Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends [NOOK Book]


"If you enjoy these too-good-to-be-true tales, Brunvand's new book will give you hours of pleasure."—Chicago Tribune

A fabulously entertaining book from the ultimate authority on those almost believable tales that always happen to a "friend of a friend." Alligators in the sewers? A pet in the microwave? A tragic misunderstanding of the function of cruise control? No, it didn't really happen to your friend's sister's neighbor: it's an urban legend. And no matter how savvy you think you are, you are sure to find in...
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Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends

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"If you enjoy these too-good-to-be-true tales, Brunvand's new book will give you hours of pleasure."—Chicago Tribune

A fabulously entertaining book from the ultimate authority on those almost believable tales that always happen to a "friend of a friend." Alligators in the sewers? A pet in the microwave? A tragic misunderstanding of the function of cruise control? No, it didn't really happen to your friend's sister's neighbor: it's an urban legend. And no matter how savvy you think you are, you are sure to find in this collection of over 200 tales at least one story you would have sworn was true. Jan Harold Brunvand has been collecting and studying this modern folklore for over twenty years. In Too Good to Be True he captures the best stories in their best retellings, along with their latest variations and examples of how the stories have changed as they move from person to person and place to place. To help you find your favorite, Brunvand has arranged the tales thematically. "Bringing Up Baby" is full of episodes of child-rearing gone wrong, including the grisly tale of the drugged out baby-sitter who mistakes the kid for a turkey. "Funny Business" showcases stories of infamous lapses in customer service, such as the story of the shockingly expensive chocolate chip cookie recipe. And "The Criminal Mind" features both brilliant --if they were real --scams, as well as the purported antics of the less mentally gifted. Whether you want to become an expert debunker or just have plenty of laughs, this book will surprise and entertain you. Illustrated throughout.

"Informative and entertaining.... Brunvand has collected more than 200 of the most-repeated and best-known examples of modern folk-myth."—Tampa Tribune "[N]ot only an entertaining anthology, but an excellent introduction to the study of folklore itself."—Publishers Weekly "A fun read... . All the classics are here from the killer upstairs to the Kentucky Fried Rat."—New City "Resonant stories that express our hidden anxieties ... make us laugh, [or] arouse our fascinated horror."—San Francisco Chronicle Book Review "Informative and entertaining... . Brunvand has collected more than 200 of the most-repeated and best-known examples of modern folk-myth."—Tampa Tribune "[N]ot only an entertaining anthology, but an excellent introduction to the study of folklore itself."—Publishers Weekly
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Editorial Reviews

Chicago Tribune
If you enjoy these too-good-to-be-true tales, Brunvand's new book will give you hours of pleasure.
Tampa Tribune
Informative and entertaining... . Brunvand has collected more than 200 of the most-repeated and best-known examples of modern folk-myth.
New City
A fun read... . All the classics are here from the killer upstairs to the Kentucky Fried Rat.
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
Resonant stories that express our hidden anxieties ... make us laugh, [or] arouse our fascinated horror.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
If a story sounds too good to be true, well, then it's probably an urban legend. Brunvand, the nation's leading authority on these contemporary folktales, draws from five previous collections (The Choking Doberman, Curses! Broiled Again!, etc.), from letters to his syndicated columns and from newspapers around the country, in this truly colossal anthology of horrendous and hilarious stories that sound as if they're true and most of the tellers believe are true, but somehow can never be verified. These are stories told by a FOAF (a friend of a friend) or a neighbor of the radio dispatcher who knows the deputy who talked to the doctor who treated 18 slash victims at the local mall. Many are familiar tales--of the hook heard rasping against the car door handle, of alligators in the sewers of New York, of earwigs in ears and spiders in bouffant hairdos--this last traced back to the 13th century. Everyone will find at least two or three stories they could have sworn really happened. These are stories that turn up in every region of the country, every walk of life, and that invariably involve laughing paramedics, a dead grandmother stashed on the luggage rack, a fantastically cheap price for a Porsche or an exorbitant one for a cookie recipe from Neiman Marcus--or is it Marshall Fields? In demonstrating how such stories spread, change and endure, and how certain kinds of stories attach themselves to certain franchises and products ("Kentucky Fried Rat" is an especially gruesome example), Brunvand has constructed not only an entertaining anthology, but an excellent introduction to the study of folklore itself. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Brunvand (The Choking Doberman, The Vanishing Hitchhiker) is the dean of urban folklore--for 20 years he has collected and documented tall tales swapped at social gatherings. This anthology embraces over 200 fanciful, amusing, and often exaggerated stories and beliefs that have, through repetition, become part of the American oral heritage. Brunvand invented the acronym FOAF (Friend of a Friend), the anonymous source of every tale. Everyone has a few favorite stories: alligators in the sewer and pets in the microwave are familiar to most folks. Collectively, this is the best gathering of urban legends extant. They have passed through generations and represent an important body of traditions, myths, folkways, and folksay. The tales are thematically arranged, e.g., "Bringing Up Baby" is an assembly of episodes of child-rearing gone wrong. Thoroughly researched and exhaustive, this fascinating work is characterized by impressive scholarship. Unconditionally recommended for all audiences.--Richard K. Burns, MSLS, Hatboro, PA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
For those wary of being fooled, some 200 anecdotes<-->which circulate in various versions among the populace as "true"<-->are arranged in sections, roughly by category e.g. dog tales, cars, babies and baby- sitters, accidents, contaminations, the criminal mind, among others. Each is introduced with sources and a bit of history about its origins. The author (emeritus, U. of Utah) has written several other books on the subject. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Chris Nashawaty
Sure to be instant classics are a hilarious alleged Eddie Murhy Elevator incident and one in which a babysitter on LSD mistakes a tyke for a turkey and puts it in the oven. Bon appétit!

