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Horning in on Gideon
Legend: Money is sometimes left in Gideon Bibles by Christians looking to reward the next tortured soul who turns to the Good Book for solace.
Origins: On my first morning as Mrs. Mikkelson I leafed through the Gideon Bible left in our hotel room and found within its pages a $100 bill.
I was beside myself. Ecstatic, in fact. I loudly celebrated this unmistakable
Sign Of Favor From Above for the next couple of hours . . . right up until I caught sight of an odd twinkle in my new husband's eyes.
It dawned on me I'd been had. And by a folklorist too.
I should have known I wasn't going to find money in that Bible — I'd been looking through them for years and hadn't so much as one extra dollar to show for all that hunting. But faith in a believed "fact" dies slow, and I had grown up "knowing" one might someday find money in a Gideon Bible. Altruistic evangelists, you know. They leave money in hotel Bibles as a reward for the next devout soul to turn to God in that room.
Altruistic evangelists do visit hotel rooms, but not to leave money in Bibles — they leave the Bibles themselves. The Gideons International was founded in 1899, and its primary function is distributing Bibles and New Testaments "in the human traffic lanes and streams of national life."
Gideons don't preach; they just leave Bibles. "We let the Bible do the work," said Raul Laughlin, who has been a Gideon since the 1930s. "We don't do anything with doctrine. We just offer the Bible to those who want it and ask them to read it. We're not obnoxious about it. Our objective is to win men and women to Christ by placing the Scriptures around the world."
And place them they have, to the tune of 45,000,000 Bibles annually in prisons, hospitals, military bases, and hotel rooms. Those Bibles are provided without charge, and although some do end up "taken" by those in need, none have ever been "stolen," according to the Gideons.
It wasn't the Gideons, however, who initiated the practice of leaving Bibles at the bedsides of travelers. That honor goes to the International Bible Society, a group founded in 1809. In 1823 — 77 years before the Gideons started their ministry — the IBS took to putting Bibles in hotels.
Though a weary traveller is guaranteed to find a great deal to treasure in his bedside Bible, his enrichment is unlikely to come in the form of cold,
hard cash. Hotel housekeepers do a thorough job of cleaning up after departed guests and making ready for new visitors, and they keep an eye out for items — including cash — left behind by the previous tenant.
But maids aren't perfect and might on occasion forget to shake out the Bible, so maybe it pays to keep looking.
Truthfully, if you ever did find money stashed in a hotel Bible, it's much more likely to have come from someone who was trying to safeguard his loot from thieves then afterwards forgot it than from charity-driven Christians looking to reward those who turn to the Lord in a time of need. There are only so many places one can hide valuables in a hotel room, and the Bible is most of them.
You might not think the average person would be likely to forget money he's hidden, but it does happen surprisingly often. Indeed, forgetful travelers routinely leave behind all manner of items, big and small. Everything from eyebrow pencils and prescription drugs to packed suitcases and iguanas have been left in rooms by guests who failed to notice them before leaving. As an example of how common this behavior is, housekeepers in the 2,000-room Hyatt Regency Chicago find an average of 200 such items a month.
As for moolah, it's left in rooms much more often than one would think, and not always in small amounts.
Among those who stash things in hotel rooms, drunks are a breed apart and are thus deserving of special mention. Those who drink to excess routinely hide valuables, even when in the familiar safety of their homes. Many an alcoholic becomes paranoid when drinking, thus impelling him to toss rings into the coffee can, bury his watch in the soil around the rubber plant, and tuck his folding cash under the rug. The next morning he's just as likely not to remember hiding anything as he is to recall stashing any of it, if not precisely where.
- In 1995, a housekeeper for Hilton's Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach discovered $10,000 hidden under some sheets. (The money was turned over to her supervisor, who notified the police, and was eventually reunited with its rightful owner.)
In 1994 a group of Singapore hotels reported finding more than $1 million in cash and valuables left in its rooms over the previous twelve months.
As an alcoholic of my acquaintance once said, she very much wished to someday meet whoever took over her apartment because that lucky person must have been stumbling onto treasure troves for at least the next year.
