Just as – if you believe Philip Larkin – sex began in 1963, it’s tempting to think that the hoax wasn’t invented until 1 April 1957, the date of Richard Dimbleby’s famous Panorama report on a bumper Swiss spaghetti harvest. But hoaxes and practical jokes were part of our culture long before television was invented. Here are some lessons history teaches us. Well, sort of…
It helps to be posh
You don’t have to be enormously wealthy to pull off a spectacularly successful hoax, but it certainly helps. That way, you can afford the props, and people of lower social status won’t dare challenge you, even if you arouse their suspicions.
William Horace de Vere Cole (1881–1936) was the quintessential upper class prankster. His most famous escapade came in February 1910 when he and some Bloomsbury pals, including Virginia Stephen (later Woolf) blacked up and dressed themselves in turbans and exotic robes. Pretending to be the Emperor of Abyssinia and his entourage, Cole wangled them a state visit to HMS Dreadnought in Weymouth.
This jape, which included the hire of a special train carriage, allegedly cost Cole £4,000. He told the press about it a few days later, making a laughing stock of the Navy. Some crew members later claimed that they knew all along their ship was being looked over by a bunch of posh pranksters, but didn’t say anything.
Cole remained a joker for the rest of his life. Other stunts included impersonating Ramsay MacDonald while haranguing navvies about the evils of socialism, and challenging people to a race before slipping his watch into their pockets and yelling “stop thief!” when they ran off. Cole also handed out free theatre tickets – with numbered seats – to bald men so that, seen from the circle, they would spell out a rude word. He even remembered to dot the ‘i’!
Dress it in plausible scientific clothing
Richard Adams Locke (1800–71) emigrated from Britain to America with his wife and daughter because of his anti-monarchist politics. As a reporter on The New York Sun, Locke wrote a series of six sensational articles in August 1835 claiming that life had been discovered on the Moon.
The astronomer Sir John Herschel, he said, had set up a powerful new telescope at Cape Town and with it had seen people and animals on the Moon. The people had wings (Locke coined the Latin term Vespertilio-homo – ‘man-bat’ – for them) and the animals included two-legged beavers that built houses with chimneys. Several people fell for all this because in those days of slow communications there was little to contradict him. The articles were peppered with scientific terms, and quoted the respectable-sounding (but actually defunct) Edinburgh Journal of Science. It was apparently taken seriously by some academics at Yale University, and a group of charitable ladies raised money to send missionaries to the Moon.
Later legend has it that the hoax dramatically increased the circulation of The New York Sun, though this may not have been the case. When he heard of the prank, Sir John Herschel was reportedly quite amused.
Dress it in plausible artistic clothing
The swung torch scatters seeds
In the umbelliferous dark
And a frog makes guttural comment
On the naked and trespassing
Nymph of the lake.
Seeking to send up modernist poetry, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, both young writers in wartime service with the Australian army, created Ern Malley, a recently-deceased insurance salesmen whose verse had been discovered by his equally fictitious sister Ethel. ‘Ethel’ sent the verse to a small Australian modernist magazine called Angry Penguins.
Editor Max Harris, thinking he had uncovered a new Auden, brought out a special edition devoted solely to Ern’s works in early 1945. When the hoax was revealed, the Australian press followed the story for weeks and Harris was humiliated. McAuley and Stewart went on to moderately successful literary careers, but both are mainly now remembered for knocking out what they thought was a lot of bad poetry in one afternoon.
There were echoes of the Malley affair in the 1990s when Alan Sokal, professor of physics at New York University, had a paper published in the academic journal Social Text. ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ was jargon-filled nonsense composed, said Sokal, of “the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics” made by humanities academics.
Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) hated superstition, and particularly despised the almanac-writer and astrologer John Partridge, whom he called a “cobler (sic), starmonger and quack”. Partridge was a Whig who attacked the Anglican establishment and his popular almanacs frequently (and usually inaccurately) predicted the deaths of notable figures.
In January 1708, writing under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff, Swift published a letter, ‘Predictions for the Year 1708’ forecasting the death of Partridge of a “raging fever”. Three months later, in time for April Fools’ Day, he published another, purporting to be written by “a man employed in the Revenue” confirming that Partridge had indeed died. Swift also composed a verse eulogy for Partridge, damning his customers as much as the man himself.
Partridge, still very much alive, was plagued by mourners outside his home and had problems ordering goods from tradesmen. He disseminated a letter saying he was still living, to which Bickerstaff responded that nobody who was alive could have possibly written “such damned stuff as this”. By all accounts, Partridge’s business and reputation suffered for the rest of his life.
Do it for a bet. It’s a good incentive to actually do the work
Theodore Hook (1788–1841) was a major celebrity in his lifetime: a wit, playwright, author, essayist and practical joker with more than a whiff of scandal (marital and financial). His most famous jape was the great Berners Street hoax of 1810, carried out after he bet a friend he could make any house in London the most talked-about address in a week.
Hook selected 54 Berners Street, home of one Mrs Tottenham (or Tottingham), against whom he may have had some grudge. He then set to work writing, the story goes, about 4,000 letters.
The first to arrive on the morning of 10 November was the coalman. He was followed by chefs bearing 2,500 raspberry tarts, pianos, bootmakers, surgeons, even a coffin made to Mrs Tottenham’s measurements. Then there was the Lord Mayor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the governor of the Bank of England and many, many more. Thousands of people who had been summoned to provide goods or services crammed into the street and a near-riot ensued.
Eugene Byrne is a journalist, author and historian who’s written three science fiction novels, a biography of Brunel and a history of Bristol. You can follow him on Twitter @EugeneByrne.
This article was first published in the April 2008 issue of BBC History Magazine