Entertainment Weekly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393104165
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/7/2011
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 647,039
  • File size: 6 MB

Meet the Author

Jan Harold Brunvand lives in Salt Lake City, where he is professor emeritus at the University of Utah. He is the author of numerous books, including The Vanishing Hitchhiker; The Choking Doberman; The Baby Train; Too Good to Be True; and Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Jumping to Conclusions

If you wanted to invent new urban legends, you might start by imagining ways that people could be led astray by jumping to conclusions. Your UL characters could completely misinterpret, say, a faithful wife's unexpected behavior, or a beautiful secretary's intentions, or a pet's sudden death. The poor schnook in your legend could then end up destroying his own new car, or disrobing for his office's surprise birthday party, or sending her dinner guests to the hospital for an unnecessary stomach pumping. To prove not only that this principle governs some legends, but also that the stories themselves are much better than mere plot summaries, see the tellings of "The Solid Cement Cadillac," "Why I Fired My Secretary," and "The Poisoned Pussycat at the Party."

    All of the legends in this chapter—and many more—center on the natural human tendency to jump to conclusions even when the evidence is ambiguous. A couple of hot new stories follow this same logic, or illogic, if you will. Number one. A guy gets a new computer and calls the manufacturer's technical support to complain that his cup holder is stuck. Cup holder? He mistook the function of the built-in CD-ROM tray. (I give the full story in the introduction to Chapter 14, "Baffled by Technology.") Number two: A new secretary told to order more fax paper for the office calls the supplier and asks them to fax her a few dozen sheets until the larger order can be filled.

    Did many of the classic urban legends actually start that way? Frankly, my friends, I don'tknow. After nearly two decades of collecting and studying this vibrant genre of modern folklore, I'm still pretty much in the dark about how such tales originate. It was the same with Bill Hall, a columnist for the Lewiston (Idaho) Morning Tribune, who wrote this a few years ago:

It's a question as eternal as where dirty jokes come from: Where do those untrue stories of amazing things that allegedly happened to someone in your town come from? ... The same stories surface and resurface over the years [and] ... most of the people who spread the phony stories believe them to be true.

    But if Bill Hall and I—and other journalists and folklorists—are unsure about the ultimate origins of urban legends, we agree on the likely process of how they develop in oral tradition, and this too involves faulty reasoning. Somehow a story gets started, and then, as Hall perceptively wrote:

It's a funny yarn so it passes quickly from person to person. And each one accidentally embellishes it a bit—jumping to the conclusion, for instance, that it happened to someone right here in this town.

    That Bill Hall heard urban legends way out in Lewiston, Idaho, hardly a metropolis, proves how widespread these stories are nowadays. And his apt observation of how "jumping to conclusions" works in the stories proves that human psychology operates similarly on modern legends wherever they are told. The human impulse in Bill Hall's example is to make the stories more personal and local; in my view, we should also note the impulse to formulate theories even on bad premises.

    Folklorists call the process of story reinvention in oral tradition "communal re-creation," but describing it as simply passing stories along with an occasional teller jumping to the wrong conclusion will work just fine, too. You can easily imagine that's what was going on in the invention and development of the following specimens.

"Miracle at Lourdes"

An Irish Catholic woman, because of poor health, traveled to France in order to visit the famous shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes. The spring water there is renowned for its miraculous healing powers.
The woman became very tired during the long wait at the grotto for the blessing of the sick to begin. And since there happened to be an empty wheelchair among the crowds of pilgrims, she sat down in it for a rest.
As a priest finally approached to give the healing blessing, the woman stood up from the chair to meet him. And immediately when the people saw her rising, everybody started to claim that it was a miracle.
Crowds gathered around her, and they started to push and shove, wanting to touch her. In all this commotion, and with all the pushing and shoving, the woman fell and broke her leg. So the poor woman came home from Lourdes with a broken leg.

"The Brain Drain"

One scorching day a woman pulled into a parking spot at a supermarket and noticed that the woman in the next space was slumped rigidly over her steering wheel holding one hand up to the back of her head. She felt concerned for the other woman, but went on with her shopping. When she returned to her car with her groceries, the other woman was still sitting in the same position—hand up to the back of her head and bent over her steering wheel.

    So the first woman tapped on the window and asked if the other woman needed any help. Was she feeling all right?

    "Please call 911," she gasped, "I've been shot and I can feel my brains coming out!"

    Then the first woman noticed a grey sticky substance oozing out between the other woman's fingers, so she ran back into the store, phoned for help, and notified the store's manager.

    When the paramedics arrived they carefully pried the woman's fingers from the back of her head, examined the injury, and checked the rest of the car. Then they started laughing. The paramedics explained that a canister of Pillsbury Poppin' Fresh(r) biscuit dough on the top of her grocery bag in the back seat had exploded in the heat. The metal lid on the tube had struck the woman on the back of her head, and the top biscuit had shot out and stuck to her hair.

    The sales receipt in the woman's groceries showed that she had sat there for one and a half hours before anyone had stopped to offer help. The manager gave her a new can of biscuit dough.

This story became popular during the long, hot summer of 1995 and continued to circulate through the following year. A "joke" version developed on the Internet, beginning "Beware the Dough Boy. My friend Linda went to Arkansas last week to visit her in-laws...." The comedian Brett Butler, among other media personalities, delighted in retelling "The Biscuit Bullet Story," sometimes as a supposedly true story. The "leaky brain" motif occurred in several old, traditional folktales, one of which may have mutated into the modern legend. I provide a complete history in The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story.

"The Solid Cement Cadillac"

A cement-truck driver cut through his own neighborhood one day while delivering a load of ready-mix, and he was surprised to see a new Cadillac convertible standing in his driveway. He parked his truck, sneaked up to the kitchen window, and spied his wife inside talking to a strange man.

    Suspecting that his wife was cheating on him, the driver backed his truck up to the Caddy and dumped the full load of wet concrete into it. The Cadillac sank slowly to the pavement like the mother of all low riders.

