Urban Legends

Blog Posts

The Mary Todd Lincoln Portrait Fraud

posted by
Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Urban Legends

Mrs. Lincoln, I Presume? Well, as It Turns Out …
by Patricia Cohen
The New York Times
February 11, 2012

For 32 years, a portrait of a serene Mary Todd Lincoln hung in the governor’s mansion in Springfield, Ill., signed by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, a celebrated painter who lived at the White House for six months in 1864.

The story behind the picture was compelling: Mrs. Lincoln had Mr. Carpenter secretly paint her portrait as a surprise for the president, but he was assassinated before she had a chance to present it to him.

Now it turns out that both the portrait and the touching tale accompanying it are false.


Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

posted by
Filed under: Urban Legends

Bonfires, fireworks mark Guy Fawkes Day in the UK
Associated Press
November 5, 2011

London (AP) – Children and the young at heart across Britain are preparing fireworks and building bonfires to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day.

Fawkes plotted with other conspirators to blow up Parliament with explosives and install a Catholic monarch in the botched “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605.

The failure of the plot is remembered every year on Nov. 5 with fireworks and the burning of effigies known as “guys”.

Although not widely known outside Britain, the folk hero’s story has recently been gaining attention worldwide because many protesters from the Occupy Wall Street movement wore a stylized Guy Fawkes mask.

The design of the mask, with a clownish and sinister mustachioed smile, originated from the comic book “V for Vendetta,” a story about an anarchist movement.

Successful people who never existed

posted by
Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Urban Legends

From Don:

Successful people who never existed
by Adam K. Raymond
CNN via Mental Floss
April 1, 2011

(via Mental Floss) — The dream student

George P. Burdell was a man born of a simple mistake. In 1927, someone in the admissions office at Georgia Tech accidentally sent student Ed Smith two registration forms instead of one.

Sensing an opportunity for mischief, Smith filled out one form for himself and the other for George P. Burdell — a student he completely made up. When Smith arrived at school, he kept the ruse going by enrolling Burdell in all of his classes and even turning in assignments under his name.

In fact, Smith did so much work on behalf of his imaginary friend that Burdell eventually graduated. When other students found out about the hoax, they helped keep Burdell’s story going. (more…)

LiteratEye #47: A Tale of Theft & Murder Behind “The Hound of the Baskervilles”

Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Urban Legends

Here’s the forty-seventh installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #47: A Tale of Theft & Murder Behind “The Hound of the Baskervilles”
By W.J. Elvin III
January 15, 2010

Sherlock Holmes Movie Poster-200Some reviewers say Sir Arthur Conan Doyle must be rolling over in his grave in response to the new Sherlock Holmes film. Typical is the comment in The New York Times that Robert Downey, Jr.’s version of Sherlock “frequently bears little resemblance to the one Conan Doyle wrote about.”

Well, there are a great many Sherlock Holmes stories that Conan Doyle had nothing to do with other than to provide the basics, and who knows how many actors from the big screen to the small theater have portrayed our hero, each in their own way. So the current situation is nothing new, Sir Arthur has already been given plenty of reason to roll over.

More to the point, who can say how Doyle might have reacted? His famous detective novels give the impression he was as much a man of science as Sherlock, pragmatic, principled, scoffing at fantasy. Not entirely so. He was into fairies, séances and, it has been charged, murder.

Doyle continues to suffer ridicule for falling for fake photos of fairies. It’s said that in the 1920s he spent a million dollars in an effort to prove the existence of the tiny folk.

Probably the strangest story involving Doyle found him accused of plagiarism, conspiracy and murder. (more…)

LiteratEye #46: Who Discovered the Americas? Egyptians, Irish, Chinese and Your Uncle Bob

Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Urban Legends

Here’s the forty-sixth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #46: Who Discovered the Americas? Egyptians, Irish, Chinese and Your Uncle Bob
By W.J. Elvin III
January 8, 2010


“Nowhere, alas, does bullshit and bang-me-arse archaeology flourish so well these days as in America where foolish fantasies pour from the press every month and sell like hotcakes.”

