In true April Fool’s fashion we are presenting you with stories of some of the best pranks and hoaxes that have been perpetrated by knuckleheads of all kinds.
APRIL FOOLS According to Mental Floss, the origins of April Fools Day is unclear. Some claim it dates back to Roman times, others say it originated in Renaissance France, but for whatever reason the practice of fooling people on April 1st has been around for centuries. Some early pranks noted in France were to send someone on a “fool’s errand” quite literally. For example, master painters might send a novice looking for a can of striped paint, a bucket of steam, or a jar of elbow grease. I had a relative who was a construction contractor and also a prankster. He would send a worker to plug in a long extension cord in order to hook up a light. However, he had secretly palmed a battery operated light bulb. Before the worker could connect the plug, he would hold up the lit bulb and say, “OK, that’s good!” and hold up the lit bulb. The worker would stare in confusion at the not yet connected plug he was holding in his hand, wondering how in the world the light was glowing.
EARLIEST PRANKS One of the earliest recorded pranksters was the teenage Roman Emperor Elagabalus. Not surprisingly, he was one of Rome’s worst emperors as well. The Mental Floss article quoted a book by Warwick Ball which stated that Elagabalus loved to have his pompous guests sit on whoopie cushions. He also thought it was fun to release snakes in public places and he would slip his pet lion into the bedroom of his drunken guests. His reign lasted only four years from 218 – 222 A.D. when at the age of 18 he was assassinated by his guards. ***
Nowadays we hear the term Fake News bandied about by politicians and journalists. However, a fake newspaper called the English Mercurie beats all contenders hands down. The English Mercurie was printed in the 1740, but with a date claiming to be 1588. It was produced by Philip Yorke, a member of Parliament. The paper was gifted to the British Museum which treated it as legitimate for decades. Phony information in the Mercurie spread through cultured centers and universities for years and was taken at face value. Even today, false information in the Mercurie concerning the Spanish Armada is still often quoted by websites and news agencies.
WAR OF THE WORLDS At the beginning of our show, before the intro music we played an excerpt of “War of the Worlds,” a 1938 broadcast by Orson Welles that is known as one of the greatest American hoaxes of all time.
War of the Worlds was originally a 19th-century science fiction novel written by H.G. Wells (no relation or Orson) about a Martian invasion of Earth. The radio dramatization written by “Casablanca” screenwriter Howard Koch was read over the air by Orson Welles on October 30th 1938. It was not planned as a radio hoax. In fact, at the beginning of the broadcast it is clearly announced: “The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the air in ‘War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells.” Clearly a dramatic radio show and not a live breaking news broadcast, right? Well unfortunately, not everyone heard that part.
A quote from History.com says “Sunday evening in 1938 was prime-time in the golden age of radio, and millions of Americans had their radios turned on. But most of these Americans were listening to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy “Charlie McCarthy” on NBC and only turned to CBS at 8:12 p.m. after the comedy sketch ended and a little-known singer went on. By then, the story of the Martian invasion was well underway.” And because they were channel surfing (not just a modern concept apparently) a lot of people missed the beginning announcement.
The dramatization was played out like a breaking news broadcast. Yes, there was the initial CBS announcement introducing Orson Wells and the novel by H.G. Wells but then began what sounded like a weather report followed by some dance music. Then all of a sudden, an announcer broke in with a fake news report to declare that explosions were being detected on Mars. More dance music and then another interruption in which listeners were informed that a large meteor had crashed into a farmer’s field in Grovers Mills, New Jersey. Soon a reporter at the “crash site” described Martians emerging from a metallic cylinder and…the mesmerizing voice of Orson Wells described in great detail an alien attack complete with ray guns, the annihilation of National Guardsmen, poisonous gas, more Martian landings in other cities and a full out war on Earth.
An announcement was made that widespread panic had broken out in the vicinity of the landing sites, with thousands desperately trying to flee. The radio show was extremely realistic, complete with sound effects and other actors portraying terrified announcers and other characters.
For the rest of the hour, terror crackled over the airwaves and fear spread like wildfire across the nation as Americans in their homes huddled around their radios.
