1997, April 4: The Bus Driver’s Solution
On April 4, 1997, the following article ran in the South African newspaper, the Financial Mail:
Bus Driver Replaces Mental Patients
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. 20 people got on and then he delivered them to the mental hospital and informed 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.
Still At Large...
Since 1997, the story has been repeated often. In modern re-tellings the location of the incident is often left off, and the time needed for the hospital staff to figure out the passengers are sane is changed, often becoming weeks or months for the fraud to be discovered. Occasionally, we are told that the ordeal has driven some of the sane passengers crazy. Images like the following have been posted to various share sites such as Facebook and Pinterest.
But, Did It Happen?
The current authority on this matter, quoted by many though not often credited, is the Snopes.Com website whose study of this tale -- Drive Me Crazy -- definitively labels it as a story that never actually happened. Their article covers several occurrences related to the idea of a sane person being mistaken for insane, with the 1997 tale of the Zimbabwe bus being the newest. Snopes claims that the Zimbabwe tale originated on the internet in April of 1997 with a false claim of having come from the South African Financial Mail; and then states "but of course it hadn't -- searches of that paper's archives failed to turn up the story." Snopes then mentions the bus story was printed in the Weekly World News, which was an American periodical that wouldn't print the truth unless it sold better than their usual fare. Overall, by implication, it sounded as if the Weekly World News was the reason the story was so well known after it's initial appearance.
As it turns out, however, the Weekly World News articles are the only references in Snopes' sources for the 1997 bus story itself, and they don't say what Snopes implies they say; mainly, they don't mention either the Financial Mail or a previous appearance on the internet. So the Snopes article does not actually state where they got the detail of the Financial Mail being involved, or their archives being searched. So where did Snopes get these details from?
I went digging.
What We Know... and What We Don't
I was able to confirm the bus story went back as far as 1997... the earliest site I could find the story listed on was last updated July 10, 1997, so the story, as shown above, existed at least that early. This site included the bus story in a list of jokes, labeled as "The Funniest Things are True," which seems to imply they got the story from elsewhere and so are not the origin point.
The tale was printed in the Weekly World News several times; the whole page that included the short story was reprinted in at least three different issues, roughly six months apart, the earliest being in their issue of June 17, 1997... which was not an unusual practice for the magazine, as reprinting pages from previous issues decreased how much new content was actually needed each week. they also re-wrote the story and printed it in an 2003 issue of the magazine... and that's probably been re-printed by them a lot also. The 1997 version of the Weekly World News story claimed the incident happened in Harare, Zimbabwe, but does not mention a source for the story; the later 2003 re-write claims the event happened in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, again with no sources.
The next significant publication seems to be in Fortean Times magazine, a publication from the United Kingdom with a reputation for publishing unusual but presumably true stories, which included the bus story in their August 1997 issue. Fortean Times stated the bus story came from the Financial Mail of April 4, 1997 -- which mostly shows they didn't get the story from the Weekly World News. The account was presented in a section of the magazine that typically printed short news stories that the magazine either received as clippings from readers or that their own staff ran across: as such, it's impossible to tell now if they actually saw a clipping of the article or just found the story on the internet and published it. This does show, however, that the details of the April 4 date and the involvement of the Financial Mail were reported back in 1997.
The bus story was certainly still well known in 1999, when it appeared in a textbook of sorts about executive decision making, as a example of how NOT to make decisions. This appearance is noteworthy for two reasons: the story is stripped of date and location -- neither are offered -- and the context in which it is used neither assumes it is true or false, just that its a good story that illustrates a point... and it is in this form that it is most often seen today, with details changing to make it either more humorous or more scary, depending on the audience it is to be presented to.
So the story of the Zimbabwe looney bus survives because its a good story; but we still don't know if its a true story. Unless Snopes offers up their source for the Financial Mail having been checked, I cannot label the tale as a 'False Lead' (a story that never happened); at the same time, however, until I can verify the existence or non-existence of the story in the Financial Mail myself, I can't label it as true either. So I'm marking this odd tale as 'Unreliable' and 'Needs Investigation' until such a time as it can be double-checked... but I suspect it will continue to be told for a long time, no matter what the result of that investigation eventually turn out to be.