Fact Check

Hairy-Armed Hitchhiker

A helpful male stranger begging a ride at a shopping mall turns out to be a crazed killer.

Published Mar 21, 1999

Claim:   A helpful male stranger begging a ride at a shopping mall turns out to be a crazed killer.



[Brunvand, 1987]

This lady had finished her shopping, and she went back to her car with her packages. When she got to the car, there was someone sitting in the back seat. As she approached, she saw it was an old woman.

She asked the woman what she was doing in her car, and the woman said that she had gotten lost looking for the bus and got so tired that she just had to sit somewhere to rest, and asked if she could possibly see her way to driving her home or just to the nearest bus stop.

Well, this lady was suspicious, so she said that she would be right back, and she returned to the mall and asked security if they could do something about the old woman. When a security guard got to the car, they found out she wasn't an old woman at all, but a man; and in her purse was a small hatchet.

[Collected on the Internet, 1998]

A woman was shopping at the Tuttle Mall in Columbus. She came out to her car and saw she had a flat. She got her jack, spare out of the trunk. A man in a business suit came up and started to help her. When the tire had been replaced, he asked for a ride to his car on the opposite side of the Mall. Feeling uncomfortable about doing this, she stalled for awhile, but he kept pressing her. She finally asked why he was on this side of the Mall if his car was on the other.

He claimed he had been talking to friends. Still uncomfortable, she told him that she had just remembered something she had forgotten to pick up at the mall and she left him and went back inside the mall. She reported the incident to the mall security and they went out to her car. The man was nowhere in sight. Opening her trunk, she discovered a brief case the man had set inside her trunk while helping her with the tire. Inside was rope and a butcher knife! When she took the tire to be fixed, the mechanic informed her that there was nothing wrong with her tire, that it was flat because the air had been let out of it!

[Smith, 1983]

Driving home alone one evening, a young woman notices an old lady with a large shopping bag trying to hitch a lift in her direction. Feeling charitable, and in spite of her vow never to pick up hitch-hikers when alone, the girl stops and offers the hitch-hiker a ride. With much gratitude the old lady accepts and gets into the car. The young woman is about to drive away when she notices that her "female" passenger has large hairy arms and wrists.

Guessing instantly that the old lady is in fact a man, she pretends to be having trouble with the car and asks him to get out and check if the rear lights are working. As soon as the "old lady" is round the back of the car, the young woman immediately locks the doors and drives away.

In fear she goes straight to the police station where she is questioned and the car is searched. In the shopping bag the hairy-handed hitch-hiker has left behind, the police find a large and very sharp blood-stained axe — all all ready for the next victim.

[Collected on the Internet, 2001]

Please read this, a new twist on kidnapping, a very smart survivor.

About a month ago there was a woman standing by the mega mall entrance passing out flyers to all the women going in. The woman had written the flyer herself to tell about an experience she had, so that she might warn other women.

The previous day, this woman had finished shopping, went out to her car and discovered that she had a flat. She got the jack out of the trunk and began to change the flat. A nice man dressed in business suit and carrying a briefcase walked up to her and said, "I noticed you're changing a flat tire. Would you like me to take care of it for you?" The woman was grateful for his offer and accepted his help. They chatted amiably while the man changed the flat, and then put the flat tire and the jack in the trunk, shut it and dusted his hands off.

The woman thanked him profusely, and as she was about to get in her car, the man told her that he left his car around on the other side of the mall, and asked if she would mind giving him a lift to his car.

She was a little surprised and she asked him why his car was on other side.

He explained that he had seen an old friend in the mall that he hadn't seen for some time and they had a bite to eat and visited for a while; he got turned around in the mall and left through the wrong exit, and now he was running late and his car was clear around on the other side of the mall.

The woman hated to tell him "no" because he had just rescued her from having to change her flat tire all by herself, but she felt uneasy.

Then she remembered seeing the man put his briefcase in her trunk before shutting it and before he asked her for a ride to his car. She told him that she'd be happy to drive him around to his car, but she just remembered one last thing she needed to buy. She said she would only be a few minutes; he could sit down in her car and wait for her; she would be as quick as she could be. She hurried into the mall, and told a security guard what had happened; the guard came out to her car with her, but the man had left.

They opened the trunk, took out his locked briefcase and took it down to the police station. The police opened it (ostensibly to look for ID so they could return it to the man). What they found was rope, duct tape, and knives. When the police checked her "flat" tire, there was nothing wrong with it; the air had simply been let out.

It was obvious what the man's intention was, and obvious that he had carefully thought it out in advance. The woman was blessed to have escaped harm. How much worse it would have been if she had children with her and had them wait in the car while the man fixed the tire, or if she had a baby strapped into a car seat. Or if she'd gone against her judgment and given him a lift.

I'd like you to forward this to all the women you know. It may save a life. A candle is not dimmed by lighting another candle.


[Collected on the Internet, 2006]

Last week in the Asda car park at Owlcotes, a lady returned to her car to find the window broken. A helpful man at the side of the car said he had seen someone tampering with it and had remained with the vehicle to make sure no-one did any further damage.

The lady was very grateful and when the man asked for a lift she was quite disappointed she was in a rush and going in the wrong direction and could not return the favour.

It was only when she got home that she noticed in the pouch behind her seat a piece of rope and a knife.

[Collected on the Internet, 2004]

The Dublin criminal gang - The Westies are having an initiation ceremony at the moment for new members.

It's aimed at women driving alone. They hang around garages and when a woman alone goes into the garage to pay for her petrol, a guy gets into the car and hides in the back seat. When the woman gets into her car the guy holds her at knifepoint and takes her to be gang-raped.

This is a serious message that came to me by my Father. He was talking to his friend who is a Detective in Garda H.Q in Harcourt Street. The Detective told Dad to pass this on to women. One incident has happened in Dublin but luckily the woman got away. The petrol attendant saw a guy getting into her car and hiding in the back seat. He called her back pretending there was a problem with her credit card. They called the police and they took the guy to Blanch station to be questioned.

Please, please pass this on and be careful. LOCK YOUR CAR when you are paying for petrol and just be careful.

[Collected on the Internet, May 2010]

A colleague of mine at work (Belinda) has just gathered us girls and told us that her gf that works at the Galleria shopping Centre in Morley had a bit of a situation just over a week ago and all females in Perth should know about it! Her friend came out of work after 5:30pm and walked up to her car to find an old lady standing next to it and her car had a smashed window. The old woman said that she had seen the smashed window and she had stood by the car for 20 mins as she didn't want anyone to come along and steal something out of it. The girl was really grateful and the old lady explained she had missed her bus in the process and asked if she could get a lift. The young girl agreed and within a few minutes she noticed that the nanna had really manly hands, so she panicked and didn't know what to do so she ran into the back of the car in front of her at a really slow speed but enough to make the other ppl get out of the car, the police were called and the old lady ran and soon after the cops found a rope and a knife under the passenger seat. This happened in May 2010 on the streets of Perth. TELL ALL OF YOUR FRIENDS!!!



  • With rare exceptions, the intended victim is always female. The assailant is always male.
  • The murder implement in the killer's handbag (or shopping bag or briefcase — that varies too) is a sharp object: bloody axe, hatchet, knife, meat cleaver, or machete.
  • In the overwhelming majority of tellings, the killer is disguised to pass as a helpless old woman. However, on rare occasions (as in the last example quoted above) no disguise is employed; either a briefcase-toting fellow claims someone broke into his car and asks the woman to drive him to the police station, or a helpful man with a briefcase shows up to assist the shopper who has just discovered one of her tires has been slashed. (Extra points for guessing who did the slashing.)
  • What tips the potential victim off to her peril varies from tale to tale: sometimes it's Granny's hairy or overly-muscular arms, other times it's a vague sense of things not being quite right.
  • In the "shopping mall" versions (where the killer is found sitting in a car in the mall's parking lot), in almost every telling the shopper either summons assistance to help get rid of the suspicious-looking old woman, or a mall security guard spots the two as they are about to drive away and moves to prevent a tragedy. Third party assistance appears to be key to this version.
  • In the "hitchhiker" versions (where the woman stops to pick up a stranger), not only does the potential victim work out there's something wrong about Granny, she gets rid of the "old lady" unassisted by way of a ruse.
  • The "shopping mall" version has been told as something that happened at seemingly every major shopping centre in North America (including the West Edmonton Mall in Canada and the Ala Moana Center in Hawaii). Hitchhiker versions are more popular in Australia and Great Britain.

Origins:   Fear not that this is going on at a shopping mall near you, or that the country is awash in gangs of rapists and serial killers using such ruses to lure unsuspecting women into dangerous situations. We've found only one actual case that mimics any of the forms this urban legend has taken over the years, and it happened in 1989.

On 16 December 1989, 29-year-old Sedrick Cobb kidnapped 23-year-old Julie Ashe from a department store parking lot in Waterbury, CT, after he helped her change a flat tire on her car that he had let the air out of while she was in the store Christmas shopping. He then drove Miss Ashe to a wooded area, raped her, bound her, and pushed her off a dam into an icy pond 23 feet below. Her feet were found protruding from the ice on Christmas Day, nine days after she disappeared.

There's no evidence similar incidents have happened anywhere else. (Especially not at the Tuttle Mall in Columbus, Ohio — that institution has been deviled by this rumor ever since the item quoted above in the "Examples" section as the second offering hit the Internet. "It's an Internet rumor," said David Casper, the mall's marketing director. "We checked all of the reports our security had. We checked the videotapes on the day it was supposed to have happened. Then we checked the police reports in all the districts.")

Though told as a recent crime, this legend's roots reach back into the previous century.

The driver is a gentleman in his gig, who on opening the supposed female's reticule finds to his horror a brace of loaded pistols inside.

The above snippet comes from the 11 April 1834 Stamford Mercury. 1834. As in, before the American Civil War.

The legend shows up again in the 1956 book Negro Folktales in

Cartoon of the legend

Michigan, where a young buggy driver spots five o'clock shadow under a lady passenger's bonnet. The lad contrives to lose his hat and asks the woman to recover it while he controls the skittish horses. Once she's out of the rig, he drives off. Later, "he picks up the basket and looks in it, to give to his wife, and there's two Colt .44's in there, and eight hundred dollars in cash money."

In the late 1970s, the "hairy armed hitchhiker" myth was all the rage in the UK; everyone was telling it as a close call that had befallen a friend of a friend. Why that sudden outbreak of an old legend in that particular place and time? That was the era of the Yorkshire Ripper. People feared for their lives, and part of that fear was expressed through the telling of (and believing!) of this legend.

During that period, reports of this tale were received in at least 17 police stations. (No telling how often each station heard it either!)

These days the "shopping mall" version has come to eclipse the earlier "hitchhiker" form of the story. This is likely the result of two changes in our culture: the growing fear of hitchhikers, and the ascendancy of the shopping mall as a place to


Though frowned upon, hitchhiking in the 1960s and up to the mid-1970s was seen as a normal, almost reasonable activity (albeit a bit on the risque or defiant of society's customs side). Ordinary folks stopped to pick up hitchhikers, barely giving their personal safety a second thought, and those hitching a ride happily took the same chance with about as much forethought. It was then common for teens and twenty-somethings to use the thumb to get from here to there and for even older people to explore the country by way of this mode of transportation.

These days you don't see many hitchhikers. There's too much fear of the murdering stranger, both on the part of those who would otherwise offer a ride and those would stick out a thumb to seek one.

