Several friends and acquaintances sent me copies of the 1989 "College Year in Review" issue of CV Magazine. In an article titled "AIDS on Campus," these lines were marked:
"Picture this: You're standing in a bar. In walks the woman or man of your dreams. The two of you go home and go to bed. The next morning, you wake up to a note on the mirror: `Welcome to the world of AIDS.' "I assure you that the senders of the article weren't cautioning me about picking up strangers. They were merely alerting me to another appearance of the urban legend I call "AIDS Mary." It got that name because of the striking resemblance the story has to the real-life actions of "Typhoid Mary."
CV is a national periodical inserted into many college newspapers. The dream-turned-nightmare AIDS story was in an article by Laurie Baum and Sally Weltman.
The authors identified the tale as "a common horror story passed through the campus rumor mill." I've been hearing it since 1986, and I debunked it in my latest book.
The AIDS epidemic is frightening, and certainly everyone should take the necessary precautions to avoid becoming infected. But the scenario described in "AIDS Mary" never really happened, nor is it a likely one for catching AIDS.
What especially caught my eye in the CV article was the reference to a "woman or man" being the supposed carrier and deliberate spreader of the disease. In past versions I've collected, the seductive stranger carrying the fatal virus who left the handwriting on the mirror was almost always female.
Other legend collectors found the same. For example, Professor Jim Vandergriff of Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield studied numerous versions told mostly by students. In 96 percent the transmitter was female.
The mystery woman in Vandergriff's study was sometimes said to have slept with as many as five men in a night. Another detail he heard was that she had infected 57 men without being caught.
A similar "Maine mystery woman" was described in an editorial that appeared in the Saint John, New Brunswick (Canada), Evening Times-Globe. She was rumored to have had sex with 200 local men after becoming infected with AIDS.
The newspaper called the story unverified gossip, but editorialized about the need for more AIDS research and better prevention.
An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the vast majority of AIDS cases result from intravenous drug use or homosexual relations. But the legend casts the woman as the dangerous temptress, supposedly motivated by revenge.
As the legend is usually told, men in particular are warned by the story to avoid casual sex with women they don't know to be "safe."
Until recently, I had heard only one exception to this male-victim version. This story concerned a rock star widely rumored to be bisexual who supposedly took a female fan to bed and then bade her farewell using the usual "Welcome" line.
Lately AIDS Mary has gained a male counterpart in AIDS Harry, a male seducer said to be spreading the virus among unsuspecting women.
In the past month I've heard from people in several cities who say that this version was told about a friend of a friend. The victim was said to be a well-behaved young woman on vacation, either in Hawaii or the Caribbean.
While in the tropical paradise, the woman falls madly in love with a handsome stranger.
She spends several days and nights with the man, but eventually it's time for her to return home. Her lover comes to the airport to say goodbye.
Just as the flight is called, the man gives her a small package, instructing her not to unwrap it until she gets home. Sometimes she waits; more often she opens it as soon as the plane is aloft. In one version the present is for the young woman's parents.
Inside the package is a small coffin. And inside that - of course - is a note saying "Welcome to the world of AIDS."