Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Legend: Subway passenger who fixes another rider with an unrelenting stare is revealed to be dead.
Example: [Collected via e-mail, 2003]
Origins: "Dead man on the subway" stories are nothing new; they've been part of the urban legend landscape for more than half a century. This ancient tale is periodically dusted off and circulated anew, always as an actual account of a recent and local event, one that often includes a narrow escape for the one unwittingly confronted by the deceased.
A 1933 newspaper article about "Manhattan folk-tales" says "almost anyone you meet these days knows someone whose cousin's uncle was the employer of the girl who figured in the corpse-in-the-subway incident," which tells us that even at that long-ago date, the legend had been kicking about for a bit.
This scary legend appears in a 1947 collection of such tales, on that occasion framed as a story wherein a forbidding-looking older woman rescues a man from the clutches of the two murderers who are transporting their victim on a New York subway. Commenting on that version, the editor of a 1954 compilation which included this tale said this story "has drifted about New York for decades, not changing very much, though sometimes Wesson [the rescued man] is a young girl, the old lady an old gentleman, and so on."
In 1948, David Jacobson, a collector of contemporary lore, offered a markedly different version of the basic tale:
There is one wondrous rumor that periodically plagues New York City newspapermen. It is known as the Dead-Man-in-the-Subway tale, a story about an unfortunate fellow whose corpse is always sitting upright in a train and whose expressionless eyes are always focused fixedly on a woman passenger across the aisle. As the train races from station to station, the woman of the rumor becomes increasingly annoyed by the brazen stare. Finally she rushes over and smartly slaps the cadaver's face. With this, the dead man rolls out of the seat and onto the floor — quite naturally as a terrific shock to all; to those whom the rumor places directly in the subway car at the alleged time and to those people who experience the horror of the incident indirectly via the whisper.In the Jacobson narrative, there are no murderers propping up the dead guy, thus no immediate threat that requires the swift intervention of a helpful stranger to pull the endangered woman to safety and explain the macabre situation to her. The rescuing Samaritan thus does not appear in that form of the tale, as the need for him is not present in the story. Instead, the woman discovers through her own actions (by slapping the corpse's face) that she is being confronted by a dead
"Dead man on the subway" tales are a way of simultaneously expressing both disquiet over the impersonal nature of life in heavily populated urban centers (one could be riding the subway with practically anybody; it's not like big city life is conducive to getting to know one's neighbors, let alone relying upon them to watch out for one's interests in times of crisis) and unease over the possibility that life in such an impersonal environment will someday result in a confrontation with violence (the subway rider does, after all, have an encounter with a murder victim and the ones put him in that condition). It's a legend we tell not because it's true, but because it expresses in the form of a story emotions that we would otherwise be hard pressed to put into words.
Dead people have been discovered on public conveyances, which works to confirm a key part of the legend, namely, that life in some areas has become so impersonal that it's possible to pass away in the middle of a crowd and not have anyone notice. In 1999, 37-year-old Ignacio Mendez expired on a New York subway during the morning rush yet was not discovered until hours later. "He was found sitting up, his head slightly tilted down, eyes closed looking like a typical rider taking a catnap before his stop" reported the
Barbara "subways and means" Mikkelson
Last updated: 5 July 2007
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