An old Austin urban legend is that a cloud of lithium surrounds the city, causing the skyline to glow purple against the horizon. The soothing effect of the lithium is said to cause Austinites to wander about in a sweetly happy mood, bordering on euphoria.
Austin author O. Henry, was the first to refer to Austin as "The City of the Violet Crown" and author Anne Rivers Siddons is recorded as the first to suggest lithium as the culprit.
"There is definitely a purple glow to the city if you get past the light pollution, but I don't know it's because of lithium, or if it has any affect on the overall happiness of the city," said Austin mythbuster and archivist R.M. Fulmer. "If people are happy here, it's probably because it's usually sunny and we're surrounded by lakes, rivers and lots of rolling Hill Country."
A more recent scary Austin urban legend has many Austinites afraid to go in the water.
Since I was a little girl learning to swim in Lake Travis, I have heard rumors that Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Berkeley Breathed (creator of the award-winning comic strip, "Bloom County") released hundreds of baby alligators into the river, where they have grown into man-eating monsters that lurk beneath the surface to this day.
Though it is true that Breathed did live in Austin while attending the University of Texas and was a notorious trickster, he said the alligator caper was a hoax he made up while writing for the campus magazine. Breathed said the prank, and the ensuing Austin urban myth, caused Lake Travis property values to plummet and immediately caught the attention of the FBI.
"I did have two baby alligators in my apartment. I was arrested for that," Breathed told New York Magazine. "There are no giant alligators living in Lake Travis."
"Charlie the Giant Catfish"
The alligators may be an urban myth, but this next Austin urban legend is true. There is an enormous, one-eyed, gentle giant of a catfish in the deep water near Windy Point, according to scuba divers familiar with the area.
"His name is Charlie, and he's almost five feet long," said Bob Barstow, founder of Windy Point Park, a popular dive spot on Lake Travis. Barstow has photographic evidence of the catfish's existence. "He's huge, lumpy and fat and not a particularly good looking fish, but to my knowledge, Charlie has never attempted to eat anyone."
Still, having seen photos of this fierce-looking behemoth, I occasionally get a sudden, stomach-knotting streak of panic when swimming in the deep waters near Mansfield Dam.
"Texas Chainsaw Mythacre"
As cautionary tales go, there have been rumors that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre horror movie is a true story and the grisly murders took place in Austin. Thankfully, this scary Austin urban legend is not true, despite what my mother told me and the dire warning on the DVD label.
Though Tobe Hooper did live in Austin when he dreamed up the macabre story of a Texas family of chainsaw-wielding, sausage-making cannibals, he says he got the idea while standing in a long checkout line near a display of chainsaws at a local hardware store.
Perhaps we could all benefit from a little cloud of lithium.
"Vote for the Naked Man"
One of the more colorful bits of Austin urban legend is that a half-nude, homeless transvestite is a perennial candidate for mayor. My Austin mythbusters research says this rumor is absolutely true.
The first time I saw scraggly-haired, scruffy-bearded Leslie Cochran, he was wearing nothing but a tube top and sequined thong undies, and he was carrying a large television down South Congress Avenue. If you're looking for Leslie, he spends a lot of time tottering around Sixth Street in his flamboyant thong undies and startlingly high heels, sharing his complex political sentiments emblazoned in borrowed Sharpie marker on the sides of discarded cardboard boxes.
Though his mayoral runs have so far proved unsuccessful, Leslie's notoriety has made him a true Austin urban legend, spawning Leslie dress-up magnets, Leslie for Mayor bumper stickers and even a Leslie iPhone app. As the rest of Texas will tell you, "Only in Austin."
Leslie proves that Austinites have always been a little different, and the city's oldest ghost story is evidence that Austinites don't even have to be alive to be urban legends.
According to Austin urban legend, the scalp-less ghost of Josiah Wilbarger, city founder Stephen F. Austin's friend and the city's first land surveyor, is said to haunt the area around Pecan Creek.
"At the request of Commander Austin in 1833, Wilbarger headed a survey party to stake out the portion of Hill Country that would become the Capital of Texas," said Joyce Coonrod, an Austin-area homebuilder and descendant of Josiah Wilbarger. Coonrod recounts family records of Austin's first English colonists departing Hornsby Bend, located west of Austin along the Lower Colorado River. "Their travels took them up Pecan Creek, where they were attacked by Comanches."
Coonrod said the Natives killed all but three of the survey party. Two escaped, two were shot and scalped. Wilbarger escaped, but was scalped, shot and left for dead. Missing half his skull and his entire scalp, Wilbarger was left naked (except for a sock on his right foot) on the banks of Pecan Creek. According to historical record, the severely wounded Wilbarger crawled up the bank of the creek and collapsed under a sprawling Live Oak tree.
Back at Hornsby Bend, Sara Hornsby, wife of Reuban Hornsby - one of the three survivors - woke her husband, fretting about the dream she'd had. She'd seen the ghost of a bloody, naked man with his skull half-missing. At Sara's insistence, Rueben Hornsby and his ranch hands rode out to Pecan Creek and found Josiah, nearly dead, and right where Sara had said he would be.
Bear grease, specially made hats and even a metal plate were applied to Wilbarger's missing skull to slow infection. After his rescue, Wilbarger went on to live several years and have five children, but he was in constant pain and died due to complications of his missing skull on April 11, 1844.
To this day, there have been numerous reports of a moaning, bloody, scalp-less ghost dressed in pioneer clothing roaming Pecan Creek, making Josiah Wilbarger the subject of Austin's oldest recorded ghost story and scary urban legend.
- Overview:Austin Travel Guide