Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: An inattentive janitor caused death in a South African hospital every Friday when she unplugged patients' life support systems to plug in her floor polisher.
Origins: Shocking, eh? Especially that bit about a sharply-worded letter. Was reprimanding the cleaner really the hospital's greatest concern?
Oftentimes it's the tail ends of these stories which make the difference between cute ones which get told once or twice then drop out of sight, and ones such as this, which get forwarded all over the world. The floor cleaner's mistake is bad enough; what sends this story over the top is the callous matter-of-factness of the hospital. What does it say about health care in South Africa?
Summer 1996 saw this hilarious yet chilling account take the Internet by storm. In an article purportedly from the
How did this amazing story come to be taken as a news item? As always, through a misunderstanding. The legend had been around forever, so Die Volksblad (a small yet widely-circulated rural South African newspaper) took it upon itself to get to the bottom of this persistent rumor. Part of that effort to uncover the truth resulted in a Die Volksblad article asking those related to the victim(s) to come forward.
That article was picked up by Die Burger, and it was Die Burger's article which Cape Times got its hands on. In much the same way children playing a game of "Telephone" will invariably garble the message, Cape Times' version came out as a news story, not as a rural paper's attempt to sort fact from fiction. From there the tale went to other publications, very few of whom bothered to check either with Pelonomi hospital or Die Volksblad.
Those journalists who checked with Cape Times (and not all of them did even this much) were told that yes, it had run a story about this. Unknown both to the reporters doing the asking and Cape Times personnel doing the answering, the version made popular by the Internet and the actual Cape Times article weren't the same. The Internet version had been greatly embellished, further garbling the already hopelessly garbled and creating by the stroke of a few electrons a suitably cold-hearted but entirely fictional spokeswoman for Pelonomi Hospital.
From there on in, it became a zoo, with publications such as New Scientist and the Sunday Telegraph claiming this as a news item. And why not indeed? Cape Times was telling them it was.
South African folklorist (and all around neat guy) Arthur Goldstuck was involved with this tale almost from the moment it appeared. His fascinating "Cleaner Polishes Off Patient" FAQ is filled with an incredible depth of detail about this legend.
Although the "murdering South African floor cleaner" tale was new in 1996, its plot was as old as the hills.
[Reader's Digest, 1967]Once again, a dull-witted office cleaner is said to have upset Technology's applecart while discharging her janitorial duties. The charwoman does not recognize the "special model" serves a particular purpose — she views it merely as something she can fill her bucket from and uses it as such. Likewise, the South African floor cleaner perceives the loaded outlet in Intensive Care only as a place to plug in a needed piece of cleaning equipment — recognition that whatever is already occupying that outlet might be important eludes him.
British engineers feared that they would have to replan the Dungesness nuclear station in Kent, after studying a special model which showed the flow of rivers and estuaries in the area. Then they discovered the reason for the puzzling variations in the model's water level. An office cleaner had been filling her bucket from it each day.
The theme of both these stories appears in another tale, this one poking fun not at office cleaners, but at office workers.
[Collected on the Internet, 1993]An additional thread ties all of these stories together. It's no accident these legends are told about janitors and secretaries — they are considered lesser beings in the world of labor and are often presumed to be of lower intelligence. In each of these tales, someone from the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder who has access to key equipment but lacks so much as a basic understanding of its function and importance screws the pooch. Such tales confirm the commonly-held stereotypes of those who hold those jobs.
Around noon every day the computer system at some office keeps freezing out. Five minutes later the system will power back up again. No one can figure out what's going on — software checks out, hardware checks out, everything is as protected as it can be from a power surge, and besides, why would there be a power surge every day around the same time?
Finally, one bright whiz kid decides to keep an eye on the main server as the only thing that makes sense is someone has to be fooling with it. Sure enough, a little after noon one of the secretaries comes by with a kettle in hand, reaches down, unplugs the server
Given how prevalent similar tales are, there was very little excuse for the journalistic outpouring the South African floor cleaner story provoked in 1996. (One need not hear a joke told the same way each time to recognize it as the same joke, after all.) This mess proved so very conclusively that even newspapermen fall victim to 'I read it in the paper, so it must be true."
Barbara "front paged" Mikkelson
Sightings: This legend figures in an episode of the British police drama A Touch of Frost ("Benefit of the Doubt," original air date
Last updated: 18 January 2007
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