At times when I'm collecting urban legends I feel like bragging that, in the late comedian Jimmy Durante's words, "I've got a million of them!"
Well, not a million exactly, but I've got hundreds of different stories and many variations on most of them. The more versions I gather, the better I understand each legend's history and its connection to other urban legends.Take "The Five-Pound Note" for example. It's a legend from England that I've been tracing for years.
Essentially, it's about an elderly woman on a shopping trip who quietly lifts what she thinks is her own bank note from the handbag of a passenger dozing in a third-class train compartment. When she gets home, she realizes that she had left her own shopping money behind.
If that doesn't remind you of other "unwitting theft" legends, then you haven't been paying attention. Remember the one about the jogger bumped by another runner who thinks his billfold has been stolen? He firmly demands his property back, only to discover later that he left his own billfold at home.
In another version, a man thinks his watch was stolen on a crowded bus or subway. He gets it back by demanding it angrily, but finds later that he has two watches.
"The Five-Pound Note" is the grandaddy of all these stories about unwitting thefts. English folklorists first recorded it in 1912. In that version, the brother of the elderly woman who steals the money says, "I expected to find you up a gum tree. You left your five-pound note on the dressing table." (Translation: "I thought you were up the creek without a paddle. You left your money behind when you went shopping.")
I've collected other versions of the story from readers of my urban legend books. Like Durante said, "Everybody wants to get into the act!" and that's fine with me.
A Midwestern woman wrote saying that her sister came home from Indiana University in 1943 with a story about her sorority sister's mother accidentally stealing some money while shopping at an Indianapolis department store.
The woman's husband had left a $10 bill on the table for her. She thought she had put it in her purse which she subsequently left on her chair in the store's cafe while using the rest room. The money was not there when she looked for it.
Then she spotted a $10 bill in the purse of a woman sharing her table, so she assumed this was the thief and took the money back when that woman used the restroom.
The sorority sister's mother, of course, supposedly found her own $10 bill still on the table at home when she returned.
A similar story was published in the Indianapolis Sunday Star in 1946. But in the newspaper account it was a $50 bill and the two women had met on a train and were sharing a table at a restaurant.
A letter from another reader reported that a Mickey Mouse newspaper strip from 1936 told another version of the story.
I found a 1986 reprint of the strip. It begins with Minnie asking Mickey to take a $5 bill from the hall table and drive to the store for a loaf of bread and a pound of cheese.
On the way Mickey picks up a rough-looking hitchhiker, and, feeling his empty pocket, Mickey assumes the passenger has stolen the money. He pretends to have a gun, demands the money and then forces the rider out of his car.
At the store, Mickey discovers he has a $1 bill, not a five, and back home Minnie tells him: "You left the $5 bill lying on the table!"
This Mickey Mouse version, undoubtedly related to the legend, resembles the variation of the stolen watch story which I wrote about in an earlier column. In that one a hitchhiker is suspected of taking a watch, but the driver gets it back by pulling a gun on the man.
Later, the driver finds he has two watches.
Are there yet more variations on this old story going around? If so, I'm sure readers will let me know.