Long before chain emails and memes came into vogue thanks to the Internet, the urban legend of “The Elevator Incident” circulated far enough to not only be covered in literature but to be smuggled into the pages of the New York Times.
According to the Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, the modern version of the folk tale dates back to 1981, and it generally involves a Black celebrity of the moment’s encounter with an unaware white person.
One variation of this story that eventually migrated online, for example, placed the story in a casino elevator and the white person as a woman carrying a bucket with her winnings who gets nervous when two Black men enter the lift. This version of the story read:
Avoiding eye contact,she turned around stiffly and faced the elevator doors as they closed. A second passed, and then another second, and then another. The elevator didn’t move. Panic consumed her. My God, she thought, I’m trapped and about to be robbed! Her heart plummeted. Perspiration poured from every pore. Then one of the men said,” Hit the floor.” Instinct told her: Do what they tell you. The bucket of quarters flew upwards as she threw out her arms and collapsed on the elevator carpet. A shower of coins rained down on her. Take my money and spare me, she prayed.
More seconds passed. She heard one of the men say politely, “Ma’am, if you’ll just tell us what floor you’re going to, we’ll push the button”.
“In every version the unrecognized man’s innocent comment is mistaken by a white passenger in the same elevator as a threat,” Jan Harold Brunvand wrote in the Encyclopedia. “This somewhat racist story of mistaken identification has non-racial prototypes in much earlier traditions involving other kinds of verbal misunderstanding.”
In this version, the woman apologizes for her gaffe and the two men help her gather her winnings and walk her to her room despite her being afraid “she might not make it down the corridor.” The story concludes:
The woman brushed herself off. She pulled herself together and went downstairs for dinner with her husband.
The next morning flowers were delivered to her room – a dozen roses. Attached to each rose was a crisp one dollar bill. A card said…Thanks for the best laugh we’ve had in years.” It was signed, “Eddie Murphy and Bodyguard.”
The genesis of the 1980s version of the story used pro baseball Hall-of-Famer and then-New York Yankees star Reggie Jackson as the celebrity.
In some variations, “two or three middle-aged white women” are on the elevator when Jackson enters with his dog on a leash; their paranoia kicks in when Jackson tells the dog, “Sit,” or “Sit, lady!”
In a separate book, The Choking Doberman: And Other Urban Legends, Brunvand reported that Jackson — after leaving the Yankees to play for the California Angels — discussed the story with journalists.
“I’ve heard the story a thousand times,” Jackson told one reporter. “I would never own a dog in New York. It would be cruel to have a dog in New York. Whatever you’ve been told isn’t true.”
Brunvand found that variations of the myth spread long enough that Black celebrities ranging from boxer Larry Holmes to comedian and talk show host Arsenio Hall were named as the “mugger” figure. In September 1999, the version of the story naming Murphy was published as an anecdote in the Times’ “Jersey Diary” section, with no mention that it was fabricated. That prompted a letter from a reader chiding the newspaper for not vetting the story.
“The prejudices and sensitivities of racial relations play a large role in this story and even in how the Times has told it,” Lin Goetz wrote. “Urban legends often reveal our deepest fears and cares.”
To further illustrate the staying power of these types of stories, one version we first spotted in 2003 was still circulating on Facebook as recently as November 2021; in this version, the post opens by stating:
For anyone who didn’t see the episode of David Letterman’s show where this story was told, read this: (And remember it’s a true story…)
It also tweaks the Murphy version in that the card is signed, “Eddie Murphy & Michael Jordan.”
Update 2/2/2022, 2:55 p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. -ag