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Arm & Stammer

Claim:   A girl goes insane after a medical student slips a cadaver's arm into her bed as a practical joke.

LEGEND

Examples:

[Baughman, 1945]

This story took place in a hospital which was quite near Bowell, and concerned a nurse, called Jane in the story. For some reason Jane was unable to get along with the other nurses in the hospital, and was constantly quarrelling with people. They purposely did things to annoy her because they felt she deserved it. One night after Jane had been particularly trying, they decided to do something particularly unpleasant. One of the nurses on surgery duty agreed to bring an arm which had been amputated that day to Jane's room and slip it in her bed after she was asleep. They knew this would frighten her, but they thought perhaps it might force her to be more agreeable in the future.

The arm was carefully and quietly put in the bed and Jane did not wake up. The next morning she did not appear, and no sound came from her room. The nurses, thinking she might be sick, went to investigate. They opened the door slowly and saw Jane sitting on the bed. Her hair, which had been black, was now completely white, and she was gnawing on the arm, making low gurgling noises all the while.
 

[Smith, 1986]

A group of medical students were bored and so they tried to think of ways of livening things up. Eventually one had the idea of "borrowing" a human foot from the dissecting laboratory and putting it in his girlfriend's bed as a joke. She was also a medical student staying at the same hall of residence. The students "obtained" a human foot, went up to the girl's room and put it in her bed. They thought it would be fun to hear her reactions so they hid round the corner and waited for her to come home.

The student who had the key realised that he had left it in the door. However, before he could remove it the girl arrived back and, not thinking, unlocked the door with the key that was in the lock, took it in with her and locked the door on the other side.

A few moments later they heard her screaming and crying out. They ran to the door and tried to open it but it was locked. They shouted to her that it was alright but she continued screaming hysterically. At this point they decided to break down the door. However, it took them a while and they were relieved when the screaming subsided.

Finally, when they broke in and turned on the lights, they were horrified at what they found. The girl was sitting in the corner of the room with a glazed expression on her face eating the human foot. The practical joke had backfired and they had driven her mad.
 

[Collected on the Internet, 1999]

A medical student had secretly kept a arm of a corpse. He had taken it and put it secretly in his girlfriend's room. He and his roommate waited anxiously in another girl's room for the scream of horror from the soon returning girl.

A half hour passed and nothing happened. So the two roomies went into the girlfriends room . . .

There they found her on top of the cupboard actually eating the arm!
 

Variations:
  • Although the victim is usually female, how she comes to be in the story varies. Usually she's a nurse (in which case the tale is set in a nurses' residence), a medical student or resident, or the girlfriend of a medical student.
  • In an overwhelming number of tellings, the victim is portrayed as somehow deserving of the ill-treatment directed her way. She'll be described as an arrogant snob, a loner, a grind, a braggart, or a snoop.
  • The arm (sometimes foot) is most often left in the girl's bed, although some versions have it left swinging from the light cord or placed in a dresser drawer.
  • Invariably the practical joke goes horribly wrong, and the victim is discovered chewing on the arm. Some versions have the shock of the experience turning her hair white.
Origins:   This story was well known even back in the 1920s, proving yet again even the oldest of tales can send shivers down a reader's spine.

The "cadaver arm" stands apart from all other body-parts-used-in-a-prank stories because of the victim's reaction (madness) and the
expression of that reaction (she eats the arm). In the other tales of this genre, victims might faint, scream or even have heart attacks when they discover themselves in the presence of unattached body parts, but in none of them do they go mad. That fate is always reserved for the girl who finds an arm in her bed.

