A wartime legend called "The Corpse in the Car" swept through Europe and the United States during the years of Hitler's rise and fall. I located a version recently in the letters column of Time magazine from Nov. 20, 1939.
The writer, a Concord, N.H., resident, told the legend, which he said he had heard five times in different parts of New England."A friend of yours, or someone's sister, or your aunt's cousin, picked up in her car a woman who was walking wearily along the street."
"She got into the back seat and after a silence announced, `Someone will die in this car today.' "
"After the driver had recovered a little, she went on, `Hitler will die on (varying dates according to the version of the story).' "
"The driver, now thoroughly scared, put her passenger out at the next corner and drove on. She was stopped at the next crossroads by a policeman who asked her to take a badly injured man to the hospital."
"She could not well refuse, and the policeman climbed into the back seat, cradling the injured man. On the way to the hospital the man died."
A slightly different version of "The Corpse in the Car" described a grateful hitchhiker who offered to answer any question. "Tell me, then," the driver asked, "when will the war end?"
"That's easy," replied the hitchhiker. "It will end in July (or another month), just as sure as you will have a corpse in this car before you reach home."
The prediction of a corpse always came true, according to the story; however, Hitler did not die, nor did the war end as was predicted.
Maria Bonaparte analyzed "The Corpse in the Car" in depth in her 1947 book "Myths of War," the earliest book I know of devoted entirely to urban rumors and legends.
Bonaparte, or Princess Marie of Greece, was a leading psychoanalyst of the time, as well as a great-granddaughter of Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon's eldest brother. She was instrumental in helping Sigmund Freud escape from the Nazis.
Reviewing 29 texts of the legend (all from Europe, except for one from Boston) Bonaparte interpreted the corpse as a sacrificial victim taken by fate to assure that Hitler would eventually die.
In France the corpse was often said to be that of a young man recently called up for military service. Thus newly dedicated for war, the citizen acquired the mystique required of a proper sacrifice.
The role of an officiating priest for the ceremony, Bonaparte said, was filled by the stranger making the predictions, sometimes said to be a gypsy.
Bonaparte referred to the "substitution of the motor car for the altar or pyre," reminding readers of the Freudian view that "in dreams, driving in cars is as constant a sexual symbol as climbing stairs or uphill."
Bonaparte's variants of "The Corpse in the Car" came from Germany, Italy, Greece and South Africa, as well as France. She thought the legend developed because war and anxiety had reactivated "the need to offer a human victim in propitiation to fate."
If that's true, then we should find "The Corpse in the Car," or similar legends, circulating during other wars. I'm interested in receiving any such "myths of war" that readers might remember.
(C) 1989 United Feature Syndicate Inc.