Urban Legend Come Alive: Mom Cooks Baby in Oven

May 19, 2011

It sounds like the stuff of urban legend, but it's horrifically true: An Ohio woman killed her baby in a microwave oven after an argument with her boyfriend in 2005. China Arnold was convicted last week of aggravated murder in the death of her daughter Paris, who was not yet a month old when she died.

Assistant Prosecutor Dan Brandt told jurors that Arnold intentionally put her infant in the oven, shut the door, pushed the buttons, and watched the child cook for over two minutes. Arnold, who was inebriated at the time, claimed she killed her baby as revenge for her boyfriend's infidelity. This motive is chillingly common: Last month a woman drowned herself and three of her children in the Hudson river to get back at her ex-boyfriend, who she also believed had cheated on her.

Rumors and stories of cooked babies and pets have circulated for years. Many have heard the story of the kindly but doddering old lady who innocently wanted to dry off her poodle which had been caught in the rain. She unthinkingly dried it off in the microwave, with predictably disgusting results.

Though Arnold's actions resemble an urban legend, there are important differences. According to folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand in his Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, the story of the "baby roast" dates back decades, and is in fact "one of the most widely known and varied of all urban legends." In a typical telling of the story, "The horrible deed is done either by a family member or by a person hired to tend the baby in the parents' absence. In American versions, told since the 1970s, usually a teenage baby-sitter cooks the infant while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, sometimes reporting to the parents, ‘I've cooked the turkey for you.'"

Brunvand suggests that "possibly the American legends of cooked pets from the 1950s gave rise to later stories of cooked babies, although there were rumors reported as early as the 1920s of nannies using a whiff of stove gas to tranquilize babies before bedtime." Brunvand notes that this urban legend is especially resonant with parents because it "seems to confirm the worst fears of young parents-that their child will not be safe outside of their loving care."

China Arnold's crime does not make the "baby roast" urban legend true. The fact that an element in an urban legend story is enacted does not mean that it's not a myth-Just as finding (or putting) an alligator in a New York City sewer does not mean that decades of stories about giant alligators in sewers must be true.