To quote History.com “Human germs, rather than human armies, ultimately did in the mythical Martian invaders, and at the end of the hour the director wrapped up the radio drama by telling his audience, “This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that ‘The War of the Worlds’ has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘boo!’”
Now as we said, there was an announcement at the beginning, the announcement at the end as well as a reminder at the intermission that all of this was a dramatization but despite it all, the anxiety induced by the broadcast confused listeners and many believed it to be all too real. Police departments, newspapers and CBS were all inundated with calls.
History.com says, In New Jersey, ground zero for the fictitious invasion, national guardsmen wanted to know where they should report for duty, and the Trenton police department fielded 2,000 calls in under two hours. In Providence, Rhode Island, hysterical callers begged the electric company to cut power to the city to keep it safe from the extraterrestrial invaders.
Before you judge too harshly, remember that the 1930s had been a rough time in America with the Depression, the imminent threat of another great war as WWII was on the brink of breaking out. Plus the Hindenburg disaster, all this was still fresh in the hearts of Americans.
Newspapers who at the time felt threatened by the emergence of radio as an informational and advertising medium took the opportunity to strike back at its rival. There were sensational stories printed about suicide attempts, heart attacks and mass hysteria.
Quoting again from History.com “With threats of lawsuits swirling in the press, CBS went into damage control. At a hastily called press conference, a doe-eyed Welles displayed his theatrical acumen and expressed his remorse and shock at the public reaction. “I can’t imagine an invasion from Mars would find ready acceptance,” he said when asked if he pranked the country. Decades later, however, Welles admitted, “The kind of response was merrily anticipated by us all. The size of it, of course, was flabbergasting.”
The Federal Communications Commission did not sanction CBS or Welles, and the radio dramatist quickly spun his Halloween trick into a treat. Thanks to what became known as the “panic broadcast,” the radio program signed Campbell’s Soup as a sponsor, and soon after, Welles landed a deal to direct “Citizen Kane,” named by the American Film Institute as the greatest movie of all time.
HISTORY’S BIGGEST PRANKSTERS (from Mental Floss)
Now occasionally pranks don’t go off as expected. When Samuel Clemens (a k a Mark Twain) was a reporter for the Virginia City, Nevada newspaper, he thought he would have a little fun by writing an article claiming that a petrified man had been found in the area. According to Twain’s article, the man was sitting down thumbing his nose! Twain thought that would be a dead giveaway to the spoof, but to his surprise, everyone in town took him seriously and thought it was for real. ***
And then sometimes pranks can go wrong and get out of hand. Abraham Lincoln was staying in a hotel in Illinois when he noticed a couple of kids playing with an inflated pig bladder. (Now if that sentence doesn’t make you laugh, I don’t know what will!) Lincoln told the youths that the proper way to play with a pig bladder was to heat it up, and so they placed it in the hotel’s fireplace. Soon the bladder exploded and send fiery hot coals and cinders flying throughout the dining room. Lincoln grabbed a broom and began sweeping up the mess when the broom caught fire in his hands. ***
And then sometimes, pranks can go unexpectedly positive. As a joke, French-American artist Marcel Duchamp entered a urinal into an art exhibit in 1917. The joke ended up being on him: The Fountain, as he called it, ended up becoming one of his most famous works, not to mention “an icon of twentieth-century art.” (I’ve been trying to get my school to name a urinal after me!)***
Then there are the unexpected pranksters. The great scientist and discoverer of radium Marie Curie once nailed a relative’s shoes and furniture to the ceiling of their house. Leonardo Da Vinci once attached leather wings onto a lizard, carried it around in his pocket, and told people that it was a miniature dragon. And John F Kennedy as a teenager once threw firecrackers in a toilet at his school and blew the lid off.
TEXAS FOOTBALL In Texas, folks take their football pretty seriously. Those Friday Night Lights shine over stadiums in big cities and small towns throughout the Lone Star State. Yet one epic prank involving a college marching band and an opponent’s football field brought a different kind of shine.
In 1999 the Southern Methodist University (SMU) Mustangs were playing the Texas Christian University (TCU) Horned Frogs at their home stadium. During the halftime show the SMU Mustang marching band completed their performance by forming their famous Diamond M on the TCU natural grass field. Before breaking formation, however, each band member reached into their uniform pocket and pulled out a handful of winter rye grass seed and dropped it onto the field. A couple of weeks after the game, TCU officials noticed the strange new grass formation growing on their field. It was in the shape of the Diamond M.
