It's Too Good to Be True!

Did you get the e-mail about the guy who strapped two solid-fuel rocket engines to his Chevrolet? When he lit them, the car hit 350 mph before becoming airborne and impaling itself in the face of an Arizona cliff.

Or how about 7-year-old Craig Shergold, dying of cancer in England, who wants you to send him cards, letters and e-mail so he can get into the Guinness Book of Records?

And did you get an e-mail appeal this week from the wife, son or associate of a deceased Nigerian leader who has $30 million legally stashed away in a foreign bank account and needs your help to get it out?

What's the veracity of those events? False; true, but . . . ; and beware. The rocket car is a great story, but it just never happened. Shergold is now 23 and fully recovered, but he never actually asked for mail - that was a publicity stunt, started by Craig's mother and a friend, that's gotten completely out of hand. The Nigerian appeal is a con game aimed at getting access to your bank account.

E-Mail Staying Power

Everyone likes a good story, and often the more outlandish a tale is, the more we want to believe that it's true. What gives these stories so much staying power today is the ease with which they can be passed along to others via e-mail.

The first two examples cited above are called urban legends or urban myths, even though one is demonstrably false and the other has elements of truth. The third is a scam, pure and simple.

Urban legends sometimes begin as an exaggeration of a true event or as a piece of pure fiction that is passed off as truth.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a legend is "an unverified story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly believed to be historical," or "a romanticized or popularized myth of modern times."

Urban legends are typically characterized by some combination of humor, horror, warning, morality or embarrassment, with an unexpected outlandish twist that's just plausible enough to be taken as truth.

Darwinian Twist

Closely related to urban legends are a series of anecdotes immortalized in the Darwin Awards, named after the father of the theory of evolution.

Here's one representative winner: A Hawaiian poacher climbed a koa tree under the cover of darkness to steal a branch of the expensive native hardwood. Unlike a cartoon character, he didn't saw off the limb he was standing on. What he did saw off was the branch directly above him, which struck and killed him. Authorities found his body, still 20 feet up in the tree, the next morning.

The philosophy behind the Darwin Awards, according to founder Wendy Northcutt, is to "commemorate individuals who protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives: by eliminating themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species' chance of long-term survival."

"In other words," Northcutt says, "they are cautionary tales about people who kill themselves in really stupid ways, and in doing so, significantly improve the gene pool by eliminating themselves from the human race."

You can find more Darwin Award winners at the Web site.

Kay is a contributing writer in Worcester, Mass. You can reach him at

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