Most of us have heard some version of the tale. It has been around for a long, long time. Vermont scholar Marjorie Dundas is retired from teaching, but she has made a sort of second career in collecting variations of the same legend.
Thumbing through the anthology, I am struck by the diversity of nationality and ethnicity. The ancient wisdom of a judge in India, of a magistrate in mainland China, a county governor in Taiwan. Could the same ancient story come from so many places? I admit to a suspicion that the single origin of all those versions may be the creative imagination of some forgotten writer.
The story I heard as a kid was about the ancient Chinese magistrate. A priceless item has been stolen. A host of suspects appear before the magistrate. Each swears to innocence. There seems no way to find the actual thief. So the magistrate resorts to the supernatural.
He orders that a religious bell be borrowed from a local temple. It is surrounded on every side, and overhead, by curtains. The magistrate enters the temporary structure to the pray alone before the dimly lit bell. He emerges and proclaims the thief will be found. A way has been revealed to him.
Each suspect is instructed to pray alone in the dim light, then place hands upon the bell. The bell will ring when it is touched by guilty hands.
One by one each suspected thief enters the enclosure, emerging a few minutes later. The bell remains silent.
The magistrate then passes sentence. When he had first prayed before the bell, he had coated the outside with soot. Each suspect who turned out to be innocent had prayed as instructed and put hands on the bell. Only one person had been afraid to touch the bell. Only one person had clean hands.
The thief was caught.
The version from India had a judge who assured the crowd that he carried with him sticks of truth. Each suspect was ordered to keep a magical stick overnight. The stick in possession of the thief would grow a couple of inches. The thief was caught holding the stick that was shorter than the rest.
In Taiwan, it was oil and coins.
Some of the stories came from the United States.
One here in the Midwest is supposed to have occurred in the Ozarks. An old woman tells the assembled folk that she has a miniature figurine with a bit of sorcery attached. It will squeal when touched by guilty hands. The one with clean hands is the thief.
The version that comes from the Lower East Side in New York involves a dispute between two very devout Orthodox Jews. A counsel of rabbis instructs both to enter a dimly lit room and kiss the Torah. The theory is that a devout person who is dishonest (a devout dishonest person) would not want to defile the book. The one emerging with soot on her face prevails.
I dunno. I’m not a Jewish scholar, but I hesitate at buying a story that involves Holy people putting soil all over a sacred text. Too-good-to-be-true is the start of a number of Urban Legends.
I do remember other stories from our own country that are more believable. They all involve the same consciousness of wrongdoing.
One is a little more complex than most. It does not involve superstition, exactly. A man is convicted of murdering his family. Evidence is discovered that proves the man did not commit the crime. The evidence is sent to the governor. The governor is too busy to read the report and refuses to reverse the sentence. After the execution, a commission authorizes a study of the evidence. The governor cancels the study, fires the committee, and declares that his hands are clean.
That story happens in Texas. The guilty governor is eventually appointed Secretary of the United States Department of Energy. As far as I know, Secretary Rick Perry still maintains the story is just an urban legend.
A couple of tales involve an entire administration.
It seems someone in an executive position has something against refugees. Claims they are a burden to society. So he orders a study to document just how much a burden is placed on the American people by these unwanted survivors from other countries.
The study is done, but the conclusions are a surprise. All the figures are added up, benefits awarded, school costs for children, crimes committed, wear and tear on roads; and on the other side, taxes paid, jobs created. The math is solid. The refugees contribute more than they take. And by a large, large margin.
The report is buried. The executive – whoever he is – refuses to have it published. Denies it even exists.
There are similar stories. Other reports are also excised from the record. NASA documentation of climate change disappears from web sites. Financial calculation of costs of pending legislation is withheld until after votes are taken. A voter suppression commission is established, refusing to accept evidence that voter fraud is almost non-existent.
Consciousness of – I dunno – guilt?
One far fetched legend even has a President attempt to have an investigation of an election ended by firing the head of the investigating agency. Absurdly, he boasts about it to offical representatives of a hostile foreign government, in a meeting he thinks is secret.
Bells, sticks, coins, sacred texts, suppressed studies, firings, obstruction.
I was impressed by the scholarly work of Marjorie Dundas, her collection of similar tales from around the world. And by other stories here in this country.
Legends of thieves incriminating themselves by proving they are afraid of truth.
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