Claim: A motorist who has a run-in with ruffians afterwards finds the severed fingers of his assailants caught on his car.
My brother Alan tells me about a young man who owned a Volkswagen “beetle” car, who took his girl friend to a drive-in movie. During the performance four young men in a old Falcon next to them, who were drinking heavily, were using shocking language loudly while discussing the story line of the picture. The young man remonstrated with them, at their use of bad language in the presence of his lady friend, to be met with torrents of abuse.
When the show was over, these louts all got out of their car and advanced on him. He hastily wound up the windows of his car, started the engine, and locked the doors. He was about to drive off, when three of the young men lifted the back of his car into the air, thereby robbing the wheels of traction, while the fourth tried to force the door open.
The young man panicked, engaged low gear, and revved the motor. Eventually the weight of the car proved too much, it was dropped to the ground, and the spinning wheels carried it off with a tremendous jerk, leaving the larrikins behind. When the young man got home he found three bloody fingers jammed behind the rear bumper.
A driver approaching the motorway slip road around dusks sees, ahead of him in the half light, two hitch-hikers. As it is raining he decides to stop and pick them up. However, when he gets closer and has slowed down he changes his mind for they are two very large and ill-dressed men and he does not like the look of them. As he accelerates to drive away, one of the men lashes out at the car with a large chain he has hidden. Terrified, and not at this point caring about any damage to the car, the driver speeds away down the motorway as fast as he can go.
It is only when he stops at a service station that he has an opportunity to inspect the car for damage and, to his surprise, he discovers the assailant’s chain wrapped around the rear bumper. When he comes to remove the offensive weapon, to his horror, he finds, tightly fastened in a knot in the other end of the chain, two fingers torn from the hand of the hitch-hiker.
- The horrifying find is variously reported as two, three, or four severed fingers stuck in the air vents at the back of the car (where they’d been cut off by the cooling fan), in a chain caught in the chrome trim, or in the window of the car.
- The victim can be a lone male or female, or a mixed-sex couple.
- What causes the punks to attack can be a remark directed their way, the driver’s failing to stop to pick them up, simply the act of stopping at the wrong red light, or driving past a gang of motorcycle hooligans (who then set out in pursuit).
- The legend is common to the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia.
Origins: This legend about the escaped motorist who only afterwards discovers himself in possession of the severed fingers of his assailant has been
documented in England as far back as 1960. Since then, numerous versions have circulated, with the event described as recent and local. People find solace in it not only because the set-upon, almost-victim escapes unharmed, but also because one of the toughs pays a heavy price for his belligerence. (The theme of the bad guy getting his just deserts is prized in urban lore, especially when his punishment comes about through his own rotten actions.)
The legend is much older than the 1960 date which only applies to the automobile version of it. Chamber’s 1824 Traditions of England contains a tale about a party of drunks who smash upon the door knocker of someone’s home. The next morning, part of a finger is discovered sticking to remnants of the knocker. A 1752 Swedish version tells of a crofter who, rowing home one evening, severs the fingers of a troll attempting to sink his boat.
Notably, a very recognizable version of the current legend was kicking about centuries earlier, as demonstrated by this excerpt from La Nouvelle Fabrique des Excellents Traits de Vérité, a French collection of 99 tall tales first published in 1579:
One day a man of the world, vigorous, alert, pleasing and as brave at least as Richard the Lion-Heart, was travelling along a narrow forest path when he saw a thief on the look-out, in among the trees, and he came out at him, putting his hand on the horse’s bridle and saying: “Hold! Your money or your life!” The traveller, who was not easily frightened, immediately seizes his sword and gives him such a blow on the hand holding his horse that he cuts it clean off. Having done this, he spurs his horse and rides off so swiftly that he arrives home very soon after. His servant took his horse and led it to the stable; but when he came to unharness it, he noticed a hand hanging from the bridle, which gave him a nasty fright; surprised as he was, he dashed off into the house where, all a-tremble, he told him how he had found a severed hand still holding the horse’s bridle. At first the master did not seem at all moved by his account, but after thinking about it for a while he recalled having hit out with his sword at a highwayman who had stopped his horse; whereupon he went to fetch the said hand, which he detached from the bridle with great difficulty and then nailed it on his front door as a trophy.
Oftentimes, folks are surprised to discover
that accounts they’ve heard as recent horrific occurrences that capture so well the specter of mindless random violence afoot in our society have existed as folklore not just all over the globe, but also well before the current century. This is the case here. Not only has the Severed Fingers tale made its way around the world in modern times, but it’s demonstrably more than four centuries old. Another oldie of this ilk is the Hairy-Armed Hitchhiker legend, a version of which antedates the American Civil War.
Motifs are commonly shared among legends. Another tale featuring a bad guy’s severed fingers is the Choking Doberman, a story about a distressed guard dog and the gruesome find dislodged from its throat. The urban legend classic The Hook shares the “menacing item afterwards found on the car the almost-victims escaped in” element with the severed fingers legend.
Barbara “common shares” Mikkelson
Sightings: You’ll find this legend used in the 1979 film Mad Max.
Last updated: 29 March 2011
- Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Choking Doberman.
- New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. ISBN 0-393-30321-7 (pp. 34-37).
- Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Mexican Pet.
- New York: W. W. Norton, 1986. ISBN 0-393-30542-2 (pp. 65-66).
- Brunvand, Jan Harold. Too Good To Be True.
- New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. ISBN 0-393-04734-2 (pp. 95-96).
- Dale, Rodney. The Tumour in the Whale.
- London: Duckworth, 1978. ISBN 0-7156-1314-6 (p. 149).
- de Vos, Gail. Tales, Rumors and Gossip.
- Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1996. ISBN 1-56308-190-3 (pp. 117-118).
- Scott, Bill. Complete Book of Australian Folklore.
- Sydney: Ure Smith, 1976 (p. 368).
- Smith, Paul. The Book of Nasty Legends.
- London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983. ISBN 0-00-636856-5 (p. 92).
Also told in:
- Cohen, Daniel. The Beheaded Freshman and Other Nasty Rumors.
- New York: Avon Books, 1993. ISBN 0-380-77020-2
- Healey, Phil and Rick Glanvill. Now! That’s What I Call Urban Myths.
- London: Virgin Books, 1996. ISBN 0-86369-969-3 (pp. 102-103).
The Big Book of Urban Legends.
- New York: Paradox Press, 1994. ISBN 1-56389-165-4 (p. 19).