-Noted archaeologist and detective novelist Glyn Daniel, quoted in the book, Fantastic Archaeology.

Do you get lured off down a rabbit hole by claims of lost civilizations, fantastic explorations, bizarre archaeological discoveries and all that? Welcome to the club.

My membership dues have included books I’ve bought, bang-me-arse fabrications or not, about visits to the Americas by Chinese, Welsh, Scot, Irish, Basque, Libyan, Egyptian, Norse and other travelers in the days before Columbus.

There’s no shortage of fascinating tales. Take, for instance, the one about the Roman-Jewish settlement in the Tucson area, dating back a thousand years or so. Has to be a hoax, but if so how did it fool several respectable investigators? (more…)

Top 10 Urban Legends of 2009

posted by
Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Urban Legends

Top 10 Urban Legends of 2009
by David Emery
About.com Guide

Here, in ascending order of popularity as gauged by reader interest and site traffic, are the Top 10 Urban Legends, Rumors, and Internet Hoaxes of 2009:

ladygaga-20010. August ‘Mars Spectacular’
Circulating for the sixth year running, this email hoax describes a “once in a lifetime” celestial phenomenon — the closest encounter between Mars and Earth for the past 5,000 years — which already occurred in 2003. Read more…

9. Burundanga Drug Warning
“In Katy, Texas a man came over and offered his services as a painter to a female putting gas in her car and left his card,” begins this overwrought message. “She said no, but accepted his card out of kindness and got in the car. Almost immediately, she started to feel dizzy and could not catch her breath. She tried to open the window and realized that the odor was on her hand; the same hand which accepted the card from the gentleman at the gas station.” Read more…

8. Breast Infestation
“The picture is horrible but I felt that I should share with you. After anthropologist Susan McKinley came back home from an expedition in South America, she noticed a very strange rash on her left breast. Nobody knew what it was and she quickly dismissed it, believing that the holes would leave in time. Upon her return she decided to see a doctor after she started developing intense pains. To Miss McKinley’s surprise, they found larvae growing and squirming within the pores and sores of her breast.” Read more… (more…)

LiteratEye #43: Oh, I wonder, wonder who, ummbadoo-ooh, who, who wrote “The Night Before Christmas”?

Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Urban Legends

Here’s the forty-third installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #43: Oh, I wonder, wonder who, ummbadoo-ooh, who, who wrote “The Night Before Christmas”?
By W.J. Elvin III
December 11, 2009

santa_record_broken-200Sure, some of us are nostalgic for ancient pagan winter rites like getting all painted up in blue for a sun worshipping cavort around a circle of huge boulders. Or those jolly pre-Christian customs like decorating trees with the intestines and various organs of one’s enemies. But let’s face it, the old-fashioned ways of celebrating year’s end are pretty much out of favor with the mainstream.

All that old-fashioned revelry has been transposed into kinder, gentler Christmas. In fact — regardless of your position as participant, observer of some other tradition, or just as bystander — you probably see the reality of two Christmases operating side by side. There’s the Christian religious celebration and then there’s the giving and getting commercial holiday frenzy.

Well, we’ll leave the religious rigmarole for someone else to tackle. Let’s look at the evolution of the commercial frenzy. (more…)

Peruvian Police Suspended for Faking Mythological Killings

Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Urban Legends

Submitted by W.J. Elvin III: Come out Santa, it’s safe. Looks like it’s ok to let your jelly belly roll:

Peru officer suspended over human fat killers ‘lie’
by Dan Collyns
BBC News, Lima
December 2, 2009

PeruPoliceFatScamPeru’s police chief has suspended a top investigator for saying he had caught a gang who were murdering people to sell their fat.

Last month, top organised crime investigator Felix Murga said police had arrested four suspects who confessed to murdering up to 60 people.

He said they were selling their fat for thousands of dollars a litre.