    That evening the man came home and found his wife hysterical, with the now-solid Cadillac being towed away. Through her tears she explained how that morning the dealer had delivered the new car that she was going to give her husband for his birthday. She had been scrimping and saving for years to buy him his dream car.

Technically, this legend should he titled "The Solid Concrete Cadillac," since cement is merely the grey powder that, when mixed with aggregate [sand and gravel] and water, bardens into concrete. But "cement" is the folk term for the finished product. This story has circulated in many communities for decades, sometimes claimed to have happened locally as long ago as the 1940s. In an alternate version, the car was won in a lottery. An authenticated instance of an actual concrete-filled car was reported in the Denver Post in August 1960, but the car was a DeSoto, and there was no jealousy motive involved. A 1970 article in Small World, a magazine for Volkswagen owners, claimed that a prototype of the legend, involving a garbage-truck driver emptying his load into a Stutz Bearcat, was told in the 1920s, but we have no concrete proof of when and where this story originated.

"The Package of Cookies"

Who's Sharing What with Whom?

A woman was out shopping one day and decided to stop for a cup of coffee. She bought a little bag of cookies, put them into her purse, and then entered a coffee shop. All the tables were filled, except for one at which a man sat reading a newspaper. Seating herself in the opposite chair, she opened her purse, took out a magazine, and began reading.

    After a while, she looked up and reached for a cookie, only to see the man across from her also taking a cookie. She glared at him; he just smiled at her, and she resumed her reading.

    Moments later she reached for another cookie, just as the man also took one. Now feeling quite angry, she stared at the one remaining cookie—whereupon the man reached over, broke the cookie in half and offered her a piece. She grabbed it and stuffed it into her mouth as the man smiled at her again, rose, and left.

    The woman was really steaming as she angrily opened her purse, her coffee break now ruined, and put her magazine away. And there she saw her own bag of cookies. All along she'd unknowingly been helping herself to the cookies belonging to the gracious man whose table she'd shared!

From The Pastor's Story File, Number 1, November 1984, credited to a United Church of Christ minister from West Virginia who heard it from a missionary to Japan at a church conference. The chain of retellings, plus the certainty of other ministers adding the story to their repertoires, indicate one way that this popular legend has spread. Known in England since the early 1970s as "The Packet of Biscuits," the story has endless variations. Sometimes the shared food is a Snickers or a Kit Kat candy bar, and often there is considerable social distance between the participants, a punk rocker and a little old lady, for instance, or a pair of high- and low-ranking military officers. British science-fiction author Douglas Adams incorporated the story into his 1984 book So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. Another version of the story provided the plot of The Lunch Date, an Oscar-winning short film of 1990, and the legend separately inspired Boeuf Bourgignon, an independent Dutch film first shown in Europe in 1988. Ann Landers published a letter containing a Canadian version of this story in her November 11, 1977, column. In the May 25, 1998, "Metropolitan Diary" feature in the New York Times a reader reported yet another "Package of Cookies" incident with the same old familiar details, but this time supposedly having happened to the reader's aunt. Obviously, this is too good to be true, so to avoid embarrassing her, I am not repeating the name of the contributor.

"The Tube on the Tube"

A man working in a small office on an upper floor of a Manhattan skyscraper was exasperated one day when the lone fluorescent tube in his light fixture burned out. Rather than bothering the maintenance crew, who always gave him a hard time about fixing anything, he went out and bought a new tube and replaced the burned-out one himself.

    Then he had the problem of disposing of the old tube: it was too long to leave in the wastebasket, and he didn't want it there for the janitor to find. So he decided to carry the tube out of the building at quitting time and leave it in a Dumpster.

    But he still had not found a Dumpster by the time he got to his subway station, so the man, holding the fluorescent tube upright—like a shepherd's staff—hoping to disturb as few people as possible, boarded his homeward-bound car. As he rode, several other people got on, saw no open seats, and grabbed hold of the tube, believing it to be a pole in the subway car.

    When the man reached his stop, several other hands were still gripping the tube, so he shrugged, released his own grip, and quietly left the car.

Although this is hardly a popular urban legend—I've heard it just a few times with little variation—it's one of my favorite stories. My invented title fits London's "tubes" better than New York City's subways, but I have no evidence that it was ever told in England. In fact, several people told me they believe they read it in the "Life in These United States" section of Reader's Digest. That's no guarantee that the story has any truth to it, of course, and its details seem highly unlikely.

"The Surpriser Surprised"

Version #1: "Why I Fired My Secretary"

Two men sat at the club, and one said, "Say, how is that gorgeous secretary of yours?"

    "Oh, I had to fire her."

    "Fire her? How come?"

    "Well, it all started a week ago last Thursday, on my 49th birthday. I was never so depressed."

    "What has that got to do with it?"

    "Well, I came down for breakfast and my wife never mentioned my birthday. A few minutes later, the kids came down and I was sure they would wish me a Happy Birthday, but not one word. As I say, I was most depressed, but when I arrived at the office, my secretary greeted me with `Happy Birthday,' and I was glad someone remembered.

    "At noon time she suggested that it was a beautiful day and that she would like to take me to lunch to a nice intimate place in the country. Well, it was nice and we enjoyed our lunch and a couple of martinis. On the way back, she said it was much too nice a day to return to the office, and she suggested that we go to her apartment where she would give me another martini. That also appealed to me, and after a drink and a cigarette, she asked to be excused while she went into the bedroom to change into something more comfortable.

    "A few minutes later, the bedroom door opened and out came my secretary, my office staff, my wife and two kids, with a birthday cake, all singing `Happy Birthday.'

    "And there I sat with nothing on but my socks."

Anonymous photocopies—Xeroxlore—of this classic spicy tale are sometimes headlined "The Boss" or "The 49th Birthday", folklorists sometimes call it "The Nude Surprise Party." The story has been around since at least the 1920s. Ann Landers first printed a version sent to her by a reader in a 1976 column, and she liked the story well enough to reprint it twice more, in 1993 and 1996. Another version made the rounds in newspapers in 1982 via reprints of a Los Angeles Times business column reporting stories told at a local conference of realtors. In the March 1997 issue of Reader's Digest yet another variation appeared, billed as a true story that happened to the former boss of a reader from San Diego.

