Getting the Finger
Claim: A patron dining at a Wendy's fast
food outlet found a human finger in her bowl of chili.
Origins: Claims of human body parts turning
up in food products are the most horrifying of contaminated food legends, both because of our very strong societal taboo against
the eating of human flesh, and because such a discovery suggests a human death, almost certainly one that was accidental rather than natural (and which conjures up images of a slow and painful death by industrial
accident), or at least a painful dismemberment.
Fortunately, improved health and safety standards in food processing make such occurrences quite
rare, and most reports of consumers finding body parts in food turn out to be hoaxes, frauds perpetrated to extort money from
businesses, or cases of mistaken identity. (In the latter case, something that looks like a human body is often found, upon
examination by experts, to be something else entirely. See, for example, our page about a scare involving a finger supposedly
found in a can of menudo.) In March 2005, the news media were once again full of reports that such a grisly discovery had
On the evening of 22 March 2005, Anna Ayala, a 39-year-old resident of Las Vegas was dining at a San Jose outlet of the Wendy's fast food restaurant chain when she discovered
what appeared to be a human finger in her bowl of chili. According to the San Jose
Devina Cordero, 20, was with her boyfriend at the fast food restaurant when she said the woman,
who has not been identified, began gasping and ran up to her saying: "Don't eat it! Look, there's a human finger in our chili."
Cordero said the object appeared cooked and seemed to have a long fingernail at the end. All
three people soon became sick.
"We went up to the counter and they told us it was a vegetable," Cordero said. "The people from
Wendy's were poking it with a spoon."
[San Jose police officer Enrique]
Garcia said the Santa Clara County Health Department is taking over the investigation. "It was some sort of small mass which
appeared to have a fingernail. It's a small piece," Garcia said. "They collected the finger and placed it in a freezer for
the health department."
The following day, Santa Clara
County health officials confirmed the object found in the bowl of Wendy's
chili was indeed a human finger (about 1-1/2 inches long and containing part of a manicured nail). Investigators quickly ruled
out the possibility that the digit formerly belonged to an employee of the San Jose Wendy's outlet, but they were unable to
trace it to its original owner via fingerprint or DNA matching.
Wendy's offered a $50,000 reward for information on the origin of the finger as sales at Wendy's
outlets (particularly in the San Francisco-San Jose bay area) dropped off significantly in the weeks following the incident.
Meanwhile, suspicions that Ms. Ayala's discovery may not have been "accidental" were aroused when she quickly retained a lawyer;
those suspicions were heightened when San Jose and Las Vegas police executed a search warrant at her home, and when the news
broke that she had a litigious history which included claims against another fast-food chain, a former employer, and General
Motors. (Her family had received a settlement several years earlier after her daughter was sickened at an El Pollo Loco restaurant
in Las Vegas.) Rumors spread that the finger may have come
from Ms. Ayala's dead aunt, but she denied that she even had a dead aunt.
The case took a few more intriguing turns in mid-April. First Ms. Ayala announced (shortly after
the news about her previous lawsuits broke) that she would not pursue legal action against Wendy's because her claim had "caused
her great emotional distress and continue[d] to be difficult emotionally." Then attention focused on Sandy Allman, a 59-year-old
woman from Pahrump (a town about 60 miles west of Las Vegas),
who had lost a fingertip when she was attacked by a leopard one month before the Wendy's incident. The fingertip could not
be reattached; Ms. Allman last saw it packed in ice in a Las Vegas
emergency room, and neither she nor the hospital could account for what had become of it.
Ms. Allman offered to submit to DNA testing to identify whether the finger supposedly found
in the bowl of Wendy's chili was hers, but a match was doubtful in light of news reports that her lost fingertip was only
half as long as the one Anna Ayala claimed to have found. On 15 April 2005, Wendy's increased its reward for information on
the case to $100,000.
Claim: A young man was hanged for real when
a Halloween show stunt went wrong.
Origins: Imitating a grisly death by hanging
is an annual feature of many Halloween "haunt" shows, usually implemented by securing the victim in a harness that supports
his weight when he drops from the gallows so that the noose placed over his head doesn't actually snap his neck or constrict
his windpipe and prevent him from breathing. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion such stunts have gone wrong and resulted
in actual deaths. One such
fatality was reported by the Chicago Tribune in October 1990