But the macabre tale now appears to be nothing more than a tall story – or a big fat lie. (more…)

The End Is At Hand

posted by
Filed under: Urban Legends

Submitted by W.J. Elvin III: Apocalypse every once in a while…

10 Failed Doomsday Prophecies
November 4, 2009


Click here to see all ten prophecies.

Just as some people today believe a Maya calendar pinpoints 2012 as the end of the world as we know it, some ancient Romans saw the A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius (pictured: Pompeiians flee the city in an illustration), as a sign of a coming apocalypse. (See “2012 Prophecies Sparking Real Fears, Suicide Warnings.”)

That’s because Roman philosopher Seneca, who died in A.D. 65, had predicted the Earth would go up in smoke: “All we see and admire today will burn in the universal fire that ushers in a new, just, happy world,” he said, according to the 1999 book Apocalypses.

(Test your Armageddon knowledge on the National Geographic Channel Web site.)

The end never came, but that hasn’t stopped people–over centuries and across cultures–from forecasting our collective doom. Click through the gallery for a sampling of end-of-the-Earth scenarios.

artwork: Library of Congress

Top 10 Scariest Urban Legends

posted by
Filed under: Urban Legends

From UrbanLegends.about.com by David Emery:

Top 10 Scariest Urban Legends

It’s the witching hour on a dark, moonless night. You’re huddled with friends around a campfire in the woods far from town, taking turns telling tales. Someone has just recounted a particularly eerie ghost story, insisting it was true. You sit silently, staring self-consciously into the flames, reluctant to let on that the story actually made your skin crawl. Then someone in the shadows clears his throat and speaks:

“Did you hear the one about. . .”

2339532850_1f19e292cf-2001. Aren’t You Glad You Didn’t Turn on the Light?

Strange things happen in the dark, and as this terrifying story shows, sometimes it’s just better not to know. . .

2. Bloody Mary
They stood in candlelight in front of the bathroom mirror, chanting “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary.” The thirteenth time they said it, something very strange and frightening happened. . .

3. The Boyfriend’s Death
Parked late at night on an isolated country road, a teenage girl waits for her boyfriend to return after going outside to relieve himself. After what seems like an eternity, she is startled to hear something scraping across the roof of the vehicle. . .

4. Buried Alive!
Many years ago before the medical technology we now have for monitoring patients’ life signs existed, an elderly woman was pronounced dead and scheduled for burial. Family members literally had to pry her unembalmed body from the clutches of her husband, who kept protesting that she wasn’t really dead. . . (more…)

R. Crumb Takes on Genesis

posted by
Filed under: The Big One, Urban Legends

Crumb’s ‘Genesis,’ A Sexy Breasts-And-Knuckles Affair
by Frank Browning
NPR Morning Edition / Listen to the story here [5 min 50 sec]
October 19, 2009

coverR. Crumb, a pioneer of underground comics, got his start drawing illustrations for greeting cards.

R. Crumb, the bespectacled, gray-bearded artist who is regarded around the world as granddaddy of underground comics, has taken on what might be his biggest subject ever: the first book of the Bible.

Crumb’s new comic, The Book of Genesis Illustrated, contains all 50 chapters of Genesis and comes with a warning on its cover: “Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors.”

The warning is not just because of the relentless sex that peppers the story, but also, as Crumb explained at a press conference in Paris, because of the “violence” and “nastiness” of the story:

“[It's about] ruling elites, victimizing people in sadistic ways, which is human beings at their nastiest. They have power over others, and they derive pleasure from inflecting pain on other humans. That’s about as nasty as people get,” he said.

French publisher Jean-Luc Fromental, who’s been a Crumb fan since he was a kid, says that at first he couldn’t imagine what Crumb would do with the Bible. (more…)

Trumpets of Doom

Filed under: Satire, The Big One, Urban Legends

Submitted by W.J. Elvin III as seen on Salon.com:

Especially liked the “Bozo cult”…

The Four Horsemen send their regrets
by Gabriel Winant
Salon News
September 25, 2009

A list of failed predictions of the end of the world, including a few current theories that probably won’t pan out

md_horiz-200In a recent poll, 8 percent of respondents in New Jersey admitted to thinking that Barack Obama is the antichrist. As in, they think the president is the Beast of Revelation, he whose coming portends the rapture, the battle of Armageddon, and the end of the world as we know it. Thirteen percent weren’t sure, perhaps waiting for more and better evidence to arrive via chain e-mail.

