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Flood Control

Claim:   Thief drowns in submerged pool after looting the home of disaster victims.

LEGEND

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, 2005]

Lori works with a lady whose relatives live in Lakeview [Louisiana]. When they evacuated, they put all of their valuables, jewelry and things of that nature, up on the second floor of their home. When the water went down enough to walk through, one of the "brothers" looted the home and stuffed most of their valuables into a pillow case and went out the back. The water was probably at about 5 feet. The looter did not know about the in-ground pool in the yard and proceeded to walk into it. As luck would have it, he could not swim, was weighted down by the loot and drowned in the pool.

Last week, the home owners had a pool service come in to drain and clean the pool. They found the body at the bottom of the pool with the pillow case filled with their valuables. Just goes to show you, there is some justice out there.

Or, as my mother would say...
'Be sure your sins will find you out.'
 

Origins:   One popular genre of urban legendry is the "just deserts" tale, in which the criminal who preys on citizens and their Thief property is caught and punished — not just through ordinary police work, but because he is tripped up by his own greed, arrogance, or foolishness. After natural disasters that result in widespread loss of life and property, however, this type of legend takes a darker turn, and the punishment meted out to the lawbreaker correspondingly increases from capture to death. The last few major earthquakes in California, for example, have spurred versions of this type in which a car thief meets his maker when a section of freeway collapses atop him as he attempts to make off with a purloined vehicle.

The example cited above, coming in the wake of August 2005's Hurricane Katrina, presents all the same elements of those earlier earthquake tales: a natural disaster, a thief who helps himself to someone else's valuables, a criminal done in by the dynamic duo of Mother Nature and greed, and a corpse not found until well after the fatal event. In this case, just like the fable of the man (or monkey) who cannot extricate his hand from a jar until he lets go of the desired goods contained therein, the looter's plunder weighs him down and traps him at the
bottom of a flood-submerged pool — only this time there is no easy escape, and the thief perishes by drowning. (The reference to "brothers" also suggests the looter was black and thereby introduces an element of race found in other Katrina-related legends.)

Unless some key element is missing from this account (such as the looter's pillowcase full of booty was tied securely to him or stuffed into a backpack strapped around his body), this scenario doesn't sound plausible as a real-life event, as the thief could simply have let go the sack of valuables and floated free. We also note that this scenario is so timeworn that it was mentioned in a 1945 collection of "tired and tiresome plots which constantly turn up on editors' desks":
(30)   A man on the verge of starvation with some companions in a desert shoots his friends and takes what little food remains. All is well for a time. Unfortunately, in attempting to find his way to a settlement he becomes lost. For days he fights for his life. He plunges through the hot sand without losing hope. On the twentieth day, near sundown, he sees signs of human beings. He gropes his way toward them and finds — that he is back where he started.

(31)   The same story as the one just outlined, except that the killer is so loaded with gold that when he flops accidentally into a pool of water or a wild river he cannot swim. The gold pulls him down, and he drowns.
(The same basic plot shows up in literature well before the 20th century, as a similar fate also befalls Dunstan Cass, a character in George Eliot's 1861 novel Silas Marner, who steals Marner's gold but then falls into an abandoned quarry and drowns, with his body remaining undiscovered until years later.)

But of course, what's important here (in a folkloric sense) is not the anecdote's truthfulness, but the moral it expresses: Had the crook not taken advantage of others' misfortune and made off with their property, he wouldn't have lost his life. No one relishes the thought of being victimized in a crime, and compounding that distaste is the knowledge that all too often the perpetrators get away with their misdeeds. But in these legends, at least, the wrong-doers are brought to justice by their criminal actions.

Last updated:   5 September 2010

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Sources:

    Young, James.   101 Plots Used and Abused.
    Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1946   (pp. 14-15).