Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

On the Web Since 1994

Podcasting Since January 2008

William Cimillo – Busman’s Holiday – Podcast #70

And now for today’s story which is titled Busman’s Holiday, which requires us to once again hop in our time machine and set our clocks back to Friday, March 28, 1947.

Calling all cars!  Calling all cars!  Be on the lookout for a brand new 44 passenger cream and red-colored diesel passenger bus #1310.   Its driver, 37-year-old William Lawrence Cimillo, is also missing and is presumed to have stolen the bus.

Okay.  I may be dramatizing a bit here to grab your attention.  But this bus and its driver really were missing.  What was known at the time was that Cimillo drove the one-month-old $18,000 (that’s nearly $183,000 today) bus out of the Surface Transportation System garage at 2050 Webster Avenue in the Bronx at 6:50 AM for his usual run that morning and never picked up a single fare.  Two hours later the bus was spotted about 20 miles or 32 kilometers away in Clifton, NJ near the home of one of the company’s mechanics.  Just a wee bit off course…

Almost immediately a teletype alarm was transmitted to police in 11 states around New York to keep an eye out for the bus.
So here you have this gigantic bus that is missing.  It’s big.  It’s huge.  It’s not the kind of thing that one can hide easily.  Yet no one could find it.  The bus seemed to have just vanished into thin air and the press was having a field day with the story.  Within 48 hours the story had hit the front page of newspapers all across the United States.

But the bus was still nowhere to be found.

That was until 7 AM of Monday, March 31st when police found it sitting empty on the side of the road on US Route 1, about two miles outside of Hollywood, Florida, not too far from the Gulfstream Park Racetrack.

Whoa!  Florida?  What?  Florida?  How in the world did that bus get from New York City to Florida in that short of a period of time?  Keep in mind that this was 1947 – before the days of major highways everywhere – and the bus was about 1500 miles or 2400 kilometers away from home.

What’s even more interesting is that the Hollywood police had no clue that the bus was stolen.  They simply saw this bright, shiny bus with NY license plates that was unlike anything that they had ever seen in this area before.  The only reason that the officers stopped to look at it was sheer curiosity.  What they found was a locked bus that was in perfect shape.  Inside they observed a brown jacket hanging on the back of the driver’s seat, a sleeveless sweater, and a tan shirt that looked like it had been hand washed and hung to dry.

And the bus would have sat there for days if the vice president of the Surface Transportation Company, Thomas J. Hackett, back in New York hadn’t received an urgent telegram at 8:34 AM.  It said, “With disabled bus No. 1310. STOP  In need of $50.  STOP  Answer care of Western Union.  STOP  Send money to Hollywood. STOP Cimillo”

Yes.  You heard that correctly.  Cimillo ran out of money and contacted the company that he stole the bus from to send him additional cash.

Instead of wiring cash, Vice President Hackett contacted the NYC police, who then telegraphed their colleagues down in Hollywood to arrest Cimillo.  They, in turn,  planted men around the abandoned bus and also at the racetrack.

A Greyhound bus from 1943
Image of a Greyhound bus in September 1943. Cimillo’s bus probably looked a lot like this. Library of Congress image.

They waited and waited and then, at 6:30 PM, a man fitting Cimillo’s description walked into the Western Union office at the racetrack to see if any money had been wired to him.  Officers approached and asked if he was Cimillo, which he did confirm.  He was arrested and placed in the local jail.  When asked if he had placed any bets while at the racetrack, Cimillo denied that he had, having only $2.60 in his possession.

Cimillo claimed that the root of all his troubles could be traced back to some financial difficulties that he was having with some bookmakers.  That, coupled with having to drive the same old grind day-after-day for sixteen years, caused him to take a sudden left on that Friday morning that would forever change his life.

He was unable to explain why, but he had this incredible impulse to just keep driving and driving.  “Something happened to me when I pulled out of that garage.  All of a sudden I was telling myself ‘Baby, this is it.’  I left town in a hurry.  Somehow, I didn’t care where I went.  I just turned the wheel to the left, and soon I was on Highway No. 1, bound for Florida.”

After leaving New York, he had driven 15 hours before making his first stop.  He slept the first night in a tourist cabin in Virginia, followed by a stay in a Georgia cabin the next.  Cimillo had replaced the Subway sign on the bus with the word Special and any time someone questioned where he was headed, he simply said “South.”

After driving through eight different states, he arrived in Hollywood, Florida that Sunday morning and wired his request for additional funds.  Amazingly, he did not believe that the company would hold a grudge against him since he had every intention of returning the bus unharmed.

On April 5th, four days after his arrest, Cimillo was handed an armload of coconuts as a souvenir of his stay in Florida, boarded the bus, and started upon his journey back to New York.   This time, however, Cimillo was not at the wheel.   That responsibility was assigned to company mechanic John Anderson.  Two detectives, along with a prisoner being returned from Florida on abandonment charges, were also aboard the bus.