Version #2: "The Engaged Couple"

A young couple, engaged to be married, had scheduled a premarital counseling session with a minister. But they failed to show up, so the next morning the minister called the bride-to-be's home.

    "She's in the hospital," the young woman's mother told the minister. "She would probably like to tell you herself why she didn't make it to her session yesterday."

    So the minister went to the hospital, and there he found the young woman in traction with a broken leg and collarbone. But, as she explained the situation, the accident had left her feeling more embarrassed than pained.

    She said that her parents had been out of town for the weekend, and they asked her to house-sit. So she and her fiancé decided that this would be a perfect chance to "practice for their honeymoon." So as soon as her parents left, the couple set about practicing in her parents' bedroom.

    Not long afterward the phone rang. It was her mother, in a panic. She said she had left the iron on in the basement, and would they please turn it off?

    The fiancé playfully picked her up and carried her to the top of the basement stairs. Both of them were still naked. When she switched on the lights, shouts of "Surprise! Surprise!" came from the basement. Her parents were standing at the bottom of the stairs, along with relatives, in-laws, and friends. It was a surprise wedding shower.

    The shock was too much for the fiancé, and he dropped the girl and fled up the stairs and out of the house. She rolled down the stairs and lay there naked, while her family gaped. Her grandmother reached for her heart medicine. Everyone was too shocked even to cover the girl.

Sent to me in 1987 by a woman in Fort Wayne, Indiana, who heard it from her niece to whom it was told by a minister. The typical ending has the boy carrying the girl piggyback down the stairs; after the lights come on, usually it's said that "The girl went crazy, and the boy left town." Among the shocked guests, often, is their minister, but this time he's involved otherwise in the story. "Practicing for their honeymoon" is a euphemism unique to this telling. A discreet version was incorporated into an episode of Newhart in November 1982: Bob's wife, wearing a filmy nighty, descends the stairs to their rendezvous beside the fireplace, and guests at the planned surprise party take flash photos of her shocked response when the lights come on. There's a related legend of nudity involving a dog and peanut butter that bas been very popular lately. You can find it in the introduction to Chapter 5, "Sexcapades."

Version #3. "The Fart in the Dark"

Once upon a time there lived a man who had a maddening passion for baked beans. He loved them, but they always had a very embarrassing and somewhat lively effect on him. Then, one day, he met a girl and fell in love. When it was apparent that they would marry, he thought to himself, "She is such a sweet and gentle girl, who will never go for this kind of carrying on." So he made the supreme sacrifice and gave up eating beans. They were married shortly thereafter.

    Some months later his car broke down on the way home from work, and since they lived in the country he called his wife and told her that he would be a little late because he had to walk home. On his way, he passed a small cafe and the odor of freshly baked beans was overwhelming. Since he still had several miles to walk, he figured that he would work off the ill effects before he got home, so he stopped at the cafe. Before leaving he ate three large orders of baked beans.

    All the way home he putt-putted, and after arriving he felt reasonably safe that he had putt-putted his last. His wife seemed somewhat agitated and excited to see him and she exclaimed delightedly, "Darling, I have the most wonderful surprise for dinner tonight." She then blindfolded him and led him to his chair at the head of the dining table. He seated himself and just as she was ready to remove the blindfold, the phone rang. She made him vow not to touch the blindfold until she returned, then went to answer the phone.

    Seizing the opportunity, he shifted his weight to one leg and let go. It was not only loud, but ripe as rotten eggs. He took the napkin from his lap and vigorously fanned the air about him. Things had just returned to normal when he felt another urge coming on him, so he shifted his weight to the other leg and let go again. This was a true prize winner. While keeping his ear on the conversation in the hall, he went on like this for ten minutes until he knew the phone farewells indicated the end of his freedom. He placed his napkin on his lap and folded his hands on top of it, smiling contentedly to himself, and was the very picture of innocence when his wife returned, apologizing for taking so long.

    She then asked him if he had peeked, and he, of course, assured her that he had not. At this point she removed the blindfold, and there was his surprise—twelve dinner guests seated around the table for his birthday dinner.

This version is another anonymous piece of Xeroxlore that elaborates on earlier earthy tellings with fairy tale-like language and structure. The legend gained some respectability from its inclusion in Carson McCullers's 1940 book The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. More recent versions of the story set the action in a darkened car with a double-dating couple seated in back who overhear the girl's flatulence; the same variation inspired a short film shown in 1997, entitled The Date.

"The Hairdresser's Error"

A woman hairdresser in a big city is the last person in the shop one evening, just tidying up the place before going home. A distinguished-looking man in a three-piece suit taps on the door and begs her to reopen the shop and cut his hair. He explains that he has an important business meeting in the morning and needs to look neat for it. After some pleading, plus offering to pay double her usual price, the man convinces the hairdresser to let him in, against her better judgment, and to give him an after-hours haircut.

    The hairdresser has pinned a sheet around his neck and turned to get her comb and scissors. When she turns back towards him, she notices a rhythmic motion under the middle of the sheet in the area of the man's lap, and she panics, thinking she may have a sexual deviant or worse in the chair.

    She grabs a hair dryer and beans the man as hard as she can, knocking him unconscious; then she dials 911 and screams for help. When the police arrive they find the man still out cold with the hairdresser standing guard, still wielding her weapon. They remove the sheet and find—that he had only been cleaning his glasses. When the man recovers consciousness, he promises to sue the hairdresser for an unprovoked attack.

