Grand(ma) Larceny

An Urban Legend

Family Vacation
Jean Mahaux/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Also known as: "The Runaway Grandmother," "The Stolen Granny"

A friend of mine knows a family who were on vacation, driving through some remote part of the country in their station wagon. They had brought Grandma along even though she was quite elderly and not feeling well, because her heart was set on going on this one last trip with her grandchildren, and they didn't want to disappoint her.

Unfortunately, at some point during the long drive Grandma passed away in the back seat of the car. Her grandchildren, sitting on either side of her, became hysterical.

Since they were several hours away from the nearest sizable city, the father did the only thing he could think of to remedy the situation. He wrapped Grandma's body in a thick blanket, secured it to the luggage rack on top of the station wagon, and drove on.

When they finally reached the outskirts of civilization the father stopped at a service station and everyone clambered out of the car while he used a payphone to call authorities and report the death. Understandably nervous and upset, he didn't realize he had left the keys in the ignition.

When the family went back to the car they found it had been stolen, along with all their possessions ... and Grandma.

Analysis: If this story sounds familiar, that's no doubt because it's an exceedingly common FOAFtale (friend-of-a-friend tale) dating back (at least) to World War II. Folklorist Duncan Emrich reported a variant of it in his 1972 book Folklore on the American Land, and it has appeared in several collections of urban legends since.

Or perhaps you recognize it as one of the more amusing subplots of the 1983 film National Lampoon's Vacation, or in Tom Robbins' 1971 novel Another Roadside Attraction.

You may have even run across it in your local newspaper, written up as if it were a real-life occurrence.

The Associated Press dispatched a brief item in December 1999, to cite one example, about an incident that supposedly happened in the former U.S.S.R.

According to the article, a pair of Moldavan cousins living in Ukraine, both too poor to afford a funeral for their dead grandmother, rolled up her corpse in a carpet and strapped it to the top of their car to be taken home for burial.

When the grieving cousins stopped for a meal at a restaurant in southern Ukraine, a gang of thieves made off with their car... and Grandma.

Among the U.S. papers that ran this suspiciously familiar story was the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, where it appeared under the headline "Thieves Take Rug – and Grandma's Corpse."

It caught the attention of Jan Harold Brunvand, Salt Lake City resident, professor emeritus at the University of Utah, and author of more than half a dozen books on urban legends, including the marvelous volume Too Good to Be True, published that same year.

Brunvand fired off a letter to the Deseret News. "Oh, come on, editor!" it began. "Surely you didn't believe that AP story you published on Page A14 of the Dec. 9 Deseret News about the missing Moldavan granny. This is nothing but the old 'Runaway Grandmother' urban legend that has been told worldwide for decades."

As a matter of fact, he scolded, in 1987 the legend had appeared in the Deseret News itself, in one of Brunvand's own weekly columns, entitled "Grandma's Fit to Be Tied — to the Luggage Rack."

Did the Associated Press and Deseret News bite on an old urban legend? According to Jan Harold Brunvand, they did. Some stories, like this one, really are "too good to be true."