Essay by Paul Crenshaw
How do you make a dead baby float?
Two scoops of ice cream, one scoop of dead baby.
He didn’t float. I know that, even if I never knew what he looked like, lying there in the closed casket. I have always assumed it was the funeral director — whoever does the embalming, the floating of fluids through the small veins of the infant body — who decided my grandmother could not stand to see the choke marks around the neck, the bruises near the brain.
How many babies does it take to paint a house?
Depends how hard you throw them.
He wasn’t thrown. He was shaken, then punched. In the courtroom the medical examiner outlined the four bruises, spaced like knuckles, on his forehead. If you were standing out in the hallway of the old court building, the crying from inside might have sounded like laughter.
How did the dead baby cross the road?
He was stapled to the chicken.
Perhaps he tried to cross the road. He was only 18 months old, but perhaps he tried. It’s possible the abuse that would lead to his death had already begun or that children instinctually know the dark hearts of those who would hurt them, which makes me wonder what the boy thought of those who did not help. For many years I would blame myself for not knowing. I wasn’t much more than a child myself, but some nights, near the new light of morning, I wonder why we never knew the boy was being abused. When he was handed to his stepfather, he would cry. He would hold his arms out for the person handing him over to take him back, so I say it’s possible he was trying to cross the road. To get to the other side.
If a tree falls on a dead baby in the forest and no one is around to hear it, is it still hilarious?
In the courtroom the stepfather said he found the door unlatched. He turned around only for a second, and when he went outside, the boy lay under a pile of wood.
“It looked like he tried to climb the woodpile, and it fell on him,” the stepfather said.
“How did the knuckle bruises get on his forehead?” the prosecutor asked.
What present do you buy for a dead baby?
A dead puppy.
He would only ever have one birthday. The cake, the candle, the wrapping paper strewn around the room while the family looks on. One, and no more. He would be dead before his second birthday, although we can count Christmas, I suppose. Imagine a Christmas morning, snow on the ground. The quiet waking in a house hung not with stockings but with some darkness already alive in the hallways and living rooms. It would be snowing on the day he died, too. So maybe that’s not the best image. Instead, I think of the puppy he would have gotten at some point. I try not to think how he never made it to that birthday. Nor any of the others.
What’s pink and red and taps on the window?
A baby in a microwave.
A woman near Dallas left her children in a locked car in the Texas heat while she went grocery shopping. She claimed she was only gone for a few minutes. When she came back, her children were dead. In her defense she said she did not know they would die. I would like to heap scorn and condemnation on this woman, but we left the child with the stepfather. Because we did not know what would happen, could never have foreseen the violence built upon the boy’s body.
2. History, Part I: Killers
In 1999, 10 years after the boy was killed, Colombian serial killer Luis Garavito admitted to the murder of 147 young boys. He approached them on the streets and lured them into the country, where he bound their hands, tortured, raped, and murdered them, often by decapitation. In his courtroom testimony, he said he had been physically and emotionally assaulted by his father. Garavito’s girlfriend claimed he got along well with her child. He was sentenced to 1,853 years in prison.
Mrs. Dyer, The Baby Farmer
The old baby farmer has been executed,
It’s quite time that she was put out of the way,
She was a bad woman, it is not disputed,
Not a word in her favour can anyone say.
That old baby farmer the wretch Mrs. Dyer,
At the Old Bailey her wages is paid,
In times long ago we’d have made a big fire,
And roasted so nicely that wicked old jade.
British serial killer Amelia Dyer murdered as many as 400 babies between 1869 and 1896. Trained as a nurse, she turned to “baby farming” when her husband passed away, taking in single mothers and babies for a fee. After an arrest for negligence and a six-month hard labor sentence, she began to adopt unwanted babies and murder them. She wrapped tape around their necks and then threw them in the Thames or buried them in her backyard. Sometimes she drugged them, so they would remain silent until suffocated. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act had taken away any financial obligations for fathers, and poor women had little recourse when finding themselves pregnant. They went to women like Amelia Dyer, or they “made angels” of their babies by suffocating them and claiming they were stillborn, since Victorian doctors could not diagnose the difference.
O’er the rugged mountain’s brow,
Clara threw the twins she nursed,
and remarked “I wonder now,
which will reach the bottom first.”
— Harry Graham, from Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, 1899
In his essay, “The Dead Baby Joke Cycle,” folklorist Alan Dundes traces the history of the “Dead Baby” joke . He theorizes that the rise of sick humor in America — of which he claims there is a longstanding tradition — is a reaction to the failure of Americans to discuss disease and death openly. Dundes writes, “It would seem obvious enough that the higher the incidence of euphemism, the greater the anxiety about the subject matter.” Put simply, we laugh about what we can’t talk about because the pain is too great.
Although Dundes cannot pinpoint the beginnings of sick humor, he points to one of the earliest examples as being the “Little Willie” quatrains, which date from the turn of the last century. In 1899, English poet Harry Graham published Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, which may have inspired the “Little Willie” quatrain, and which included several verses referring to infanticide:
Willie split the baby’s head,
to see if brains were gray or red,
Mother, troubled, said to father,
“Children are an awful bother.”
Willie, with a thirst for gore,
nailed the baby to the door.
Mother said, with humor quaint,
“Willie, dear, don’t spoil the paint.”
