10 April Fools pranks through history that went wrong

They’re supposed to be funny, but all too often the hoaxes and japes of 1 April get out of hand and backfire on the pranksters. BBC History Revealed takes a closer look at some of the jones which went wrong…

Picture of a court jester
1

Here’s one off the top of my noodle

In 1984, an Associated Press reporter asked Professor Joseph Boskin of Boston University about the origins of April Fool’s Day. Pressed for an answer, Boskin invented a jester, Kugel, who had told a Roman emperor he could do a better job and was made emperor for a day – during which he called for absurdity and pranks, starting the tradition. The tale was picked up by other media and it took weeks for them to get the joke: Kugel is a Jewish pudding, often made with noodles.

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2

War games

Tensions in the Middle East in the 1980s were no laughing matter. In 1986, an Israeli intelligence analyst created a false April Fool’s Day report stating that Nabih Berri, the leader of the Amal Movement (one of the factions in the Lebanese Civil War) had been wounded in an assassination attempt. The story spread across Israeli radio before it was found to be a hoax, and it had to be retracted to prevent an international incident. The analyst was court-martialled and Israel’s defence minister faced questions in parliament.

3

One last lesson

A schoolgirl prank got out of hand in 1897. Girls at the prestigious Lucy Cobb Institute in Georgia, US, thought it would be hilarious to abscond from school and have a day of fun. As well as missing school, they also made the unladylike decision to wander around the town unchaperoned. What they weren’t expecting was for their headmistress to quickly write a letter to all of their parents, asking for their removal from the school to ensure its reputation was maintained.

4

This one’s a real cracker

In 2001, a Brighton DJ told his listeners that a replica of the RMS Titanic could be seen off the coast of Beachy Head in East Sussex – the highest chalk sea cliffs in Britain. Hundreds of people rushed to the spot, only to discover it had all been a joke. The cliffs developed a five-foot crack under the enormous strain of the crowds, with police urging people to leave before tragedy struck. Two days later, part of the cliffs collapsed into the sea.

5

It certainly blew up

A 1980 news report spread fear among the residents of Milton, Massachusetts, when it reported that a local (and distinctly nonvolcanic) hill was erupting. They backed up their spurious claim with footage of Mount St Helens in Washington, a volcano that was actually close to erupting, with an old commentary from President Jimmy Carter. At the end of the segment a card was held up saying ‘April Fool’ but it was too late. The police were inundated with calls from concerned citizens, many ofwhom were considering leaving their homes. The executive producer for the news was fired for his failure to “exercise good news judgment”.

Mount Saint Helens on 18 May, 1980
Mount St Helens eventually erupted on 18 May; it has since been labelled as the worst in US history. (Photo by © Gary Braasch/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
6

Written in the stars

English astrologer John Partridge was known for his inaccurate predictions and criticism of the Church. He attracted the attention of the satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, who decided to have some fun. Writing under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff, he made a prediction of Partridge’s death in 1708. Swift later wrote under the alias of a revenue official, confirming the death – this news became public on 1 April. Partridge protested but he never shook the rumours of his untimely demise and his career suffered until his eventual death six years late.

7

Ship of fools

In 1972, The Times ran an article on British travel agent Thomas Cook celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founder’s first roundthe- world tour. A few pages later, the paper joked that the travel agent offered a round-the-world trip for the price it would have been in 1872: 210 guineas. This was a fabrication, but queues formed in Thomas Cook shops across the country and the poor reporter lost his job.

8

Close encounters of the absurd kind

The threat of aliens came to the town of Jafr in Jordan in 2010. A newspaper jokingly reported (on its front page) that a UFO had landed near the desert town, with 10-foot aliens sighted. Reports of communications being affected terrified the residents, with parents too scared to send their children to school, while the local mayor considered a full evacuation. In the US, the prankmwas likened to the 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which some mistook as being real.

Image depicting 'aliens' in a forest
News of an alien invasion is a perennial favourite among pranksters. (Photo by Matjaz Slanic, Getty Images)
9

Something in the water…

It’s fascinating what the power of words can do. In 2002, radio hosts in Kansas City created panic among listeners by reporting that local tap water contained high levels of dihydrogen monoxide. They warned that this naturally occurring substance could lead to frequent urination and wrinkling of the skin. It’s not as bad as it sounds: dihydrogen monoxide is the chemical name for water. The police received more than 100 calls from worried residents and a city official likened the hoax to a terrorist act.

10

Killing joke

John Ahrens probably didn’t intend the tragic consequences of his prank. Near Nashville in 1896, he thought it would be hilarious to disguise himself as a tramp with a white mask to scare his wife. He knocked on his front door to greet her and ask her to start cooking dinner – she fainted immediately and died within an hour. They had only been married a few months and Ahrens became overwhelmed with grief.

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This article was taken from the April 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine