Did you hear the one about the fraudulent gas pumps? Or the one about LSD tattoos? Urban crime legends seem to circulate for decades, getting updated by new generations and creeping us out all over again. But while the tales themselves are gripping and chilling, their backstories are often even more fascinating. When stripped of its street cred, the most fantastic urban lore reveals its humble origins.
1. The Not-So-Good Samaritan Tire Changer
This story takes place at the Tuttle Crossing Mall in Columbus, Ohio, in April 1998. A female shopper left the mall to return to her car and found she had a flat tire. As she began to fish around for her car jack, a man in a business suit approached her and offered to help. She gratefully accepted, and they replaced the flat tire with her spare.
When they were finished, the man asked the woman for a ride to his car, which he said was parked on the other side of the mall. Even though he had helped her, his request made the woman slightly uncomfortable, so she politely declined. When he became insistent, the woman grew fearful, told the man she had more shopping to do, and fled back to the mall, where she reported the incident to security officers.
The security officers escorted the woman back to her car, but the man was nowhere to be found. Since her deflated tire still needed to be repaired, the woman drove to a nearby garage, where the mechanic told her that the tire had been slashed with a knife. While she was talking to the mechanic, she noticed that the man had left his briefcase in her trunk. She opened it, and the only things in it were some rope and a butcher knife.
According to Hoax-Slayer.com, this urban legend is loosely derived from the case of Julia Ashe, who was abducted and killed in a manner similar to the one described in the tale. But Ashe lived in Waterbury, Connecticut, not Columbus, Ohio. A 1991 New York Times article about her case names a man called Sedrick Cobb as Ashe’s murderer:
Mr. Cobb kidnapped Miss Ashe on December 16, 1989, from a department-store parking lot in Waterbury after he helped her change a flat tire on her car. He had let the air out of the tire while she was in the store Christmas shopping. He then drove Miss Ashe to a wooded area, raped her, bound her, and pushed her off a dam into an icy pond twenty-three feet below.
The obvious and tragic discrepancy between the real story of Julia Ashe and the urban legend of the Tuttle Crossing Mall parking lot incident is that Ashe was actually murdered, while the fictional woman escaped the man who would have killed her.
2. LSD Tattoos
Scarelore about drugs and drug dealers may not be as gripping as stories about murders and rapes, but cast children as the victims, and you’ve got a recipe for an urban crime legend that will stand the test of time. Starting in the mid-1980s, rumors began to circulate about a form of tattoo being sold to schoolchildren, called Blue Stars: supposedly, small pieces of paper containing blue stars about the size of pencil erasers, each soaked with LSD or strychnine. The legend went that simply handling the paper caused a person’s skin to absorb the drug. Today’s version of the Blue Star myth is much the same, but it substitutes postage stamps with pictures of Superman, Mickey Mouse, clowns, Disney characters, and other child-friendly imagery.
Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand was the first to write about Blue Stars in his 1984 book, The Choking Doberman . He called it “the most insidious urban drug legend” because it implied, as does the present variation of the myth, that drug dealers purposely decorate their wares with cartoon images to make them attractive to children.
Brunvand cited a press clipping from 1982 that described a “children’s ‘tatoo’ [sic] which may contain LSD.” He theorized that the notion of LSD-laced tattoos may have originated in a 1980 police memorandum about colorful sheets of blotter acid, which warned: “Children may be susceptible to this type of cartoon stamp, believing it a tattoo transfer.”
3. Gas Pump Fraud
In 2008, authorities closed the pumps at two Cisco service stations in Camden, Georgia, because state inspectors determined they were rigged to short customers out of as much as a quart on every five gallons purchased. In the weeks following the pumps’ closure, urban legends spread like wildfire about phony gas pumps all over the country.
Despite the occasional fraud, however, it’s not likely that many gas station owners rig their pumps to cheat customers. Since gas pumps malfunction so frequently, most, if not all, states conduct routine inspections. Of the 119,012 pumps inspected in Georgia in 2007, according to Department of Agriculture commissioner Tommy Irvin, slightly less than 5 percent were found to be inaccurate, and at least half of those were delivering more gas than customers purchased.
Still, there’s really no way to trust the numbers you see on the pump when you fill up, which is probably why this urban myth has taken hold so readily.
4. Headlight-Flashing Retaliation
Different versions of the following myth have circulated on- and offline since the early 1990s. The most recent version of the legend claims that police officers working with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program warn anyone who flashes her headlights at a car with no headlights after dark will fall victim to a gang-member-initiation game. In the initiation, the new member drives along with no headlights, and driver of the first car to flash its headlights at his car is the target. The new member must then chase the car and do whatever the gang requires to complete its initiation requirements. Police gang units deny the truth of any “initiation game” rumors.
A Legendary Oral Tradition
Urban crime legends are sometimes horrifying and sometimes absurd, but always a part of our culture’s rich oral tradition better known as gossip. We seem to have an innate tendency to interpret life in narrative terms and to share it with others, and these stories are passed down and changed from one generation to another. These four tales are just a few examples of the latest wave of urban crime myths.