Old Wives' Tales
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Legend: The family of a POW are reassured by letter sent by their son until they steam off the stamp and read what's written there.
Origins: The blood chilling tale of the "message under the stamp" dates to 1866, when it was set during the American Civil War. In those early days the maimed serviceman was a Confederate lad held in a northern prison camp. Under the stamp on the letter home to his momma was found the first grisly message: "My God! They've cut out my tongue."
Though the oldest sighting on record, it's by no means the only one. In common with a number of atrocity rumors, old tales of horror and vilification are revamped to fit new circumstances as different enemies and conflicts arise. Witness the following British telling from 1918, gathered near the end of World
[Jacobson, 1948]Though stunned by the story, the clergyman had the sense to realize the tale was an obvious fake. He knew prisoners' letters bore no stamps. Had the apocryphal boy sent such a message, there wouldn't have been a stamp under which to hide such a communication.
A clergyman was seated in a local restaurant. Opposite him at the table a stranger recited the rumor with all the drama and dogma of a religious fanatic.
"This friend of mine's boy," the stranger at first confided, "is in a Boche prison camp. He sends a letter home and tells how things are all right with him and all that. It seems he likes everything, even the stamp on the letter. That stamp, he tells his ma, is a rare one and she ought to soak it off for little Alf's stamp collection."
"Now," the stranger revealed, "they ain't got no little Alf in the whole family. But my friends does what their boy says. They steam off the stamp."
The stranger's eyes glistened. His lips became thin and taut as he said, "Underneath the stamp they find a message that the boy couldn't put in the letter."
The man seemed completely overcome by the emotional impact of his own story. His voice became shrill and each word was emphasized as though he wanted everyone within earshot to keep it in his mind forever. "It says," he went on, "they've torn out my tongue!"
Around the same time the "Little Alf" tale was being used in England to focus hatred upon the Germans, the same story was circulating in Germany about the Russians. In that version, a boy from Munich locked up in a Russian prisoner of war camp conveyed a gruesome message to his mother by hiding it under the stamp. His revelation read, "They have cut off my feet so I cannot escape."
Atrocity rumors fall into disuse during times of peace but spring up like mushrooms after a rain once the clouds of war again roll in. In 1942, during WWII, this same basic story again hit the trail in Britain. Sometimes the letter was received by a father. Sometimes it had come to a wife. And the messages sometimes read, "They are starving us" or "They have cut off my ears" or "They have pierced my eyes" or "They have cut off my hands." In the United States, it was told about an American serviceman who had been captured by the Germans or the Japanese.
What we have here is a typical atrocity rumor, a handy device used to vilify the guys on the other side of the battle line and thus make the idea of killing them in combat all that more palatable. By portraying the enemy as unredeemably cruel and heartless, the other guys are rendered into cartoon figures who it is okay to hate. Maybe you might not be capable of bayoneting a 28-year-old man with two small children at home, a wife he loves, and a mortgage he sweats to meet the payments on every month, but turn him into a slavering killer who chops the hands off helpless prisoners, dashes the heads of newborn babies against walls, rapes nuns, and crucifies priests, and killing him almost becomes a sacred duty. Such is the purpose of these blood-boiling tales. They help convince the army in the field to fight like the Devil, and they help convince the civilian population back home that being in this war is the right thing to do.
Atrocity rumors are never new; they are merely retooled as circumstances change. In the
[Columbia Journalism Review, 1992]A few babies did die during that conflict, but as a result of needed supplies not reaching hospitals, not because enemy soldiers threw them to the floor and left them to die there.
"I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns. They took the babies out of the incubators
Nayirah's testimony came at a time when Americans were wondering how to respond to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on
As many are now aware, the incubator story was the centerpiece of a massive public relations campaign conducted by Hill and Knowlton [a PR firm] on behalf of a group called Citizens for a Free Kuwait, for a fee of
Only someone with a very long memory would recall that similar "soldiers kill babies" rumors had been kited during numerous conflicts in the past. For example, in the 1600s the English were likewise inflamed by lurid tales of Irish atrocities. They were told how the Irish
Women, children, and clerics are often cast in the victim's role in this form of rabble rousing. Which should not be all that surprising; the object is, after all, vilification, and that is best accomplished by pitting the most helpless and appealing of innocents against the most vicious and vile of oppressors.
In World War I, one of the most widespread rumors of this type concerned Belgian children maimed by German soldiers. Officials of the Catholic Society were said to have seen with their own eyes members of the German soldiery chop the arms off countless babies even as the tots clung to their mothers' skirts. A horrific extension of the rumor had German soldiers afterwards feasting on these severed limbs.
Sometimes the tale was presented unvarnished (as above) as a one- or
[Jacobson, 1948]Like all the other atrocity rumors, there were no handless Belgian tots. All efforts to locate even one such child failed miserably. Yet as a rumor, it was unparalleled in the way it spread and the frissons of horror it sent clawing up the spines of all who heard it.
And in many cases, the story was enlarged upon, as for instance the harrowing anecdote of a prominent woman who was visiting a home for Belgian refugees in Paris and came upon a little girl, no more than ten years old. The room the child was in was rather warm but still the girl kept her hands in a pitifully worn little muff. "Mamma," she said, "please blow my nose for me."
The prominent woman who was standing by is then supposed to have said, half laughingly but somewhat sternly, "A big girl like you can't use her handkerchief?"
The sad-faced little girl made no reply. But slowly the mother turned her head toward the visitor and in a dull, matter-of-fact tone said, "She has not any hands now, ma'am."
The woman visitor shuddered. "Can it be that the
Atrocity rumors are as old as the hills, and you should be on the lookout for them during times of international strife and lines being drawn in the sand. Yes, it's true man's inhumanity to his fellow man is boundless and that verifiable atrocities have been committed during numerous conflicts, but even so, it seldom pays to believe all the vilification tales passed wildly around during the
War is serious business. The decision to engage in it or not cannot be taken lightly and should never be dictated by deliberate rumormongering. Though protection of the weak is a noble and worthy ideal, no one should be in favor of seeing the blood of his loved ones spilled in protection of the fictional.
Barbara "cattle hymn of the republic" Mikkelson
Last updated: 2 August 2007
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