Periodically there used to be stories about a baby-sitter who was tripping on LSD and cooked the baby in the microwave oven. Did this ever actually happen? Also, what would happen to a baby if it were cooked in a microwave?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
This is one of the classic urban legends–and you can see why. Haven’t we all wondered what would happen if you put a, you know, living creature in a microwave? And of course there are always a few overgrown adolescents who do more than wonder. When I first wrote about this legend I was reasonably confident nobody had ever tried it with a human. I can’t say that anymore.
The microwaved baby legend was explored in detail in The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by noted folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand. Brunvand reports that there are two main versions of the microwave story. In one, some airhead, typically an old lady or a little kid, washes or at least splashes the family pet (usually a dog or cat, but sometimes a turtle), and puts it into the microwave to dry, whereupon the pet either "cooks from the inside out," or "explodes."
The story may have evolved from an older, low-tech version that cropped up in the 1960s, in which the pet crawls into a gas oven or a clothes dryer for a nap, only to get roasted next time the appliance is used. (Dryers actually have been known to be lethal on occasion. One of my correspondents says a kitten of her acquaintance died of a broken neck in one.) In one particularly grotesque variant of the microwave story, someone who’s just washed his (or her) hair sticks his head into the oven, having somehow defeated the safety devices, and becomes an instant human torch.
The second main version of the story, namely the baby-in-the-oven yarn, was first officially recorded in 1971. What happens usually is that a couple hires a hippie baby-sitter who proceeds to get stoned on acid, marijuana, or sometimes even scotch. Later in the evening the mother calls up to see how things are going, and the baby-sitter says everything’s fine, she just stuffed the turkey and put it in the oven. The mother hangs up, then suddenly thinks, "What turkey?" (The mothers in these stories are always incredibly stupid.) Both parents rush home and find the kid’s been cooked, while the baby-sitter watches with a spaced-out smile. (In some versions the baby-sitter has set the table with crystal and candles and says, "Look, I fixed a special dinner for you.") Older versions of this story, in which the kid is entrusted to someone who cooks it but without the microwave-and-LSD trappings, have been noted in South American and African folklore.
When I initially researched this question in 1984, microwave manufacturers denied that any living creature, human or otherwise, had ever been incinerated in their products. However, in 1996, while out doing interviews on the beach–always a great place for sociological research–Cecil’s minions on the Straight Dope TV show turned up a couple characters who claimed to know people who had nuked little animals. If you must know, the critters exploded. One presumes this is due to steam buildup, but I’m not really interested in exploring the physics of the thing.
As for humans–well, I have a pile of clippings here from the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press reporting that one Claudia Raynes of Caledonia, Michigan, had been accused of child neglect in the microwave burning of her infant daughter, Tracy. Details of the incident, which occurred on October 31, 1982, when the child was one month old, are not clear. Ms. Raynes said she placed the infant on an ironing board about 18 inches from her microwave oven, put some formula in the oven to warm up, and then left the room briefly. When she returned she found the child badly burned. The infant was treated for third-degree burns that necessitated partial amputation of the left hand and right foot and removal of part of the abdomen, according to police. Doctors said the burns were caused by radiation; for one thing, the child’s clothing was not damaged. The child subsequently recovered.
Experts found nothing wrong with either the oven or the ironing board. However, police were unable to find evidence that the baby had actually been placed inside the microwave. So they charged the mother with negligence–specifically, failure to provide "necessary food, clothing or shelter, to wit: protection from microwave radiation." Cecil regrets that he does not know the outcome of the case. Creepy story, eh? What’s creepier is that these days you don’t have any trouble believing it could happen.
LIFE OVERTAKES LEGEND, PART TWO
In numerous columns you have expounded on the "urban legends" that have influenced society never to eat fried chicken in the dark, be fearful if we wake up in a tub full of ice in a hotel room, etc. But seeing (and hearing) this on our local news moved me to send this to you, Cecil . . . an occurrence of the "microwaved baby" story that is in the courts in New Kent County, Virginia. I submit to you the following excerpt from the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch. –Dave Meads
These days there’s no such thing as an urban legend. There’s just stuff that reality hasn’t caught up to yet. According to the Times-Dispatch story, 19-year-old Elizabeth Renee Otte was charged with murdering her 1-month-old son in a microwave oven on Sept. 23, 1999. The baby was found in a microwave in the home Otte shared with the baby’s father, Joseph Anthony Martinez, by Martinez’ sister. The infant had died of "acute thermal burns." The story goes on to say:
According to friends, Otte, who suffers from epilepsy, told family members she suffered a seizure that morning, became confused and placed the baby in the microwave thinking she was heating the infant’s milk bottle.
After yesterday’s hearing, [prosecutor Linwood] Gregory cast doubt on that explanation.
He said the oven is 18 inches wide and there would have been difficulty placing the baby inside. He also said a series of buttons needed to be pushed to start the microwave.
"This is the type of oven that has a keypad," he said. "We are talking about pushing at least three or two digits. It is unlikely that someone having a seizure could do all that."
In 2000, according to an Associated Press account, Ms. Otte entered "an Alford plea, meaning she did not admit guilt but acknowledged there was enough evidence to convict her." She was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison. All together now: ewwww.
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