Claim: An elephant sits on and squashes a little red car, and the drivers have a hard time getting the police to believe their story.
A nun had been to visit Benson’s Animal Farm (a local attraction) and had parked her Volkswagen bug in the parking lot. While she was there, an elephant escaped. While it was being chased, it backed into the nun’s car, doing quite a bit of damage. However, the car was still able to be driven.
Later that day, the nun was driving through the Callahan Tunnel (in Boston, and known for its traffic snarls). There was bumper-to-bumper traffic, and another car lightly hit the nun’s Volkswagen.
A nearby policeman stopped, and everyone got out of their cars. The man driving the car at fault said he could not have done so much damage, since he only barely touched the nun’s car. She agreed, saying the damage had been done by an elephant earlier in the day. The upshot was that the nun got hauled into the police station on suspicion of drunken driving.
A lady driver in Vancouver has genuine cause to wail about her streak of bad luck a few days ago. First, a circus elephant wandered out of its enclosure and sat down for a rest on top of the lady’s new sedan. (It was red, the elephant’s owner explained later, and this particular elephant just loved to sit on red sedans.) Anyhow, the car, though considerably squashed, was still able to navigate, and the lady headed it toward the nearest garage.
On the way she ran into a traffic jam caused by a crash. The cops and the ambulance arrived on the scene just about the time she did and immediately assumed that she was part of the accident. “No, no,” she assured them, “I had no part in this crash. The reason my car is squashed is that an elephant just sat on it.”
So they wrestled her into the ambulance and into an emergency ward to examine her for shock and head injuries.
- Who the incident happens to varies from telling to telling. The victim can be a nun, one or two women or men, or a family.
- The vehicle is usually described as a small one, with a Volkswagen being by far the most popular choice. Often the car is described as red, and sometimes the story includes a further detail that the stool the beast was accustomed to sitting on was this very color.
- British versions sometimes begin with a supposed accident claim submitted to an insurance company. Either the driver says he was following a circus parade when a train whistle startled an elephant into sitting down on his car, or that while going through a wild animal park his car was savaged by an unfriendly pachyderm. In both stories, the shaken driver stops at a pub for a drink to calm his nerves, and thus afterwards fails the sobriety test administered by the gendarmes.
- Two main versions of the tale exist. In one, a circus elephant mistakes the little red car for the stool he’s used to resting upon during his act and sits on it, usually while the car’s occupants are elsewhere. In the other, the trunk of an adventurous pachyderm explores the inside of the car through an open window while the occupants are driving through a wild animal park — they crank the window shut upon his trunk, and in an attempt to free himself, he stoves in the side of the car. However the story starts out, it always ends with an encounter later in the day between the driver and the police; the police understandably don’t believe the driver’s explanation of what happened to his car.
Origins: As evidenced by the second example quoted above, print sightings of this legend have been with us since 1970. In 1971
Chronicle columnist Herb Caen mentioned that this silly tale appears to surface whenever circus time draws near. In other words, when there be elephants about, this story puts in an appearance.
In 1975 an intrepid New York Times reporter attempted to find the source of the tale by tracking back the chain of people through which it had filtered down to him. As is typical with tracing FOAF (friend of a friend) chains, what started out looking like a simple task ended up being anything but. Though he never seemed to be more than one step away from hearing the facts straight from the horse’s mouth, each time he managed to contact the person named as the one whose car had been crushed he was told, “I wasn’t the one; it was someone else’s cousin who had the encounter with the elephant.” Tired of locating people only to be sent on yet another leg of a wild goose chase, the reporter finally thought to contact the circus to ask them what they recalled of the accident. A circus official informed him nothing like that had happened there.
Moreover, he was told this apocryphal story had been kicking around for at least fifteen years before the most recent outbreak.
Key to our enjoyment of this legend is our picturing someone who was merely the victim of outrageous circumstances unsuccessfully trying to explain matters to the police even as he’s being hauled downtown. Especially in versions featuring a nun or a priest, the humor is in the incongruity of their being booked on suspicion of driving under the influence when all they were doing was telling the truth.
It’s not by happenstance that the car crusher is never any other sort of circus animal or wild creature. We joke about drinkers’ encountering pink elephants, so when they hear the car was done in by an elephant, the police jump to the conclusion that the driver must have been seeing things in the throes of an alcohol-induced state. Change the elephant for, say, a rhino, and the police in this tale would be less likely to chalk matters up to pachyderms of the bottle and thus less likely to haul the poor protesting slob off to the hoosegow.
Barbara “elephantasy” Mikkelson
Sightings: You’ll find this legend in the 1976 Janwillem van de Wetering novel, The Corpse on the Dike. Also, the 1985 Australian film Bliss (based on a 1981 Peter Carey novel of the same name) has a scene in which a circus elephant sits on an old red Fiat.
Last updated: 2 August 2011
Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Choking Doberman. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. ISBN 0-393-30321-7 (pp. 58-61). Brunvand, Jan Harold. Too Good to Be True. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. ISBN 0-393-04734-2 (pp. 107-108). Buckley, Tom. “About New York: Once There Was an Elephant …” The New York Times. 5 May 1975 (p. 26). Cerf, Bennett. The Sound of Laughter. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1970 (pp. 336-337). Dale, Rodney. The Tumour in the Whale. London: Duckworth, 1978. ISBN 0-7156-1314-6 (pp. 135-137). de Vos, Gail. Tales, Rumors and Gossip. Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1996. ISBN 1-56308-190-3 (pp. 216-217). Smith, Paul. The Book of Nasty Legends. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983. ISBN 0-00-636856-5 (pp. 27, 71-72).
Also told in:
Healey, Phil and Rick Glanvill. Now! That’s What I Call Urban Myths. London: Virgin Books, 1996. ISBN 0-86369-969-3 (pp. 36-38). The Big Book of Urban Legends. New York: Paradox Press, 1994. ISBN 1-56389-165-4 (p. 32).