There’s plenty of blame to go around when trying to sort out the origins of April Fools’ Day.
Brace yourself: April Fools’ 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 Fools’ 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 United Kingdom, home of the first April Fools’ Day prank on record, or Germany, which popularized fake April Fools’ 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 Fools’ 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 Fools’ 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, 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 weren’t any 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 to print a story claiming that all the silver and gold had been stolen from the U.S. Treasury, in a coordinated heist orchestrated by American millionaires. 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 hundreds of credulous viewers wrote in asking how they could cultivate their own spaghetti tree.
The BBC replied, with quintessentially British aplomb: “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.” The prank is widely considered the most successful April Fools’ 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-shape islands of Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse in the Republic of San Seriffe? The fictional archipelago in the Indian Ocean — detailed in a seven-page supplement in The Guardian newspaper, rife with droll typographical puns, tricked some gullible subscribers and convinced advertisers the 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 Fools’ 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 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 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: Taco Liberty Bell
In a widely published full-page ad, the Taco Bell fast-food chain declared 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 Fools’ 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 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.
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? Well, a Florida man named Paul Goobie thought this scene was so terrific that he decided to prank his co-worker 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 co-worker and charged Goobie with failing to properly dispose of a dead animal.