23 Urban Legends That Are Totally True
It's as they say: Within every fiction is at least a little bit of truth.
Everyone loves a good story, especially the kind that shoots shudder-inducing chills crawling up your spine. But there’s a delicious sort of enjoyment that comes from tall tales that are confirmed to be absolutely true.
With that in mind, we’ve rounded up some of the nation’s myths that can actually be verifiably pinned down to factual events, from tales of bogeymen and subterranean cities to the story of the word the dictionary got wrong. So read on, and prepare to be astounded by these urban legends that are confirmed to be rooted in bona fide truth. After all, even the wildest tales are rumored to have a grain of truth to them, right?
E.T.’s Burial Spot
E.T.—the video game, that is—is buried in New Mexico. Despite the tall tales that are perpetually swirling about Nevada’s Area 51, the only extraterrestrial presence in the Southwest that we can positively confirm is the mass “burial ground” for the 1982 video game, E.T. The Extraterrestrial. The video game, which was based on the seminal 1982 Disney film of the same name, was met with such widespread admonition that Atari decided to bury all the unsold games in the sands of a New Mexico landfill. Dramatic much?
Colonel Buck’s Recurring Tombstone Stain
Passersby are often keen to point out the oddly-shaped mark, resembling a leg, that stains the tomb of this former Justice of the Peace. Rumor has it that Colonel Buck ordered a witch burned at the stake. Allegedly, her leg rolled out of the fiery blaze, and, in retaliation, the witch put an eternal curse on Buck’s final resting place. The truth to the story lies in the persistence of the stain: the tombstone has reportedly been scrubbed thoroughly several times, but the leg-shaped stain continues to reappear.
Reptiles in the Sewers
It just depends on what century we’re talking about. In the early 1900s, it wasn’t unheard of for wealthy New Yorkers to bring baby Floridian alligators back to the Big Apple to keep as pets. When they decided their pets weren’t quite as cute as they’d hoped, they supposedly flushed them down the toilet.
In 1932, the New York Times reported that a group of teenagers had witnessed a gator easing itself out of the Bronx River. But don’t fret, New Yorkers—the chances that there’s a band of toothy reptiles currently swimming through the sewage of your city these days is nil.
The Story of Charlie No-Face
The tale of Charlie No-Face is an example of one of those true stories that gets wildly twisted in each retelling. Here are the facts: in the early 1900s, a Hillsville boy was electrocuted by a trolley wire, resulting in lifelong disfigurement—specifically, most of his facial features melted away, which is tragically a bit legendary in and of itself.
But then, as Charlie grew into an adult, rumors about his strange nighttime activities began to crop up, growing more and more preposterous as the rumor mill spun. Today, the people of Pennsylvania insist that Charlie No-Face has become a radioactive, glowing Green Man-type figure who haunts an abandoned freight tunnel with the ability to stall any cars daring to trespass in his tunnel—but the truth is that he was just a guy who experienced an unfortunate childhood accident.
Neil Armstrong’s Bungled Moon Landing Speech
That pivotal moment for all of humanity, when Americans became the first people to ever step foot on the moon? Yeah, of course that was scripted. But the quotation that we all know and love is not verbatim what astronaut Neil Armstrong was supposed to radio back to Earth.
We all know the phrase as, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The crucial part that Armstrong left out was just the word, “a.” He was meant to say, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” That one word would have made the distinction a little bit clearer, right? Apparently, after listening to the recording of himself, Armstrong has since admitted to misspeaking the line.
The Government Stole Dead Children
Kind of. In the flurry of testing after World War II, after the U.S. had dropped the world’s first atomic bomb, scientists wanted to determine the effect of nuclear radiation on human flesh. In a series of tests known as “Project Sunshine,” the test subjects were deceased children—specifically, stillborn babies, whose parents were probably not even notified about how their children’s bodies were being experimented on. Gruesome and sad, but true.
A Corpse in the Water Tank
You know how sometimes the water at your hotel just tastes downright disgusting? Well, it’s not entirely outside of the realm of reason that there might be a dead body floating in the water supply, contributing to the less than desirable taste. At least, that’s what happened at a Los Angeles hotel in 2013.
After several days of guests complaining about a terrible smell that emanated anytime they turned on the shower—not to mention the terrible taste when they tried to brush their teeth—management checked the water tank on the hotel roof and found the body of 21-year-old Elisa Lam floating inside. Her body was estimated to have been in the tank for two weeks.
Murderers in the Medicine Cabinets
The 1992 horror film, Candyman, includes a scene where the main characters learn that a murderer might be entering apartments via the medicine cabinets—and apparently, this was once a legitimate structural flaw in some apartment complexes. The medicine cabinets in adjoining apartments in Chicago were connected by a flimsy partition, and an actual murder was committed by criminals entering through this weak structure.
Right after a family purchased their dream home in New Jersey, a stalker calling himself “The Watcher” barraged them with a series of letters, claiming, among other things, that his own family has “watched” the house for generations. The letters also inquired about when the family would be filling the house with “young blood.” While it’s unclear if there’s any truth to what was substantiated in the letters, it was enough to scare the parents and their three young children out of moving into the house.
Parents often reassure their children that the Bogeyman doesn’t exist, but on Staten Island in the 1980s, he was all too real. Stories about “Cropsey” abounded—he would drag children from their beds; he carried a bloody axe in the crook of his arm. In reality, the legends surrounding Cropsey can likely all be traced back to a man by the name of Andre Rand. Rand worked as a janitor at Willowbrook State School, which specialized in providing services for children with disabilities. He was later suspected of kidnapping multiple children from the school, and officially found guilty for kidnapping two.
