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Home --> Medical --> Seeking Asylum --> Drive Me Crazy

Drive Me Crazy

Legend:   Sane people are mistaken for lunatic asylum inmates.

Examples:

[Cerf, 1959]

Not so long ago, a Scranton coal tycoon employed a chef named Napoleon whose roasts and sauces were famous for miles around. The president of a nearby university borrowed him one day to cook an important dinner, and Napoleon proudly set forth to fill the engagement, his trusty carving knives wrapped in a piece of old newspaper.

He just did catch his bus, and, breathing heavily, instructed the driver, "Step on the gas, mister. The president is waiting for me." The driver looked warily at the carving knives, nodded, "You're the boss," and drove him straight to a lunatic asylum.

Thinking this must be the university, the cook unwrapped his knives and announced to the guard at the gate, "I'm Napoleon. Where's the party?" Next thing Napoleon knew he was in a padded cell.

University officials — plus his employer — rescued Napoleon some eight hours later.
 

[Collected on the Internet, 1997]

HARARE, Zimbabwe (04-04) — After 20 mental patients disappeared from his bus, the driver replaced them with sane citizens and delivered them to a mental hospital.

The unidentified bus driver was transporting 20 mental patients from the capital city of Harare to Bulawayo Mental Hospital when he decided to stop for a few drinks at an illegal roadside liquor store. Upon his return he was shocked to discovered that all the mental patients had escaped.

Desperate for a solution, the driver stopped at the next bus stop and offered free bus rides to several people. He then delivered them to the mental hospital, informing the staff they were easily excitable.

It took the medical personnel three days to uncover the foul play. The real mental patients are still at large.

Origins:   Stories about the sane being mistaken for the inmates of lunatic asylums are as old as the hills, and the two offered above are examples of this theme Napoleon transformed into the fabric of humorous anecdotes. The first tale comes from a 1959 funny reminiscences book, so it's unlikely it was ever fully believed as an honest rendition of a sequence of events. (Even the deeply credulous pause at swallowing such a whopper when they encounter it in a joke book!)

In common with the "Napoleon the chef" story, the second tale hinges on the all-too-believable notion that the utterly sane could be incarcerated by mistake, their sanity not being as obvious to their keepers as they would have otherwise hoped. It fooled many because it purported to be a newspaper article reporting on an actual event. The Zimbabwe bus riders tale appeared on the Internet in April 1997, presented as an item that had come from the 4 April 1997 issue of South Africa's Financial Mail. But of course it hadn't — searches of that paper's archives failed to turn up the story. The yarn was subsequently published in the Weekly World News, a U.S. supermarket tabloid that "gleefully chronicled the exploits of alien babies, animal-human hybrids and dead celebrities."

A related urban legend (minus the humorous overtones of the previous two) tells of psychology students charged with faking their way into a psychiatric care facility by mimicking the symptoms of the truly deranged. Alas, they succeed too well. At what should have been the end of the sojourn, they are unable to convince their caregivers that this wild-sounding claim about being psychology students is anything other than the latest manifestation of their manias. Instead of being allowed to leave, they are heavily sedated and restrained. Weeks pass, with the students becoming less and less coherent in their attempts to explain their predicament and less and less sure themselves that they didn't imagine this whole "psychology student" episode. By the time others come looking for them and succeed in explaining the assignment, the students are no longer in condition to leave. They themselves have descended into madness.

The
"maddened students" tale is pure lore, but the basic premise of sending sane test subjects into such an environment has been tried in real life. In 1973, a group of such subjects presented themselves at psychiatric hospitals, giving a vague complaint about experiencing auditory hallucinations. After the initial assessment, they did not again complain of experiencing symptoms nor did they actively seek discharge. Length of hospitalization ranged from 7 to 52 days, with an average of 19 days, and many of the subjects were diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Another fully rational person managed to get herself incarcerated in such a facility by fooling the intake staff. In the 1880s, famed New York World reporter Nellie Bly (real name Elizabeth Cochrane) pretended to be insane in order to be committed to the asylum on Blackwell's Island. Her articles about the inhuman conditions brought about a grand jury investigation and important reforms.

Oddly enough, a twist on this legend's premise of the sane being mistaken for inmates of a lunatic asylum did play out in real life in 1993 when FBI agents called in to investigate a psychiatric hospital's financial records attempted to arrange delivery of pizzas to feed late-working agents. Upon hearing the order, the pizza parlor contacted quite reasonably assumed the "agents" were in fact delusional patients who'd somehow gained access to a phone. Our Pizza Spy page details the hilarity.

Last updated:   6 September 2009

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  Sources Sources:
    Bates, Stephen.   If No News, Send Rumors: Anecdotes of American Journalism.
    New York: Henry Holt, 1989.   ISBN 0-8050-1610-4   (p. 170).

    Cerf, Bennett.   The Laugh's on Me.
    Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1959   (p. 410).

    Rosenthal, D.L.   "On Being Sane in Insane Places."
    Science.   6 January 1973   (pp. 250-258).

    Weekly World News.   "Free Bus Ride Lands Twenty Sane People in Nuthouse!"
    17 June 1997   (p. 42).

    Weekly World News.   "Bus Driver Takes Wrong People to Mental Hospital!"
    11 March 2003   (p. 44).