"She was shaping public opinion. Why would she stoop to plagiarize a lousy children's poem?" says Thorpe, administrator of the Sarah Josepha Hale award, given to writers with a New England connection. As for the Henry Ford connection, "Let's face it. Henry Ford made good cars. I don't think he's a good historian."
Like Sterling, Newport proudly displays its link to the lamb. A memorial plaque to Hale states that "she composed the poem now called 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.' " Tour guides talk about it, and it's a subject of the Newport information guide produced by the Chamber of Commerce.
Thorpe has a standard indignant letter she writes to all publications -- from the Horn Book magazine to National Wool Gatherer -- that link Sterling with the Mary's lamb poem:
"Your article about the authorship of the poem 'Mary's Lamb' shows a complete disregard for literary history and an ignorance of the contributions made by one of the most famous people to come from Newport."
'The other person'
"It's getting so that every time [something is written], New Hampshire jumps in," snaps Ruth Hopfmann, curator of the Sterling Historical Society. She keeps a record of such letters in a file labeled "Sarah Josepha Hale/the Other Person Claiming to be Mary."
The debate shows no sign of abating, although Sterling's Melone is willing to compromise and grant Hale authorship of the last three verses.
"Like she needs to be given the last three verses," says Thorpe. "We have no doubt that Sarah wrote it. Absolutely none. Everyone except Sterling agrees with me."
Maybe not everyone.
Scholars in Sudbury (Lee Swanson, historical coordinator of the Wayside Inn) and in Stow, Mass., (poet B. G. Thurston) are collaborating on research on the history of "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
They say some evidence suggests that the poem originated with neither Roulstone nor Hale. Their research has led them to a nearly identical British version of the poem published earlier than Hale's, about a "Lucy" and her little lamb. They are in the process of verifying the information.
Where would this leave Sterling and Newport? A little sheepish perhaps?
"I don't know," says Thurston. "I truly believe neither side is correct, though I don't have the full research to support it. It might be one of those mysteries that will never be solved."
"MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB"
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.
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.
Pub Date: 8/26/98