A strange story of murder on the London Underground appeared on the Unexplained Mysteries forum in July 2007. It described an art student heading home from central London one night in an empty tube carriage. Initially there was only one other passenger, a man in his thirties, but after a few minutes three other people got on board, two men either side of a woman.
The student decided the trio looked like drug addicts and avoided eye contact with them. Then the thirty-something sat down next to her and started talking as if he knew her. He whispered ‘Get off at the next stop’ to her. She was unsure but didn't want to be left on the train with the other three, so she followed the man off at the next station. As the train rattled out of the station the man explained to her that the woman in the trio was dead: he had seen the two men drag her on to the train with a pair of scissors stuck into the back of her skull.
The message board loved the ‘creepy’ story, and debated how much blood a pair of scissors would cause when fatally stuck in someone’s head or how a pair of scissors could be used to prop up a body. One person helpfully suggested “that woman was a ghost. Theres [sic] loads of abondond [sic] stations in london [sic] and many ghosts that live there”. Which may be true and to be fair to the forum, quite a few also cried “Urban Legend!”
Another forum member replied that she lived in Sydney and the story had also been told there. Except this time there were a trio of girls with the middle one staring at a girl who’d got on a subway train. The girl was “someone who is close to my old best friend” The middle girl of the trio stared at our friend-of-a-friend so she looked out of the window. Later on a ticket guard came on, inspected her ticket first and took her off the train. She later found out that the middle girl, who’d been staring at her, was dead, having been strangled by the other two.
But hang on, what about the email collected by the urban legend clearing house Snopes in 2003 that told of two men holding up a woman who stared at another woman across the tube? She was dead too: the witness was informed of the fact by a doctor who, being an expert, spotted the corpse's condition and decided to rescue her. There was no cause of death described this time, nor a pair of scissors embedded in the brain.
The version that appeared in Rodney Dale’s book It’s True, It Happened to a Friend, published in 1984, actually had the killing surreptitiously take place in front of the unfortunate girl. A man gets on to her empty carriage and she ignores him, busying herself with a crossword. At the next stop, two other men get on and sit either side of him. The two men get off the stop after leaving the original man in his seat. As the train pulls out of the station there’s a jolt and the man falls on the carriage floor, dead, with a knife in his back. No nice man to save our lone travelling woman this time.
We’re back to killer girls in a 1980s tale told not on the Underground but on a train going from Leeds to Manchester with two girls as observers, not one:
They "discovered later" that the girl with the intense stare had been murdered by her two female companions and that they were propping her up during the voyage.
A New York version, collected by the FOAF tale news, has a husband and wife on a late night stagecoach some thirty or forty years before the subway was built. Three ruffians jumped onboard the coach and sat down, the middle man seeming to be out cold with drink. Then one man said ‘goodnight’ and got off. A few blocks further on the second man left the middle man, who was crouching in the corner of the coach, with a hearty "Well, good night, Dick,". The married couple became concerned that the young man might miss his stop and the husband tried to rouse him. After a while the husband straightened up and took himself and his wife off the coach (this time the man with the wisdom and authority is a husband not a doctor or uniformed ticket collector) telling her, once they were on the street, that the young man has been cut “from ear to ear”.
Urban legends are a multicultural thing, especially when the fears of vulnerable travellers and whom they may encounter on public transport are a universal theme. In America the staring passenger is often a black comedy rather than horror story. In his book The Affairs of Dame Rumour, published in 1948, David Jacobson recounts the rumour that ‘periodically plagues’ New York newspapermen of a young woman taking the subway who is troubled by a man staring at her with a fixed expression. Offended by his ‘brazen stare’ the New Yorker slaps the man across the face only to have him roll on to the floor. He’d been dead for hours, possible from alcohol poisoning but certainly not murder, and had been sitting on the subway staring with dead eyes.
Rodney Dale tracked down a version from Italy which is even thicker with dark laughter. It also changes the perspective of the tale to the people actually smuggling a corpse on public transport. In his 1978 book The Tumour in the Whale he tells the story of a Neapolitan family working in the north of Italy. The father died suddenly and to, avoid the extra cargo costs of taking a coffin on a train, his family dressed him up in his best clothes and sat him in a carriage supported by his two sons on either side. The sons left the father unattended for a short while and returned to find his body missing and another family in the carriage. After some shouting and the flash of a stiletto or two the family confessed that when the train jolted into motion their suitcase had fallen out of the luggage rack and on to the corpse. Fearing that he had been killed by the suitcase, they threw the body off the train.
If you hop on the tail of an urban legend you will find yourself in all sorts of places and a bit giddy, so let’s hop off back in London. Home safe and assured that if you do get someone slumped over or staring at you on the tube they’re almost certainly not dead. They’re just drunk, stoned or are a bit weird and have taken a fancy to you.
Here's our skilled re-enactment of how the tube-based story might have gone: