Fact Check

Stolen Watch

Did a professor unwittingly commit a theft?

Published Jul 10, 2001

Claim:  A professor does battle to retrieve his watch from a thief . . . only to discover his unstolen timepiece sitting on a dresser at home.



[Smith, 1986]

Peter was downtown in London on a business trip and, after being out for dinner one evening, he decided to travel back to his hotel on the last tube. He was just settling into his seat when he realised that his gold watch was missing.

On the platform stood a young man who was grinning at him and, jumping to the conclusion that this was the thief, Peter leapt up and tried to get off the tube before the doors closed.

Unfortunately, he did not quite make it. Nevertheless, he managed to grab hold of the man's lapels only to rip them clean off his suit as the tube moved away. When he got back to his hotel the first thing he did was to phone the police and report the theft. Then he phoned his wife to tell her of the loss.

Before he could say anything she said, "Oh! I'm so glad you rang. I've been trying to get hold of you. Did you know you'd left your watch behind on the dresser this morning?

[Cerf, 1948]

Driving to Princeton one afternoon with the late Professor Duane Stuart, head of Princeton's classics department for many years, we were halted temporarily by a flat tire, and, realizing our own shortcomings on mechanics, clanked down the side of the turnpike until we came to a garage, where the tire was changed for us by somebody who knew how. Meanwhile, Professor Stuart recalled the story of another Princeton faculty member who had found himself in a similar predicament — only he was driving alone, in full dress, and in the small hours of the dawn. He stood helplessly beside his car, cursing the banquet that had lured him to New York.

At long last another car came along. Its driver proved to be a good Samaritan indeed. He took off his coat, changed the tire single-handed, and got himself well smeared with mud in the process. The Princeton man was deeply grateful — until he discovered, just before they parted company, that his gold watch was missing. In a sudden rage, he clipped the unprepared stranger on the chin, cried, "Only a scoundrel would do a trick like this," seized the watch from the other's pocket and jammed it into his own, and drove off before the stranger could regain his feet.

He was still fuming with anger as he put his car in his garage. Then he strode into his house and up to his bedroom.

There, on the bureau, was the watch he had forgotten to wear to the banquet.


Origins:   The lead-in to a 27 January 1928 newspaper article read as follows, proving this story has been around far longer than most of our readers!

The story written by Mrs. Davis in the Stockton Record, of an automobilist who picked up a man on the road, and feeling for his watch and finding it gone, drew a pistol and demanded his watch which, when handed over, ordered the man out and when arriving home found his watch where he had left it on the bureau. . . .

The watch story is older than that even, with a version appearing Six Red Months in Russia, a collection of articles originally published in The Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1918.



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 "Stolen Biscuits," "Gun-Toting Grannies," and "Jogger's Billfold" pages for other legends of this type.)

Unlike tales involving a theft of money, some variations of The "Pocket(ed) Watch" result in the victim-turned-thief's failing to end 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 was still correctable; hence, tales involving property instead of currency 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." In other words, good people like us aren't thieves and don't normally resort to such actions. When we do, it goes wrong ... and we're left to ruefully conclude that taking matters into our own hands is never the right solution, even in those instances which at first blush appears to be

exceptions. (Er, at least that's the way it works in the world of urban legends, where most every story is a cautionary tale warning us against behaving in a manner Society doesn't approve of. Your mileage may vary in the real world.)

Helping to get the point across, the victim-turned-thief is commonly described in a sympathetic manner. This device encourages those reading the story to identify with the character and thus picture themselves in his predicament. Therefore, the one who unwitting ends up with someone else's property (or makes a determined effort to do so!) will variously be described as a dear little old lady, a respected professor, a befuddled clergyman, a health-conscious jogger, or a hard-working ordinary guy making use of the subway.

In the example involving a flat tire and a professor stranded by the side of the road, the specter of ingratitude is raised. As the tale sinks in, so does the realization that the professor has no way to return what he absconded with or to apologize to the kind man he'd left watchless, sore-jawed, and sitting in the mud.

Barbara "losing one's timepeace of mind" Mikkelson

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.   The Baby Train.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.   ISBN 0-393-31208-9   (p. 264).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good to Be True.

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

    Cerf, Bennett.   Shake Well Before Using.

    New York: Simon and Schuster, 1948   (p. 172).

    Smith, Paul.   The Book of Nastier Legends.

    London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.   (p. 24).

    Young, James.   101 Plots Used and Abused.

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

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