The Kidney Thieves: An Urban Legend with Unexpected Impacts

Bourbon Street in the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana at night.

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No one knows why, but in 1997 a mind contagion broke out in New Orleans. As the city geared up for its annual Mardi Gras festivities in January, a rumor began spreading via word-of-mouth, fax, and forwarded email to the effect that a highly organized crime ring in New Orleans was carrying out plans to drug visiting tourists, surgically remove healthy kidneys from their bodies, and sell the organs on the black market.

The viral message, which most often arrived under the header "Travelers Beware," sparked an avalanche of phone calls to local authorities, prompting the New Orleans Police Department to publish an official statement to calm public fears. Investigators found no substantiating evidence.

The story had a familiar ring. Before New Orleans, people said it happened in Houston; before Houston, Las Vegas—where an unsuspecting tourist was drugged in his hotel room by a prostitute and woke up the next morning, supposedly, in a bathtub full of ice, minus a kidney.

A Dubious Tale

It's a scenario that has taken many forms. You may have heard it from a friend who'd heard it from another friend, whose mother swore it had happened to a distant cousin.

In one version, the victim—we'll call him "Bob"—was on a business trip alone somewhere in Europe, and went out to a bar one night to have a cocktail. Wouldn't you know it, he woke up the next morning in an unfamiliar hotel room with severe pain in his lower back. He was taken to the emergency room, where doctors determined that, unbeknownst to himself, Bob had undergone major surgery the night before. One of his kidneys had been removed, cleanly and professionally.

A chilling tale, and a dubious one. With minor variations, the same story has been told thousands of times by thousands of different people in many different locales. And it's always based on third-, fourth-, or fifth-hand information. It's an urban legend.

Black Market

The case for the existence of an international black market organ trade has become increasingly convincing in recent years. What remains unsubstantiated are the tales of "back room" organ thefts perpetrated in the dark of night in seedy hotel rooms or secluded alleyways.

"There is absolutely no evidence of such activity ever occurring in the U.S. or any other industrialized country," says the United Network for Organ Sharing. "While the tale sounds credible enough to some listeners, it has no basis in the reality of organ transplantation."

In fact, it's all but impossible for such activities to take place outside properly-equipped medical facilities, UNOS argues. The removal, transport, and transplantation of human organs involves procedures so complex and delicate, requiring a sterile setting, minute timing, and the support of so many highly-trained personnel, that they simply could not be accomplished on the street.

No Confirmed Victims

The National Kidney Foundation has repeatedly issued requests for alleged victims of such crimes to come forward and validate their stories. To date, none have.

Even so, like so many urban legends fueled by irrational fear and ignorance, the organ theft story continues to spread from person to person and place to place, changing and adapting to its surroundings over time like a mutating virus.

Putting Lives at Risk

Unlike many other urban legends, unfortunately, this one has put real people's lives at risk. A decade or so ago, rumors began spreading in Guatemala to the effect that Americans were kidnapping local children in order to harvest their organs for transplantation in the United States. In 1994, several U.S. citizens and Europeans were attacked by mobs who believed the rumors to be true. An American woman, Jane Weinstock, was severely beaten and remains critically impaired.

Closer to home, charitable organizations dedicated to facilitating and funding organ transplants are concerned that tales of black marketeering may be at least partially responsible for a reduction in the ranks of volunteer donors, resulting in needless deaths among seriously ill patients awaiting transplants.

How Rumors Spread

Contagion is an apt metaphor here. Tracing the spread of this pernicious rumor and the fear that it engenders, we see that acts as a sort of mind-virus, adapting to new environments as it jumps from host to host—even reaching epidemic proportions when conditions are right.

This way of looking at the propagation of urban legends comes from the discipline of memetics, which investigates the properties of "memes," or "units of cultural transmission." Other examples of memes are songs, ideas, fashions, and commercial slogans. Think of cultures as "meme pools"—comparable to the "gene pools" discussed in biological evolution—and think of memes as informational entities that replicate and evolve in order to survive.

One thing the longevity of the kidney theft tale makes clear is that a meme need not be true to be fit for survival. What it must—and in this case, certainly does—have are traits that consistently induce one host to communicate the meme to another.

One such trait is its ability, like a good ghost story, to spark a visceral tingle of fear in the listener. This is probably, in fact, among the strongest characteristics a meme can have; for fear induces stress and one way we as human beings attempt to cope with stress is by distributing it among our peers. On the darker side, there is undeniably a sensation of power to be had by successfully provoking fear in others. Some people actually take a perverse pleasure in it.

Importance of Accurate Information

Someone, we don't know who, initiated the cavalcade of faxes, emails and phone calls in early 1997 that caused panic among prospective travelers to New Orleans. It's hard to imagine what the rumormonger's motivation was, if not to share a feeling of panic. In succeeding, he or she induced others to do the same. An epidemic was born.

The best remedy is accurate information. But remember, viruses adapt in order to survive, and this one has proven to be especially flexible and resilient. We can expect a new strain to show up in due time, in a brand-new environment in which it can flourish and with some compelling new twist to keep it fresh. We can't predict where it will happen, nor can we do much to prevent it. The best we can do, we "epidemiologists of culture," is watch and learn, and share what we know. The rest is up to the vagaries of human nature, and the natural selection of memes.