At the start of the year, the extremely popular true crime podcast My Favourite Murder got conned into reading out a "true story" that didn’t actually happen. On the show segment where fans write in with "real-life" scary stories, listener Chelsea’s story was about an LA-based friend – also allegedly called Chelsea – who was tasked with dog-sitting her boss’s golden retriever while he was away. When she arrived at the apartment, she found the elderly dog had died. Chelsea didn’t have a car, so, at her boss's instruction, she put the dead dog into a wheeled suitcase and rolled it down to the bus station to take it to get cremated. When the bus arrived, she couldn’t get the suitcase up the steps, but was rescued by a ‘nice’ man who helped carry it. Confused by how heavy it was, he asked what was in there, and, because she was embarrassed, Chelsea said: “oh, I’m moving”. The bloke punched her in the stomach, grabbed the suitcase and ran off – stealing the dead dog.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the podcast told its 19 million listeners the ‘dead dog in a suitcase’ urban legend (from about six and a half minutes in), without realising that story's at least 33 years old.
I’ve heard versions of it three times – only, in one case, it took place in London and not LA. And the victim (supposedly my friend’s sister’s friend) was struggling to get the suitcase up the stairs leading from the taxi rank opposite the Hole In The Wall pub into the back of Waterloo station.
When I asked around (at work, on social media, my confused relatives and every friend I saw for two weeks), people had heard various different versions – and some still thought it was true. One friend, Stu, heard it from his mum, who heard it in a bar in Cyprus; another ex-colleague heard it on a date. Steph heard it off an ex-boyfriend who swore blind his friend had been robbed of their pet. And Becky heard it just a few years ago at work.
My former flatmate George heard it from his now-wife’s hairdresser, who was adamant it’d happened to her best friend. As he tells it, the dog-sitting friend takes the suitcase on the tube. “As she’s struggling to take it up the escalator, a good samaritan comes to help her with the suitcase. But it’s actually it’s a thief, and he makes off with the dog inside.” As with all these variants, it's essentially the exact same story as was told on My Favourite Murder.
Of course, you stumble across minor tweaks. Sometimes the dog was a golden retriever, at other times it was an Alsatian. The location varied too – Chicago, New York or London (often at Victoria, Leicester Square and Angel tubes). It made it to Twitter, where users were discussing the phenomenon, and apparently, even a teen on TikTok was telling the tale.
Back in 2008 it made it into the UK’s Metro newspaper as real life news. RIP to Sandy, the dead dog the paper claimed was stolen at Victoria station. But also RIP to the credibility of the unnamed police spokesperson who gave a vague quote about it (“Unfortunately, you do have to be wary”) and ‘onlooker’ Liam Carling who told the paper about the incident (possibly in exchange for a tip fee).
Unfortunately, the Metro were a bit late to the breaking news story which reportedly first appeared in the New York Post in 1987, when legendary gossip columnist Cindy Adams told the story of an elderly lady whose “cherished” Great Dane was stolen by a thief. This was later referenced in a 1989 article by folklore academic Jan Harold Brunvand, often considered a key figure in popularising the urban legend. In his column, he dated the dead dog story as going back to at least 1986, when he heard it himself… twice. Given Brunvard's familiarity with the tale, it is, at the very least, questionable as to whether Adams uncovered any real story. It was probably little more than what she dealt in day-to-day: gossip. Could there ever have been an original dead dog, whose theft has been constantly repeated for 33 years?
Unlikely, says Dr David Clarke, lecturer at the Centre for Contemporary Legend at Sheffield Hallam University, who thinks the story has just been passed by word of mouth ever since the 80s. “Some of the more fantastic or alarming urban legends, if you heard them from a complete stranger, you might not believe them,” he says. “But people are more tempted to think, ‘there might be something in this’ if they’ve heard it – or read it on Facebook – from a close friend.”
Dr Leanne Calvert, a folklore expert and history lecturer at Hertfordshire University, agrees adding, “the ‘dead dog in a suitcase’ story thrives in urban areas arguably because it is a social comment on unreasonable bosses and the pressures of work and crime and distrust in cities. Would you ever take a stranger's offer to carry your bag off a train in London? That's a red flag for most people.”
Mark Norman, who hosts the Folklore Podcast says that the most common types of legend to spread easily are those that offer some form of warning. “People share these pretty much instantly, without checking, because they think that they are saving another person some difficulty or possibly even saving their life.” This sort of thing explains your parents constantly forwarding you those emails about phone scams that definitely don’t exist.
Dr Clarke adds that most stories like this spread at times when people are worried or anxious – or, hello 2020, on the brink of a World War. “After 9/11, there was a story going around that someone had picked up a dropped wallet and returned it to the owner – and to thank them, the owner issued a warning to stay away from the shopping centre on Halloween, as there was going to be a terrorist attack.” That urban legend is actually more than 100 years old, and so notorious that it’s been ‘debunked’ by Snopes.com. Two years ago, a similar story about a dropped wallet being returned to a “Muslim girl” went viral in Australia after a car exploded in a Westfield and even the Daily Mail warned readers not to believe it.
“In 1917, the exact same story was being told during World War I,” says Dr Clarke – only the wallet is dropped on the underground, and the man it belongs to is German, and warns about a bombing raid on Halloween. It’s a rumour that feeds the xenophobia that often rears its head during insecure times of war and terrorism, perpetuating any fear already present in the individual listening and perhaps later sharing.
Ultimately, with all urban legends of this ilk, they endure for decades because awful things happen in big cities. Everyone’s paranoid, no-one trusts strangers; someone stealing a dead dog isn’t even the most horrible story I’ve heard this year, let alone in 12 years living in London.
If there's a moral to be drawn from this strange tale, it’s one of skepticism. Don’t trust kind randoms on the tube, girls called Chelsey, your own friends – and definitely don’t believe everything you hear on a podcast.