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`LEGENDS’ - THE SPIRIT WITH A MISSION

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Do you remember Scholastic Book Services, publishers of inexpensive paperbacks that you ordered through your elementary and junior high school?

My kids used to buy dozens of these titles - fiction, adventure, history and the like. I now realize that they may have learned some urban legends from them.Susan Trevaskis of Cerritos, Calif., may be in a similar bind, because she recently sent me a tattered copy of "Strange but True: 22 Amazing Stories," a 1973 Scholastic book.

David Duncan, who compiled the book, offers the collection of short, strange and presumably true tales without a single comment. On the title page Trevaskis wrote: "Why no bibliography, no footnotes, no references of any sort?"

Most of the chapters concern familiar topics like the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman. But one story, "Caller in the Snow," is based on a century-old urban legend.

This story describes Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell of Philadelphia, who was awakened one snowy night by a little girl dressed in a thin frock and a ragged shawl. She knocked at his door and begged him to come with her to treat her dying mother.

Mitchell dressed and followed the girl to a house several blocks away, where he found a woman seriously ill with pneumonia. As he treated her, the doctor praised the young girl's timely summons.

The woman said in astonishment, "But my daughter died a month ago. Her clothes are in the cupboard."

Mitchell looked, and he recognized the frock and shawl. He realized that he had been summoned by a ghost.

The story concludes by asking, "Did Dr. Mitchell make it up?" It identifies him as "a leading neurologist and a famous man of letters."

The same story, titled "The Doctor's Visitor," is also included without a source in "strangely enough," a 1959 Scholastic book by C.B. Colby that I found in my own basement hoard.

Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell was no ghost, though. Born in 1829, he was a prolific author of scientific works, fiction and poetry.

But neither The New York Times obituary, nor a 1950 biography, nor several writings by Mitchell that I checked, mention any ghosts calling on him.

Folklorists have found a couple of other versions of "The Ghost in Search of Help" legend, which probably was known more widely in the past.