10 Urban Legends & Myths

10 Urban Legends & Myths

 

The Whitechapel Murders

The Whitechapel Murders and the mysterious entity committing them are perhaps one of the most famous examples of an Urban Legend in London’s history. The acts of serial murder committed throughout late 1888 paint an unnerving image of a man capable of dismembering corpses with eery efficiency sneaking around the streets of Victorian London at night as he selects his next victim. ‘Jack The Ripper’ was never found or arrested, but several individuals were potentially tied to the mysterious entity – his nickname ‘the ripper’ came from the way he left the victim’s bodies.

The criminal case of Jack the Ripper / © SZ Photo

Part of Jack’s notoriety came from the nature of his murders. Each of the victims were prostitutes from around Whitechapel in central London. While there was no definite way to tie all the murders together, as time passed the public began to recognise a single person responsible due to the drastic nature of the killings and the method in which they were carried out. ‘The Canonical five’ is the colloquial name given to the recognised victims of Jack from this time, though other murders from the same period have also been attributed.

 

Bloody Mary

‘Bloody Mary’ is a well-known urban legend made popular in contemporary culture by schoolchildren in the UK and parts of the US. The spirit of Queen Mary I is said to appear if an individual looks into a mirror in a darkened room and states her name three times. The ghostly apparition reputedly appears behind the individual looking into the mirror, and can take a variety of forms including a skeleton, witch, corpse or spirit, which can depend upon how she is addressed – taunting her because of her miscarriages and false births can result in the spirit appearing to claw ones’ eyes out!

Queen Mary I (1516-58) of England (oil on panel), Mor, Anthonis van Dashorst (Antonio Moro) (c.1519-1576/77) (after) / Château de Versailles, France

The Bloody Mary folklore in its original form was slightly less macabre, but remains rather sinister. Young girls were told to walk up a flight of stairs backward in a dimly lit house while wielding a mirror – if done correctly the woman may have a chance of seeing her future husbands’ face. There was a chance she may instead see a skull – which indicates that she will die before she marries.

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The Black Dog

The Black Dog is perhaps one of the lesser-known elements of folklore from the British Isles. Throughout history – with the earliest recordings dating back to 1127 – several ‘black dog’ type apparitions have been observed, each demonstrating varying levels of aggression. Typically, encounters are short lived and supposedly indicate the upcoming death of those unlucky enough to spot one, though some dogs have been known to be benevolent in temperament.

Ghost dog
Ghost dog, Howat, Andrew (20th Century) / Private Collection / © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

Encounters typically occur on old pathways, the sites of medieval public executions, crossroads, and in isolated countryside locations – for example on moors. Black Shuck is the name of a supposedly reappearing Black Dog whose presence marks immediate danger – it is said to have a single, glowing red eye, and be of an unnaturally large size.
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The Loch Ness Monster

Originally brought to the world’s attention in 1933, The Loch Ness Monster is a popular element of Scottish folklore and an urban legend. Though its existence is highly unlikely, some individuals do believe there really could be a large monster lurking in the loch.

Loch Ness Monster, said to be the head & neck of “Nessie.” 1934, Robert K. Wilson, in Loch Ness, Scotland. Featured in the 1976 film, “Mysterious Monsters.” / Everett Collection

Apart from a few grainy photographs showing a small, dinosaur-esque head poking out of the lake on a long neck (sometimes ‘humps’ reputedly the body of the creature, are visible), and a few small video clips there is very little evidence to support this phenomenon – and yet, people can’t seem to let this strange little theory go.

 

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The Curse of the Pharaohs

When the Tomb of Tutankhamen was opened in February 1923, Howard Carter and Lord Carnavron had  sparked a new age of Egyptology in the 20th century. Tutankhamen’s tomb was unique for several reasons, primarily because it did not resemble a typical Pharaoh’s tomb. It was far too small and not decorated enough, almost appearing as if it was rushed or had been intended for a private individual. The only decorated chamber was that which held his sarcophagus. Two of his four shrines had been left sealed – his tomb hadn’t been opened since the days of antiquity, which also made it unique.

The burial chamber in the Tomb of Tutankhamen, New Kingdom (photo), Egyptian 18th Dynasty (c.1567-1320 BC) / Valley of the Kings, Thebes, Egypt / Bridgeman Images

In April 1923, Lord Carnavron died from an infected Malaria wound which he had first received while in Egypt. Several other members of the original exploration team died in the months following the tomb’s opening but this was merely coincidence. However, it was enough to spark rumours that the tomb was cursed, which the horror movie industry promptly clung to for several years. In reality, some tombs were ‘cursed’ to ward off would-be grave robbers as noted on hieroglyphics – but Tutankhamen’s tomb wasn’t one of them.

