The terrible history of April Fool's

If you plan on running a prank on your friend or colleague, try not to get arrested. Photo / iStock
If you plan on running a prank on your friend or colleague, try not to get arrested. Photo / iStock

Brace yourself: April Fool's Day, the worst holiday of the year, is upon us again, with its annual onslaught of awkward political gags, careless media blunders, eyeroll-inducing ad campaigns, mean-spirited pranks and, if you're lucky, maybe an actual laugh.

But probably not.

How did we get into this mess? We asked Alex Boese, curator of the online Museum of Hoaxes. He says you can blame the Dutch (who first referenced April Fool's in a 16th-century text) or the French (who overhauled their annual calendar in the 1500s, confusing "fools" who didn't adapt). Or maybe the U.K., home of the first April Fool's Day prank on record, or Germany, which popularized fake April Fool's news stories. And certainly the good ol' U.S.A. - because who else would be tickled by the idea of renaming a national monument the "Taco Liberty Bell?"

He walked us through some of history's most influential April Fool's Day jokes - the notorious, the successful, the truly cringe-worthy.

- 1698: The washing of the lions at the Tower of London

In the first documented April Fool's prank, Brits handed out invitations to "see the lions being washed at the Tower of London," specifically targeting clueless out-of-towners and newcomers. Ha ha. And the joke was ... no lions? Well, actually the Tower did have a royal menagerie then, but there was no public washing. But then they resurrected the gag in the 19th century - when there really weren't any more lions there at all! Ha ha? Maybe you had to be there.

- 1905: The robbery of the U.S. Treasury

The German newspaper Berliner Tageblatt decided it would be a laugh riot to print a story claiming that all the silver and gold had been stolen from the U.S. Treasury, in a highly coordinated heist orchestrated by American millionaires. Then the hoax snowballed when other newspaper editors across Europe believed the story and reprinted it without hesitation; to them, the idea of criminal millionaires hijacking America's government didn't seem so far-fetched, Boese says. He deems this a solid prank. "It caused a bit of a ruckus, but no one got hurt - just embarrassed."

- 1957: The Swiss spaghetti harvest

In an April 1 news segment, the esteemed BBC presented its viewers with a cheerful report: Swiss farmers were celebrating an unusually plentiful spaghetti crop, thanks to a balmy winter and the eradication of the menacing "spaghetti weevil." The story included staged footage of workers plucking limp pasta from trees. Amazingly, a lot of people believed it, and the prank is widely considered the most successful April Fool's Day joke of all time. "It fooled a lot of people, so it actually worked, but then in hindsight it didn't offend anybody," Boese says. "Everybody just had a good time with it. That's actually a pretty hard combination to get exactly right."

- 1977: The Republic of San Seriffe

Who wouldn't want to vacation on the exotic, semicolon-shaped islands of Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse in the Republic of San Seriffe? The fictional archipelago - detailed in a seven-page supplement in the Guardian newspaper, rife with droll typographical puns - tricked some gullible subscribers and convinced advertisers the fool's holiday could be lucrative. "The supplement made a ton of money," Boese says.

- 1984: Resurrecting the woolly mammoth

Nearly a decade before "Jurassic Park," the concept of bringing animals back from extinction was so wild that any mention of it would obviously be a joke - at least, that was the thinking behind an MIT Technology Review article about Russian scientists who were planning to "retrobreed" the woolly mammoth. But the April Fool's Day fakery was picked up by the Chicago Tribune and other papers before everyone realized it was a prank. (Though now scientists really are talking about bringing extinct animals back to life.)

- 1992: Nixon's new presidential campaign

Remember that time former President Richard Nixon shocked the nation and gave NPR the exclusive scoop that he was running for office again? "I never did anything wrong, and I won't do it again," he insisted - except it was actually a comedian impersonating him, of course. Considering the general insanity of American politics, we can maybe forgive the many NPR listeners who believed the report and called the broadcasting company in horror. "People may not initially have been thrilled" by the prank, Boese says, "but it's definitely now regarded as an absolute classic."

- 1996: The Taco Liberty Bell

In a widely published full-page ad, the Taco Bell fast-food chain declared that it had purchased the Liberty Bell and was hereby renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. Philadelphians freaked out, and baffled workers at the national park were flooded with outraged calls. Taco Bell declared it the "best joke of the day," which may be up for debate, but Boese says the prank did make history: Before then, companies mostly stuck to gimmicky wordplay in their April Fool's ads (i.e., "No fooling, we're having a great sale!"); Taco Bell paved the way for more elaborate corporate hoaxes.

- 1998: The Boston mayor's car crash

Common sense says that it's probably not a brilliant idea to announce the death of a public official in a serious-sounding radio report and expect people to guffaw. But Boston radio hosts Gregg "Opie" Hughes and Anthony Cumia went ahead with their prank anyway, telling listeners that Boston Mayor Tom Menino had died in a car crash. He hadn't, but plenty of people - including members of his family - believed the broadcast, making the cruel prank a "notorious example of what you don't want to do," Boese says. The shock jocks laughed all the way to the unemployment office.

- 2000: Really, Romania?

What's the best way to celebrate April Fool's Day? If you're the Romanian edition of Playboy magazine, the obvious answer is: Publish a blatantly misogynist step-by-step guide titled "How to Beat Your Wife. ... Without Leaving Marks on Her Body." Beat her "hard and steady," the article advised, adding that "you will notice that the wife sometimes wants to be beaten again." Among those who didn't laugh: women, people who respect women, and Playboy's international corporate brass, who were appalled and quickly apologized, the New York Times reported. (Also that year, a Romanian newspaper announced that prisoners would be released from the Baia Mare prison. Dozens of overjoyed relatives waited in vain at the prison gates. The joke is ... inexplicably terrible, Boese says: "You wonder, what were they possibly thinking?")

- 2004: The dead chihuahua

Perhaps you recall the "hilarious" scene from "National Lampoon's Vacation" in which Chevy Chase accidentally drags Dinky the dog to his death after forgetting the animal was tied to the bumper of the car? Ugh. Well, a Florida man named Paul Goobie thought this scene was so terrific that he decided to prank his coworker by tying a dead chihuahua he'd found on the street to the back of the man's truck. Hilarity did not ensue when a sheriff's deputy stopped the coworker and charged Goobie with failing to properly dispose of a dead animal.

- Washington Post

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