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At the Watergate, a Story With Legs

Fear not: Scary spiders are NOT invading the Watergate complex. (REUTERS/Christa Cameron; Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Warning! Watch out for poisonous spiders lurking under your toilet seat!!!

That was the gist of an eye-opening alert circulated at the posh Watergate apartment complex Monday.

Nearly half of this week's newsletter to residents of Watergate East, one of the buildings in Washington's iconic riverfront development, was devoted to a cautionary tale about public restrooms. In lurid detail, the building's management described the tragic deaths of "three women in North Florida" -- far from the Watergate, but knock on wood anyway -- who took ill after visiting the same restaurant ... where toxicologists later found "a small spider ... the Two-Striped Telamonia (Telamonia Dimidiata)." Also, a Jacksonville lawyer died with "a puncture wound on his right buttock" after getting off a plane from Indonesia -- and officials found spiders' nests in the toilets of four planes!

"So please," Watergate management warned its residents, "before you use a public toilet, lift the seat to check for these creatures. It can save your life!" (Watergate toilets themselves were not implicated -- but still!)

Let's cut to the chase: The story is completely bogus. It's a well-traveled urban legend -- the kind of tantalizing falsehood that circulates in e-mails forwarded from your mom -- that has long since been debunked. Just Google "telamonia" and you'll see.

The Watergate was not psyched to discuss this. "This was only for residents," said a woman in the management office who declined to give her name. "We realized that it was an Internet hoax, so we have sent another letter telling them that."

The spiders-in-toilets story is an unusually enduring myth, said Rick Vetter, an entomologist at the University of California, Riverside, who first debunked it in 2000. He even traced it back to its origins: A California man, Vetter said, who invented the story and spread it in an e-mail that tested the gullibility of the general public. The original story was filled with red flags -- a fictional airport, a nonexistent medical journal, an obviously made-up strain of spider ("arachnius gluteus") -- but took off nonetheless.

Vetter credits whomever amended the story along the way for doing his or her homework: The telamonia is a real-life critter. But "it's a jumping spider, found mostly in Burma or Himalayan regions," he said, "and no jumping spiders are known to be dangerous."

Spiders tap into certain primal fears, which may be why this story won't go away. "A spider bite is an exciting thing," said Vetter. "If you have a staph infection, do you tell anyone? If you have a spider bite, you tell everyone."

By The Reliable Source  |  July 31, 2009; 1:02 AM ET
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Not quite as scary as the legend of rats popping out of the toilet and biting you on your a s s.

Posted by: dadada | July 31, 2009 4:44 AM | Report abuse

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