We all love a good story — whether it’s true, or not so true. Today marks the release of Albert Jack’s Phantom Hitchhikers and Other Urban Legends , an excellent little volume that collects some of the weirdest, best, and most rampant urban legends bouncing around the cultural consciousness. Luckily, Jack has written about a few of his favorite legends for us here.
“Urban legends are not always easy to spot, as they often have a ring of truth about them,” Jack told us over email. “The events they describe could happen or might have happened to any of us. Each of us could have been as unfortunate or stupid as the character(s) in the story, and that is one of the reasons we all enjoy urban legends so much: that the misfortune involved didn’t happen to us in the end but to somebody else. And that makes us laugh. The stories come in many different forms. Some involve ghostly goings on, some are about love found or lost. Some center on plain stupidity and some on unfortunate coincidences, although some do have happy endings.”
“The connecting feature is that all are told and then retold and come back around in altered forms, and all of them are passed around by word of mouth or, especially these days, via the Internet, where they spread like wildfire. Just to prove my point, one of these legends is absolutely, definitely not true. How do I know? Because I made it up; just for fun. Imagine my enjoyment when a friend from Johannesburg emailed the story around to his address book (without knowing of my involvement) claiming it had actually happened, in Australia. It was in the UK when I invented it. (See if you can guess which one it is and, yes, I have changed the countries this time.)
“These ‘legends’ (so-called ‘urban,’ although they don’t need to have an urban setting) are the modern-day version of medieval folklore and all of the anecdotes in this collection can be recited the next time you are at lunch, dinner or in the pub with friends. They can make even the most unimaginative person seem interesting, I promise. They seem to be working for me, at any rate.”
Moon the Loon
Keith Moon, late drummer of The Who, died in 1978 and left behind a string of urban legends as a result of his erratic and comical behavior. Largely under the influence of drugs Moon is said to have blown up his drum kit on stage, allegedly damaging guitarist Pete Townsend’s hearing in the process, and then befriended a tramp in Soho before checking him into London’s Hilton Hotel and drinking with him until the early hours. Moon apparently then forgot all about the tramp, until the hotel phoned his record label over two weeks later to ask what they were supposed to do with the old man and who was paying the bill. The record label picked up the tab.
Despite being regarded by many as the finest drummer of his generation, Moon’s good-natured disruptions lead to his band mates barring him from the studio when the vocal parts were being recorded. One legend suggests that at the end of the recording of “Happy Jack” Pete Townsend can be heard shouting, “I see ya” in the background as he spots Moon sneaking in to let off fireworks. Whether any of these legends are true or not only those close to the band would know. But the one that is perhaps the most famous rock urban legend of all time is definitely not true. According to author Steve Grantley (The Who by Numbers) Keith Moon definitely did not drive his Rolls Royce into the swimming pool either at his home, as is sometimes suggested, or at the Holiday Inn in Flint, Michigan, where it is also reported to have happened during the drummer’s twenty first birthday party. “What he did do though,” says Grantley, “is reverse it by accident into his garden pond one morning and then had to ask the recovery truck to tow it back out for him.”
Albert Einstein’s Chauffeur
Soon after Albert Einstein had produced his theory of relativity he embarked on a university tour of lectures from coast to coast in America. He was reasonably unknown at the time and students flocked to meet the scientist with the rapidly growing reputation and lecture halls were filled to the rafters each time Einstein spoke. Among the audience was his faithful chauffeur Harry who attended every lecture and once proudly announced to Einstein that he had learned his presentations word for word. The two had become great friends and Einstein suggested they exchange places for one lecture and find out if this was true. He would drive Harry to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and the driver would deliver his lecture. Harry performed brilliantly and delivered Einstein’s lecture word perfectly whilst the great man sat in the back row wearing a chauffeur’s uniform and dozing off. But disaster was about to strike. As Harry was leaving the speaker’s platform to great applause one of the college officials asked him a complex question on the theory involving many equations and detailed calculations. Harry listened carefully and thought about his reply before announcing, “The answer to this is simple, in fact it is so simple I am going to let my driver answer it for you.” The fast-thinking chauffeur then left the hall, leaving Einstein to deal with the officials.