I heard this story from several locations in 1986, and also have heard of prototypes from England. In some versions the hairdresser holds a straight razor to the man's throat and whips off the sheet. In one from New Zealand the hairdresser takes a swipe at the lump in the middle of the sheet with a hairbrush, and the man shouts, "I was only cleaning my spectacles, you idiot!" In 1989 a bookstore clerk in Minneapolis assured me that the incident had actually occurred in St. Paul. In 1996 I heard from United Airlines pilot Capt. David L. Webster IV of "The Flight Attendant's Error": a female attendant asks the captain to speak to a man in the coach section who seems to be masturbating under a blanket. The captain checks, only to find that he has been trying to get a roll of film unjammed from his new camera.

"The Stolen Wallet"

A New York City office worker is on his regular jogging route in Central Park early one morning before going to work when he is bumped rather hard by another runner. Instinctively, he reaches for his wallet and discovers that it is not in his pocket.

    Determined not to be a victim, the man races back to the supposed pickpocket, grabs him vigorously, shakes him, and snarls through clenched teeth, "Give me that wallet!"

    The other man, highly intimidated, hands over a wallet.

    When the office worker arrives at work and has washed up and changed clothes, he is just telling his coworkers about the incident when his telephone rings. It's his wife on the phone, saying that she hopes he can borrow money for lunch, because he had forgotten his wallet on the dresser that morning.

In variations of this story the confrontation takes place on a bus or subway, and the stolen item may be a watch. At least with a wallet the unwitting thief can identify his victim from its contents and return the stolen goods! The wallet version was incorporated into the 1975 film The Prisoner of Second Avenue, starring Jack Lemmon, based on a Neil Simon play. I have a report of a keynote speaker at a conference claiming that he himself had been the unwitting thief the night before and concluding his anecdote saying, "And now if [John Doe.], who is also at this conference, will come forward, I'd like to return his wallet." A version published in New York magazine in 1987 has a Spanish-speaking victim crying "¡Es mio! ¡Es mio!" to the uncomprehending English-speaking thief. A version published in Germany in 1967 ends with the thief exclaiming, "Mein Gott, ich bin ja ein Taschendieb!" (My God, I'm a pickpocket!) A "Moon Mullins" comic strip of 1935 proves that the stolen-watch version goes far back, but European versions are even older, as the following example demonstrates.

An Englishman managed to get aboard a crowded car one evening and was obliged to stand on the back platform. He was very nervous and imagined that one neatly dressed little man avoided his eyes. Reaching down for his watch, he found it missing. Just after that the little man got off the car. The Englishman followed quickly and the little man began to run. The Englishman finally caught him in a yard hiding behind a pile of wood. He said in a commanding voice: "Watch! Watch!" The little man promptly handed over a watch.

    Safe at home the Englishman found his own watch on his dresser where he had carelessly left it in the morning and a strange watch in his pocket. Very much upset by what he had done, he advertised in the papers and in due time the little man appeared. The Englishman began an elaborate apology, but the little man shut him off. "It's quite all right," he said, "what worried me that night was that I was carrying 3,000 rubles and I was afraid you would demand those."

This account is from Louise Bryant, Six Red Months in Russia: An Observer's Account of Russia Before and During the Proletarian Dictatorship (originally published in 1918), p. 270.

"The Mexican Pet"

A couple from New York are on vacation in Florida. One day they take a rented boat out on the bay to go fishing. Off in the distance across the water they see something small bobbing in the waves, and as they move closer they see that it's a pathetic-looking little dog clinging for dear life to a piece of driftwood. The poor creature is shivering and evidently scared out of its wits. It whines and squeaks pitifully as they fish it out of the sea and bring it aboard.

    The couple take the little dog home, dry it off, and feed it, and they run an ad in a local paper: "Found—small dark brown hairless dog with long tail. No collar." But nobody responds to the ad, and they take the little dog home with them when they return to New York.

    The second day after they have returned home, coming back from work in the evening, they find that their new pet has had a fight with their cat, chewing the kitty's fur up pretty badly (in some versions, killing and partially eating the cat). They take both pets (or just the survivor) to the vet, who takes one look at their new pet and asks them, "Have you ever heard this dog bark?"

    "No," they admit, "it never does bark exactly; it just sort of squeaks."

    "The reason for that," explains the vet, "is that this is not a dog. It's a Haitian rat!"

    (In other versions the vet immediately kills the new pet, then explains what it really is.)

This little parable, with its obvious reference to illegal Haitian refugees arriving on the Florida coast, started circulating in the early 1990s. In San Francisco at the same time the lost "dog" turned out to be a Chinese rat, referring to the West Coast smuggling of illegal Asian immigrants. The earlier version that gave the legend its name, however, was about a "Chihuahua" adopted by an American couple vacationing in Mexico. In 1987 the Rumor Control Center of Baltimore, Maryland, was flooded with calls about a Norwegian rat that had arrived on a freighter and was adopted by a couple who believed it to be a Chihuahua. Besides Central and South American rats, other folkloric species mentioned are Himalayan beach rats, swamp rats, "Wampus" rats, and "Coco" rats. European versions of the story describe a Dutch couple adopting an "Egyptian Pharaoh Rat" or a Spanish couple returning from vacation in Thailand with a pet rat that looked like a Yorkshire terrier. The tabloids have exploited this legend under such headlines as "Our New Puppy Is a Killer Rat!" As recently as August 1996 a reputable news agency circulated a widely printed story about a Ukrainian couple who had adopted a pet that resembled a bull terrier puppy but turned out to be a Pakistani rat.

"The Hare Dryer"

As told by Johnny Carson

There's a story going around. I told it yesterday to Peter and Freddy. They had heard it. I thought it was a real story, but apparently it's one of those stories that makes the rounds and comes up every few years, and my neighbor, whom I play tennis with, Howard Smith, told it to me. About the lady whose rabbit died? (To audience) Have you heard it? (Chorus of "nos" with perhaps a few "yeahs.") It's a funny story.

