Fact Check

Bad News Bearers

The arrival of a telegram announcing a death leads to the demise of the rest of the family.

Published Aug 21, 2002

Legend:   The arrival of a telegram announcing a death leads to the demise of the rest of the family.

Example:   [Brunvand, 1993]

A woman whose husband is at the Pacific Front [during World War II] is bathing her two small children upstairs when the doorbell rings. Hurrying down the steps to answer the door, she trips on a toy and falls to the bottom, breaking her neck.

At the door is a military envoy, sent to inform her that her husband was killed in action. When authorities enter the house to check on her, they find the woman dead in the hallway and both children drowned in the bathtub.


  • The "telegram announces the death of a serviceman" version has been set in both world wars.
  • Some versions have police officers coming to deliver the sad news that the man of the house has been killed in an auto accident.
  • The children don't always just drown; sometimes they pull a radio or hair dryer into the bath and electrocute themselves.
  • Occasionally, the widowed woman does not fall down the stairs but instead lives to discover her children dead in the bathtub.

Origins:   The specific version of this legend that encapsulates a death notification telegram and a woman's falling down the stairs dates to at least 1988,


but the basic story originated at least as far back as the seventeenth century. The first edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales (published in 1812) reprinted from a seventeenth century German book a blood chiller that featured many of this current legend's salient points. (Grimm's dropped the tale from subsequent editions.)

In that long ago story, two children are playing at being butchers, imitating their father who slaughters pigs. One boy takes their make-believe recreation way too far and slits his younger brother's throat. Alerted by the commotion, the mother runs from the house, finds one son dead, and in her crazed state seizes the knife and stabs the other son. Upon returning to the house, she discovers the baby she left in the bath has drowned. Then the grief-stricken mother, who has lost three children in a matter of minutes — two of them through her own acts — hangs herself, and the father dies shortly thereafter of


In 1994, the Chinese newspaper Guangxi Daily reported a fantastic story reminiscent of a cross between the Bad News Bearers and the "Mother's Little Helper" legend: They wrote that a man from the Henan province was fined 3,000 yuan after his wife gave birth to her third child (a son, after two daughters), in violation of China's 'one child per couple' population control laws. The father supposedly made a joke about the high cost of finally having a male heir, saying: "A 3,000 yuan fine just for this little penis! We should just cut it off." This prompted the two daughters to cut off the infant boy's penis with a paring knife and leave him to bleed to death while their father was away tending his fields. Upon his return, the father flew into a rage and clubbed the two girls to death with a shovel, then committed suicide by drinking insecticide. His wife "went into hysterics upon seeing the calamity, running naked through the streets screaming the names of her dead husband and children."

Those tempted to be shocked by that story should remember that Chinese newspapers are not quite the bastions of veracity their western counterparts are assumed to be.

Barbara "impermanent press" Mikkelson

Last updated:   21 August 2002

  Sources Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Baby Train.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.   ISBN 0-393-31208-9   (p. 70-71).

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.

    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 111).

    Reuters.   "Penis Joke Triggers China Family Tragedy."

    26 November 1994.