A story related to our "money in the hotel Bible" legend turns up in a 1958 Reader's Digest. Though it's unclear whether it was presented as an anecdote or as a joke, it at least tells us the notion of stashing money in hotel Bibles goes back more than forty years:
Idly turning the pages of the Gideon Bible on the bedside table of my hotel room, I was amazed to find a crisp 20-dollar bill tucked between the pages.
In 2003 a reader sent us this take on the "money hidden in holy books" theme, saying it was a story that circulates periodically in the Jewish world:
Clipped to the bill was a note which read: "If you opened this book because you're discouraged, read the 14th Chapter of John. If you're broke and this would help, take it. If you had a fight with your wife, buy her a present. If you don't need it, leave it for the next fellow." The note was signed: "Just A Wayfaring Stranger."
But the punch came with the P.S. "On second thought, maybe you ought to take it down to the Mirror Room and try their martinis. That's the way I got this idea anyway!"
Someone is in the synagogue getting ready for prayers before the beginning of the Sabbath (when it's forbidden to carry money) and notices he has a $100 bill in his pocket. Figuring nobody would steal it if placed in an appropriate place, he opens up his copy of the Torah and leaves the bill under "Thou shalt not steal."
Though completely unrelated to Bibles or other holy books, the following 1992 tale does make use of the "cash reward left in a book" motif.
After the Sabbath, he opens up the book to that page and can't find the bill. Panicking, he starts leafing through it, and finds a $50 bill under "Love thy neighbor as thyself."
Those of us who have labored to obtain our Ph.D.s must sometimes wonder if anyone in the world can possibly be interested in the learned dissertation over which we have sweated, even though it is carefully filed in the library of the institution at which the degree was earned.
Another tale of similar import involves a mother and her daughter:
There is a story of the scholar who, years ago, produced a dissertation that was loudly hailed as the best written and most valuable in a generation. A copy was reverently placed in the library files and the scholar, as an experiment, placed a crisp $20 bill among its pages. Every year he returned to the library and took down the dissertation. Every year, it fell open to the stuffed page. Every year, the $20 bill was still there — untouched.
"When I was your age, my mother used to hide money around the house for me that I would find only if I performed my chores particularly well. One time when I was cleaning out the cupboards for her, I found $20 under the old shelf paper."
In a way, the untouched dissertation and shelf paper tales close the circle on this particular legend. Unlike the standard Gideon tale in which money is looked for but never found no matter how many Bibles are shook out, here a reward is actually left to be discovered by the first diligent soul to happen upon it, but none come.
"Wow; what a cool idea! Why didn't you ever do that with me?"
"But my dear, I have been."
If you're still in the mood for yet another "reward left in the Bible" tale, take a peek at our Treasure of the Sierra Padre page. As for me, I'm not quite done reflecting on my perfidious husband and my first day as his dupe, er, wife.
Only a few hours into the marriage, and I'd become the victim of an pseudo-ostensive action. (Ostension, to a folklorist, is the serendipitous process whereby real life sometimes imitates lore; a legend, in other words, spontaneously comes to life. Pseudo-ostension is the deliberate imitation of a known legend to perpetrate a hoax and thus fool people.)
Perhaps it's fitting I began the marriage on that foot. I've been wrestling with those devils ever since.
Barbara "pseudo wrestler" Mikkelson
The Gideons International
International Bible Society
Last updated: 8 August 2007
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- Asimov, Isaac. Asimov Laughs Again.
- New York: Harper-Collins, 1992. ISBN 0-06-016826-9 (p. 192).
- Leonhard, Mrs. J. F. "P.S. de Resistance."
- Reader's Digest. January 1958 (p. 100).
- Sauer, Mark. "Gideons Pass the Word to People on the Road."
- The San Diego Union-Tribune. 18 November 1984 (p. D1).
- Smith, Carol. "Check Hotel Room Before Checking Out."
- Los Angeles Times. 25 January 1996 (p. D7).
- The [Singapore] Straits Times. "Hotels Returned More Than $1m to Guests."
- 30 July 1994 (p. 24).