Mark Twain wrote in his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, “April 1. This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four.” April Fools’ Day has been popular since the 1800s, but pranks themselves have been around since at least the Middle Ages. Some famous jokes throughout history have been literary in nature, while others were carried out by well-known authors and poets of the time.
One widespread April Fools’ prank had to do with the origin of the holiday itself. In 1983, Joseph Boskin, a history professor at Boston University, made up an explanation about the beginnings of the day. He said that the holiday started in Constantine’s time. In his version of the origin, a group of jesters challenged the emperor, saying that they could run the empire better than he could. Constantine then let a jester be king for a day, and that jester passed a law saying that for that day, everyone should act absurd. That law then turned into an annual tradition. Boskin said of the story, “In a way, it was a very serious day. In those time fools were really wise men. It was the role of jesters to put things in perspective with humor.” When the Associated Press got wind of this explanation, the word spread, and many newspapers printed the story. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that they realized their story about April Fools’ Day was an April Fools’ joke itself.
Not all pranksters throughout history have stuck to April Fools’ Day to pull off their hoaxes. At the age of 16, Benjamin Franklin posed as a woman and wrote letters to the newspaper his brother ran, The New England Courant. Under the name of Silence Dogood, and using forged handwriting, Franklin played the part of the middle-aged widow for a six-month period. His brother never caught on. In his autobiography, Franklin wrote of the arrival of each letter: “They read it, commented on it in my Hearing, and I had the exquisite Pleasure, of finding it met with their Approbation, and that in their different Guesses at the Author none were named but Men of some Character among us for Learning and Ingenuity.” Franklin eventually came clean after writing fourteen of the letters.
Famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, husband of Mary Shelley, also partook in pranks in his youth. His wife once wrote of him, “From his earliest years, all his amusements and occupations were of a daring, and in one sense of the term, lawless nature.” He attended Eton as a teenager, and while there he acted on this “daring” nature. He enjoyed setting fire to trees on campus, but one time he took his prank a step further by using gunpowder. Needless to say, the tree blew up, and Shelley got into trouble. Shelley’s fellow students, however, found the incident amusing, so much so that they wrote a poem about it.
More recently, Willie Morris, editor of Harper’s Magazine in the 1960s and bestselling memoirist, pulled a prank involving his dog, Skip, when he was younger. While driving one afternoon, he ducked down beneath the dashboard and propped Skip up against the steering wheel, so it would look to passersby as if Skip were driving the car. This caused one man to fall out of his chair, and Morris liked the reaction so much that he repeated the joke one Sunday morning as people were leaving church. A hush fell over the crowd as Morris and Skip drove by, and Morris later wrote of the incident, “It was as if the very spectacle of Old Skip driving that green DeSoto were inscrutable, celestial, and preordained.”
And of course, no list of pranks would be complete without what The Museum of Hoaxes considers to be the greatest April Fools’ joke of all time: the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest. On April 1, 1957, a British news show broadcasted a segment showing the harvesting of spaghetti in Switzerland. A family was picking spaghetti right off of trees, and the video clip included the phrase, “For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti.” Viewers immediately responded, some wondering where they could buy their own spaghetti tree.
So, this April Fools’ Day, use some of the above pranks for guidance or come up with your own practical jokes to play on friends and family members, and continue this tradition that so many literary greats have participated in.
— Cara Scott