USC Digital Folklore Archives / March, 2011

Contemporary Legend – Frederick, Maryland

Big Liz

Some place in Maryland – don’t ask me where, I don’t know – there’s this bridge where the story of Big Liz takes place. She was a slave girl during the Civil War and she would deliver like supplies to the like Confederate troops for her master like told her to do this. But she secretly helped the Union soldiers by telling them where the supplies were like gonna go so they could like steal them. So her master found out about this and wanted to kill her and so his plan was that he had a lot of money he wanted to hide like in case the Union soldiers took over his plantation. And so he brought Liz with him to go bury the money in this swamp like on the plantation. So he made her like bury it and right after she finished burying it he chopped her head off with a knife and he left her there and no one else like knew that she died or where the money was. And he ended up being killed during the war. And so, again, no one knew where the money was. So in order to “go find the money” you go to the bridge and you park on it and turn off your car, honk your horn three times and then wait and then your car won’t start and then Big Liz will appear like holding her head in her hands and she will lead you to where the money is hidden if you’re brave enough to go with her.

Jill heard this legend from her friend’s family when she was around the age of ten to twelve. They all lived at Frederick, Maryland, which is located about forty-five minutes away from Gettysburg and there are places related to the Civil War all around them such as museums and battlefields. Therefore, there were also numerous stories and legends revolving around deaths during the war including the deaths of slaves, plantation owners, and soldiers. She believes that the reason the location is that particular bridge is because the swamp in the story is supposed to be under or close by that bridge. She also mentioned that the bridge is probably an easier place for people to find instead of looking for a side of a street. Also, she added that bridges are scary.

However, Jill does not believe this legend of Big Liz. Yet, like the definition of legends suggests, the story of Big Liz invites discussions of belief. Many people around that area do believe that the story is true. Jill briefly retold a story about her friend’s parents playing a prank on the children relating to this story. Jill explained that her friend’s family and some of their friends were in the car one day and the parents pretended that the car would not start on the bridge. Then, the parents had someone run at the car and hit the window to scare the children. This all occurred right after the parents had told the legend to the children. The legend of Big Liz is terminus post quem of the Civil War.


Contemporary Legend – Maryland

There’s this place in Maryland – Burkittsville – and there’s this place called Spook Hill or sometimes it’s called Gravity Hill. So the legend I heard there was that there was this freak accident with kids on a bus when they went over like a railroad track that the bus was hit and like they all died. And since then anytime you park your car on the hill and put it in neutral it’s supposed to roll uphill. And as proof, if you put baby powder on the back bumper you can see hand prints after it rolls uphill as if the kids are pushing you to safety off the tracks.

Jill learned about this legend from her friend when she was about ten years old. They were having a conversation on myths and ghost stories and such when her friend told her this story. This story falls into the legends category because it invites discussion about belief. Jill does believe that the car will roll uphill, but she is not too sure about the story and does not know if it is true. She knows that many people often go to the hill to test it for themselves. She has not visited the site yet, but she really wants to go to test it for herself. She said that she might even sprinkle the baby powder on her bumper “for the heck of it.”

Also, Jill mentioned that she has recently heard other versions of the same story. The most popular version that she heard was that it was soldiers that had died by those railroad tracks. So when people parked their car there, the ghosts of the soldiers would push the car as if they were pushing a canon up the hill to achieve victory or pushing their fellow soldiers off the tracks to safety. There was no baby powder involved in this version. This makes sense because baby powder is easily associated and tied to children but is not usually connected to Civil War soldiers.

However, Jill has found that the version involving the children in the bus is also used for a hill in San Antonio, Texas. The soldier version is more popular around her house in Frederick, Maryland, which is logical because she lives about forty-five minutes away from Gettysburg and there are many Civil War museums and battlefields in her area. The different versions, or oicotypes, and locations prove that the story of this hill is folklore because there are multiple versions and variation. Also, the historic geographic method could be used to analyze the spread of this story from one region to another, in this case, across the country.

