Author Archives: bhumbla

New Years Tradition: Empty Suitcase

Main Piece:

Informant: One other thing that we do on New Years is we get up on top of furniture, like chairs or tables with empty suitcases or carry-on bags. Think luggage for planes. And this has to be at exactly midnight on New Years’ Eve.

Interviewer: Why, why do you guys do this?

Informant: Well, apparently this is supposed to signify or help whoever does this travel more in the coming year.

Interviewer: So if you do this, it is more likely that you will travel in the new year?

Informant: Yes.

Background:

My informant is a friend and a fellow student at USC. She was born and raised in Florida but her father comes from Nicaragua and her mother comes from the Appalachian region. This tradition is something she got from her father and is something her entire family does regularly. She is under the impression that this is a common tradition that many families from Latin American countries participate in but she is unsure as to which countries specifically do or don’t participate in it. She thinks of it as another fun, special New Years’ tradition.

Context:

I had set up a Zoom call with my friend because she said she had some examples of folklore that she could share with me. This sample was shared during that call

Analysis:

This seems like a fairly straightforward tradition to me. Some researching online shows that it is a tradition in Colombia specifically to do what is essentially the same thing, but walking around the neighborhood instead of standing up on a table. Walking around a neighborhood makes sense because it is like you are imitating on a micro-scale, the travel you will be doing in the future. You’re walking instead of on a plane, you’re holding an empty bag instead of some stuffed luggage. So thinking about why standing on top of furniture would be a part of it, I think it makes sense that by standing on top of furniture a person gets higher up in the air and would, in this way, be simulating the flight that is usually associated with travel.

The Hitchcock House Navy

Main Piece:

Informant: Yeah, here’s one, here’s one. This is, this is, this comes from pre World War Two. And this is the tradition that Hitchcock still has. So in UChicago, my little, like, house dormitory is called Hitchcock house named after a Mr. Hitchcock, who was murdered and his widow gave money to solve the murder and the murder was never solved. So he donated it to the University of Chicago, she donated it to University Chicago and created the house. The building itself is 120 years old and it’s like a National Historic bill. It’s an old ass building and so we have a lot of old tradition. Here’s one good one is…

 So we have a Navy. Every house has like house positions. Like, like, just like an Administrative Council, one of our positions is the Admiral and the Admiral’s job is to be in charge of the Hitchcock Navy and we didn’t know – we genuinely didn’t know where this came from. Up until this year because like the other positions are like House President, House Treasurer House blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So yeah we have a Navy, apparently, and we joke that it’s the second biggest Navy on campus after the Sailing Team Because they have a boat. And, um, and it’s like in our like house constitution for as far back as people can find digital records. So, like, people would joke. Like, why in the world is there the Hitchcock Navy, why do they have an Admiral? Who knows. 

Background:

My informant is a friend of mine from high school who now goes to University of Chicago. He’s Scottish-Irish and his family on his dad’s side has been in America for hundreds of years. At UChicago, the dorm buildings are all very close-knit and it is not uncommon to stay in them for all four years of an undergraduate education. These dormitories are also very old, in the case of Hitchcock house, over a century old. And thus there are many strange traditions have been perpetuated without knowing exactly the source.

Context:

The informant is an old high school friend of mine. We’re both home due to online classes and we frequently call each other. During one of our calls over Zoom, I asked if he had any samples of folklore that I can collect and he shared a few.

Analysis:

I’m not really sure what to make of this one. UChicago is a very quirky, unique college, and this story seems to be one of many where traditions are born out of what was most likely an inside joke decades ago that has been perpetuated since. Chicago does lie on Lake Michigan so a “Navy” isn’t the most farfetched idea in that regard.


Doing some research, it seems that UChicago actually hosted some military forces, including some of the Navy during the second World War. Perhaps Hitchcock house hosted some Naval officers and the Admiral position was born out of that.

The Blackboard of Enrico Fermi

Main Piece:

Informant: Here’s a good one. Enrico Fermi lived in the Hitchcock dorm.

Interviewer: Who’s Enrico Fermi?

Informant: The famous physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project and helped to create the first nuclear reactor in the world at University of Chicago. But, yeah, there is an Enrico Fermi room. And he lived in it while he was working on the nuclear reactor which is across that – which was across the street now. It’s been torn down and it’s just radioactive dirt now. Yeah, so there is a room that he lives in and it’s it’s widely regarded as the best room in the dorm because it has a private bathtub. And the funny thing is, um, it actually has a chalkboard too. So the bath is one thing. The chalkboard, I think, is the real appeal. Because it’s the chalkboard that Enrico Fermi used to do his derivations for his nuclear reactor project. And so there’s a lot of mythology surrounding that chalkboard because there’s no way bathtub or anything else is original but the chalkboard is part of the wall. So I just can’t really imagine it ever being added in. It’s just like a piece of slate in the wall and the building is a historical landmark so it can’t be renovated. So, okay, most of the things in the building are original unless they break.

So there’s a lot of mythology about like, you know. If you’re like doing math on the chalkboard in Enrico Fermi’s room, you know, your math will never be wrong because it’s like, okay, it’s blessed and it’s like, you know, like his ghost will like guide your math and physics and you will always get the right solution.

 Interviewer: Have people ever claimed to like feel him. Or be a conduit, channeling his ghost?

 Informant: I’m not sure about that. Hopefully I’ll live there next year and I’ll be able to test it for myself.

Background:

My informant is a friend of mine from high school who now goes to University of Chicago. He’s Scottish-Irish and his family on his dad’s side has been in America for hundreds of years. At UChicago, the dorm buildings are all very close-knit and it is not uncommon to stay in them for all four years of an undergraduate education. These dormitories are also very old, in the case of Hitchcock house, over a century old. And thus there are many strange traditions have been perpetuated without knowing exactly the source.