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Spring-Heeled Jack

Spring-heeled Jack is by far the lesser known of the two macabre Jacks terrorising Victorian London. Spring-heeled Jack preceeded Jack The Ripper and was promptly forgotten once the serial killings became evident. This entity featured in articles and newspapers of 1897 after several sightings in which he appeared, typically in a scary or frightening manner, before attempting to harm the victim – then fleeing when authorities arrived. In terms of his physical appearance, descriptions varied from witness to witness.

Spring-heeled Jack, the terror of London. / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images

Some described him as looking like a gentleman, but most saw a devilish creature, not unlike a man but possessing glowing, fiery eyes, metallic artificial claws, a long black cape and a black helmet – sometimes with horns. His moniker was given to him due to the way he travelled – his unnaturally high jumping ability was his usual method of appearance and escape. Originally encountered in suburban London, sightings then occurred all over the UK, notably in the midlands and Scotland. In the 1910’s appearances began to fade and he made his way into fictional popular culture, owing to his unusual appearance.

 

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The Yeti

The ‘Yeti’ or ‘Sasquatch’ is an ape-like entity, variations of which have been sighted in a selection of desolate areas of Earth – most notably in snowy Tibetan mountains and in deep, American woodland. Sasquatch has been depicted not unlike an upright gorilla, but far larger and with stature more akin to a human being. The Yeti is depicted primarily as white or grey, and is noted as dwelling in the Himalayan region between Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet.

China / Tibet: Tibetan mural showing two ‘migo’ or yeti, one on the right consuming a human being, c. late 19th century / Pictures from History / Bridgeman Images

This creature is where the notion of an ‘abominable snowman’ comes from, and sightings date from the pre-19th century up until around the 1980s. DNA from supposed sections of this creature closely match that of certain types of bear, and in some cases apes. Its existence is usually defined as legend as there is so little evidence to support it.

 

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Alligators in the Sewers

The ‘Sewer Alligators’ myth implies that Alligators have, for some time been living in the underground sewer system beneath New York – a climate which is far too cold for Alligators in the winter months. However, this myth has persisted, probably because of its proximity to the everyday life of all those working and living in New York today.

Men working in the W. 129th Street sewer, New York, c.1911 (b/w photo), Hassler, William Davis (1877-1921) / Collection of the New-York Historical Society, USA / Bridgeman Images

The story begins in the late 1950s, when wealthy families who had visited Florida had brought live baby Alligators to the city as pets from the state. Upon realising that these small reptiles became much larger, aggressive creatures – not at all suitable as pets – they promptly flushed the babies down toilets and into drains. The Alligators supposedly thrive and breed down there, and occasional rumoured sightings keep the legend going strong. In 2017, an adolescent Alligator was found in a Florida storm drain.

 

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Will-o-the Whisp

The Will-o-the Whisp is the most commonly used name for a series of light apparitions apparently observed in a variety of desolate, countryside locations across the UK, Netherlands and Germany, often attributed to the existence of fairies, and frequently described as malevolent or misleading. They were frequently observed hovering over bogs, lakes or marshes.

Will-o-the-Whisp (w/c on paper), Bell, Robert Anning (1863-1933) / Private Collection / Photo © Peter Nahum at The Leicester Galleries, London / Bridgeman Images

These apparitions are said to lead nighttime travellers astray and off the beaten track, upon which they aren’t seen again. The Whisps are also known as Ghost Lights in  American and Asian versions of the same tale of travellers being led astray, though here the creatures take the form of demons, devils or spirits. The character of the mischievous fairy is said to have inspired Shakespeare’s Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

 

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The Pied Piper

The well-known Pied Piper story has its origins in 1284, in Hamelin, Germany, when the town was suffering from a plague brought about by an infestation of rats. Famously, the Piper, dressed in ‘pied’ (multicoloured) clothing appeared and led the rats away with a tune played on his flue – for an agreed fee. Following this, the people of Hamelin backed down on the agreed fee, and the Piper furiously demanded revenge.

The Pied Piper and the Children, (pen and black ink and watercolour, laid on card), Rackham, Arthur (1867-1939) / Private Collection / Photo © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images

In the same month he returned and, in the same manner as he had done with the rats, led away all the town’s children – apart from three. A disabled child, who couldn’t walk, a deaf child, who could not hear the music, and a blind child, who couldn’t see where he was going. The truth to the legend has several, rather dark theories, though the most commonly claimed is that the majority of the town’s children perished in a plague, which was brought about by rats.

 

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