If you’re shocked by those stats, remember just how many Americans think the apocalypse is right around the corner. In a poll from earlier this decade, 17 percent said they expected the world to end in their lifetime. Perhaps that’s why, even though Jesus may have admonished that no man knows the day and hour, so many people can’t resist making a pseudo-educated guess about the day and hour. (more…)

Area 51: The World That Doesn’t Exist

Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Fact or Fiction?, Urban Legends

Submitted by W.J. Elvin III as seen in the LA Times:

The Road to Area 51
by Annie Jacobsen
LA Times
April 5, 2009

After decades of denying the facility’s existence, five former insiders speak out


Area 51. It’s the most famous military institution in the world that doesn’t officially exist. If it did, it would be found about 100 miles outside Las Vegas in Nevada’s high desert, tucked between an Air Force base and an abandoned nuclear testing ground.

Then again, maybe not– the U.S. government refuses to say. You can’t drive anywhere close to it, and until recently, the airspace overhead was restricted–all the way to outer space. Any mention of Area 51 gets redacted from official documents, even those that have been declassified for decades.

It has become the holy grail for conspiracy theorists, with UFOlogists positing that the Pentagon reverse engineers flying saucers and keeps extraterrestrial beings stored in freezers. Urban legend has it that Area 51 is connected by underground tunnels and trains to other secret facilities around the country. (more…)

LiteratEye #29: Kidnapped by Slavers! Abducted and Tortured by Wild Savages! Worse Yet, Branded a ‘Reckless Liar’!

Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Pranksters, Urban Legends

Here’s the twenty ninth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #29: Kidnapped by Slavers! Abducted and Tortured by Wild Savages! Worse Yet, Branded a ‘Reckless Liar’!
By W.J. Elvin III
September 4, 2009

Indian Peter-200Let’s say you had to choose, which would it be:

Abducted off the streets as a child, cast into the dingy hold of a sailing ship and, when it got filled with other unfortunates like yourself, carried off to a foreign land to be sold into slavery … or … captured by merciless wild Indians, witness to the brutal slaughter of numerous of your own people – men, women and children, and cruelly tortured for the mocking amusement of your captors?

Well, if you happen to be as lucky as Peter Williamson of Aberdeen, Scotland, back in the mid-1700s, you could have all that, plus a few other horrors and terrors for good measure.

Williamson, known later in life as “Indian Peter,” made the best of it. He wrote a book that sold well in his own day and remains an oft-quoted classic among tales of Indian captivity.

It’s quite the yarn, as some of the chapter headings indicate: (more…)

The Bristol Zoo Parking Attendant

posted by
Filed under: Urban Legends

From About.com: Urban Legends by David Emery:

Netlore Archive: The Bristol Zoo Parking Attendant

p_involved-200Email tale about a ‘very pleasant attendant’ who, for 25 years running, showed up every day at Bristol Zoo and collected parking fees from visitors, then one day simply disappeared with all the cash. Turns out no one had ever officially hired a car park attendant for the zoo. The man now lives in a villa in Spain.

Description: Email joke / Urban legend
Circulating since: April 2007
Status: False

Email example contributed by Kenneth D., July 6, 2009:

Fw: A well-planned retirement

From The London Times:

Outside the Bristol Zoo, in England, there is a parking lot for 150 cars and 8 coaches, or buses.

It was manned by a very pleasant attendant with a ticket machine charging cars 1 pound (about $1.40) and coaches 5 (about $7).

This parking attendant worked there solid for all of 25 years. Then, one day, he just didn’t turn up for work. (more…)