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.
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.