December 2004

Entering the Urban Legend Zone

By Gail Binkly

Did you hear about the stock clerk in Maui who went to clean up a storeroom and found mouse droppings all over? Later he felt achy, nauseated and feverish. He was rushed to the emergency room, but soon he was dead.

The mystery of his illness might never have been solved but for a coworker who remembered his comments about mouse droppings. Sure enough, his death was caused by a disease spread by rodents.

Or wait, maybe it was a woman in Belgium who drank from a Coke can covered with mouse droppings and died shortly thereafter.

Many variations of this grim tale have circulated on the Internet. But like a lot of “dear friend, take heed” stories, it just ain’t true.

The web site snopes.com, which investigates “urban legends,” says there is no report of any store clerk dying from a rodent-spread illness in Hawaii. Likewise, there is no record of a woman in Belgium dying after drinking from an unwashed Coke can.

Furthermore, while rodent droppings can spread disease, there’s little chance of getting sick from droppings on a can, the web site says, because most canned goods don’t sit around long enough to attract rodents. And wouldn’t most people see the droppings if they were right in front of their nose?

Another e-mail describes people mysteriously falling ill after eating at an Olive Garden, in a case supposedly reported in the “Journal of the United Medical Association.” It turned out an exotic poisonous spider was lurking under the toilet seat, biting people. But this isn’t true either, according to truthorfiction.com. That medical journal doesn’t exist, the species of spider is made up, the whole tale is a fabrication. Another less-dire missive in circulation describes the rigid rules governing guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Va.

Among other things, the lengthy email states, “They must commit 2 years of life to guard the tomb, live in a barracks under the tomb, and cannot drink any alcohol on or off duty for the rest of their lives. . . . They cannot swear in public for the rest of their lives and cannot disgrace the uniform or the tomb in any way. . . .

“The first six months of duty a guard cannot talk to anyone, nor watch TV. All off duty time is spent studying the 175 notable people laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.” Romantic, but mostly false.

According to snopes.com, while other portions of the e-mail accurately describe the guards and their duties, “Sentinels at the Tomb do not have to commit to serving there for any fixed period of time.” Tomb guards may live either on-base or off-base. And there are no restrictions on their off-duty drinking. Likewise, the notion that guards “cannot swear in public for the rest of their lives” is false.

As for not speaking for six months and not watching TV, snopes.com says, “someone seems to have confused the Old Guard with a monastery!”

Why do we believe these stories and gullibly pass them on (as I have done)? It’s difficult to say. People enjoy sharing odd “facts,” even when the facts aren’t true, and the Internet has made spreading urban legends much easier. There is something about the printed word that gives a stamp of authenticity. And we all want to warn others about possible dangers.

While the guard story and the disease tales are fallacious, they really aren’t harmful. But some e-mails go beyond silly entertainment.

The recent election spawned a spate of electronic lies the like of which has never been seen before: Theresa Heinz Kerry supports terrorism through the Tides Foundation. Kerry’s picture hangs in the “Hanoi Hall of Fame” to commemorate his anti-war activities. John Edwards caused the flu vaccine shortage.

I received those e-mails and more, and I’m not even on Republican mailing lists. Yet all turned out to be either outright lies or, at best, highly dubious. Take the one about John Edwards. It claims Edwards, as a trial lawyer, represented a North Carolina man who got sick from a flu shot in the 1980s. He sued and won $5 million. U.S. companies then stopped making flu vaccine and it’s all imported now from Great Britain and Canada. But snopes.com says that yarn is nonsense for many reasons, not the least of which is this: There’s no record anywhere of Edwards ever handling a flu-vaccine case.

And what about John Kerry’s photo in the “Hanoi Hall of Fame”? One email states, “Yes, there is a museum in Hanoi with a section dedicated to foreign activists who helped defeat the United States Military in Vietnam. . . . Alas, there is John Kerry's picture shaking the hand of a communist official.”

Well, according to snopes.com, the photograph in question shows Kerry meeting with Vietnamese officials. It’s on display in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon – not Hanoi).

“The picture on display does not capture John Kerry engaged in an antiwar activity. . ., nor does it depict or describe him as an anti-war protester,” snopes.com notes. “The picture shows Senator John Kerry, a duly authorized representative of the United States government, meeting with Vietnamese officials in 1993 (long after the end of American military involvement in Vietnam) as part of a ‘high-level delegation’ sent to Vietnam by President Clinton ‘to press for further progress on unresolved POW/MIA issues’.” The caption under the photo doesn’t even identify Kerry by name, just lumps him in with the “Congressmen and Veterans Delegation.”

But this was typical of the hysterical claims being made about Kerry before the election. (I received just one bogus e-mail about George Bush, but dozens about his Democratic opponent.) My favorite is the picture of Kerry shaking hands with Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. Sorry, Kerry-haters, it’s phony, too – a composite of two photos.

The next time you think about forwarding an e-mail containing some supposedly urgent information that’s been ignored by the mass media, check it first. There are numerous web sites that investigate such claims – search under “urban legends.”

And if you’re wondering why so many people are finding it hard to “get over” this election, maybe it’s because we wonder how much of the voting was based on lies like the ones above.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Free Press.