17 of History’s Most Shocking Pranks, Practical Jokes and Hoaxes
In honor of April Fool’s Day, 600 years of fast ones that you won’t believe people actually pulled off
1400s: The haunted snack
Thomas Betson, the prankster-monk, pulls off one of the earliest documented practical jokes when he hides a beetle inside a hollowed-out apple and fools his fellow monks into believing that the mysteriously rocking apple is possessed. Find out more about the mysterious origins of April Fool’s Day.
1835: Lunar life
iStock/Sjoerd van der Wal
The Great Moon Hoax is the first big media trick. The New York Sun prints an article claiming that astronomers have discovered life on the moon. More articles appear over the next few weeks, and the country is gripped by moon fever.
1938: The ultimate war
Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of War of the Worlds convinces millions of listeners that earth is under attack by aliens. Many flee their homes, pray in houses of worship, and, eventually, curse Welles’s name.
1957: Pasta plants
A BBC News documentary about the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest depicts farmers pulling strands of spaghetti from trees. The network is deluged with callers asking where they can buy a spaghetti tree.
1959: Beastly indecency
Prankster extraordinaire Alan Abel dreams up a campaign calling for animals to wear clothing, and the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals is born. Spokesperson G. Clifford Prout appears on Today to promote the group’s catchy slogan: “A nude horse is a rude horse.” Eventually, 50,000 concerned citizens sign its petition, and even Walter Cronkite gets hoodwinked—until it’s discovered that Prout is actually comedian Buck Henry.
1962: Color conversion
The broadcasting technician for Sweden’s lone television station appears on the news to announce that, thanks to a new technology, viewers can convert the existing black-and-white broadcasts into color. All they have to do is pull a nylon stocking over their TV screen. Thousands try it. Check out these computer pranks to pull on your friends.
1978: A surprise of Titanic proportions
Residents of Sydney, Australia, gawk at an iceberg floating in Sydney Harbor on April 1, which electronics entrepreneur Dick Smith claimed he towed from Antarctica. The Australian navy even offer their help in mooring it. Eventually, everyone realizes it’s just a barge covered in white plastic and fire-fighting foam.
1980: Time change
The BBC World Service (then called oversea’s service) reports that each of Big Ben’s four faces would be changed to a digital display and its iconic hands would be given away to the first four callers. While most listeners are shocked and angry, one Japanese seaman immediately calls to claim his prize.
1985: Pitching prodigy
Sports Illustrated runs a story about Sidd Finch, a Mets rookie pitcher with odd training methods who can throw a baseball 168 mph with pinpoint accuracy, even though he’s never played the game before. Instead, he mastered the “art of the pitch” in the mountains of Tibet. In reality, Finch exists only in the mind of the author George Plimpton.
1996: A new bell
Taco Bell announces it has bought the Liberty Bell and is renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. Outraged citizens complain to the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, where the bell is housed.
1997: Killer compound
The chemical compound DHMO is “colorless, odorless, and kills thousands of people every year” through “accidental inhalation,” reads a widely circulated e-mail, calling for a ban. Furthermore, it’s now “a major component of acid rain” and is “found in almost every stream, lake, and reservoir in America.” One California town becomes so alarmed that residents debate banning foam cups, which are shown to contain DHMO. They nix the idea upon learning that DHMO is actually water.
1998: Burger switcheroo
Burger King introduces a new item to its menu: the Left-Handed Whopper, specially designed for southpaws. According to the company, the new Whopper includes the same ingredients as the original version, but all the condiments are rotated 180 degrees.
2004: Compensation con
On the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal, India, chemical plant disaster that killed thousands, Jude Finisterra, a representative from Dow, tells a BBC audience that the company finally accepts full responsibility for the tragedy and plans to compensate victims to the tune of $12 billion. Only after Dow’s stock plummets does the BBC or anyone else realize that Finisterra is not connected with Dow, but with the Yes Men, a political prankster group.
2004: Football folly
At the annual Yale-Harvard football game, Yale students, dressed as the Harvard pep squad, distribute placards to their rival’s fans. On cue, the Harvard faithful lift them up and unwittingly spell “We Suck.” Don’t miss these hilarious office pranks that won’t get you fired.
2007: Wired waste
Google introduces TiSP (Toilet Internet Service Provider), which supplies free broadband via the sewer system. A user flushes one end of a fiber-optic cable down his toilet; an hour later, it’s recovered and connected to the Internet by a team of Plumbing Hardware Dispatchers. Chat rooms are filled with interested parties asking, “Can this be true?”
2008: Political prank
Days before the U.S. presidential election, a Canadian disc jockey is able to reach vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin by phone and convince her that he is French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Palin fails to pick up on any of the hints that the conversation is a joke, even when he says, with an exaggerated, Pepé Le Pew–style accent, “From my ‘ouse, I can see Belgium.”
2012: Tower of Tetris
Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had long been renowned for their elaborate hoaxes, but even they considered this their “Holy Grail”: A team of hackers installed lights in each of the 153 windows of the campus’ 21-story Green Building, and via wireless connection transformed the lights into a giant, functioning game of Tetris, visible throughout much of the Boston metro region. Next, check out these easy Facebook pranks you can pull off in seconds.