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Birth of an urban legend

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Some stories are too good not to tell -- even if you don't exactly remember them. It's always easy to fill in any forgotten details. After all, as long as the main idea stays the same it's basically the same story, right? Of course it doesn't really work that way. When a story has been retold again and again even the small alterations add up. Eventually there are twenty different versions of it and no one is certain exactly where it came from. If the story is one that has been told as true, even if not told that way originally, it becomes an urban legend. Indeed, a lot of the fascination in urban legends comes from trying to figure out if they were ever "true". Okay, so maybe a friend of my friend didn't really find a hook hanging from their car door -- but did somebody, once upon a time?

"Room For One More" is one of those stories that's too good not to tell. Better yet, if you dig into the story's history, you find one of the greatest true ghost stories ever told.

Once there was a girl (the story goes) who was driving back to town and stopped to stay at her friend's old house. As she lay awake, strangely restless in the small, dark hours of the morning, she heard a coach drive up outside. She got up and went to the window, and was shocked to see a hearse in the yard below. Instead of coffins, the hearse was filled with people. The driver, a singularly ugly old man, leered up at her and said, "room for one more!" Terrified she went back and hid under the covers, eventually falling asleep. In the morning no one believed her story. The house wasn't supposed to be haunted and she finally decided it was just a dream.

When she got to the city she went shopping at a fancy department store. She was on the top floor, waiting for the elevator, when the door opened. She started to get on, but then she realized that the elevator operator was the same old man she'd seen the night before. As she hesitated he smiled hideously at her and said, "room for one more!"

Terrified now, the girl said she'd decided to walk down. No sooner had the doors closed than there was a terrific roar as the elevator crashed, killing everyone inside.

Snopes, the Internet's most prestigious urban legends reference site, traces this story back to 1912. In fact, it dates to the eighteenth century, and it was told as true by one of the most famous British diplomats who ever served Queen Victoria.

Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, was an influential statesman and adventurer, a popular member of the British government and one of the most talented diplomats of his century. His book, Letters From High Latitudes, became the prototype for humorous travelogues, and during his life he served in a variety of posts around the world, including Viceroy of India. He is probably best remembered, however, as the third Governor General of Canada.

In the mid-1880s, after leaving Canada, Dufferin was visiting a friend at a house near Tullamore in Ireland. One night he found it impossible to sleep. After tossing and turning and trying to read, he got up and crossed to the window to look outside. It was a full moon, and the garden below was almost as brightly lit as it would be by daylight. As he stood there a movement caught his eye and he was surprised to see a strange man carrying a long box on his back, crossing the lawn. He realized suddenly that the man was carrying a coffin, though he couldn't imagine any reason why someone should be carrying a coffin across the lawn at that hour. The man crossed about halfway, in full view of the window, then stopped and looked up at Dufferin. His appearance was so hideous that the statesman recoiled in horror. Afterwards he wasn't able to describe him exactly, except to say that he was an ugly old man.

The next day he told his host what he had seen. The man was mystified, and said that there was certainly no reason why anyone should have actually been out there. Neither had the old house the tradition of being haunted. They finally decided it must have been a dream.

The sequel did not take place for at least five or six years. During the mid-1890s Dufferin served as Ambassador to France. While there he went to a meeting in the Grand Hotel. The stories do not say, specifically, but probably this was the Grand Hotel du Louvre, the original hotel to bear that name. It was built in 1855 and was one of the first buildings in France to boast a steam-driven elevator.

As the Marquess crossed to the elevator with two or three companions, the doors opened and he was shocked to recognize the elevator operator as the man from his dream all those years ago in Ireland. He stepped back, startling his companions, and waved the elevator to go on without them. It reached the third floor before the cables broke. Everyone inside died in the crash. An investigation into the accident revealed that the elevator operator had been hired only that morning, to replace the regular operator who was out sick. No one knew the strange man's name and he was never identified.

Lord Dufferin told the story often in his later years. As it was told and retold different versions began to appear. One version was featured in the book Famous Ghost Stories by Bennett Cerf, in 1944. A year later another version appeared in the movie "Dead of Night". By this time, the man carrying a box has become a coachman, driving a hearse. An account that is very near the original appears in the 1959 book Strangely Enough by C. B. Colby.

An episode of The Twilight Zone inspired by Lord Dufferin's story aired on February 10,1961. Titled "Twenty-Two", it told of a dancer who was hospitalized after an injury. While there she dreamed of following a nurse to room 22, the hospital morgue. When they arrived the nurse turned and said, "room for one more, honey". In this version, instead of an elevator operator, the person from her dream turns out to be a flight attendant on an airplane, which is of course flight 22. She refuses to board, even after the attendant assures her that there is "room for one more, honey." The plane then explodes just after takeoff. It is probably this version which produced the subset of stories where the main character is a woman.

Peter Underwood, president of Britain's prestigious Ghost Club, mentions this story in his book The A-Z of British Ghosts. He reports that he discussed it with one of Lord Dufferin's descendants, who confirmed that he always told it as a true personal account.

This tale, once told as true by a prominent statesman, has now been a part of our supernatural lore for over a century. Probably it will continue to be shared and altered as long as people share tales. It is, after all, too good a story not to tell. And if more variations appear (and they will) that's fine. After all, that's the nice thing about urban legends:

There's always room for one more.

Sources:

The Apparition That Saved a Life

http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/ACal...eHalloween.html 10/21/05

Elevator Timeline

http://www.theelevatormuseum.org/timeline.htm 10/22/05

Horrorfind Message Board Discussion

http://horrorfind.com/board-bin/YaBB.pl?bo...;num=1117317965 10/21/05

The Oldest Grand Hotel in the World

http://www.famoushotels.org/famoushotels/0...01index/000.htm 10/22/05

"Room For One More". Snopes Urban Legends Reference Pages.

http://www.snopes.com/horrors/ghosts/onemore.htm 10/21/05

Ludwigsen, Will. Personal blog

http://www.will-ludwigsen.com/blogmar03.htm 10/21/05

Underwood, Peter. The A-Z of British Ghosts. Bounty Books. 1992.

Wikipedia -- Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Ham...ufferin_and_Ava 10/21/05

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