“Some believe me, as they term it, a most dangerous and terrible man…”
Rawhead and Bloody Bones
Steals Naughty Children from their Homes
Takes them to his dirty den
And they are never seen again
–English nursery rhyme
I hate it when I find something that would have fit perfectly in a past episode of the podcast.
In our Season 2 episode Paranormal Presidents Part 1, we covered the legend of Rawhead and Bloody Bones, a terrifying creature (or creatures) that migrated from Europe, took root in the childhood fears of the founders, and spread like wildfire across the American south in different forms.
We talked about how this frightful nursery bogey had been mentioned by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush, and I traced the evolution of this creature into many forms – Satan’s secretary in the sixteenth century, an English water demon haunting bogs and wells, a defleshed bloody skull and dancing headless skeleton, a razorback pig in overalls on horseback in twentieth century Missouri, and a Clive Barker story and cheesy 1980s video nasty adaptation.
But I never looked into whether this beast had been mentioned by Andrew Jackson, a huge oversight on my part given their shared Irish roots. As it turns out, Jackson was quite familiar with the monster and the primary reason for politicians to invoke his name.
The beauty and tragedy of Rawhead and Bloody Bones was that its original story was lost to the ages hundreds of years ago and all that survived was its evocative name, allowing it to take the form of the storyteller as the perfect bogeyman to scare young children. The name took on a new meaning as these children grew up to realize they were being manipulated by their fear of something that did not exist. Thus politicians in the eighteenth and nineteenth century commonly referred to the creature as shorthand for fearmongering.
My first exposure to this term was through an 1818 letter where Thomas Jefferson did just that, saying “there are fanatics both in religion and politics who, without knowing me personally, have long been taught to consider me as a rawhead & bloody bones.”
This is also how Jackson used the term in 1824, and I have to say he wore it better. The letter is worth examining for the way he talked about himself and his public perception.
In a letter to Samuel Swartwout on March 25, 1824, (months before the Election of 1824 which he would lose to John Quincy Adams) Jackson regretted that he was unable to visit friends and travel the country like he wanted. People would be suspicious of his motives, he said, and they would consider him “expressly on a pilgrimage after their good opinion.”
He went on to talk about why some people had a poor opinion of him:
“Some believe me, as they term it, a most dangerous and terrible man – of savage habits and disposition, and wholly unacquainted with civilized life: Possessing a temper and turn of mind of most incorrigible cast; and that I can break and trample underfoot the Constitution of the country with as much unconcern and careless indifference as would one of our backwoods hunters, if suddenly placed in Great Britain, break her game laws.”
He blamed the press: “The newspapers, some of them, circulate these opinions, and many of the people for want of more accurate information do truly believe them.”
Jackson tried to justify his most controversial actions (up till then) – his extralegal invasion of Spanish Florida and execution of British agents and Native American leaders in 1818 by saying “there was imposed on me the necessity of violating, or rather departing from, the Constitution of the country” but he had no regrets – not a “single pang.” He did not trample the Constitution, you see, he merely “departed from” it, in monstrous ways.
And then he brought up Rawhead and Bloody Bones:
“The violence of this measure, for my enemies prefer to call all my acts by their strongest expressions, added to my Indian campaigns, have in many parts of this country induced the belief, that I am in fact a sort of Rawhead & Bloody Bones, fit only to scare children.”
I previously wrote about how Jackson’s uncanny ability to survive violent brushes with death made him a real-life horror movie monster, but I didn’t realize he’d actually written about being portrayed as a creature that would become the star of a gory 1980s horror movie. And this letter was written years before Jackson became president, years before he pushed through his most controversial and devastating legacy – the Indian Removal Act. That Act and the resulting Trail of Tears are what most people refer to when they call Jackson a monster today.
Beyond being a notable allusion to this demon of lost folkore, this letter is an excellent example of several of Andrew Jackson’s defining traits – his stubborn self-righteousness, his keen awareness of his reputation, and his ability to justify horrific actions. He knew people thought him a monster, but he felt they had been duped by fake news. His self-construction was of an honorable man with a unique knowledge of the right thing to do and a divine mandate to do it.
Whoever and whatever got in his way would be trampled underfoot, or never seen again.