The existence of this particular hill has been acknowledged by a book called Weird Maryland: Your Travel Guide to Maryland’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets by Matt Lake, Mark Moran, and Mark Sceurman. This book describes different places in Maryland that are tied to strange occurrences and stories in Maryland. It explains that Spook Hill is a place that seems to defy gravity and the laws of physics. It mentions the hill’s ties to the Civil War, which is that the Battle of Crampton’s Gap was fought there. The book also discusses three possible explanations for the phenomenon, which include optical illusion, exception from the earth’s gravitational pull, and the legend of the soldiers.

Lake, Matt, Moran Mark, and Mark Sceurman. Weird Maryland: Your Travel Guide to Maryland’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. New York: Sterling Company, Inc., 2006. 26 Apr. 2008,M1.


Contemporary Legend – University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California

When they were building Student Union back in the early 1900’s or whenever it was that it was being built, the architect had a certain way he wanted it to be built. He wanted the main entrance to open up towards Tommy Trojan, but the president at the time wanted a convenient entrance that he could park his car in front of, so he demanded that the front entrance of the building opened towards like Trousdale. The architect got mad and up at the top of the building there are little gargoyles like every like three spots in the design and right over the main entrance to the building he put, he made a gargoyle of a monkey “thumbing his nose,” which back then was the equivalent of sticking your middle finger out at someone.

Jill first heard this legend/prank when she flew from her home in Frederick, Maryland to the University of Southern California for a campus tour in January of 2006. At the time of this campus tour she was considering whether or not she wanted to apply to the school. She remembers the tour group laughing at the story and how she thought the story was funny. Upon reflection, Jill feels that this story along with the number of other stories similar to this one that gave fun facts and history of the campus made the tour cute and more personal. Although this particular story was not a big crucial factor in her decision to attend USC, it made the tour that day more enjoyable. Jill believes that tour was very well-done and that the tour guide had a good personality. She thinks her feeling about the tour guide’s personality was enhanced by the inclusion of these stories. Also, stories such as this monkey one and the rivalry between USC and UCLA made the campus seem like a more fun place to be. This story is terminus post quem the building of Student Union.

Below are pictures that I took of the monkey gargoyle on the Student Union building.


Story – Frederick, Maryland

My photography teacher, Mr. Heller, told me this story about his friend who lived in an old house and his friend would frequently lose things like his keys or sunglasses or stuff like that and he would run around looking for them. And what would happen he would go to the center of the house – after he had exhausted all his other options – and like say, “This is what I’m looking for and could you help me find it” or something like that. Either they would show up in the middle of the house or he would remember where he put it even if he’s already looked there. Another thing that would happen would be that in the middle of the night, he would wake up and the house would smell like someone had been baking in the kitchen. And he’s a single guy. Obviously it wasn’t baking in the middle of the night, but it would be like cookies and stuff. Later, he was like remodeling the house and they tore up the floor and found a gun and spent bullets from the Civil War in the center of the house where he would go and ask for help.

Jill’s tenth grade teacher told her this story during class at her high school in the suburb Frederick, Maryland. It was just a conversation among Jill, her teacher, and another student while the other students were working on their individual photography projects. The three of them were talking and the topic of ghost stories came up, which is why Jill’s teacher retold this story for them. This story can be considered a FOAF legend or a friend of a friend story since it invites discussion about belief and supposedly happened to the teacher’s friend. Jill thinks that although the story is hard to believe, she does believe it to an extent because of the way her teacher presented the story. Jill explained that Mr. Heller was completely serious while telling this story despite being a funny, humorous guy. Also, during that particular conversation Mr. Heller was revealing many things about himself, which makes Jill feel like the story is more sincere and convincing.

Another thing that made the story more credible was the area’s close ties to the Civil War. Jill lived in a suburb that was about forty-five minutes away from Gettysburg and that was located very close to many Civil War museums and battlefields. Therefore, it was not an extremely odd and random occurrence that the teacher’s friend found a Civil War gun underneath the floor. However, individual listeners must decide for themselves whether or not they believe that there was a friendly soldier ghost that really helped the teacher’s friend find missing objects.