With the decline in popularity of hitchhiking came a decline in the popularity of the hitchhiker version of this dead catter. Urban legends are expressions of current culture; if hitchhiking is no longer a popular activity, expect to see that element dropped from the legend as the tale is re-cast to place it in a current culture setting.

The growing importance of the shopping mall to our culture also played its part. What started out as mere collections of varied stores under one roof quickly came to evolve into social gathering places. The mall is somewhere to await friends or, once met, to pass the time with them. Though their mercantile function is still important, the mall's social and societal role is growing all the time.

As for shopping centers and their place in this legend, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand had this to say:

The mall is our society's center of consumer passion, of all items both wonderful and mundane, and yet something inside us seems to be saying that even the mall is not safe from the evil forces of the world.

True enough. Brightly lit and well patrolled, malls are seen as safe havens. Their darkened parking lots exist in a netherworld, close enough to the mall for help to be summoned from, but far enough away to be outside of the mall's protection.

Coming at it from a less folkloric, more pragmatic angle, a mall parking lot would be the obvious place for a mythical crazed killer looking for victims, hence the legend's shift in locale. Found there would be many women, a goodly number of them alone, each of them isolated once they leave the safety of the building to head for their cars. A murdering madman looking to pick and choose his victims could find no better venue. It would be like handing him a menu.

Though it's never clearly stated, it is understood by all who hear the legend the bad guy's intent is to murder the woman, not merely rob her. His weapon is invariably a sharp object, something that will serve to splash copious amounts of blood everywhere (as opposed to a polite strangling or restrained bludgeoning) because the mental picture of what could have happened is key to this tale's horror element. Dead isn't good enough; the averted murder has to be perceived as unspeakably brutal and gory.

In common with all "murdering madmen" legends, almost without exception the prey is female and the stalker male. This probably has less to do with out and out sexism than it does with employing a folkloric shorthand to communicate the victim's vulnerability in contrast to the killer's omnipotence.

Why the shorthand, the exaggeration of the imbalance? Upon hearing any of these legends, we mentally cast ourselves in the role of the person it happened to. By making the mythical victim appear both especially at risk and not all that capable of protecting herself, we more clearly express our own fears of the world around us and our personal sense of being vulnerable to attack.

Barbara "shopping mall: hitchhiker's guide to the gal axe easy" Mikkelson

Sightings:   Look for this tale in TV's Homicide: Life on the Street ("Thrill of the Kill," originally aired 10 November 1995).

Last updated:   8 April 2011


    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Baby Train.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.   ISBN 0-393-31208-9   (p. 240).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Choking Doberman.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.   ISBN 0-393-30321-7   (pp. 52-55).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Mexican Pet.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.   ISBN 0-393-30542-2   (pp. 157-159).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good To Be True.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 100-103).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   "Hatchet in Handbag Tale Dates to Horse-and-Buggy Days."

    The San Diego Union Tribune.   30 April 1987   (p. E2).

    de Vos, Gail.   Tales, Rumors and Gossip.

    Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1996.   ISBN 1-56308-190-3   (pp. 306-307).

    Haarlander, Lisa.   "Rumor About Mall Rapist Is Fabrication, Police Say."

    The Buffalo News.   March 20 1999   (p. C5).

    Hiscock, Philip.   "Regina's Hidden Assailants."

    FOAFTale News.   June 1996   (p. 12).

    Mays, Alan.   "Ankle Slashers at the Mall."

    FOAFTale News.   March 1993   (p. 10).

    Smith, Paul.   The Book of Nasty Legends.

    London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.   ISBN 0-00-636856-5   (p. 91).

    Associated Press.   "Death Penalty Voted In a Rape-Murder."

    The New York Times.   14 August 1991   (p. B5).

Also told in:

    Healey, Phil and Rick Glanvill.   Now! That's What I Call Urban Myths.

    London: Virgin Books, 1996.   ISBN 0-86369-969-3   (p. 2).

The Big Book of Urban Legends

    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 162).

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