Verifying Folklore

A little while back, the internet was abuzz with the inspirational story of Mary Anning, a pioneering 19th-century paleontologist from Lyme Regis in England. Some of my favorite blogs and magazines got in on the act: Atlas Obscura, QI (Quite Interesting), Dangerous Women, Cracked, and Forbes, to name just a few, published versions of the Mary Anning story. Anning was a woman from a working-class family; her father, a cabinetmaker, was mentioned by Jane Austen in 1804. Despite her lack of formal education, Anning was involved in the discovery of several categories of ancient animals, including the ichthyosaur, the plesiosaur, and the pterosaur. She also figured out that some of the rocks she was finding and breaking open were fossilized feces, becoming one of the discoverers of the coprolite! Because she was a woman, and working class, and a religious minority to boot, she was not always recognized for her achievements, and many of her discoveries were published by Anglican male scientists. [1]

Normally, I’d love the way this story spread. It has everything: pioneer women scientists, Regency and Victorian England, beachcombing, fossils…it’s like Pride and Prejudice at the beach, with feminism, dinosaurs, and poop jokes. What’s not to like?

To be honest, there was one problem: the hook on which most of these blogs hung their story was the assertion that Mary Anning was the inspiration for the tongue twister “she sells seashells on the seashore.” Most of them even included the tongue-twister connection in the title of the blog post. But none of them provided any evidence for their claim.

She Sells Seashells and Mary Anning: Metafolklore with a Twist

Having a young daughter also made me want to believe this, and then today googling I came across this Library of Congress piece from a couple of years ago that dives into verifying it.

It turns out, it’s probably not true. But the entire process of attempting to verify it is amazing all on it’s own. Great read about what rigorous testing of assumptions looks like, and all the other far more interesting things you will find out along the way.