‘Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down!’
The above is a common nursery rhyme that can be heard in various forms throughout playgrounds across the globe. Its origins and meaning are lost to antiquity, although at some point in the 20th Century the rhyme began to be associated with the Great Plague which struck England in 1665. It is alleged that a rosy rash was a symptom of the plague, and posies of herbs were carried to mask the odour of death that accompanied the disease. Sneezing was a symptom, and sufferers would indeed ‘fall down’ as they perished.
Scholars of folklore doubt this theory for several reasons, chiefly that the symptoms mentioned do not fit the disease particularly well.
We will likely never know from where or when this particular nursery rhyme originates.
There is another, similar rhyme though, one which is not so common these days. Peculiar to the United Kingdom, its origins are also unknown. There does, however, appear to have been a concerted effort by the authorities to eradicate it from school playgrounds sometime after the First World War.
‘Prickles on your arms and prickles on your legs,
He’ll get you in your parlour and lay you down to bed.
The prickles oh they come for you and the prickles oh they go,
But where you’ll end up afterward,
Only Mr Prickles knows!’
So what is ‘the prickles’, and who is the mysterious character associated with it?
15th March 2008
Dr Kim Jae-ho is a historical virologist, and a controversial one at that. Regarded by his peers as a peddler of pseudoscience, his theories are nevertheless interesting.
We meet in a place called Club KTM, a nightclub in Middlesex that happens to moonlight as a wine-bar in the afternoons.
A strange setting for our meeting, and not the venue I would have chosen.
Dr Kim arrives some twenty minutes late, and whilst his disposition is initially rather nervous and fidgety, he soon begins to loosen up after a large glass of whisky. There is some small talk and a second glass, before our conversation turns to the subject at hand.
‘I first encountered the prickles in, would you believe, a women’s periodical from 1890. It was in an article detailing rhymes for small children. The rhyme itself wasn’t published, but there was a small paragraph detailing why young ones should be discouraged from singing it, how even saying the words could bring on ‘the disease’.
‘A new, well old, illness that had fallen from the historical records? My interest was piqued.
‘So I did some digging. Well, a lot of digging. Four years worth of digging to be precise. And I only found the written equivalent of hushed mentions of this thing called ‘the prickles’.
‘But there was one item that was very interesting. It was British medical journal from the early nineteenth century, written by one Dr Archibald Newman, a man whose reputation would later end up in tatters, possibly due to what he wrote in that particular article.’
Dr Kim reaches into his briefcase and pulls out a piece of paper, a photocopy of what appears to be a page of the British Medical Journal dated July of 1807.
The article in question details a strange set of symptoms that began to appear on young men and women resident in the city of London in the year 1799.
The symptoms themselves presented first as a terrible red rash that began on the arms and soon spread to the rest of the body and face. This rash was itchy enough to provoke those afflicted into scratching their skin raw, causing severe bleeding and, in one case, the exposure of bone. This itching was so terrible it would make the sufferer scream in agony and meaning sleep was all but impossible.
Dr Newman refers to it as ‘the prickles’.
The article goes on to state that all attempts to alleviate the pain failed, but the symptoms faded after a week or so.
All except for one case.
And here is where things get interesting.
Dr Kim continues.
‘This one poor soul, the one for whom the itching continued, started to rant and rave about ‘someone coming’ for him. He is restrained at home for his own sake.
‘At the end of the second week of this young man’s agony a Doctor appears at the door, a man dressed entirely in black claiming to be ‘the Royal Physician’.
‘He asks to see the boy and is shown up to his room. This ‘Royal Physician’ then asks to be left alone with the patient. The family complies. Why wouldn’t they?
‘There then follows an hour or so of screaming from the afflicted before silence falls on the household.
‘When the door to his room is opened sometime later, both the boy and the visitor are gone.’
Apparently the article ends rather abruptly at that point, and no conclusions are drawn.
‘Now it’s highly likely that all of this is just the blending of superstition with medical fact. That was still reasonably common back then.
‘But I did some more digging, and found a similar series of events. These occurred in 1918, right at the end of the First World War.
‘The second wave of Spanish Flu was sweeping across the globe, only hastened by the appalling conditions of the trenches.
‘Spanish Flu was nasty, rather like normal flu on steroids, if you catch my drift. Nausea, aches, diarrhea and eventually, full blown attacks of pneumonia. Patients would often go blue, unable to breathe due to the frothy substance building up in their lungs.
‘It killed millions.
‘But I came across a report from the time about something far different that surfaced simultaneously, something with very different symptoms.
‘It occurred in a US Army hospital in Aix-les-Bains, in South East France. About thirty soldiers from the American Expeditionary Force all came down with a red rash that covered their whole bodies, and accompanied by severe itching.
‘I believe it was the prickles.
‘These men were isolated from those suffering from the flu, and after about a week twenty of them were well enough to be sent away.
‘But the other ten? Well, they got worse, and their screams would fill the air night and day. They soon fell into a state of mental psychosis, and they all began to claim that ‘someone was coming for them’.
‘Not long after a man showed up, a man dressed in black claiming to be a specialist from the States. He had all the correct paperwork, although his name was never recorded for some reason.
‘This specialist insisted that the area of the field hospital that housed the afflicted men was cleared of everyone unaffected.
‘The staff complied and overnight the screaming died down and eventually stopped.
‘But when they went back in the next day the specialist and the patients were all gone.
‘No sign of them was ever found.
‘The official record says the men died of Spanish flu and were buried in one of the numerous mass graves near the sight.
‘But the report I read contradicts that.’
Dr Kim smiles at me and orders another whisky.
‘Now, Dr Gotobed, I don’t expect you to believe any of this. After all, the only proof I can show you is a photocopied page from an old journal.
‘But there is something else.’
He reaches into his briefcase again and pulls out a yellow file, handing it to me.
‘This was passed to me by a British Army Officer a while ago. I had to go through many back channels to get it. I must dash, but read it. Let me know what you think.’
And with that he finishes his drink, shakes my hand and heads out into the bustle of the afternoon.
I order a coffee and open the file.
Inside is a single page typed on official MOD headed paper. It is dated the 18th of May 1998 and appears to be the final part of a much larger document. I have attached it to this report and reproduced the pertinent part below.
‘…whilst we recognize ‘Gulf War Syndrome’ to be something beyond the psychosomatic condition first suspected, this new outbreak is to be treated as something else entirely. If any personnel who have returned from the Gulf theatre present with these persistent & debilitating full-body dermatological conditions that we’ve been seeing they are to be immediately quarantined and monitored around the clock. GCHQ are to be informed at the earliest possible opportunity.
‘If, and I cannot stress this enough, if any unknown individuals arrive on-site requesting to visit with the patient(s), they are to be detained and their credentials checked with GCHQ, checked again, and then checked a third time. I don’t care how genuine or authoritative they appear.
‘Until we discover who or what is behind this spate of disappearances, it is imperative that no more veterans are lost.’
Lieutenant General [REDACTED]
There is also a single photograph, a Polaroid of an arm covered in what I can only assume is the rash associated with the disease in question. I will also attach it to this report.
Given Dr Kim’s less than stellar reputation, I was initially sceptical of this document and its accompanying photograph. A few days later I had the opportunity to run them past a colleague of mine who works for the Ministry of Defence.
Her response was enough to change my mind.
‘You are aware that having classified documents in your possession is a serious crime, Thomas?’
It may be premature to draw conclusions from such disparate information. It is, after all, presented by a man with questionable credentials. However, many cultures speak of mysterious figures that seem to appear at the time of death to accompany souls to the next world. Is it possible that one of the symptoms of ‘the prickles’ is the physical manifestation of such a figure?
It sounds like a far-fetched idea, but an idea that it seems the Ministry of Defence were willing to entertain, if only for a brief time.
Dr Thomas Gotobed
– While the photograph is there, I have no idea where the actual file that the good doctor said he’d attached has gone. If I find it, I’ll come back and add it in to this post – C.R.