April Fools’ Pranks, Jokes, and Ruses Throughout History

March 31, 2010

April Fools’ Day is upon us. Before we get caught up in a world of pranks, jokes, and fake news stories, let’s take a look at some of the more notable pranks in history.

Jonathan Swift, Notorious Prankster: An English astrologer named John Partridge spent the better part of the 1600s selling almanacs in which he predicted (incorrectly) upcoming events, the deaths of notable individuals, and other such nonsense. However, when he sarcastically referred to the Church of England as “the infallible Church,” he drew the ire of satirist Jonathan Swift, who set off one of the most elaborate April Fools’ hoaxes in history. In January 1708, Swift wrote a letter, under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff, called “Predictions for the Year 1708.” In it, he “predicted” that Partridge was going to die of “a raging fever.” In March, Swift followed up with a letter from an imaginary government official, entitled “The Accomplishment of the First of Mr. Bickerstaff’s Predictions,” in which the official endorsed the future-predicting prowess of the imaginary Bickerstaff. Finally, Swift published an elegy on March 30, in which Bickerstaff told the world of Partridge’s death. The news travelled slow in 1708, so it wasn’t until April 1 that most people found out about Partridge’s “death.” People were quite superstitious at that time, so when they saw Partridge, they assumed it was his ghost, or someone who looked strikingly similar to him. This hoax plagued Partridge for the rest of his life, and he was unable to sell anymore of his almanacs. To his credit, Swift was a lifelong fan of April Fools’ ruses.

Thomas Edison invents the “Food Creator”: Thomas Edison was one of the most prolific inventors in history. So it was that on April 1, 1878, less than a year removed from inventing the phonograph, that the New York Daily Graphic published an article about Edison’s latest invention, the “Food Creator.” Basically, this invention could turn soil into food, or water into wine, without the requisite steps in between. Edison thought the joke “quite clever” and made plans to hoax the Daily Graphic right back the following year. I’m not sure if he did or not, but if I had to guess, he probably didn’t since he was too busy inventing the light bulb.

World War I Bombing Prank: During the early days of World War I, the interactions between the warring sides tended to be civil. In fact, for the first Christmas of the war, the opposing sides on the Western Front paused hostilities in order to exchange gifts. Thus, it should be expected that 3 months later, there would be pranks. On April Fools’ Day 1915, French pilots “bombed” German soldiers, except the bombs were just footballs with notes tied to them. What did the notes say? “APRIL FOOL!”

The Wisconsin State Capitol Collapses: In 1933, The Madison Capital-Times ran a cover story that reported the state capitol building as having collapsed due to a series of explosions caused by “large quantities of gas, generated through many weeks of verbose debate in the Senate and Assembly chambers.” Despite the fact that no one was hurt in the story, and it ended with the phrase “April Fool,” many readers were upset by the hoax. I’m not totally sure why, although it could have to do with the fact that a wing of the building had actually collapsed 50 years earlier resulting in 4 deaths.

The Soviet Union Joins Usenet: One of the precursors of modern Internet forums was a network known as Usenet, which was created in 1980, and initially linked computer users from North America and Western Europe. So, when the Usenet world received a post from then-Soviet Prime Minister Konstantin Chernenko on April 1, 1984, announcing the creation of the Usenet site “Kremvax,” and an expressed desire to get the U.S.S.R. on Usenet, users were quite shocked. After all, the Soviet Union was a closed society, and wouldn’t including the Soviet Union on Usenet be a national security concern for the U.S.? After two weeks of discussion, Piet Beertema finally came forward to acknowledge that the Kremvax site was, in fact, a hoax. Six years later, when the Soviet Union did actually join Usenet, one of the first sites was called Kremvax, in honor of the hoax. UPDATE: This is considered by some to be the first Internet hoax.

Richard Nixon Seeks Third Term (in 1992): One of the biggest April Fools’ pranksters in the world is NPR, whose programs often carry fake news stories on April Fools’ Day. On the April 1, 1992 episode of Talk of the Nation, Richard Nixon made a special appearance to announce that he was entering the 1992 presidential race with the campaign slogan: “I never did anything wrong, and I won’t do it again.” The show even went as far as to have Ivy League professors and a George Bush campaign official on the show. Needless to say, listeners called up in nearly violent opposition to the idea. It wasn’t until the second half of the program that host John Hockenberry revealed that it was a joke, and “Richard Nixon” was in fact comedian Rich Little. I’ve been looking, but can’t seem to find the audio for this prank. If anybody knows where I can find it, please let me know.

Iraqis do April Fools’ (in very poor taste): On April 1, 1998, Uday Hussein ran an April Fools’ article in his newspaper Babil, in which he reported that U.S. President Bill Clinton was lifting the sanctions against Iraq. Of course, all of the Iraqis who were actually suffering from the sanctions had the rug pulled out from under them when the paper declared it a prank. In 1999, Uday tried again, ostensibly to make up for the fact that the previous year’s joke was in very poor taste. However, he couldn’t quite get it right, and published a story stating that Iraqi’s monthly food rations would now include bananas, chocolate, and Pepsi. Nobody liked that joke either, and after that it appears that Hussein gave up, simply recycling the same tired “jokes” over the next two years.

Uday Hussein wasn’t the only Iraqi official who didn’t understand humor, though. In 2003, with the American invasion of Iraq underway, Iraqi Ambassador to Russia, Abbas Khalaf Kunfuth, held a press conference in Moscow. Most people expected the presser to be an announcement that Iraq conceded defeat, but Kunfuth had other plans. Holding up a “press release,” Kunfuth announced that the U.S. had launched a nuclear bomb, which accidentally struck British forces, killing seven. The room full of reporters sat in shocked silence, when Kunfuth joyously declared, “April Fools!” Besides the fact that it was a very bad joke, it should have been a hint that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction since they obviously didn’t understand the destructive power of a nuclear bomb.

MentalPlex, Google’s 1st April Fools’ Prank: On April 1, 2000, Google announced the release of a new product, Google MentalPlex, which read people’s minds, eliminating the need for a keyboard and mouse. When using the new feature, users were treated to a fake error code, and then a list of results about April Fools’ Day. You can still see the original Google MentalPlex page over at Google.com/MentalPlex, although they still haven’t gotten to work right…

Have a good April Fool’s prank or joke? Tell everyone about it in the comments. Have a safe, and happy April Fool’s Day!