Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Legend: Sane people are mistaken for lunatic asylum inmates.
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 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
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.
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
Last updated: 6 September 2009
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