Context:

The informant is an old high school friend of mine. We’re both home due to online classes and we frequently call each other. During one of our calls over Zoom, I asked if he had any samples of folklore that I can collect and he shared a few.

Analysis:

It is true that Enrico Fermi stayed at Uchicago while building his nuclear reactor and there is no reason to doubt the idea that it is known which room he stayed in and whether or not that room has a chalkboard.

I see this as one of those tales that started off as a joke, but was ultimately protected and enforced so much (even if it was in a joking manner) that it became part of the campus mythology. I doubt most people at UChicago genuinely believe that the chalkboard has any special properties, but simply the act of pretending that it may for so many decades, has been solidified into an enforced belief. 

With its gothic architecture, gigantic libraries, and intellectual focus, UChicago definitely is one of the most ghost-friendly campuses I can imagine, from an aesthetic standpoint. This legend definitely fits in with the overall vibe and culture of the campus.

The Murder Stall

Main Piece:

Informant: Oh, here’s a cool thing. There’s been a lot of political assassinations that have happened on campus. The most famous of which is a Romanian Ambassador was murdered in a stall, a bathroom stall in the Divinity Room. And you can you can tell which stall he was shot at, because there’s bloodstains in the tile grout that have not been able to be washed out. So I, and a lot of other people, always use that stall in memoriam. It was a professor who was an outspoken critic of the Romanian Government, I believe.

 Interviewer: And he was also a Romanian ambassador?

Informant: No, no, no, no. He was not – he was not an ambassador. He was a, like a refugee and also a critic. Of the regime at the time. And then one day he was just shot in the back of the head in the bathroom in the basement of the Divinity School And people were like, “Never solved.” It was strongly suspected to be a politically motivated murder.

Interviewer: Is it for sure, his blood that’s in the grout?

Informant: Not at all for sure. It’s probably not the blood but that’s just what people say. People talk about it, like, oh, don’t use that stall. That’s the Murder Stall, that’s its name. It’s a urinal, he was literally shot in the urinal. What I tell people is “Use the murder stall out of respect. Out of remembrance.”

Background:

My informant is a friend of mine from high school who now goes to University of Chicago. He’s Scottish-Irish and his family on his dad’s side has been in America for hundreds of years. At UChicago, the dorm buildings are all very close-knit and it is not uncommon to stay in them for all four years of an undergraduate education. These dormitories are also very old, in the case of Hitchcock house, over a century old. And thus there are many strange traditions have been perpetuated without knowing exactly the source.

Context:

The informant is an old high school friend of mine. We’re both home due to online classes and we frequently call each other. During one of our calls over Zoom, I asked if he had any samples of folklore that I can collect and he shared a few.

Analysis: 

Some research reveals the person my informant was talking about was Ioan Petru Culianu, a professor of the history of religions at UChicago who taught until he was murdered in 1991. He was, in fact, murdered in the bathroom of the divinity school. People speculated the murder was motivated by far-right Romanian organizations, but nothing was ever proven.

Nothing I could find mentioned the stall that Culianu was specifically murdered in so I would think of this another example of UChicago students seeing an opportunity to create a story and willing into truth and canon. However, it could very well be true that the Murder Stall is where the murder happened.

Folk Medicine: Chopped Onions Heal

Main Piece:

Okay so recently my grandma has started putting bowls of onion around the house, especially with, like, all the new coronavirus stuff. And she’s done this before, but it’s, like, a pretty common thing for, like, Asian people to do when someone is sick because the idea is that, like, the onion is supposed to suck up all the, like, bad stuff in the air.

Interviewer: Okay. So, and this is something that like your grandma does? Um, is it something that your mom does as well? 

Informant: It’s just my grandma.

Interviewer: You think this is like an East Asian thing or like Vietnamese specifically?

Informant: I’m not sure, I just know it’s supposed to “cancel out the virus” or something like that. Chopped onions specifically.

Interviewer: Nice. Yeah, is it in strategic locations or is it just like generally around the house?

Informant: That’s a good question, they’re just around the house. She leaves a bowl in my room when I’m coughing.

Interviewer: That’s funny.

Informant: Yeah, it is. I smelt like onions for like a long time.

Background:

My informant is a friend and fellow student at USC. She was raised in the LA area but her family is ethnically Chinese and immigrated from Vietnam so she has multiple East Asian influences in her life. She saw this exhibited by her grandmother and it’s simply been something that’s part of life when her grandmother stays with her.

Context:

I had set up a Zoom call with my friend because she said she had some examples of folklore that she could share with me. This sample was shared during that call

Analysis:

Some research shows that this is a relatively well known Chinese folk remedy. It finds its origins in ancient Chinese foot reflexology. While modern science does not corroborate the effectiveness of foot reflexology, it was believed that the nerves in the feet were access points to the internal organs and foot nerves have been a large part of Eastern medicine for millennia. Where this links to onions in a bowl is that in the 1500s it was apparently believed that placing chopped onion around the house could help protect from the bubonic plague. Some people, drawing from Eastern foot reflexology, would even put chopped onion in their socks. It seems that my informant’s grandmother is practicing a folk remedy that takes inspiration from both ancient Eastern medicine as well as European, plague-time beliefs.

To read more about this belief, see the following website:

Cafasso, Jacquelyn. “Will Putting Onions in Your Socks Cure the Flu?” Healthline, 17 May 2017, www.healthline.com/health/cold-flu/onion-in-sock.