Story – Gaborone, Botswana

So a long, long time ago…when there were a lot of animals in the African bush…all animals existed except what we know as the dog. So one day God made this thing ekse, made the dog. So the dog came into the African bush. Every time an animal comes by the dog was always sleeping. And the monkey – if you know the monkey – is a very curious animal. So the monkey goes up in the tree where the dog was sleeping under and suspended itself by the tail from the tree to get a better look at the dog. The monkey stared at the dog and was like, “What the hell is this?” He needed expertise so he called to all the animals in the bush saying, “Something strange has arrived.”

The dog – this animal – was still sleeping. So the elephant came to examine this animal and said, “This is not an elephant. It doesn’t have a long trunk like I do.” So the opaki – it’s like a combination of a zebra and a horse but is not actually that, that’s just the physical mixture. So the opaki came up to examine the animal and said, “It’s not an opaki. There’s no stripes.” Then the anteater examined it and said, “Can’t be an anteater – I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s no long snout.” Now the tortoise had been there a long time. So the tortoise examined the animal and said, “Can’t be a tortoise. There’s no shell.” The tortoise told the animals, “Until we find out its name why don’t we call it dog.”

So all the animals were gathered ‘round puzzling. And so the monkey came up to the animal to wake it up and ask. The monkey was really scared. And by now the dog was sleeping for a long, long time. So the monkey poked it and all the animals went silent. Then the dog slowly opened his eyes and was startled by the animals and started barking. He was frightened. He thought he was being attacked because there were all these animals around it. All the animals watching were also startled. The dog was angry and the animals ran away so the dog was chasing and chasing and chasing. And that’s why dogs chase everything, because he was woken up from his sleep. The name of this story is why the dog chases everything.

Ruchira explained that he had to reveal the name of the story at the end or else the audience would see what is coming. He first heard this story when he was around the age of ten from a lady named Auntie Betty. She was from a village in Botswana that was rich in African folklore. The members of the village know the folklore and pass it down the generations. Auntie Betty worked at the elementary school in Gaborone, Botswana that Ruchira attended. Auntie Betty looked after the children after school to make sure that they were not kidnapped while they were waiting for their parents to pick them up. So while she was taking care of them, she would tell the children stories.

This tale of the dog was one of the stories told by Auntie Betty after school. Ruchira remembers thinking that it was a really good story when he first heard it. Although he does not believe that this is truly the reason why dogs tend to chase many things, he believes that it is a really interesting way to think about it. It is a unique perspective from which to see the situation. He added that the more absurd a story is, the more he is likely to believe it. Beyond a certain level of absurdity, he feels that it is reality because he wonders why a person would say such absurd things if they were not true. Ruchira feels that this dog story fulfills the purpose of folklore, which, according to him, is to take people away for a while. He feels that folklore causes people to forget about their lives for a while to delve into a different world for a moment in time. Also, Ruchira added that Africa had developed a lot slower than other regions. Therefore, back then, there was not a lot for people to do but tell stories. He says that the stories were told for entertainment.

This story of why the dog chases things is told for entertainment as well, which is one of the reasons why it can be considered marchen. Another reason the story can be considered marchen is because it is not set in the real world, which is proven by the talking animals. Also, there is pedagogy or a lesson in the story that explains why dogs behave a certain way. The motif of the number three can also be seen within this story. Three different animals, including the elephant, the opaki, and the anteater approach and examine the dog before a name is proposed by the tortoise. Overall, this marchen is generally told to entertain children.

A story almost identical to the one Ruchira told can be found in the book African Folktales by Roger D. Abrahams. In the book, the story is titled “Why the Dog Always Chases Other Animals.” Besides the title, there are a few other small differences between the two versions, which show multiplicity and variation of this story. Although the monkey and elephant are still present in the story, the opaki that Ruchira mentioned is called an okapi in the book and the anteater is replaced by a pangolin. Also, the turtle in the book actually knew that the animal was a dog, was the one to wake the dog up, and actually ordered the dog to chase all the animals away. Yet, despite these few differences, Ruchira’s version and the version in the book were extremely similar and essentially the same story.

