April Fools’ Day was once a time to pull a prank on both friends and enemies but has now turned into a day for corporations to try to fool customers with predictable internet hoaxes. Today, April 1, we can all count on an announcement about a fake new show, feature, or some other outrageous piece of news. In the town where I used to teach high school, guys would climb to the top of the water tower and paint a message (usually vulgar), or the seniors at the school I taught at would fill the school’s halls with balloons or some other crazy prank. But there have been many outrageous pranks throughout history.
Satirist Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) decided to play an elaborate All Fools’ Day prank on John Partridge, a famous astrologer who sold bogus predictions to the public in almanacs. After Partridge predicted in his 1708 almanac that a fever would sweep London in early April, Swift published an almanac under a fake name predicting that on March 29 at 11 p.m., Partridge would die “of a raging fever.” The public was intrigued, but Partridge was irate, and he published a rebuttal to Swift’s almanac calling its author a fraud. Then, on the night of March 29, Swift published an elegy (again, under a fake name) announcing that Partridge—a “cobbler, Starmonger and Quack”—had died and admitted on his deathbed that he was a fraud. News of Partridge’s death spread over the next couple of days so that when Partridge walked down the street on April 1, people stared at him in surprise and confusion. Partridge angrily published a pamphlet saying he was alive. Swift again publicly asserted that Partridge was dead and claimed someone else wrote Partridge’s pamphlet. The whole escapade helped to discredit Partridge, who eventually stopped publishing almanacs.
Another prank also occurred in the 18th century. In January of 1749, London newspapers advertised that in an upcoming show, a man would squeeze his entire body into a wine bottle and then sing while inside of it. The ad promised that “during his stay in the bottle, any Person may handle it, and see plainly that it does not exceed a common Tavern Bottle.” The ad promised the show would feature other tricks as well, including communicating with the dead. Legend has it that the ad was the result of a bet between the Duke of Portland and the Earl of Chesterfield. Reportedly, the duke bet that he could advertise something impossible and still “find fools enough in London to fill a playhouse and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there.” And apparently, he was right. The night of the show, spectators filled every seat in the house, but no performer ever showed up. Realizing they had been duped, the audience rioted. With all the Republicans who believed Trump was the most Christian president in U.S. history, it just goes to show that people have been gullible for centuries.
The next prank comes from the early 20th century. Decades before the Bond villain Goldfinger plotted to nuke all of the United States’ gold at Fort Knox, a prankster dreamed up another heist that was just as ridiculous. On April 1, 1905, a German newspaper called the Berliner Tageblatt announced that thieves had dug a tunnel underneath the U.S. Federal Treasury in Washington, D.C., and stolen America’s silver and gold (this was before the U.S. built its Bullion Depository in Fort Knox, Kentucky). The Berliner Tageblatt said the heist was organized by American robber barons, whose burglars dug the tunnel over three years and made away with over $268 million; and that U.S. authorities were trying to hunt down the thieves while publicly covering up the fact that the country had been robbed. The story spread quickly through European newspapers before people realized that it was an April Fools’ Day prank by Louis Viereck, a New York correspondent for the Berliner Tageblatt who published the joke article under a fake name.
Sometimes the line between what’s a prank and what’s not isn’t always clear-cut. If an unlikely candidate runs for public office as a kind of protest prank but ends up winning, is it still a prank? Here’s one example: in 1959, students in São Paulo, Brazil, who were tired of the city’s overflowing sewers and inflated prices launched a campaign to elect a rhinoceros to the city council—and won. (Animals are routinely elected mayor in towns across Vermont.) The rhino’s name was Cacareco (Portuguese for “rubbish”), and she was already a popular figure in São Paulo when the students launched her campaign. The four-year-old had moved to the city from Rio de Janeiro when São Paulo’s zoo opened and was scheduled to return to Rio soon. When the students looked at the 540 candidates vying for São Paulo’s 45 city council seats and feared that none of them would address the city’s problems, they decided to make a point by asking people to vote for the famous rhino instead. Cacareco won a city council seat with a whopping 100,000 votes, far more than any other candidate (the closest runner-up only got about 10,000 votes). Of course, she didn’t end up serving on the city council because the election board disqualified her. Still, she remains one of the most famous protest votes in Brazilian history.