    Now the way they told it, this neighbor of their's—apparently had—the people who lived next door—the little daughter, had a rabbit, and the guy who lived next door had a Rottweiler dog. And one morning his Rottweiler comes in and it's got the rabbit in its mouth, and the rabbit is dead. (Laughter) And the guy doesn't know what he's gonna do; he knows the little girl loves her rabbit. So—apparently the rabbit, there's no blood on it, but the neck, he thought, had been broken by the dog.

    So he takes the rabbit and he cleans it up. He even takes a hair, a hand uh (Ed McMahon: hair dryer) a hair dryer. Fluffs it all up very nice, takes it over and puts the rabbit back in the cage, thinking the people will get up the next day and see the rabbit and think it just—the rabbit maybe died of a heart attack or something, and won't realize that the guy's dog had killed the rabbit.

Ed: Right.

Johnny: All of a sudden he hears a scream ... he runs out next door, and the lady is there. He says, "What's wrong?"

She says, she's almost hysterical, she says, "My little daughter's rabbit died yesterday, and we buried it, and it's back!" (Extended laughter. Camera zooms back to show Ed and Johnny laughing heartily.)

Now I don't know if that's true, but that is a great story.

Ed: Great, oh ...

Johnny: Apparently the dog had dug it up, you know, he puts it back, and you see that lady the next day ... (Gestures of shock and dismay)

Ed: Oh!

Johnny: It's like Friday the 13th.

Tonight Show, January 1989. This legend had become so popular the previous year that I dubbed 1988 "The Year of the Rabbit." Here Johnny repeats on air a "true" story that he had heard from a neighbor and bad earlier told to a couple of Tonight Show staff members. His performance now was for Ed McMahon, the studio audience, and his vast television audience. Oddly, Johnny muffed the key term "hair dryer" and failed to exploit the obvious pun that I've used as the title for the legend. But his delivery, timing, gestures, and facial expressions were perfect, as usual. Surely many who heard him tell it had heard the story before, and doubtless many, many other people repeated the story the next day.

As told by Michael Landon to Johnny Carson

(Just introduced as the first guest, sits, runs his hands through his hair, shakes his head.) Oh, boy—what a week I had!

Johnny: Yeah?

Michael: I had a terrible experience. You know I moved in to the ranch.

Johnny: Oh, you finally moved into your place?

Michael: Moved to the ranch; I'm in this smaller place until they finish the other. Wanna move in, get the kids used to it, get to know the neighbors. Well, I've got the nicest neighbors, right. And I've got—you know all the pets I've got—I've got parrots, I've got dogs, I've got horses.

The next door neighbor family—it's a husband, wife, and two kids, they have one pet—a rabbit. Right? Beautiful rabbit.

They go away skiing for a weekend. And I go out to get the paper Saturday morning. My dog, Albert, is sitting by the front steps, and he's got the rabbit in his mouth. (Laughter)

Now what do I do? I get the dog, I take it in the house, the kids start to ... "Oh my God," I said. "Look, we cannot tell them. These are our new neighbors. You can't tell them that my dog killed their rabbit."

I'm gonna live a lie. I take the rabbit in the kitchen, I wash the rabbit off—he's got a lot of dirt on him. I blow-dry the rabbit. (Laughter) I sneak into his yard, and I put the rabbit back into the hutch.

Monday morning, I go out to get the paper, there he is. Waves. He's a wonderful guy. I say, "How was the weekend?" I'm playing it cool, "Skiing good?"

"Yeah, powder, beautiful," he said. "But, boy, a weird thing happened over the weekend."

I said, "Oh, what was that?"

He said, "Well you know that rabbit I had?"

"Rabbit? Oh, yeah, you have a rabbit, yeah."

He said, "Well the strangest thing happened." He said, "The rabbit died on Friday, and the family and I went out and buried it." (Laughter) Said, "I came home and this morning it was in the hutch again. Clean as could be."

Believe it or stuff it!

Johnny: (echoing) or stuff it! We'll be right back. (Extended laughter. Camera zooms back, and fades to commercial break)

Tonight Show, April 1989. Despite having told his own version of the same story just three months earlier, Johnny gave no hint that he'd heard this one before. Landon adroitly converted the legend to a supposed personal experience story, then dropped his serious demeanor at the end to repeat a line from a skit, "Believe It or Stuff It," that Johnny had just performed. Although this telling has all the earmarks of a scripted comedy routine, Landon's manner was convincing and innocent throughout. One "folk" version of "The Hare Dryer" describes a baby-sitter who washes the dead bunny in Woolite, then hangs it by its ears in the shower to dry.

"The Air-Freighted Pet"

As told by Paul Harvey

Joe Griffith of Dallas informs our For What It's Worth Department ... of the airline baggage handlers who retrieved an animal carrier in the luggage bay of an airliner....

    But the dog in it was dead.

    With visions of lawsuits dancing in their heads they advised the woman passenger that her dog had been mis-sent to another destination....

    Promised they would find it.

    They disposed of the dead dog.

    Meanwhile they set out to search animal welfare agencies for a look-alike live dog.

    They found one.

    An airline baggage handler put the substitute dog in the animal carrier with the lady's name and address on it—delivered it to her front door.

    She took one look and said, "That's not my dog!"

    She said, "My dog is dead; I was bringing it home for burial."

April 30, 1987

Paul Harvey's For What It's Worth (1991), edited by Paul Harvey, Jr., p. 67. In his trademark telegraphic style, Paul Harvey retells what he describes in this book as a "truth-is-funnier-than-fiction" story sent in by a listener. There are many other baggage-handler versions of this popular legend, varying as to place, description of the pet, and reaction of the owner. In July 1988 the Willamette (Oregon) Week free newsweekly reported that former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, star of the Iran-Contra hearings, had told the same story during a lecture in Portland, Oregon. Rural and foreign prototypes for the "resurrected pet" theme go back at least to the 1950s, and these stories probably gave rise to "The Hare Dryer" legend quoted above.

