After stealing someone's shopping bag in a department store parking lot, a thief gets the surprise of her life when she opens it up and sees what's inside.
Description: Urban legend
Circulating since: 1998 (this version)
Email example contributed by Donna A., Aug. 5, 2004:
THE DILLARDS THIEF-- in San Antonio, Texas
This is too funny! This could only be true, you can't make this stuff up.
Clutching their Dillard's shopping bags, Ellen and Kay woefully gazed down at a dead cat in the mall parking lot. Obviously a recent hit---no flies, no smell.
"What business could that poor kitty have had here?" murmured Ellen. "Come on, Ellen, let's just go..." But Ellen had already grabbed her shopping bag and was explaining,"I'll just put my things in your bag, and then I'll take the tissue." She dumped her purchases into Kay's bag and then used the tissue paper to cradle and lower the former feline into her own Dillard's bag and cover it.
They continued the short trek to the car in silence, stashing their goods in the trunk. But it occurred to both of them that if they left Ellen's burial bag in the trunk, warmed by the Texas sunshine while they ate, Kay's Lumina would soon lose that new-car smell. They decided to leave the bag on top of the trunk, and they headed over to Luby's Cafeteria.
After they cleared the serving line and sat down at a window table, they had a view of Kay's Chevy with the Dillard's bag still on the trunk. BUT not for long. As they ate, they noticed a black-haired woman in a red gingham shirt stroll by their car, look quickly this way and that, and then hook the Dillard's bag without breaking stride. She quickly walked out of their line of vision. Kay and Ellen shot each other a wide-eyed look of amazement. It all happened so fast that neither of them could think how to respond. "Can you imagine?" finally sputtered Ellen. "The nerve of that woman!" Kay sympathized with Ellen, but inwardly a laugh was building as she thought about the grand surprise awaiting the red-gingham thief. Just when she thought she'd have to giggle into her napkin, she noticed Ellen's eyes freeze in the direction of the serving line. Following her gaze, Kay recognized with a shock the black-haired woman with the Dillard's bag, THE Dillard's bag, hanging from her arm, brazenly pushing her tray toward the cashier.
Helplessly they watched the scene unfold: After clearing the register, the woman settled at a table across from theirs, put the bag on an empty chair and began to eat. After a few bites of baked whitefish and green beans, she casually lifted the bag into her lap to survey her treasure. Looking from side to side, but not far enough to notice her rapt audience three tables over, she pulled out the tissue paper and peered into the bag. Her eyes widened, and she began to make a sort of gasping noise. The noise grew. The bag slid from her lap as she sank to the floor, wheezing and clutching her upper chest.
The beverage cart attendant quickly recognized a customer in trouble and sent the busboy to call 911, while she administered the Heimlich maneuver. A crowd quickly gathered that did not include Ellen and Kay, who remained riveted to their chairs for seven whole minutes until the ambulance arrived.
In a matter of minutes the curly-haired woman emerged from the crowd, still gasping, strapped securely on a gurney. Two well-trained EMS volunteers steered her to the waiting ambulance, while a third scooped up her belongings.
The last they saw of the distressed cat-burglar, she disappeared behind the ambulance doors, the Dillard's bag perched on her stomach.
Analysis: This classic urban legend, known to folklorists as "The Dead Cat in the Package," refuses to die a quiet death even though it's at least a century old, as San Francisco's venerated newspaper columnist Herb Caen observed in 1963:
The Story of the Dead Cat: a woman, for reasons unexplained, places her dead cat in a shoebox and, on the way to bury it, stops in a downtown department store. (Why?) As she is shopping, she places the box on a counter, and it disappears. A few minutes later, the store detective finds a lady shoplifter passed out in the powder room, the open shoebox on her lap. I first printed that in 1938 — it was hoary then — and it reappears in somebody's column at least once a year, as gospel.
The email version above, noteworthy for its down-home details like topping off a day of shopping at Dillard's with lunch at Luby's Cafeteria, has been circulating on the Internet since 1998.
A brand-new variant, in which it is claimed that muggers in Austria stole a woman's handbag containing the corpse of her beloved pet rabbit, appeared in European newspapers in November 2007.
"When the family went back to the car they found it had been stolen, along with all their possessions... and Grandma."
Alligators in the Sewers
"It was once a fad among New Yorkers returning home from Florida vacations to bring back tiny baby alligators for their children to raise as pets."
Sources and further reading:
1998 newsgroup posting of the same text in alt.tasteless.jokes
The (Dead) Cat in Urban Mythology
by Sarah Hartwell
The Vanishing Hitchhiker
Jan Harold Brunvand, W.W. Norton, 1981
'Herb Caen' Column
San Francisco Chronicle, 25 August 1963