True Stories Behind Common Urban Legends
The Legend: The Vanishing Hitchhiker
A driver picks up a young woman hitchhiking. The driver takes her to the address she’s given but finds on arrival that she’s disappeared. The driver goes to the house, knocks on the door, and is informed that a young woman of that name and description died. There are many variations with the time of the young woman’s death ranging from one year to twenty years earlier.
Magician’s assistant Beatrice Weir (September 5, 1897-June 30th, 1987) was an accomplished escape artist and magician in her own right. Frustrated in her efforts to gain recognition in a the male-dominated field she attempted to generate publicity for her performances by playing “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” trick on unsuspecting motorists, leaving her card behind. Her efforts were unsuccessful and caused more confusion and concern than positive publicity. She would eventually quit magic to pursue a career as a corporate accountant. In her later years she retired to Uruguay after embezzling more than three quarters of a million dollars from several companies. Described in her will as her “best disappearing act” the money has never been recovered.
The Legend: The Killer In The Backseat
A young woman pulls into a gas station. After she’s fueled her car the attendant calls her into the station, claiming a problem with her credit card or other concern. In earlier versions he claims to have noticed something wrong with her car or that she’s handed him a counterfeit twenty. In many variants she finds something about the attendant disturbing and is afraid to be alone with him. Once inside the station he informs her he’s called the police because there’s a stranger in her backseat. The attendant either noticed the stranger slip into the vehicle or saw him while filling the gas tank. Either way tragedy is averted.
Journalist Eunice Phelan dropped her car at a service station for an oil change. She picked it up later in the same day and noticed one of the technicians asleep in the backseat. She would turn the incident into her first crime novel, Trunk Show, published in 1977. The novel follows police efforts to find a killer who selects victims by hiding in the back seats of cars. Although fiction in second and third hand retellings people began claiming the event had actually happened to an acquaintance.
The Legend: Alligators In The Sewers
New Yorkers returning from Florida vacations with baby alligators find the pets too much to handle and flush them down the toilet. The alligators then grow to adulthood and infest the sewers.
In late March 1957 a handful of New York City Sanitation Department employees “borrowed” three adult alligators from the Bronx Zoo for a planned April Fools’ joke. The reptiles escaped and spread quickly, feeding on rats, stray cats and dogs, and, in a tragic incident, several Rotary Club members. The alligators proved difficult to eradicate. Animal control employees conducted semi-annual sweeps over several decades. Officials are currently happy to report that an alligator has not been seen in New York City sewers since 2013.
The Legend: The Babysitter Cooks The Baby
Frustrated or intoxicated a babysitter puts the baby in the oven and cooks it. In later versions the baby is cooked in a microwave. When the parents come home the babysitter presents them with “a special dish”.
Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was intended as satire but taken seriously by some English landholders. Chester Easham, Seventh Earl of Wessex, reportedly ate more than twenty children alone. Some were mere newborns but Easham is said to have preferred them “on puberty’s eve”. Fearing a backlash King George II had a story planted in The Times of Dublin that placed the blame on incompetent maids and greedy scullery maids.
The Legend: Black Market Organ Harvest
A young man traveling alone joins a group of strangers at a club. They drink and party late into the night. At some point he is drugged and has no memory of anything until the next morning when he awakes in a bathtub filled with ice. A note informs him both his kidneys have been removed. In some versions a phone is placed within his reach so he can call the police. The thieves are never caught and his kidneys presumably go to wealthy individuals in need of a donor.
In 1986 Heaverton University student David Kimson wanted to donate one of his kidneys to his girlfriend. Concerned about the cost he convinced friend and pre-med student Kevin Jenkins to put together a rudimentary operating room in a hotel bathroom and perform the surgery there. In spite of flunking his classes and planning to drop out Jenkins agreed to perform the surgery. Unfortunately instead of a kidney Jenkins removed his friend’s prostate. Kimson refused to press charges when police, alerted by a hotel maid, found him attempting to relieve his agony by squatting in the ice-filled bathtub in his room. Why he wanted to donate a kidney to his girlfriend remains unclear since she only had a yeast infection.
Kevin Jenkins has since kept a low profile. He resides in Titusville, Florida, where in 2004 was named Best Substitute Chemistry Teacher.