The Famous Hook Story
A teenage couple had been out on a first date to the movies in a remote town and had bought some burgers to eat on the journey home. Pulling over into a deserted but well-known lovers’ lane, they ate the food and, after throwing the papers into a nearby trash can, the lad returned to the car, feeling he was about to get lucky. He turned on the radio and the pair began kissing and cuddling before a news flash interrupted the song that was playing. They both listened as the radio announcer gave a warning that a convicted mass murderer had escaped from a nearby mental hospital and advised listeners not to approach the man under any circumstances.
A description was given, including the man’s height, hair color and clothing and the fact he had a hook in place of his right hand, an obvious distinguishing feature. The girl began to feel a little uneasy but the lad, not wanting his evening to be spoilt, simply locked the doors and assured the girl they would be safe. But the girl was still frightened and, pushing the lad off her, insisted on being driven home. Frustrated and fed up, the youth slammed the car into gear and sped off, the wheels of his car spinning. The two didn’t speak on the journey home, but as he dropped the girl off, she began screaming uncontrollably as she stepped out of the car. Alarmed, he raced round to her side of the car as neighbors also ran out to investigate. There, attached to the door handle and dripping blood, was the hooked hand. Evidence that the monster had been moments from reaching her back in lovers’ lane.
Locals in a remote town were planning to celebrate the millennium together by holding a big party at the only bar in town. As most of them would have to drive to the bar from their remote homes and ordering enough taxis would be impossible, there was a strong chance of many being caught driving with excess alcohol in their systems, especially as the new local police officer was an unfriendly and overly vigilant sort of chap. As expected, the policeman was on duty, waiting in the parking lot and watching as the first reveler staggered out at around 2am, tripped and fell flat on his face. The policeman then observed him struggle to his feet and weave across the lot, fumbling for his keys, before resting both hands on the car hood to try and steady himself. He then got into the driver’s seat, jerked the car into gear and kangarooed across the parking lot towards the exit. Having seen enough, the policeman drove forward to block the exit, his blue lights flashing.
Opening the car door, the driver crashed to the ground, and was promptly arrested and taken off to the local police station. However, on arrival he asked, quite lucidly, “What have you arrested me for, officers?” On being told he was under caution for driving with excess alcohol, he then stated that he didn’t touch alcohol and hadn’t had a drink in fifteen years. The police officers refused to believe him and, having carried out the usual tests, were amazed to find there was not a single drop of alcohol in his system. The police had no choice other than to release him but later suspected he had been the designated decoy for the evening. All the other partygoers shot off home as soon as the policeman had left with his fake “drunk driver.”
The Drunken Sailor
During the early 1900s, Major and Mrs. Haversham bought a hundred-year-old farmhouse on the edge of the New Forest. The major, a keen collector of wine and spirits, was intrigued to find a 112-gallon oak barrel tucked away in the corner of the cellar. On testing the contents, he discovered the barrel was full of the finest naval rum. Experts agreed the unusually dark rum had benefited from years of aging in the old oak barrel and was among the finest they had ever tasted.
The rum became the toast of the village, with neighbors and friends often celebrating national events at gatherings held at the Havershams’ farmhouse. After five years, the major decided to decant what remained of the rum into a new smaller barrel and his wife suggested cutting the old one in half to use as containers for flowers on either side of their front door. However, when the workman employed to carry out the task opened up the barrel he found inside the perfectly preserved body of an eighteenth-century sailor.
It is well documented that when ordinary sailors died at sea they were stitched into their hammocks and thrown overboard. However, officers were often preserved in rum for the return journey before being buried on land with full naval honors. Lord Nelson’s body was famously preserved in this way and brought back from Trafalgar for burial. (This is, incidentally, where the expression “tapping the admiral” comes from, referring to a shot of some strong drink.) Therefore, as unlikely as this story seems, it is entirely possible that, after many months at sea, any large ship being unloaded could easily have had a few barrels of rum stolen and sold on the black market to a buyer unaware of the “old salt” flavoring of one or two of them.