Abrahams, Roger D. African Folktales. Pg. 163-164. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.


Joke – Gaborone, Botswana

So David Beckham is chilling with his wife Victoria. He says to her, “You know, we need to move to somewhere other than England.” So she’s like, “Oh yeah, we do need to move.” So Beckham was like, “Ok we have three choices: Spain, Sri Lanka, or Romania.” Victoria’s like, “Romania? Why, that’s so far!” So Beckham’s like, “No! Not Romania! Remain ‘ere!”

Ruchira first heard this joke when he was around the age of eighteen from his friend Eden Kiravu. Both Ruchira and Eden grew up in Gaborone, Botswana. So Ruchira has an accent, but he said that this particular joke required an English accent for the dialogue parts. He said that the joke only works when the person telling it imitates David Beckham’s accent and voice because he has such a distinct voice. It is actually more of a mockery than an imitation of David Beckham’s voice because he has such a feminine one. Ruchira said that he believes that it was a classic joke back in the day, but as he looks back and reflects he thinks to himself, “Damn, I can’t believe I thought that was funny.”

This joke has the motif of the number three within it. Beckham lists three places that Victoria can choose to live. It also pokes fun at David Beckham and Victoria, who celebrity status individuals. This may be because people are jealous of the fame and wealth that the celebrities have and, therefore, make fun of their flaws, which in this case is Beckham’s voice and accent. Also, this joke would probably be more effective and entertaining in areas that are more familiar with David Beckham and the world of soccer. Soccer is a larger part of the culture in Botswana than it is in America. Although people know Beckham’s name and face, many in America have not heard him speak. Therefore, this joke would have only been funny to a certain extent because many Americans are unfamiliar with his voice. This separates the soccer fans and followers from the non-soccer fan group.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Tradition – Botswana

So at traditional weddings we have to kill an entire cow. Dowry is dealt with in number of cows. For example, if two people are getting married, the man pays a certain number of cows for the bride. And at funerals it’s more like a celebration. We also kill a number of cows for funerals. The president of Botswana just retired. So at every village, city, or town that he went to they gave him a cow from each place.

Ruchira said that all of these traditions show the importance of cows in the culture of Botswana. According to Ruchira, other than diamonds, cows are the second biggest part of their economy. Historically, cows are also a really important part of life because they were how people sustained life. They did this through the trading of cows. They traded them as a commodity instead of using money. It has been a recent development for the people to sell cows to meat companies for money, and cows are very valuable. Ruchira roughly estimates that cows can reach up to two thousand dollars in value.

In Botswana, cows have remained a symbol of wealth through time. The more cows an individual owns, the wealthier he or she is considered to be. People of the villages know who is wealthy by word of mouth and by just noticing the number of cows that a person owns. In the past, Botswana was mostly rural, and the people viewed cows as investments in the sense that they can provide milk, meat, and labor power. The people invested in cows rather than deposit money at the bank. Ruchira feels that this is logical and that cows are more beneficial than money in the bank. He said that nowadays people in Botswana keep cows mainly to maintain tradition, and people still maintain the traditional view that cows and diamonds equate to wealth.

Besides a difference in economy, the concept of dowry is also different between Motswana and American culture. According to Ruchira’s account, the groom pays the dowry in Botswana; while in America, the dowry is traditionally provided by the family of the bride. Also, Botswana’s preservation of the tradition of keeping cows as a sign of wealth ties into the idea of maintaining an identity. Although the people of Botswana actually sustained life with the ownership of cows in the past, people continue to carry out the tradition during modern times to preserve this part of their identity.