"The Poisoned Pussycat at the Party"

A woman had just put the final touch on her preparations for an elegant buffet dinner in her palatial home by adding as the centerpiece to the table a large baked salmon. The doorbell rang as the first guests arrived, and the woman turned away from the table for a moment. Then, hearing the maid answer the ring, she turned and took one more look at the buffet.

    To her horror, she saw that her cat had jumped up on the table and was nibbling at the salmon. She snatched the cat from the table, tossed it out the back door, and hurriedly put a lemon slice and some parsley over the bite marks. Then she composed herself and went out to the entry to greet her guests.

    The party was a great success, and everybody complimented her on the meal, the salmon in particular. But later as the house got stuffy, the maid opened the back door to let in some air and was horrified at what she saw. The maid tiptoed in and whispered in her boss's ear, "Your cat is lying dead out on the back porch!"

    The hostess had no alternative but to admit to all of her guests that the cat had earlier eaten some of the salmon and was now dead, presumably from food poisoning. She even had to telephone a few couples who had departed the party early. The hostess and all of her guests rushed to a hospital to have their stomachs pumped.

    The morning after the disastrous dinner party the woman's neighbor came over to offer her apologies. She explained that during the party last night she had accidentally backed her car over the cat, killing it. "I knew you were having a big dinner, and I just didn't want to spoil your good time, so I left your cat's body on the back porch."

This story has been a staple of joke books, newspaper columns, and oral tradition for at least 60 years. The main dish at the party is generally seafood—a fish casserole, shrimp salad, salmon mousse, or the like. Even in modern versions mentioning pizza, the suspect topping is anchovies. In Europe the preferred version of the story is that a family picks wild mushrooms and tests some of them on their dog or cat; I heard this one in Romania in 1981. A version in which the mushroom-fed cat seems to be having convulsions was published in a German tabloid in 1981 with its variant conclusion referred to in the headline, "Katze warf Junge—Familie ins Krankenbaus!" (The [pregnant] cat had kittens, but the family went to the hospital!) A transitional American version bas the hostess skimming off some scum from atop a can of mushroom soup required in her recipe, then feeding the skimmed scum to her dog. Several stories, plays, and movies have incorporated the poisoned-pet legend, the most recent being the 1989 film Her Alibi in which the cat is thought to have died from eating contaminated stew.

"The Bug under the Rug"

As told by Alex Thien

A friend of mine says a man and wife enjoyed travel more than anything. With the new welcome to Americans from the Soviet Union, they decided to visit Moscow.

    In their room at an old, classic hotel not far from Red Square, she said, "I'm still nervous about all this. Are you sure this room isn't bugged?"

    "There's no reason why it should be," he said, "but I'll look around."

    He inspected the walls and flower vases. He didn't find a thing. But as he walked across the room, he noticed a lump beneath the carpet. He pulled it back and found a metal plate. Just to be sure, he took out the screws. They went to bed.

    "Did you sleep well, new comrades?" the desk clerk asked as they were checking out the next morning.

    "Just great," they said.

    "Is good to know this for commissar of hotel report," the clerk said. "Peoples in room below yours had only bad things to say."

    "How's that?"

    "Chandelier fall on them at night."

From Alex Thien's column, "Wary Americans check hotel room," Milwaukee Sentinel, March 19, 1990. The hotel clerk's mangled English is typical of such travelers' tales. The Cold War version of the above glasnost-era legend was told in Dick Beddoes's Pal Hal (1989), p. 190, a book about Canadian hockey-team owner Harold Ballard. This time it's told about hockey star Frank Mahovlich and his wife staying in a Moscow hotel during a 1972 series of games played against the Soviets. All very well, except that the Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes (1985), edited by Clifton Fadiman, attributes the incident to Canadian-born hockey player Phil Esposito "in the early 1970s." Mahovlich and Esposito did play together on Canadian teams that competed in Russia. Probably earlier than any of these versions set in the Soviet Union is one in which the fearful couple are honeymooners who think their friends may have bugged their room as a wedding-night prank.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

A Note on Texts and Sources

Introduction: True Stories, Too Good to Be True

Jumping to Conclusions

"The Brain Drain"

"The Solid Cement Cadillac"

"The Package of Cookies"

"The Tube on the Tube"

"The Surpriser Surprised"

Version #1: "Why I Fired My Secretary"

Version #2: "The Engaged Couple"

Version #3: "The Fart in the Dark"

"The Hairdresser's Error"

"The Stolen Wallet"

"The Mexican Pet"

"The Hare Dryer"

As told by Johnny Carson

As told by Michael Landon to Johnny Carson

"The Air-Freighted Pet"

As told by Paul Harvey

"The Poisoned Pussycat at the Party"

"The Bug under the Rug"

As told by Alex Thien

Classic Dog Tales

"The Choking Doberman"

"The Swiss Charred Poodle"

"Not My Dog"

"The Licked Hand"

"The Crushed Dog"

"The Dog in the High-Rise"

As told by Truman Capote to Lawrence Grobel

"Fifi Spills the Paint," aka "Kitty Takes the Rap"

"Take the Puppy and Run"

Just Deserts

"The Loaded Dog"

"The Plant's Revenge"

"The Dead Cat in the Package"

"The Runaway Grandmother"

"The $50 Porsche"

"Dial R-E-V-E-N-G-E"

"Revenge of the Rich"

As told by Paul Harvey

"Gag Me with a Siphon"

"The Stolen Specimen"

"The Videotaped Theft"

"Urban Pancake"

"The Will"

"Promiscuity Rewarded"


"The Hook"

"The Severed Fingers"

"Decapitated Drivers and Riders"

"The Killer in the Back Seat"

As told on Late Night with David Letterman

"The Hairy-Armed Hitchhiker"

"The Boyfriend's Death"

"The Slasher under the Car"

"The Elephant That Sat on the VW"

"The Arrest"

"The Body on the Car"

"The Wife Left Behind"

"The Baby on the Roof"

"The Nut and the Tire Nuts"

"The Pig on the Road"

"Let's Give Toll Takers a Hand"

"The Bargain Sports Car"


"The Stuck Couple"

"Stick-Shift Frenzy"

"The Bothered Bride" and "The Grumbling Groom"

"Filmed in the Act"

"Superhero Hijinks"

"Sex in Disguise"

"AIDS Mary" and "AIDS Harry"

Losing Face

"The Unzipped Plumber (or Mechanic)"

"The Unzipped Fly"

"The Golf Bag"

"The Unlucky Contacts"

"The Wrong Teeth"

"Bungling Brides"

"The Nude Bachelor"

"Come and Get It!"

