Fact Check


A long-circulating urban legend, "AIDS Mary," holds that a woman seduces men with the intent of infecting them with HIV.

Published Sept. 27, 2000

 (Millie Chung)
Image Via Millie Chung
The morning after a one-night fling, a man walks into his bathroom and finds the words “WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF AIDS” scrawled on the mirror in lipstick.

Commonly known as "AIDS Mary" or "AIDS Harry," this legend came into prominence in late 1986 and was as much an expression of the fears of that time as anything else. Though AIDS had been with us for years before that, it was only in the late 1980s that heterosexuals began to wake up to this Grim Reaper walking among them, not just their gay siblings:

Example: [Collected on the Internet, 1994]

A guy's friends throw him a 21st birthday party. They get him drunk and then a hotel room and a prostitute for his present. In the morning when this guy wakes up the prostitute is gone. When he goes to the bathroom, written on the mirror with lipstick is:


Mary, Mary!

(A related legend has it that madmen attack the unsuspecting with AIDS-tainted needles. See our Pin Prick Attacks page for more on this related myth.)

When the "AIDS Mary" legend began spreading, AIDS was a fearsome disease: once HIV-positive, the infected lived under a death sentence. That alone would frighten anyone, but tie this deadly disease to the usual apprehensions about sex with anyone (let alone strangers), and a cautionary urban legend results.

The legend speaks to our fears; as such, it's larger than life, complete with shocking messages of impending death callously delivered. In the "AIDS Mary" version (woman infects man), a fellow picks up a young lady for a one-night sexual encounter. Everything goes swimmingly, and he's quite pleased about the whole thing, until the next morning when he awakens to find her gone and the words "WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF AIDS" scrawled in lipstick on his bathroom mirror.

The "AIDS Harry" version (man infects woman) usually features a romance of some duration taking place in a faraway place. The depraved infector passes along his good news by way of a gift, which he asks his victim to unwrap once she's on the plane home. Depending upon where you hear this story, the gift will be a minature coffin (ceramic or wooden) or a coffee mug. Whichever item it is, it will invariably be emblazoned with the message "WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF AIDS."

Often given as the reason for the infector's rampage through the ranks of the previously untouched is the justification of his or her having caught the disease from a member of the opposite sex — now the entire gender will be made to pay. This cautionary tale warns against the dangers of promiscuity, but it also brings into play the fear of falling prey to a random act of violence at the hands of a madman.

There have been actual cases of the HIV-infected engaging in unprotected sex without first informing their partners of their condition. In the largest documented case of its kind, Darnell "Boss Man" McGee infected at least 18 women and girls. McGee, 28, had more than 100 known sex partners before he was slain in 1997 in an apparent robbery attempt. In 1998, authorities in New York said 17 people are believed to have HIV infections linked to Nushawn Williams. Such tragedies are real, but the stuff of legends, the deliberate infection of another as a way of exacting revenge on an entire sex has proved elusive to pin down.

Even so, there might be one real AIDS Mary to record on the pages of this legend's history.

In July 1998 HIV-positive Pamela Wiser of Lewisburg, Tennessee, was picked up by police on a tip from a man she'd slept with. Under questioning, she claimed over the previous year to have had sex with more than 50 men in an effort to take revenge for three years earlier having caught the disease from her then boyfriend. She claimed to have informed each of the men of her condition prior to engaging them in sexual activity.

Within a few days of her arrest, her story began to change. She revised the number of men exposed down from fifty to five. By the time her case came to trial in December, 1998, she had settled on 22 but then was asserting her motivation for sleeping with them stemmed from an inability to say no, not from any desire to cause harm.

Some of Wiser's former lovers testified she hadn't informed them she was HIV-positive and that, moreover, she outright denied the need for protection when directly asked. One of them has since tested positive for the disease.

In February, 1999, Wiser was sentenced to 26-1/2 years in prison.

Was the motivation revenge, an inability to say no, or something altogether different? Without cracking open her head and looking in, it's impossible to tell. Whichever way one calls the Wiser episode, it should be noted no lipsticked mirrors or teeny ceramic coffins played any part in the story.

The key difference between legend and real life goes to motivation. The real-life bad guys who don't give their partners a choice by informing them of the risks ahead of time are driven by denial (I'm not really sick; I'm not going to die), indifference (nobody looked out for me), or fear of loss of affection (she won't want me once she finds out about this), whereas the storybook ones are out to exact revenge for the wrong done them. It's the difference between a fiendish rifle-wielding madman cold-bloodedly picking off random freeway drivers, and a self-pitying fool carelessly weaving in and out of traffic, oblivious to the carnage he's causing around him — one is murdering with malice aforethought, and the other is indifferent to harm he might or might not be causing.

