Famous Mothers: Mother Goose or Elizabeth Foster Goose

About the famous Mother Goose or Elizabeth Foster Goose, the creator of many fairy tales.

Mother Goose or Elizabeth Foster Goose (1665-1757)

Mother Goose, the legendary creator of fairy stories and nursery rhymes such as "Sing a Song of Sixpence," "Old King Cole," "Little Jack Horner," was known in France as far back as 1650, and she was immortalized in a French book of fairy tales, Tales of My Mother Goose, by Charles Perrault in 1697. But there was an actual American woman known by the nickname of "Mother Goose" who may have inspired a book or broadside entitled Songs for the Nursery, or Mother Goose's Melodies for Children. Allegedly, this was published (its existence remains a matter of scholarly controversy) in Boston by her printer son-in-law in 1719, just 10 years before the Perrault version appeared in English.

The woman known as the American Mother Goose was born Elizabeth Foster in Charleston, Mass., in 1665. At 27, she married a widower, Isaac Goose (formerly Vergoose), 55, of Boston. She found herself stepmother of 10 children, and she, herself, bore Goose 6 additional children, 2 of whom died in infancy. One of the surviving daughters grew up to wed a fugitive printer from England, Thomas Fleet, who established a print shop on Pudding Lane in Boston. This daughter gave birth to 7 children, and grandmother Elizabeth Goose often tended the young ones, entertaining them with fables and nursery rhymes. Some were drawn from folklore, but others possibly were her own inventions. It is said that her son-in-law, the printer Fleet, "was almost driven distracted" by his mother-in-law's singing and storytelling.

In 1719, 9 years after her husband's death, Elizabeth Goose's tales and rhymes--the ones she remembered and repeated and the ones she created--supposedly were published in a book by her son-in-law. In preparing the book, according to Vincent Starrett, Fleet "collected other rhymes, too, it is believed, from sources other than" his mother-in-law. No copy of the American Mother Goose's book has survived. Proof of its existence rests on the word of Thomas Fleet's great-grandson, John Fleet Eliot, who wrote in 1860 that "Edward A. Crowninshield, a literary gentleman [then 24 years old]" had told him "he had seen a copy of Fleet's book in the Library of the American Antiquarian Society at Worcester." The Library was never able to produce that ghost edition.

No real Mother Goose originated the well-loved stories and rhymes. But an American Mother Goose, whose own version of the age-old tales and verses may or may not have been published in 1719, did exist. This American Mother Goose died in Boston in 1757, at the age of 92, and was laid to rest in the Old Granary Burying Ground. She left an estate worth pound 27.

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