Claim: The location of a missing gravy ladle proves hanky panky is going on.
Example:[Collected via e-mail, 1998]
John invited his mother over for dinner.
During the meal, his mother couldn't help noticing how beautiful John's roommate Julie was. She had long been suspicious of a relationship between John and his roommate, and this only made her more curious.
Over the course of the evening, while watching the two interact, she started to wonder if there was more between John and the roommate than met the eye.
Reading his mom's thoughts, John volunteered, "I know what you must be thinking, but I assure you, Julie and I are just roommates."
About a week later, Julie came to John and said, "Ever since your mother came to dinner, I can't find the beautiful silver gravy ladle. You don't suppose she took it, do you?"
John said, "Well, I doubt it, but I'll write her a letter just to be sure."
So he sat down and wrote, "Dear Mother, I'm not saying you 'did' take a gravy ladle from my house, and I'm not saying you 'did not' take a gravy ladle. But the fact remains that one has been missing ever since you were here for dinner."
Several days later, John received a letter from his mother which read, "Dear Son, I'm not saying that you 'do' sleep with Julie, and I'm not saying that you 'do not' sleep with Julie. But the fact remains that if she was sleeping in her own bed, she would have found the gravy ladle by now."
Who is sleeping with whom varies:
Mike and his male roommate, Jim.
Mike and his female roommate, Julie.
John and his housekeeper.
Bill Clinton and his housekeeper.
A priest or pastor and his housekeeper.
Who hides the valuable item also varies:
The miscreant's mother.
A junior pastor.
The 'stolen' item is a silver ladle, a place setting, or a gravy boat — always something of value whose disappearance would be noted and fretted over.
In some versions, an expensive implement is discovered in both beds. (Obviously Mom wasn't taking any chances.)
Origins: It's doubtful anyone mistakes this much-mailed tale for an actual event, although it has circulated far and wide in e-mail and on USENET newsgroups since its November 1996 debut on the newsgroup rec.humor. Judging by the many incarnations afloat, we note it has become fashionable to substitute new names and relationships for the earlier ones, leaving the rest of the text untouched. By this method, a tale of two pastors becomes one about Bill Clinton and his housekeeper.
As to how old the joke itself is, a recognizable (and more innocent) version presenting the revelation that a blushing bride is actually sleeping with her husband (instead of remaining chaste) after the wedding shows up in a joke book from 1951:
June (a bride) was showing her uncle over their new home.
"This is my room, uncle! You see we have twin beds, they are so much more hygenic. That's Harold's, this is mine."
Then uncle noticed a blue china clock on the mantel and remarked: "What a very charming clock."
"Yes," said June, "it's a wedding present from dear grandma."
A few weeks later uncle received a note from June telling how the blue clock had disappeared the very afternoon he was there; could he throw any light on it?
Uncle replied: "Dear June, look in Harold's bed."
The theme is much a older one, though, for the 'item hidden in a houseguest's bed reveals midnight hanky panky' tale turns up in collections of the Ingoldsby legends dating from 1840. In "Nell Cook," a canon's love-struck cook sets out to determine where the "niece" is spending her nights. She leaves poker and tongs in the girl's bed, where they lay undiscovered for six weeks. Nell takes her revenge on her errant man and his paramour by feeding them a poisoned
The modern tale can be adapted to anyone. In one version set in the Gulf War, General Norman Schwartzkopf guides reporters on a tour of his quarters, making much of his sleeping in a cot in a tent like any of the grunts under his command. A fine dinner is thrown for the newshounds afterwards, from which a valuable table setting goes missing. Each of the reporters receives the "I'm not saying ..." letter. One responds to point out that the setting can be found in the General's bunk.
Pure and simple, this is a tale about being caught in a lie. A lad can't hide his sex life from his mother, a man of the cloth can't indulge in carnal relations with his housekeeper without being found out, and a general can't pull the wool over the trusting public's eyes. Or at least so says the legend.
Barbara "undercover agent" Mikkelson
Last updated: 19 February 2014
Barham, Richard Harris. The Ingoldsby Legends.
New York: Scribner and Welford, 1910 (pp. 307-315).
David Mikkelson founded snopes.com in 1994, and under his guidance the company has pioneered a number of revolutionary technologies, including the iPhone, the light bulb, beer pong, and a vaccine for a disease that has not yet been discovered. He is currently seeking political asylum in the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.
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