"A License to Practice"

"The Witness's Note"

"The Blind Date"

"Buying Tampax"

Accidents Will Happen

"Give Me a High Three"

"The Lawn Mower Accident"

"The Ski Accident"

"The Barrel of Bricks"

"Up a Tree"

"The Last Kiss"

"The Death of Little Mikey"

Creepy Contaminations

"The Kentucky Fried Rat"

"The Mouse in the Coke"

"Alligators in the Sewers"

"The Snake in the Store"

"A Bug in the Ear"

"Spiders in the Hairdo"

"The Spider Bite"

"Spider Eggs in Bubble Yum"

"The Spider in the Cactus"

"The Poison Dress"

"The Corpse in the Cask"

"The Accidental Cannibals"

"Hold the Mayo! Hold the Mozzarella!"

Sick Humor

"The Kafkaesque Hospital Visit"

"Dental Death"

"The Relative's Cadaver"


"Scrotum Self-Repair"

"Superglue Revenge"

"The Runaway Patient"

Bringing Up Baby

"The Hippie Baby-Sitter"

"The Baby-Sitter and the Man Upstairs"

"Baby's Stuck at Home Alone"

"The Inept Mother"

"The Stuffed Baby"

Strange Things Happen

"The Vanishing Hitchhiker"

"The Lost Wreck"

"The Death Car"

"The Missing Day in Time"

"The Ghost in Search of Help"

"The Well to Hell"

"The Ghostly Videotape"

"A Dirt-Cheap Way to Sell Real Estate"

"The Devil in the Disco"

Funny Business

"The Bedbug Letter"

"Red Velvet Cake"

"Neiman Marcus Cookies"

"Find the Hat"

"The Wife on the Flight"

"Redemption Rumors"

"The Body in the Bed"

"The Cabbage Patch Tragedy"

The World of Work

"The Rattle in the Cadillac"

"The Roughneck's Revenge"

"Fixing the Flue"

"The Locked-Out Pilot"

"Language Boners: The Folklore of Paperwork"

"The Wordy Government Memo"

Baffled by Technology

"The Microwaved Pet"

"The Technology Contest"

"Curses! Broiled Again!"

"Push-Starting the Car"

"Cruise Control"

"The Ice-Cream Car"

The Criminal Mind

"The Colander Copier Caper"

"A Friend of the Family"

"The Two Hitchhikers"

"The Double Theft"

"The Robber Who Was Hurt"

"A Double-Whammy Theft Legend"

As told by Jack Paar

"The Grocery Scam"

"The Shoplifter's Hat"

"Indecent Exposure"

"The Attempted Abduction"

"The Unstealable Car"

"Stripping the Car"

"Get Out of Here!"

Human Nature

"The Baby Train"

"The Trained Professor"

"Cussing and Clowns"

"Take My Tickets, Please!"

"The Dishonest Note"

"Pass It On"

"The Lottery Ticket"

"Dial 911 for Help"

Strays from the Wild Kingdom

"The Kangaroo Thief"

"The Deer Departed"

"Horsing Around"

"The Hapless Water Skier"

"The Giant Catfish"

"The Flying Cow"

"The Fatal Boot"

"Snakes in the Amusement Park"

"The Snake in the Strawberry Patch"

Pet Problems

"The Bump in the Rug"

"The Pet Nabber"

"The Flying Kitten"

"The Missionaries and the Cat"

"The Bungled Rescue of the Cat"

"The Eaten Pets"

"The Pet and the Naked Man"

Slapstick Comedy

"The Exploding Toilet"

"Stuck on the Toilet"

"The Man on the Roof"

"The Exploding Bra"

"The Nude Housewife"

"The Nude in the RV"

"The Stunned Deer---or Deer Stunt"

Bogus Warnings

"Blue Star Acid"

"Lights Out!"

"The Good Times Virus"

"The Kidney Heist"

"The Welded Contacts"

"The Procter & Gamble Trademark"

"The Madalyn Murray O'Hair Petition"

"The Veterans' Insurance Dividend"

Mistaken Identifications

"The Elevator Incident"

"It All Started with Neil (Or Did It?)"

"Sit, Whitey!"

"Black and White"

"The Ice-Cream-Cone Caper"

As told by Paul Harvey

"The Blind Man"

Campus Capers

"The Dormitory Surprise"

"The Gay Roommate"

"The Roommate's Death"

"Switched Campus Buildings"

"Sinking Libraries"

"The Acrobatic Professor"

"The Telltale Report"

"The Daughter's Letter from College"

"The Barometer Problem"

"Term Paper Trickery"

"The Bird Foot Exam"

"Do You Know Who I Am?"

"Tricky Q & A"

"The Second Blue Book"

"True" Urban Legends

"The Pregnant Shoplifter"

"The Unsolvable Math Problem"

"The Heel in the Grate"

"Craig's World-Record Collection"

"Green Stamps"

"The Bullet Baby"

Epilogue: Urban Legend Parodies

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2003

    Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends

    This is one of the best books I have read about urban legends. I highly recommend it to every one. once you pick it up you can never put it down

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2003

    Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends

    I love to read urban legends and myths and this is the best book on them yet that i have read and i read it all the time over and over again. once you pick it up you can not put it down.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2013


    One of my favorite books of all time. I can't even tell you how many times I have read it cover to cover. Perfect for a rainy night

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    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2011

    I have a ?

    Is it scary

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