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Unlawful Knowledge

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Dan Lewis runs the popular daily newsletter Now I Know ("Learn Something New Every Day, By Email"). To subscribe to his daily email, click here.

Imagine the following: a man is charged with the brutal rape of an elderly woman. After rounds of interrogation, he finally cracks and confesses. During his trial, that confession is retold to the jury, and it is riddled with facts that only the attacker could have known: how he entered the home, where he struck his victim, etc. The jury, of course, convicts the accused.

In the matter of Eddie Lowery, something akin to the above happened. He was accused of—and confessed to—the rape of a 75-year-old woman, recounting his bad acts in great detail. Lowery served a decade in prison for his crime. Or, rather, Lowery served a decade in prison for the crime of some other man. Because, despite what he somehow knew, Eddie Lowery was innocent.

As reported by The New York Times, Lowery was exonerated when DNA evidence demonstrated that someone else was the rapist, not Lowery. But that came well after his parole, 10 years after his conviction. And it came after the trial, the confession, and, importantly, a 7-hour interrogation by police. University of Virginia law professor Brandon L. Garrett—who studied the stories of roughly 40 such innocents who confessed—offered a likely theory to the Times centering upon these lengthy interrogations. The stress leaves the accused in poor mental shape, looking for any way to end the badgering by police. So they confess, perhaps in hopes that their weak grasp of salient facts will later demonstrate the confession to be an empty one.

But something else occurs during that interrogation, argue Garrett and others. The police, most likely unintentionally, make mention of these facts here and there, and the accused may remember them and, subconsciously, reintroduce them into their confessions. (Or, perhaps, the police “correct” the accused along the way.) So instead of being able to point to clear and convincing evidence that your “confession” was anything but, the accused unintentionally demonstrate their guilt—falsely.

Lowery would find himself back in the legal system after this imbroglio—he brought an action against the district which wrongly convicted him, and received a $7.5 million settlement.

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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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