GREATEST PRANKS OF ALL TIME (from Mental Floss)
My wife and I were in London during the summer of 2019. We greatly enjoyed our time there, but we were disappointed that Big Ben, the giant bell and clock in Elizabeth’s Tower was not working as it was under renovation. But back in 1980 a BBC News announcer reported that the famous clock was going to be given a digital face. (Digital watches were all the rage back then) He further stated that the clock’s now useless giant hands would be given away to the first four people who phoned the station. Most realized that it was a joke, but a few eager folks did call hoping to claim the clock’s hands. ***
Now I can remember having a Black and White TV. In fact, when I was in 3rd grade in 1966, my brother won a color TV at a local carnival. It made me an instant celebrity as this was one of the first color TVs in our town and was definitely the only color set in my end of town which wasn’t particularly affluent.
A Swedish newscast in 1961 told viewers that they could in fact turn a black and white set into a color TV if they only had the right materials. A serious looking technician explained that if Swedes would pull a nylon stocking over their sets that the light would be filtered in such a way that they could see the image in color. He also recommended that viewers move their heads from side to side for the best results. Throughout the country Swedes were seen bobbing their heads back and forth as they tried to view the image on their stockinged screen. ***
And a final TV News prank takes us back to the BBC and the year 1957 when viewers were told that mild weather in the Italian Alps had produced a bumper crop of spaghetti from the native spaghetti trees. Film was shown of Italians harvesting the noodles from the trees. Several phoned into the station to ask how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. They were instructed to plant a spaghetti noodle in a can of tomato sauce and hope for the best. ***
Sometimes corporations try to get into the prank act. In 1996 Taco Bell announced that it had purchased the Liberty Bell. They took out ads in several large newspapers stating that the Taco Bell Corp. was patriotically helping out with the national debt by sponsoring the Liberty Bell. The ad stated that the Liberty Bell would now split its time between Philadelphia and the corporate headquarters in Irvine, California. Immediately people began calling the National Park Service and Taco Bell to complain. Subsequently, Taco Bell issued another press release stating that it had all been a hoax, but that they were in fact donating $50,000 to go toward the Liberty Bell’s upkeep.
From History.com and Londonist.com….
RIOT In 1749 an advertisement in a London newspaper announced that an amazing performance would take place in London’s New Theater in the Haymarket district in which a performer would borrow walking sticks from audience members and turn them into every musical instrument imaginable. After this he would completely insert himself into an ordinary wine bottle and sing a melody. The theater was completely sold out with standing room only. However, after a long wait with no performer appearing, the crowd rioted and tore the theatre apart.
Legend has it that the ad was the result of a bet between a duke and an earl. Evidently the duke stated that he could advertise something completely impossible and still find fools enough to fill a playhouse in London.
APRIL FOOLS Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Atlantic Airlines, has a well-known 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 field in Surrey. Police officers went to the field to investigate the supposed UFO, and were surprised when they actually found one, especially when a door opened and a silver-clad figure walked out.
Richard 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 actually 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. ***
On April 1, 1978, residents of Sydney, Australia, awoke to find a gigantic iceberg floating in Sydney Harbor. Days before the prank, electronics entrepreneur Dick Smith announced that an iceberg he had towed from Antarctica would be arriving in Sydney the following week (to give the exact date, he felt, would be a tip-off). And sure enough, there it was. People thronged the harbor area to view it. That is, until a rainstorm revealed the iceberg for what it truly was: A barge covered in sheets of white plastic and fire-fighting foam.
In the days before Benjamin Franklin went on to become a famous US statesman, he used to be a female impersonator. Well no, not like you are imagining. He wrote for a newspaper called ‘The New England Courant’, which was owned by his brother. His brother wouldn’t let Franklin publish letters himself, so he decided to write letters to the newspaper impersonating a widow named ‘Silence Dogood’. Franklin wrote 14 letters in total, which became so popular with readers, marriage proposals were sent to the newspaper. Franklin soon became bored with his ruse, and owned up to his brother, breaking many 18th Century men’s hearts.