One of the most famous April Fools’ Day pranks is the BBC’s famous “spaghetti harvest” segment. On April 1, 1957, a news broadcaster told his British audience that Ticino, a Swiss region near the Italian border, had “an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop” that year. The camera cut to footage of people picking spaghetti off of trees and bushes, then sitting down at a table to eat some of their “real, home-grown spaghetti.” At the time, spaghetti wasn’t necessarily a dish that British people would’ve known about. That doesn’t mean that no one realized the segment was a prank—some viewers were upset the BBC had aired a fictional segment during a serious news program. However, other viewers reportedly asked about how they could grow their own spaghetti at home.
Caltech has a long history of pranking other schools. One of its most famous pranks happened during the 1961 Rose Bowl football game in Pasadena, the location of Caltech. The game was between the University of Washington’s Huskies and the University of Minnesota’s Golden Gophers. During the game, Washington cheerleaders handed out colored cards to the Huskies’ side and told them that if they held the cards up at halftime, the cards would spell “Huskies.” But when halftime came and the fans held the cards up, they ended up spelling “Caltech.” It was so weird and unexpected (Caltech wasn’t even playing in the game!) that the band on the field stopped mid-song. It was later revealed that fourteen Caltech students had orchestrated the prank by breaking into the cheerleaders’ hotel rooms and switching the instruction sheets for the card stunt.
One of the best-selling erotic books in American history was actually written as a joke. No, it’s not Fifty Shades of Grey(though that did famously start as Twilight fan fiction)—it’s a 1969 parody called Naked Came the Stranger. The book’s author was listed as “Penelope Ashe,” but the real authors were a group of journalists at Newsday, a Long Island newspaper. The project’s ringleader was Mike McGrady, a Newsday journalist frustrated with the popular romance and erotic novelists he’d interviewed. “I saw the writing that was being accepted, and it seemed absurd,” he told the Associated Press. So McGrady rounded up about 25 journalists and asked each to contribute a ridiculous, over-the-top chapter to an erotic parody novel. He and columnist Harvey Aronson then patched these chapters together into a story about a Long Island housewife who suspects her husband is unfaithful and starts cheating on him. The hardcover sales earned it a number four spot on The New York Times’ bestseller list. Because it was exposed as a parody soon after publication, readers were likely in on the joke and bought it for the laughs (after one intimate encounter, a character says, “I’d forgotten there was more to life than mowing a lawn”). The following year, McGrady published a book about the experience called Stranger Than Naked, or How to Write Dirty Books for Fun & Profit.
Stranger Than Naked wasn’t the only prank journalists played in 1969. That year, Rolling Stone music critic Greil Marcus published a piece spoofing the trend of big-name rock stars forming “supergroups.” One of the most popular supergroups in the ’60s was Cream: its guitarist Eric Clapton was already famous for playing with the Yardbirds. At the same time, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce were already known for playing in the Graham Bond Organisation. Marcus penned a gushing review to a nonexistent bootleg album by the “Masked Marauders,” a secret supergroup he said was made up of Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. The fake review garnered genuine interest in the album, and Marcus ended up writing and recording the songs he’d made up; then Warner Brothers bought the songs and released the album. “It was just an attempt to say, ‘This is stupid, and let’s make it even stupider,'” Marcus told MSNBC years later. But it was also a little prophetic. Two decades after the “Masked Marauders” review, Bob Dylan and George Harrison did join a supergroup with Tom Petty called the Traveling Wilburys.
Finally, Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, has a well-documented love of April Fools’ Day. But in 1989, his annual prank came a day early, on March 31. That evening, residents outside of London spotted a flying saucer that appeared to land in a nearby field in Surrey. Police officers went to the field to investigate the supposed UFO and were probably surprised when they actually found one. As they approached the flying saucer, a door opened, and a silver-clad figure walked out. The cops promptly ran away. Little did they know, Branson was hiding out in the UFO behind his silver-clad companion, whose name was Don Cameron. The two of them had taken off in the flying saucer—which was a hot-air balloon—and planned to land in Hyde Park on April 1 as a prank. However, changing winds forced them to land a little earlier in Surrey.
I hope those historic pranks gave you a laugh. While it is April Fools’ Day, each of these stories is true.