Hallowe’en, Turkey, and the (Urban) Legend of the Golden Arm

My second-grade teacher Mr. Moore was a short man in his fifties who tied his ties, which he wore every day without fail, so tightly that his neck protruded redly over his shirt collar. He drew his ‘1’s so that they resembled typography instead of lowercase ‘L’s and taught us about alphabetical order, the weather, and how heart disease and stroke worked. In one lesson, I remember him explaining that the reason humans have a will to live is because they have a soul. A second later, he admitted that he wouldn’t be able to answer any questions about the souls of plants even though they were alive, too. I was fascinated.

Mr. Moore worked in a school where about half of the children wouldn’t graduate from high school and where only one in ten attended university (and three out of the four kids from my year who went to university left the community before they turned 14.) And yet, in the midst of all the difficulties he surely met as an educator in such a situation, he still managed to spark the philosophically sophisticated question of whether plants have souls or any motivation to stay alive in my seven-year-old mind. I loved Mr. Moore when I was seven and I still have a lot of respect for the kind of teacher he was, a man who educated well despite the incredible difficulties most of his students faced.

One fine October 31st in the 1990s, all the children came to school extra excited, for it was the day of Hallowe’en. Mr. Moore dressed up for the holiday in his signature fashion, with a tie that sported a large plastic Frankenstein head, tied predictably too tight. After teaching us how to spell Hallowe’en (with an apostrophe between the two ‘e’s, a habit I have never been able to shake even as standard usage has evolved to favour the other spelling), we sat on mats around Mr. Moore’s imposing wooden chair for story-time, a time of day usually reserved for the reading-aloud of timeless children’s classics such as Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants. Except – except that this wasn’t any ordinary story-time. This time, Mr. Moore held no paperback within his fingers. I held my breath.

He began, “Once upon a time, there lived a woman with a golden arm.” I’ve forgotten the exact details of his telling, but I remember that the golden-armed woman eventually died. Realizing (rather logically, I must admit) that a dead person has little use for an arm made of solid gold, a thief nicked the priceless prosthesis from the woman’s corpse.

The woman of the erstwhile golden arm did not agree that she had little use for a golden arm and came back to haunt the thief. Mr. Moore held us tight to our mats as he recounted how the woman’s ghost approached the robber’s home as she let out unearthly moans. “Where is my golden arm” Mr. Moore cried spookily as we stared at him wide-eyed. “Where is my golden arm?”

BOO!

We all jumped. The story didn’t continue and we never found out what happened to the thief or the armless ghost, but that wasn’t the point. We were good and terrified.

Nearly twenty years later, I googled “golden arm” to see what would happen. I learned that Mr. Moore hadn’t made the story up, as I’d assumed. The story is a folk legend dating back at least two-hundred years and present in a number of different countries and cultures.

Why was I googling this? Because I heard another morbid story about a golden arm of sorts, this time from Turkey and probably of more recent, although equally unknown, provenance.

A few months ago, I was talking to a Turkish friend who was telling me that he’d gone to visit his mother and sister. “Did you talk about anything interesting?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “They were telling me that they went back to our hometown recently and saw a woman who was wearing bangles from her wrist to her elbow! Just to show that she had money, can you imagine? She was lucky she lived in small-town Turkey. If you tried something like that in Istanbul, somebody might cut off your arm to steal the gold!”

Turkey is home to many jewelry stores that look exactly like this one, in and outside of tourist areas.

Turkey is home to many jewelry stores that look exactly like this one, in and outside of tourist areas, and wearing gold bangles is definitely a ‘thing.’

I’ve witnessed both ostentatious displays of wealth in Turkey and theft in Istanbul, so I didn’t really think much of the story besides, “That woman should consider a more diversified and less ostentatious investment portfolio.” And, embarrassingly, I allowed myself to believe that people in Istanbul had gotten their arms cut off for gold bangles.

Two or three months later, I had another conversation with a different Turkish friend, this time about an equally morbid event – the 1999 earthquake in Izmit, a small city near Istanbul. “It was awful,” he said, “There were literally corpses everywhere. I still remember how it smelled. And I heard this story – I don’t know if it’s true, I mean, I believe it’s true – that there was a woman trapped under a building wearing an armful of gold bangles. And as she was calling, “help, help, help me get out from under this building” a man came by and cut her arm off for the gold bangles and then just left her there, trapped under the building.”

We both paused to contemplate the horror of such a story.

“Wait a second,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“Yeah,” I said. “If she were trapped, they could have just taken the bangles. No arm cutting-off necessary.”

“Also,” he said, “Turkish people are kind of nosy. Probably somebody would have come round and told him, ‘you’re an idiot! Don’t you realize that you can just take off the bangles in much less time than it takes you to saw off an arm?!’”

“I mean,” I said, “even if you had a saw that could cut quickly like a chain saw or a skill saw, those tools are pretty cumbersome and usually need to be plugged in anyway. Guns are a more practical persuasive tactic if theft is your game . . . and the person is likely to make a lot less noise whether or not you shoot them.

(Also, gunshots in Turkey are not necessarily the result of violence, and can just as easily go off in the joyful aftermath of a soccer match that your favourite team has won. If you hear a gunshot in Turkey, Turkish people will tell you not to look out the window because people have died from injuries due to stray celebration-bullets. Shooting a gun might actually make people less likely to investigate what you’re doing.)

A day later, I googled every combination of Turkish and English words I could think of to try to find any reputable news article about anybody having their arm sawed off for gold bangles. I could not find anything. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

I would love to be able to date this legend but, like the legend of the golden arm, I am afraid that the genesis of this story may be lost in the – insert ghostly sound effects here – mists of tiiii-iii—iiiime.

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