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.
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
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
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:
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. “Old scoundrel!” thought At the next stop, the old woman got out, and
[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.
“Old scoundrel!” thought
At the next stop, the old woman got out, and
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
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
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
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).