The Underground City
Though the conspiracy theories about the subterranean city beneath Denver International Airport have been thoroughly debunked, another of America’s cities (Las Vegas) does have its own underground city—but it’s less of a conspiracy and more of an effort on the part of the tourist industry to maintain the city’s “appeal.” With police’s stringent limitations preventing homeless people from setting up camp on the Vegas strip, that population was struggling to find anywhere to go, and they ended up in the city’s flood channels.
The House at the Bottom of the Lake
Resting in the murky depths of Salem’s Gardner Lake is a fully intact house; that much is confirmed—by the Hartford Courant, no less. Supposedly, the house sank beneath the surface when a family attempted to move it across the frozen lake in the midst of a 19th-century winter. The really eerie part is that, to this day, fishermen report hearing strained musical notes gurgling up to the surface of the lake, supposedly issuing from the parlor room piano. (Whether or not that part of the story is true, though, we’re in no position to say.)
The Entire Town at the Bottom of the Lake
It’s no Atlantis, but it’s probably as close as America is going to get to the Underwater City of myth. In the 1940s, an entire (evacuated) town in Georgia was purposefully flooded with gallons of water in order to build what is now known as Lake Lanier. The entire community, including a racetrack, was submerged by the lake-building project.
Recognizing a Cadaver
Apparently, a letter to the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1982 documented how a medical school student had recently recognized her own great aunt among the cadavers being dissected in one of her classes. Luckily, this situation doesn’t seem to happen very frequently.
The Woman in Black
The situation isn’t quite as horror-movie scary as its name implies. In 2014, a woman dressed in black from head to toe, including a trailing black veil and billowing black robes, was spotted walking the highways of the South, and a series of rumors mounted about what she could possibly be up to. The truth was that the woman, a U.S. Army veteran, described the self-imposed pilgrimage as having to do with her faith and religion.
The Man Who Became a Pair of Shoes
Big Nose George was hanged in the 1880s for being a raucous outlaw with a penchant for horse thievery. Supposedly, a physician examining George’s brain trying to root out the cause of his criminal activity decided to use George’s skin for a number of bizarre purposes—including making himself a new pair of shoes. After a whiskey barrel containing the remainder of the outlaw’s bones was discovered in 1950, speculation has continued to mount: maybe the legends revolving around just who Big Nose George actually was—and what grisly horrors his body might have been subjected to by the physician—are all true, after all?
Rats in the Toilet
Be honest, you’ve probably always harbored a bit of a secret fear of what could possibly be lurking in the toilet as you lower yourself on the seat, right? Well, if you haven’t been before, you might start looking before you sit yourself down now. As told on a This American Life podcast, an Oregon man returned from a fun night out and wanted to make a quick trip to the bathroom before crawling into bed—but that plan was foiled by the furry, live rodent he found in the toilet when he lifted up the lid!
Halloween Treat Tricksters
It’s recommended that parents exercise some caution and only visit neighborhoods they trust when carting their costumed children around for an evening of trick-or-treating—and for good reason. There have unfortunately been multiple reports of unsuspecting children returning home with small baggies of crystal methamphetamine in their treat bags.
Ever wondered if the medicine you’re dutifully taking as prescribed includes any extra ingredients? Thanks to the modern-day tamper-resistant seal, you can rest assured that your medicine is mixed just like the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, this packaging was developed for a reason. In 1982, someone got it into their head to inject potassium cyanide (a deadly poison) into multiple bottles of Tylenol. After several people died in what came to be known as the Tylenol Murders, the Federal Drug Administration stepped up to the plate and came out with regulations requiring all medicinal manufacturers to produce seals that were tamper-proof.
Coca-Cola Once Had to Recall a “Suggestive” Poster
Yes, the soda company everyone knows and loves for its promotion of sharing and making the world a better place has experienced its fair share of PR problems. And no, the issue in question actually had nothing to do with the substance supposedly used as an ingredient in the original formula for Coca-Cola. (That would be cocaine.) This one was purely a marketing snafu. The poster in question was benign enough, at least in the company’s intention. Issued in the 1980s as a way to promote the new bottle design, the poster bearing the slogan “Feel the Curves!!” was quickly recalled after a keen-eyed observer noted an inappropriate image portraying oral sex in one of the ice cubes.
Webster’s Dictionary Made an Error
From 1934 through 1947, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary inadvertently included an entry for a fabricated word: “dord,” defined as “density.” The error was eventually corrected by a flustered editor, who termed it a “ghost word.” It’s nice to know that one of the most authoritative sources on the English language makes mistakes, too.
The Jet-Black Squirrels of the Midwest
These squirrels’ possible possession of arcane powers (akin to black cats on Halloween, and on crossing streets) remain a source of contention, but the existence of these rare, jet black woodland creatures is irrefutable. Of note is the fact that these black squirrels are confined to the Midwest, concentrated in particularly large clusters in Michigan. The story goes that Kellogg’s cereal guru W.K. Kellogg imported the black squirrels in an effort to eradicate red squirrels, a species that he detested.
Okay, so maybe it’s not exactly possible for your shoelace to get caught in the escalator and suck you completely underneath the machine (admit it: you did have that fear as a kid), but escalators are more dangerous than you might expect. An article by the National Institute of Health in 2013 reported that the U.S. experiences approximately 10,000 emergency-level escalator-related injuries each year. Unsurprisingly, alcohol usually played a large role in causing those accidents. So when you’ve had a few, consider opting for the nearest elevator.