Fact Check

The Jogger's Billfold

Did a jogger unwittingly commit a theft?

Published Feb 9, 1999


Claim:   Thinking himself robbed of his billfold, a jogger runs down the thief and takes back his property . . . only to later discover his 'stolen' wallet at home.



[Brunvand, 1988]

A New York businessman goes out for a mid-morning jog in Central Park, clad in a trendy warm-up suit. Along the way he is bumped by another runner, and not long afterward he realizes that his wallet is missing from his pocket.

Outraged, the businessman catches up to the other runner and, in his best James Cagney snarl, demands: "Give me that wallet!" The startled runner hands the man a wallet.

Later, as he changes into his business suit back at the office, the man discovers that he had left his own wallet on the desk when he went out to run.

[Parade Magazine, 1972, as told by comic Gus Christie]

This is supposed to be a true story. A man, we'll call him Mr. Jones, is riding to work on the subway in New York City and there's this guy who keeps bumping into him. After awhile Jones gets apprehensive and thinks, "This can't be what I think it is!" He checks his wallet — and it's gone. "That's it! Nine o'clock in the morning and I get mugged in the subway. Things are really getting bad." He grabs the guy, shakes him hard, and says, "All right, cough up, give me that wallet!" The guy is petrified and he hands over a wallet. So Jones goes off to work and when he gets to his office his wife calls and says, "Honey, you left your wallet on the bureau this morning."


Origins:   How old is old? According to Brunvand, an earlier version of the legend originated in Russia and can be found in Six Red Months in Russia, a collection of articles originally published in The Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1918. Urban legends keep pace with changing conditions, with joggers in expensive warm-up suits replacing turn-of-the-century victims.

The "Jogger's Billfold" legend is told in another form, one involving a sum of paper money and a woman who suspects another of having swiped it out of her purse. In Britain, this tale is sometimes referred to as "The Five Pound Note." Though the following example comes from 1912, keep in mind the same story makes the rounds today in almost exactly the same form:

[Collected by Briggs, 1912]

An elderly brother and sister lived together, and one day the sister wanted to go to town to do some shopping. So her brother gave her a five-pound note, and she set out. She traveled third class, and the only other passenger was a shabby old woman who sat opposite her and nodded. Miss M was sleepy too, after her early start, so she dozed a little too. Then she woke up, and thought it wasn't very safe to go to sleep in a railway carriage, alone with a stranger. She opened her bag to make some notes of what she had to buy, and the five-pound note wasn't there. She looked at her neighbor, who was sleeping heavily with a big old shabby bag beside her. Miss M bent forward and, very cautiously, she opened the bag. There was a new five-pound note on top of everything.

"Old scoundrel!" thought Miss M. Then she thought, "She's poor and old, and I oughtn't to have put temptation in her way." She wondered what she ought to do. It would cause a great deal of delay and bother to call the police, and it seemed cruel to get an old woman into trouble, but she must have her money. So, in the end, she quietly took the five pounds out of the bag and shut it up again.

At the next stop, the old woman got out, and Miss M got to town and did her day's shopping, and came home loaded with parcels. Her brother met her at the station. "How did you manage? he said. "I expected to find you up a gum tree. You left your five-pound note on the dressing table."

Numerous stories about unwitting thieves abound in the realm of contemporary lore, with the "victim turned thief" motif appearing in such tales since the early 1900s. (Visit our Pocket(ed) Watch, Stolen Biscuits, and Gun-Toting Grannies pages for other legends of this type.)

Unlike the tale of the timepiece presumed to have been stolen, every variation of The Jogger's Billfold results in

Cartoon of the legend

the victim-turned-thief ending up with another's property. This is not too surprising as one person's money looks very much like another's, whereas individual items such as wallets and watches are generally distinctive. The one attempting to reclaim what he thought was his would be likely to recognize his mistake while it is still correctable; hence, those tales often include a failed assault on the "thief."

As folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand put it, "All variations on the theme of unwitting theft portray a plausible situation in which we ourselves might act in such an uncharacteristic threatening manner because of a simple misunderstanding." Human frailty and suspicion drive the action, impelling someone who would otherwise not have acted this way into relieving another of his property. That there is afterwards no way to redress the wrong by returning the item to its rightful owner drives home this tale's lesson — that it is better not to take matters into one's own hands.

Barbara "cache 'n' carry permit" Mikkelson

Sightings:   Look for Sylvester Stallone as the "thief" of legend in the 1974 film The Prisoner of Second Avenue. Also, radio personality Paul Harvey told the "stolen wallet" tale during his 18 October 1972 broadcast.

Last updated:   20 July 2011


    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   "Variations of Tale of Misdirected Vengeance Abound."

    The San Diego Union-Tribune   14 May 1987   (p. D2).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   "Middle-Class Mugger Strikes Again, But It's Only a Tall Tale."

    The San Diego Union-Tribune   4 August 1988   (p. D2).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Choking Doberman.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.   ISBN 0-393-30321-7   (pp. 188-191).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good To Be True.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 37-38).

    Dale, Rodney.   The Tumour in the Whale.

    London: Duckworth, 1978.   ISBN 0-7156-1314-6   (p. 45).

    de Vos, Gail.   Tales, Rumors and Gossip.

    Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1996.   ISBN 1-56308-190-3   (pp. 169-173).

    Young, James.   101 Plots Used and Abused.

    Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1946   (p. 20)

Also told in:

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.

    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 158).

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