HORACE DE VERE COLE THE GREATEST PRANKSTER OF THE 20TH CENTURY
Via an article in TheVintageNews.com by Samantha Flaum
Horace de Vere Cole was an Irishman born in County Cork, Ireland in 1881. He came from a well-to-do family, attended Eton College and Cambridge, was a veteran of the Second Boer war and yet he was best known for being an incredible prankster.
The prime minister at the time was Ramsay MacDonald and he hated Horace. The reason was because the two looked very much alike and Horace would use that to his advantage by breaking into long, politically-charged and controversial public tirades in public thus creating many scandals for the PM to deal with.
While Cole was attending Cambridge, the uncle to the Sultan of Zanzibar made a trip to England. Horace capitalized on this as an opportunity to pull off a prank and have the royal uncle make a surprise visit to Cambridge. According to the St. James Gazette, the Mayor of Cambridge received a telegram from Cole reading: “The Sultan of Zanzibar will arrive today at Cambridge at 4.27 for a short visit. Could you arrange to show him buildings of interest and send carriage? – Henry Lucas, Hotel Cecil, London.”
Of course, no one of royalty shows up alone, they have an entourage. Cole pulled together some friends and spared no expense at dressing them up in robes, turbans, beards, and heavy makeup. They were given a tour of the university by the mayor and a town clerk. Friends they passed during the tour never recognized them. Cole gave an interview about the hoax to the local newspaper. When the paper was printed the next day and the university administration found out they’d been had, the students very nearly expelled.
In a similar caper, this one in 1910 and the prank he’s most known for, Cole succeeded in tricking the captain of the HMS Dreadnought — a state-of-the-art battleship— that he and his entourage which incidentally included the famous author Virginia Woolf, were a delegation on official business from Zanzibar. The fake Abyssinians spoke a mix of Greek and Latin gibberish, exclaiming “Bunga Bunga” for delight. During their tour of the ship, they bestowed (obviously fake) military honors upon many of the ship’s officers. After it came out that it was all a hoax, Cole couldn’t be charged with anything as he hadn’t broken any laws.
Another notable prank includes the time Cole bought out several seats for a theatrical performance he considered to be pretentious. The seats he bought were filled with bald men with letters painted on their heads so that when viewed from behind a certain curse word was spelled out. The audience thought it was hilarious, the actors not so much. Not going to mention the exact word here simply because…well, we really don’t know. The word varies from story to story. Some say it was the word “bollocks” others say it was a certain four-letter word. I’m just going to point out that a four-letter word would mean a lot less tickets to buy and fewer hair challenged men to coordinate.
Another childish prank Cole was known for was to have a cow udder protruding from the fly of his pants. When satisfied that plenty of others had noticed he would feign embarrassment then produce a pair of scissors and snip off the offensive appendage.
I’ll leave you with one more prank that I think really illustrates Horace de Vere Cole’s commitment to mischief. On April Fools Day of 1919, Cole was on his honeymoon in Venice. He dropped pile of horse manure in the city square—a city that could only be reached by boat, so it had no horses to speak of. There’s no record of how officials or the townspeople reacted to this but we do know that his marriage only lasted ten years before ending in divorce.
Remnant Stew is created by me, Leah Lamp. Dr. Steven Meeker and I research, write and host each episode. Judy Meeker helps a lot with research as well. Audio is produced by Phillip Sinquefield. Our theme music is by Kevin MacLeod with voiceover by Morgan Hughes.
You can connect with us through our Facebook and Instagram or through our email at StayCurious@RemnantStew.com. Listen, tell us all about the awesome pranks that you or your friends have pulled off...or tell us about a topic you would love to hear us cover in an upcoming episode. Or just say hi, we love to hear from you!
Before you go, please hit the subscribe button so you won’t miss an episode, please take the time to give us a review on iTunes, there’s a convenient link on our website to make it easy for you. Share Remnant Stew with your friends, family, deep dish pizza delivery guy, unicorn trainer, baker and candlestick maker, and until next time, please remember to be kind … AND ALWAYS STAY CURIOUS!