There are numerous "cadaver parts and medical students" legends in existence, with the typical plot of them being a corpse or its parts are shanghaied by a medical student (possibly with the help of his buddies) and used to scare the bejeezus out of people. Undoubtedly, some of these stories are true and the events as described did indeed happen at least a couple of times. However, it should be pointed out that most of these stories have long since passed into the realm of lore, with each new class of medical students being told this prank or that was played out right in this very medical school just last term. Some of the more common of these tales are:
  • A group of medical students makes off with a corpse's hand, carries it to a bus stop, boards a bus, and extends the hand with the fare in it to the driver.
  • A cadaver arm with a quarter in its upturned palm is extended to the toll taker at a booth a carload of medical students is stopped at. The unsuspecting toll taker is left holding the arm as well as the coin.
  • A medical student drops a stolen hand into an unsuspecting woman's shopping bag.
  • A student stands at a urinal seemingly taking a whiz. When another man comes to stand beside him, the student rips off 'his' penis and flings it into the bowl, announcing, "It never did work anyway" before marching off.
  • Medical students shake hands through a train window, leaving one holding the arm of the other, to the horror of the porters and everyone else on the platform.
  • A severed head wired for sound makes personal comments whenever someone walks into the dissection lab.
  • A cadaver is rigged with electrodes which cause it to jump and start whenever the light switch is flicked on, as the janitor discovers that night.
Believe it or not, there are reasons for these stories — they play an important role in the metamorphosis of medical students into doctors. The activities as described in cadaver stories represent a way for the student to prove he's triumphed over the cadaver, the confrontation and dissection of which we can imagine must have caused him no small grief. These legends also define medical students as a group apart from the rest in that they've had to handle dead bodies and parts thereof, and this has helped to foster in them the necessary emotional detachment for when they advance to doing the same things to living people. The boundaries between medical students and non-medical students are thus drawn, with the medical students choosing to self-define as emotionally tough and perhaps even a bit callous in the face of the demise of others. They exult in their detachment, celebrating it as proof they were meant to be doctors.

There's also an element of "whistling through the graveyard" in that fellow medical students are expected to laugh at these stories as a way of showing they are not now afraid of going hands on with mortality even if they're still quaking in their boots inwardly at the thought of touching the dead. The ability to find humor in the macabre is a way of (superficially at least) proving oneself tough enough to last in the medical profession. Failure to laugh at these stories is to risk being seen as a wimp by the rest of the group. Note that the same story told to outsiders is expected to prompt reactions of shock and disgust, further defining the difference between being a member of "us" and being one of "them."

Barbara "feint of heart" Mikkelson

Sightings:   This legend shows up in the 1972 M.E. Keer novel Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!

Last updated:   30 June 2011

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Sources:

    Bronner, Simon J.   Piled Higher and Deeper.
    Little Rock: August House, 1990.   ISBN 0-87483-154-7   (pp. 159-160).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Baby Train.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.   ISBN 0-393-31208-9   (pp. 315-317).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Curses! Broiled Again!
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.   ISBN 0-393-30711-5   (pp. 299-301).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good To Be True.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 116-117).

    Coffin, Tristam Potter and Hennig Cohen.   Folklore: From the Working Folk of America.
    Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1973.   ISBN 0-385-03874-7   (p. 28).

    Dale, Rodney.   The Tumour in the Whale.
    London: Duckworth, 1978.   ISBN 0-7156-1314-6   (pp. 76-78).

    de Vos, Gail.   Tales, Rumors and Gossip.
    Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1996.   ISBN 1-56308-190-3   (pp. 313-316).

    Dorson, Richard.   American Folklore.
    Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1959   (p. 259).

    Scott, Bill.   Pelicans & Chihuahuas and Other Urban Legends.
    St. Lucia, Queensland: Univ. of Queensland, 1996.   ISBN 0-7022-2774-9   (pp. 151).

    Smith, Paul.   The Book of Nastier Legends.
    London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.   0-7102-0573-2   (pp. 79-80).

Also told in:

    Holt, David and Bill Mooney.   Spiders in the Hairdo.
    Little Rock: August House, 1999.   ISBN 0-87483-525-9   (pp. 44-45).

    Schwartz, Alvin.   More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
    New York: HarperCollins, 1984.   ISBN 0-397-32081-7   (pp. 56-57).

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.
    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 210).