Urban legends may shoot chills up your spine. But there’s an enjoyment that comes from tall tales that are confirmed to be true. Some of the most notable legends can be verifiably tied to actual events, from tales of bogeymen and subterranean cities to the story of the word the dictionary got wrong.
Read on to be surprised by some urban legends confirmed to be rooted in truth.
Gators in the Sewers. The truth depends on the century. In the early 1900s, it wasn’t unheard of for wealthy New Yorkers to bring baby Floridia alligators back to the Big Apple as pets. When they found 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 teen-agers had witnessed a gator easing itself out of the Bronx River. But don’t fret, 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 one of those true stories that gets wildly twisted in each retelling. Here are the facts: in the early 1900s, a Hillsville, Pa., boy was electrocuted by a trolley wire, resulting in lifelong disfigurement. Most of his facial features melted away, which is tragically a bit legendary in and of itself. 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 man first set foot on the moon, was, of course, scripted. But the quotation that we all know 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.” After listening to the recording of himself, Armstrong admitted to misspeaking the line.
The Government Stole Dead Children. 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 notified about how their children’s bodies were being experimented on. Gruesome and sad, but true.
A Corpse in the Water Tank. 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. For several days guests complained about a terrible smell that emanated anytime they turned on the shower and a 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. 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.
The House Watcher. 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 had “watched” the house for generations. The letters also inquired about when the family would be filling the house with “young blood.” It’s unclear if there’s any truth to what was substantiated in the letters, but it was enough to scare the parents and their three young children out of moving into the house.
The Bogeyman. 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 claiming he would drag children from their beds and he carried a bloody ax 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 kidnaping multiple children from the school, and officially found guilty for kidnapping two.
The Underground City. Conspiracy theories about the subterranean city beneath Denver International Airport have been thoroughly debunked, but another city, Las Vegas, does have its own underground city. 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 stringent police 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. 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. That part of the story has not been confirmed.
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 purposely flooded in order to build what is now known as Lake Lanier. The entire community, including a racetrack, was submerged by the lake-building project.
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. That included making himself a new pair of shoes. After a whiskey barrel containing the remainder of the outlaw’s bones was discovered in 1950, speculation continued to mount: Maybe the legends revolving around who Big Nose George actually was are true after all.
Rats in the Toilet. Maybe you have always harbored a bit of a secret fear of what could possibly be lurking in the toilet. Well, if you haven’t been before, you might start looking before you sit yourself down. 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. His 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. Unfortunately there have been multiple reports of unsuspecting children returning home with small baggies of crystal methamphetamine in their treat bags.
Murderous Medicine. 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 tamper-proof seals.
Webster’s Dictionary Made an Error. From 1934 through 1947, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary included an entry for a fabricated word: “dord,” defined as “density.” The error eventually was 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, 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.