Folk Beliefs

Belief – Indonesia

So like there are these small little demons in Indonesia that run around and like steal things. They’re not really humans – I forgot their name – I think it’s like Tukul. But like they’re really small, like half the size of a human. And people like raise them with Black magic and they steal money and things from other people for them. Then the people pay them blood in return. A lot of people I know have seen them. So they’re real. I haven’t seen any though, no. They are really common in the kampongs – the villages. They have red eyes and they’re really scary. They look like naked toddlers but they’re not.

Elizabeth admits that she believes in Black magic, and she believes that it is very frightening. She repeated her fear many times and emphasized the scariness of Black magic. However, she feels that if a person does not tamper with the subject, the person should not be harmed. She said that she learned most of her knowledge of Black magic when she was very young from her maids that raised her in Indonesia. She grew up with these dark notions and horror stories. She specifically mentioned that they were Muslim, which is common for maids in Indonesia. Also, she is convinced that all of her maids could “see stuff,” meaning they felt the lingering of spirits and knew when Black magic was present. When asked if she feels that Muslims tend to believe more in Black magic, she responded that she believes Asian cultures generally tend to believe in this type of matter and actually practice it more than Western cultures. According to Elizabeth, Western cultures are more modern and have an attitude and mindset that “I can do something about it,” while Asian cultures tend to be more spiritual, religious, and submissive. This causes Asian cultures to be more susceptible to belief in these types of subjects.

The belief in these demons that was expressed by Elizabeth resides in the realm of witchcraft and magic. It is considered magic because the people actually engage in actions. It can also be considered folk belief because the existence of these creatures has not been scientifically proven. Despite how widely and strongly this belief resonates within Indonesian culture, it is still a belief nonetheless. Yet, this belief greatly affects the mindset and everyday lives of the people.

Folk Beliefs

Superstition – Chinese

After a funeral you have to go to somewhere else before you go home so the spirits don’t follow you home. I think it’s like a Chinese thing – like a superstition.

Wilson explained that he has had to stop by another location before heading home after every funeral he has ever attended with his parents. He believes that Chinese people generally believe this. His interpretation of the belief is that the purpose of the extra stop is to “throw off the spirits.” This idea can be considered more of a folk belief rather than a superstition because it is a belief that has not been scientifically proven to be true but it is not tied to magic and does not involve either looking for signs in the universe or reversing something that has been broken. His deeming it a superstition shows how closely related these terms are and how people generally use the terms superstition, belief, and magic interchangeably.

This belief reveals that regardless of the ties that the people have to the deceased, they do not want the spirit to follow them or stay with them. This goes along with the concept that people are supposed to move on in the afterlife rather than linger among and shadow the living. There is also a fear of the spirits that drives people to continue this practice. Wilson mentioned that any place will suffice. For example, his parents and he have stopped by a supermarket before, a Starbucks, and simply anything convenient at the time. In Sunnyvale, CA where he was raised, there are plenty of convenient places to visit instead of leading the spirit home with them.

Folk Beliefs

Superstition – Bombay, India

If you sleep with your bed facing a mirror at night it’s considered bad luck because all the bad that you’ve done reflects back on you.

This was one of the many superstitions that Tanvi had learned as a young girl growing up in Bombay, India. She said she was about five or six years old when her parents told her this. This can be considered a superstition because she was engaging in a superstitious act, or the lack thereof, and it can also be considered folk belief because it has not been scientifically proven. She explained that the belief was that the bad things that a person has done that day or just in life in general may bounce from the mirror back to the person. This would cause more bad things to happen to the person.

She has also learned many other beliefs very similar to this one growing up. Several examples are: do not touch feet to books without asking for forgiveness or do not leave the house for a journey without consuming a mixture of yogurt and sugar or else something bad is going to happen. Tanvi’s parents strictly followed these beliefs in order to generate as much good luck as possible. Good luck and good karma are important aspects of life to her family and generally in India as well. Whether Tanvi believes this or not is irrelevant and unimportant because her parents force her to participate in these folk beliefs.  Therefore, they have become a normal part of her life and she follows most of these beliefs automatically now.