Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

A young housewife leaving the house one morning to go shopping, sees her husband’s legs sticking out from the crawl space under the house where he's working on a leaky pipe.  She playfully reaches down and unzips his pants on her way to the car, giggling as she fishes the keys out of her purse.  Returning home a few hours later, she's surprised to see that he is still under there, as she starts hefting the grocery bags into the kitchen.  She nearly drops the bag when she finds her husband sitting at the breakfast nook, having a cup of coffee.  “Pipe must be stuck tight,” he says.  “The plumber’s still at it.”  His wife runs outside just as the plumber is coming to.  When he felt his zipper going down, he had raised his head to see what was going on, and knocked himself unconscious.

Or, how about this one?

A newlywed husband returns to the couple’s Winnebago after a round of golf.  Throwing off his sweaty outfit, he takes a shower, then curls up on the fold-out bed for a short nap.  Awakened by incessant honking, he wraps himself in a sheet and steps out the back door to see what the trouble is.  Suddenly, the vehicle lurches away, snagging his sheet on the door latch and whisking it off him as his wife drives the Winnebago down the highway, leaving the young husband standing stark naked in the middle of a busy intersection near Phoenix, Arizona, with some explaining to do.

I heard both of these stories decades ago from a young woman who explained that she had been told them by a friend.  The events had not happened to her friend, but to a couple of her friend’s acquaintances.  It is doubtful that the events ever really happened to anyone, yet thousands of people across America know the stories.  They should translate well into other languages, so by now, they have probably been shared with millions around the world.

Both contain the essence of the urban legend.  They can be about amusing, shocking, even grisly matters (Heard the one about an icy bathtub in Vegas and a pair of missing kidneys?), which involve, not anyone we know personally, but a stranger or a friend of a friend.  When I first read the story of “Rawhide," which I’ve written about before at length (See “Dark and Bloody Tales”), I recognized the signs, and had my doubts that there was any truth behind it.

One sure sign is the lack of names, except for a geographical feature named “Rawhide Creek,” or “Rawhide Butte,” or something similar, to commemorate the gory incident.  A few years ago when I was collecting various renditions of the legend, I was surprised to find one from a fairly well-known frontier scout who was able to put a name to the victim of Indian vengeance.  He also knew which wagon train the young silversmith was traveling with, what month the killing happened, and could even name the train's wagon master.  Too much detail turns out to be the hallmark of embroidery by a practiced liar, which the scout was also known to be.    

In his book “Indians and Emigrants: Encounters on the Overland Trails,” Michael L. Tate describes what he thought might be the earliest example of the legend, in a letter written in 1853 by Calvin B. West to his children in Defiance, Ohio.  Like Calvin West’s and Thomas Lovewell's, most versions were passed along without embellishment by people who truly believed what they had heard.  Tate cites a case of one narrator who he thought had gone too far: “Helen Clark, traveling the Elkhorn River route in 1860, reported the event in her diary not as a trail story but as if she had actually witnessed the bloody episode.”  I trusted Tate, and even went a step further in an early version of my own book, describing Clark scribbling the event in her trail journal as if the screams of the victim were still ringing in her ears.  Fortunately, I found a used copy of Helen Clark’s published diary and can affirm that the young traveler did no such thing.

There have been six squaws of the Pawnee tribe killed by Siouxs with whom they are at war, and the folks are afraid to have us girls and children go out of camp.   There was also a white man who boasted that he would kill the first Indian he saw, he soon had an opportunity of fulfilling his boast as they soon saw a squaw & he shot her as he would a wild animal & the Indians came on and demanded the fellow to be given up and they had to do it and the Indians skinned him alive.

After a careful second reading it becomes clear that Helen Clark was merely relating a story she had heard about a man being skinned alive, much like the warning from adults with her train about six dead Pawnee squaws.  She hadn’t watched Sioux warriors kill the Pawnee women, and she didn’t claim to have witnessed the hapless traveler being flayed.  After all, a wagon train was a city on wheels, a traveling town a mile long and twenty feet wide.  She had not yet heard the term, but Helen Clark was passing along an urban legend.

Since this is an addendum to “Dark and Bloody Tales,” the website's single most-read entry, I thought of giving it a suggestive title.  The popularity of that earlier blog is about to be exceeded by “Amply-Endowed Data,” which was named as a light-hearted experiment, to find out if that alone could lure people to the page.  It could, and it did.  “Naked In Phoenix” sounded about right for this one, but in the end I decided against it.  The boys in Ukraine have enough on their minds right now.  

© Dale Switzer 2016  dale@lovewellhistory.com