Speaking to the second variety, the 1992 the case of Roy Cornes captured worldwide attention. Dubbed the "AIDS Timebomb," he was accused of knowingly infecting at least four women (one of whom has since died, as has he). He maintained harming others was not his intent, his partners knew of his condition (a claim some of them disputed), and that in a couple of early cases he passed along the virus because he didn't yet understand what precautions to take, while in a later case, he and his fiancee were trying for a baby and she took the risks willingly.

We're tempted to dismiss his claims of how all this infecting came about, but then we're left scrambling for a reasonable explanation for his actions. Revenge on all women for one particular woman having given him the virus couldn't have been his motive, because he contracted HIV from blood tranfusions. (He was a hemophiliac). Depraved indifference, then?

Hardest of all to classify are the motivations of Gaetan Dugas, AIDS "Patient Zero." In 1980 this charming and handsome Canadian airline attendant was diagnosed with Kaposi's sarcoma (a type of skin cancer). Until his death in 1984, he continued to engage in episodes of unprotected sex with a variety of partners. These were the early days of AIDS (which incidentally didn't get its name until 1982), and what was going on, let alone how it was being transmitted, wasn't at all clear. Back then there was no strong central authority braying out messages that unprotected sex could kill or even that AIDS was communicated through sexual contact. In the absence of that, those with a mind to could well ignore what was slowly surfacing in the press or dismiss it as so much hooey.

Dugas appeared to move between denial that whatever he had could be transmitted sexually ("Of course I'm going to have sex. Nobody's proven to me that you can spread cancer"), depraved indifference to his partners' wellbeing ("It's their duty to protect themselves. They know what's going on out there. They've heard about this disease"), and a desire to take others with him ("I've got gay cancer. I'm going to die and so are you"). Possibly his rationale came down to something much simpler — he loved sex, if not his partners. Living under a death sentence, perhaps he was determined to enjoy his last moments on earth, and consequences be damned.

The spectre of the vengeful AIDS carrier looms far larger than the real cases of those whose indifference led them to infect others. In 1995 an Irish priest shocked his congregation with the tale of an HIV-positive woman who had slept with up to 80 young men across four southern Irish counties in a deliberate attempt to infect as many as possible with the deadly AIDS virus. The priest said he had personally traced about 25 of the men, and that five had tested positive for HIV. Scary stuff indeed, and who would doubt the word of a priest?

Months went by, and although parishioners continued to take the roman-collared vector's word as gospel, health officials could find nothing to substantiate the priest's claims. Indeed, speaking to his credibility, a follow-up article about this man made mention of another improbable tale he was now spreading:

Six months later, he is still the local hero. The latest story about Father Michael Kennedy, curate of Dungarvan, Co Waterford, is that he saved a woman's life recently. Apparently, he made a late night house call to an elderly woman. There was no reply at the door and he called the gardai. They broke in and found her collapsed on the floor with hypothermia.

It did not make the papers but most people in town have heard about it. The gardai in Dungarvan have no record of it, but that does not mean it did not happen, they say.

In other words, this is one yarn spinner of a holy man.

At least one criminal tried to use the gist of the 'AIDS Mary' legend as part of his legal defense. In his trial for the 1990 murder of Linda Hoberg, Jeffrey Hengehold claimed he'd met the victim in a bar and had sex with her later that night; as they were parting, she said, "Welcome to the world of AIDS." He then proceeded to beat her to death.

Though Hengehold claimed this was his motive for the murder, there was no evidence to prove it one way or the other. Hengehold had cremated Hoberg's body, making it impossible to determine if she'd had AIDS, and he himself never tested positive for HIV.

The laws of most countries are inadequate when it comes to assessing and penalizing the crime of knowingly transmitting a deadly disease, but at least one of them is moving in the right direction. Britain is even now trying to reform laws to cover this form of assault. Changes are in the works that would result in an HIV-infected person who tried to pass on the virus out of malice being charged with grievous bodily harm with intent, and those who simply failed to take proper precautions charged under the lesser offence of causing grievous bodily harm.

Sightings:   Scary legends also make great movie plots, so it should come as no surprise this legend showed up as the plot of the 1992 German movie Via Appia. (An airline steward has a one-night fling. He wakes the next morning to find his partner gone and "Welcome to the AIDS Club" written in soap on his mirror.) The plot of an HIV-positive man deliberately trying to infect as many women as possible was also used for an episode of TV's Law & Order ("Carrier", originally broadcast 1 April 1998).


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