The Knife in the Briefcase

An Urban Legend

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Also known as "The Hatchet in the Handbag" or "The Hairy-Armed Hitchhiker"

Example #1
As told by a reader:

One summer day in Southampton, New York, a woman pulled into a gas station. As the attendant pumped gas, the woman told him she was in a hurry to pick up her daughter, who had just finished an art class in East Hampton.

A very well-dressed man walked over to her car and started talking to her. He explained that his rental car had died, and he needed a ride to East Hampton for an appointment. She said she would be happy to give him a ride. He put his briefcase in the backseat and said he was going to the men's room quickly.

The woman looked at her watch and suddenly panicked. She drove off quickly, forgetting that the man was coming back to the car for a ride.

She thought nothing of him again until she and her daughter pulled into their driveway. She saw his briefcase and realized she had forgotten him! She opened it looking for some form of identification so she could notify him about his belongings. Inside she found nothing but a knife and a roll of duct tape!


Example #2
As told by a reader:

A young woman was leaving a local shopping mall, only to find that she had a flat tire. A well-dressed young man carrying a briefcase came up to her and asked if she needed help. She told him she would call AAA, but when she did she was told it would be over an hour before a truck would be dispatched to her site. The gentleman urged her to let him fix her flat and she finally allowed him to do so.

When he was finished, he asked if she would give him a ride to the other side of the mall, as his car was parked there. Looking at her watch, she realized how late it was and apologized to the young man saying that she needed to get home as it was her daughter's birthday and her husband was at home with the two children awaiting her arrival. The man went on his way.

When she got home, she told her husband what had happened at the mall and about the man who came to her aid. The husband went out to look at the tire and saw that the man had inadvertently left his briefcase in the trunk of the vehicle. He brought it into the living room and they opened it to see if they could find the man's name and phone number.

Upon opening the briefcase, they found only five items: a rag, chloroform, duct tape, a body bag and an ice pick (which was probably used to cause the flat tire).


Analysis: A newer version of this urban legend dating from 1998 was set in the parking lot of an actual, specific shopping center in Columbus, Ohio, the Tuttle Crossing Mall. According to local police and mall officials, however, no such incident ever took place there.

Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand refers to the story as "one of the most common and most fully analyzed of all contemporary legends," which is partly a function of its age. A variant known as "The Hatchet in the Handbag" (or "The Hairy-Armed Hitchhiker") dates back to the horse-and-buggy era. In that version, a driver consents to give a ride to an elderly woman who turns out, upon closer examination, to have extremely hairy arms — she's a man in disguise! Justifiably panicked, the driver invents a ruse to get the "woman" out of his vehicle and speeds off to safety, only to discover a handbag left behind in the passenger seat containing just one item: a hatchet.

Every variant of this cautionary tale shares the "close call" motif — the driver, always a lone female, nearly falls into the clutches of a would-be assailant but escapes just in time.

In some versions she senses a tell-tale sign of danger — the old woman's man-like arms, for example, or, in the Tuttle Mall variant, the good samaritan's creepy insistence on being driven across the parking lot after he fixes the driver's flat tire. In other versions, including as the ones retold above, the driver escapes due to pure happenstance — she suddenly recalls a pressing appointment and speeds off before the assailant can climb into the car. Either way, the close call is an obligatory narrative turn, else who would be left to (supposedly) tell the tale?