By the time the bus pulled into Wilmington, Delaware three days later, Cimillo had become a national hero.  Here was the common man who had grown frustrated with the daily grind and basically told his boss to take this job and shove it, as the expression goes.   The bus was immediately surrounded by reporters, photographers, and movie cameramen, who insisted on a complete reenactment of Cimillo’s arrival in town.

And they did, but things didn’t go quite as planned.  As the cameras rolled, the bus, with Cimillo aboard, was triumphantly escorted through the city by a patrolman on a motorcycle.  As they approached Pennsylvania Station, which is now the Joe Biden or Wilmington station, the motorcycle came to a stop.  Unfortunately, the bus didn’t and bumped into the patrolman and knocked him to the ground.  The driver was taken to the Wilmington police station and the bus company forked over $17.50 for damage to the motorcycle.

The next morning, as the bus emerged from the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan, it stopped one block from the Beach Street police station to let off the nine reporters and photographers who had jumped aboard back in Delaware.  Again totally staged, Cimillo and the bus to make its grand return alone, where they were met by hundreds of cheering people and dozens of additional reporters standing outside the police station.

Inside, Cimillo was booked on a charge of grand larceny, which carried a possible sentence of up to ten years in jail.  But he didn’t stay there long.  Amazingly, the company that he had stolen the bus from paid the $1000 bail so that Cimillo could go home and see his wife and three sons.

When questioned, company president Victor McQuistion refused to say whether or not the company would press charges against Cimillo.  But lets face it, if they were posting bail, things were already looking up for their employee.

At least it appeared that way until the next day when he was arraigned in Bronx County Court.  Chief Assistant District Attorney Sylvester Ryan made it clear that Cimillo’s behavior was totally unacceptable.  “We are living in a system where in order to maintain law and order we are required to restrain our impulses.”  It was revealed that on October 30th Cimillo had been fined $25 on a bookmaking charge, which was followed on December 11th by another $200 fine for the same offense.  This time, however, he was given a 30 day suspended sentence for his crime.   In other words, Cimillo was not the innocent character that the press had made him out to be.  In fact, he was a petty gambler who owed $1896 to various loan companies.

It was also revealed in the press that Cimillo had been suspended by the bus company three months earlier due to an inconsistency between the fares that he collected and the account book that he had turned in.  The suspension lasted only one day – Cimillo was cleared of any wrongdoing and his wages were completely restored.

Cimillo responded, “I had a little trouble financially and I wanted to get away and go somewhere to think it over quietly.”  He added, “I had no intention of stealing the bus.  I just went for a joyride.”

Yet, a few bad words in the press did little to change the public’s perception of Cimillo.  Drivers back at the bus terminal voted to hold a dance at the Bronx Winter Garden on May 1st to raise funds to pay off all of Cimillo’s debts and to hire the best legal talent possible.

Finally, on April 17th, Cimillo received the word that he had been eagerly awaiting.  The bus company decided to give him his old job back.  He was placed on one-year probation and was back to work the very next day.  Cimillo was given the same bus route but not the same new bus.

Seven reporters and photographers accompanied him on his first trip out of the garage.  Passengers went out of their way just to ride aboard Cimillo’s bus.  One of the dance committee members rode on the bus and tickets for the fundraiser sold briskly.  After school let out that afternoon, an estimated 350 screaming high school girls tried to board his bus for a ride home, even though three other buses were lined up right behind Cimillo’s.

And that was basically it until September 14th of 1948 when Cimillo made the news once again.  But this time he had done nothing wrong.  He received a company award for safe driving.  He was one of 1,100 out of 2,200 drivers to get the award, but I bet he was the only one to make the national papers with the announcement.

On October 16th of 1950, that’s 3-years, 6-months, and 19-days after Cimillo stole the bus, the larceny charge against him was fully dismissed.

The tragic death of Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband Mike Todd once again thrust Cimillo’s spring outing into the spotlight.  Legend has it that Todd had been working on a script for his next movie production, tentatively titled “Busman’s Holiday.”  The script was forwarded by airmail to Mike’s office in California, but it didn’t arrive.  Both Todd and the script had gone down in separate airplane crashes.  Todd was killed in a crash near Grants, New Mexico, and the script went down near Chicago.

After his death, the script was finally delivered to Todd’s office with its pages scorched and water-stained.  In June of 1958, it was announced that Mike Todd’s son Mike Jr. and his stepmother Elizabeth Taylor had set up a production company and that their first film would be titled “Busman’s Holiday.”  Taylor would not only star as a beauty queen in the film, but it would also mark the first time that she ever sang on film.   The film must have been very, very loosely based on Cimillo’s bus excursion since I never came across a single mention of a beauty queen in any of my research.  While filming did commence on the movie, for unknown reasons the project was scrapped and never completed.

When interviewed in March of 1960, Cimillo said “This New York traffic gets you.  It’s like driving in a squirrel cage.”  When questioned as to whether he would ever do something so drastic again, he added, “You tell somebody a joke a second time and it’s not always so funny.”

William Lawrence Cimillo died in September of 1975 at 66 years of age.

Useless?  Useful?   I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
You may also enjoy these stories:


Over 7 Million Downloads!