15 Historical April Fools' Pranks That Were Slam Dunks

Between all the fake pregnancy and celebrity death announcements, there are occasionally some truly impressive hijinks.
15 Historical April Fools' Pranks That Were Slam Dunks

Nobody but the worst person you know actually likes April Fools’ Day, but between all the fake pregnancy and celebrity death announcements, there are occasionally some truly impressive hijinks. Over the years, various people, companies, and even government bodies have convinced people of everything from UFOs to the defiance of gravity.

The First April Fools’ Prank

(Eric Rothermel/Unsplash)

April Fools’ Day originates, along with a lot of other dumb things, with the Gregorian calendar, which changed the beginning of the year from April 1 to January 1. Back then, you didn’t just get a push notification for news like that, so people who continued celebrating the new year on April 1 were mocked by the better-informed, ushering in a tradition of arbitrary superiority.

Jonathan Swift’s Word Murder

(National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

One of the first truly famous April Fools’ Day pranks resulted from satirist Jonathan Swift’s feud with astrologer John Partridge, who he regarded as a dangerous quack. In a parody of Partridge’s predictions, Swift published his own prophecy that Partridge wasn’t long for this world and then, on April 1, published another report that he had indeed perished. As the news spread, everyone except Partridge was shocked to see him walking around town, very much alive.

The Literal Robber Barons

In a scathing skewering of American capitalism, a German newspaper published a detailed report of how criminals hired by American millionaires had dug a tunnel to the U.S. Treasury and stolen all of its gold and silver in 1905. The news quickly spread to neighboring countries, but the paper’s admission of prankery spread much further, including to the United States, who were very offended by how easily Europe believed the story.

Texas Honors the Boston Strangler

Fed up with his lazy colleagues, Texas Representative Tom Moore used April Fools’ Day 1971 to propose a resolution commending Albert de Silvo for his “unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology,” assuming they wouldn’t do enough research to find out that’s the name of the Boston Strangler. They passed the resolution unanimously before the joke was revealed to them.

NBC Pays for Capitulating to Racists

In 1960, after an NBC sponsor flew an executive out to the heartland to personally explain the situation to a man who wrote to them in outrage after seeing what he thought was an interracial couple on TV, satirist Paul Krassner instructed his readers to complain to NBC and its sponsors that they were offended by something that happened on a thoroughly bland April 1 episode of game show but not to specify what. It caused chaos for the network and its sponsors, who never figured out what everyone was so mad about.

The Jovian–Plutonian Gravitational Effect

(Ashley Bean/Unsplash)

On April 1, 1976, astronomer Patrick Moore announced during a BBC radio interview that at exactly 9:47 that morning, Earth would experience the rare Jovian–Plutonian gravitational effect, a supposed side effect of the rare alignment of Jupiter and Pluto that would result in a temporary decrease of gravity on Earth. Dozens of people called in to confirm that they’d floated, including one guy demanding compensation (from Jupiter?) for hitting his head on the ceiling, though it’s unclear whether they were playing their own April Fools’ joke.

Richard Branson’s UFO

(Gianluca Carenza/Unsplash)

Virgin founder Richard Branson loves an April Fools’ prank, which is dangerous for a guy who actually owns an airline. In 1989, he flew a hot air balloon made to look like a UFO over Surrey, “stopp suburban highway traffic in its tracks.” Police were called and were shocked to actually find a UFO where it landed and then relieved to see that it was just an immature billionaire.

NPR Announces Richard Nixon’s Candidacy -- in 1992

(Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

On April Fools’ Day 1992, an actor with a wicked Richard Nixon impression got on NPR to announce that he was running for president again. "People rushed out to tell their mailmen, some were crying, they were really emotional," the show’s host said, probably about the exciting prospect of a zombie president.

Swiss Spaghetti Farmers

(Jakub Dziubak/Unsplash)

In 1957, the BBC aired a straight-faced April Fools’ segment on Swiss spaghetti farmers, showing them picking noodles from their spaghetti bushes and drying them in the sun. Some viewers were mad about such tomfoolery invading the news because it was a less trollish time, but others wanted to know where they could get their own spaghetti bush.

The Curious Case of Sidd Finch

The April 1, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated contained a remarkable story by George Plimpton about a baseball player named Sidd Finch who could throw a baseball at 168 miles per hour, complete with photos of the player. To be clear to the scrawny nerds in the crowd, the current record, set in 2010, is 105.

The Washing of the Lions

(Jeremy Avery/Unsplash)

In what is thought to be the oldest documented April Fools’ Prank, residents were invited to the Tower of London in 1698 to witness the “annual washing of the lions.” A variety of exotic animals really were kept at the Tower until the 19th century, but there was no public bathing of them. That didn’t stop people from falling for the joke, which pranksters thought was so funny that it was repeated several times over the centuries. British humor, man. It’s inscrutable.

Tin Foil Antenna Hats

On April 1, 1967, a Dutch newspaper reported that officials would be prowling the street with scanners that could detect from outside their homes whether residents had paid their TV licenses and the only way to stop them was to wrap their TVs in aluminum foil. The next day, every local store was sold out of foil.

Painted Pandas

(Stone Wang/Unsplash)

In 2009, an April Fools’ Day article published by a Taiwan newspaper reported that two pandas recently gifted from China to a local zoo had turned out to be regular brown bears dyed to look like pandas. The story actually caused some tension between the countries, and the zoo director wrote in to scold them.

Everyone Loves Cheap Wine

(Vince Veras/Unsplash)

On April Fools’ Day 1950, a Norwegian newspaper announced that the government-owned liquor stores had received a bunch of wine from France, but it was all in barrels and they didn’t have enough bottles, so they were selling it at a deep discount to anyone who showed up with their own containers to fill. When the stores opened the next morning, they faced long lines of people, buckets in hand.

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