The “Little Willie” verses, Dundes writes, lasted well into the 1930s. More cruel joke collections came in the ’50s and ’60s. In the 1970s, the sick joke manifested itself in many forms, including sick Jesus jokes, sick Southerner jokes (often racist in nature), and sick doctor jokes (in which the punchline informs the patient of some terrible mistake the doctor has made).
Dundes outlines a history of sick jokes, but does not attempt to answer — most likely because there is no definite answer — when and where the dead baby joke, in its modern form, arose. What he does provide is analysis. Many of the dead baby jokes have to do with getting rid of babies: placing them in garbage bags or down disposals. Many also contain references to babies being ground up by machines, which might point to a fear of modern technology.
Dundes also makes the case — since the popularity of dead baby jokes climbed in the ’70s — that the jokes refer to the attempt to legalize abortion and the increased availability of birth control. Legalized abortion, along with publicized contraception and sex education classes, made teenagers more aware of the dangers of pregnancy. Women’s liberation ideology, by insisting that motherhood was not the only available career path for women, might also have played a role.
The price of all this, Dundes says, may have been dead baby jokes, told to assuage the guilt over preventing the creation of life. Modern technology — abortion procedures, contraception — allowed women to dispose of children. Razors might represent home abortions, plastic bags being trapped in a condom or diaphragm.
Folklore, Dundes writes, “is a reflection of the age in which it flourishes. … If anything is sick, it is the society which produces sick humor. … Our concern therefore should not be with dead baby jokes but with dead babies.”
Dundes’ article was published in 1979, 10 years before the boy was found dead beneath the woodpile. In another article, this one in 1988, barely a year before the boy was killed, Dundes says, “What scares us, we seek to make ridiculous. What’s ridiculous can’t hurt us.”
Which is, of course, ridiculous.
4. History, Part II
The nurses at the emergency room called the police, and the police took the stepfather into custody. Two of the nurses would testify later. They would explain that the bruises on the body were consistent with child abuse, and this makes me wonder what awful things the nurses had seen. What jokes they tell each other to get through the night.
My family tends to laugh at funerals. The weeping and wiping of eyes has always manifested itself in humor. We do not find funerals funny, but always there’s a moment in which we forget the solemnity of the occasion. My uncle tells a joke. My mother tells him to hush, but then they are both laughing. If you didn’t know better, you would say they were crying, but because we are private people, the crying comes later, when we are alone. Which is where the crying always comes from, I say — when we are alone, which makes me wonder what fear the boy felt when he was left alone with the stepfather.
We did not laugh at his funeral. But afterward, we stood outside and talked of violence.
I’ve spent much of my life trying to find the world funny. The rest of the time I am trying to make sense of it. This may seem a contradiction in light of what I’ve outlined here, but let me tell you it’s the only thing that allows me to continue, although sometimes I wonder if we continue only because the alternative is too awful to consider.
5. Beginnings and Endings
Yo’ momma so ugly, she had to get the baby drunk so that she could breastfeed it.
Another series of jokes that struck us as funny during these years were “Yo’ Momma” jokes. If I were to analyze these jokes alongside the others I’d have to say something about beginnings and endings, birth and giving birth, life and death. As if we are always wondering what would happen if we weren’t alive. As if we were constantly in fear of being erased, which may be why, in our formative years, when we were trying to find our place in the world, we laughed so often at death, at those who gave us life.
Yo’ momma is so fat even Dora can’t explore her.
When the boy died, he knew fewer than a dozen words. “Momma” was one of them, as was “hurt.”
“Father” was not.
Yo’ momma is so ugly she turned Medusa into stone.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so I imagine how the boy must have looked at his mother. I imagine how her heart turned to stone when she saw her son on the hospital table with tubes snaked down his throat.
Yo’ momma is so ugly when she took a bath the water jumped out.
And yet I imagine bath time for the boy: the squeaky toys, the hair so fine it disappeared when wet, the mother sitting on the edge of the tub. This before the beating, the frantic trip to the emergency room where the nurses noticed the nature of the bruises. I imagine the mother singing in a soft voice. The boy would know no other world than his mother, which may be why he knew her name first. Which may be why all children know their mothers’ names, even if they can’t speak them.
Let me say I no longer know what to find funny.
Let me say none of this is funny now. That there’s a hole where the boy used to be. That at some point we all have holes drilled into us by people who have gone, and we never know when another one will appear. But the day before the phone call came, I was walking down the hall of high school while my best friend told me how you got a dead baby into a bucket and how you got it out, how many dead babies it took to change a lightbulb, what you call a dead baby pinned to the wall, what’s the difference between a baby and a pizza, a baby and a bagel, a bucket of gravel and a bucket of dead babies, a dead baby and peanut butter, on and on and on until there seemed no end to the amount of human cruelty in the world, or maybe we knew even then that we laugh at what we fear the most. And we did laugh. We threw our heads back and screamed. We slapped each other on the back. We told everyone around us about the dead babies, and they told everyone else, until it seemed we were all laughing. At that age everything was funny. We had not yet seen the horrors coming for us, nor how we’d handle them. We had not yet wondered if we would be able to go on. So we laughed, the same way we laughed at the world we were yet to understand, although maybe we did foresee something of the future, because the way I remember it, we laughed so hard we cried.
 Dundes, Alan. “The Dead Baby Joke Cycle.” Western Folklore 38, no. 3 (1979): 145–157.