Seventy years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially decreed April 1 “April Fools' Day," an annual occasion of laughter and pranks designed to take minds off the Second World War, as it entered its final stages. It was the last important piece of New Deal legislation FDR signed into law. Well before that, however, important historical figures were bringing the funny. Here’s a look at five distinguished leg pullers and make sure you read to the end for the full truth and nothing but the truth. . .wink, wink. . .
Is it true that founding father Benjamin Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence with an exploding quill? No—but it would have been characteristic of him. That whole business about him flying a kite into a thunderstorm, with a key attached to it to prove the existence of electricity, has been widely debunked, not that he didn’t have a keen interest in that and many other subjects. (One was drinking, and his “Drinkers Dictionary,” published in 1737, categorized the slang of the era for getting wasted, like “he’s been too free with the Creature.”) The most noted hoax pulled off by the author of Poor Richard’s Almanack was “killing” a rival pamphleteer, Titan Leeds, by predicting the exact date and time of his demise. When Leeds failed to die on the appointed day, Franklin insisted that an impersonator had taken his place, a charade he kept up for five years until Leeds actually passed away—at which point Franklin, rather than admit the prank, said the imposters decided to quit.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Electricity was in the air in the 18th century. At Oxford, the budding Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a chemistry student, connected a Leyden jar (an old time capacitor that Franklin also utilized for his electrical studies) to the metallic doorknob of a tutor he disliked. Shocking—as was his penchant for setting fire to trees on campus when he was at private school at Eton (the “stump of the willow” is apparently still in South Meadow). The experimentation was not in vain, as it found its way into wife Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley had the last laugh on Oxford, which expelled him, when the original headstone for his grave proved too big to transport to Italy and ended up at the university. Students often dress up his mausoleum with the kind of wild outfits he favored.
Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? The author was a laughing matter for the crew of the HMS Dreadnought, on February 7, 1910. That day she and her brother, members of the Bloomsbury Group, the influential group of artists and intellectuals, dressed up as a contingent of the Abyssinian royal family (“Prince Musaka Ali and his suite”) and hatched a plot to board the vessel. Fooling navy officials (including their cousin, the commander of the Dreadnought) the group made it aboard and was greeted with pomp and circumstance. “Bunga bunga!” they exclaimed as they examined the fleet. Red-faced when the prank made headlines, the Royal Navy sought to arrest the ringleaders, but no law had been broken and Woolf got on with writing Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. When the Dreadnought sank a German submarine in 1915, the Navy received a telegram reading “Bunga bunga!”
The movies’ master of the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock, always had a few tricks up his sleeve on and off set. Most were harmless, like adding food coloring to soup and fish dishes to see how diners would react, and having whoopee cushions at the ready for houseguests. Actors were frequent targets—when Peter Lorre complained to the director about having a suit ruined during filming, Hitchcock, saying he was acting like a child, had a child-size replica made for the performer. But some Hitchcock pranks had a malicious edge. He bet a property man a week’s salary that he couldn’t make it through a night handcuffed to a camera in a deserted soundstage—then laced the man’s brandy with a strong laxative, with humiliating results by the next morning. He also sent six-year-old Melanie Griffith, the daughter of Tippi Hedren, the much-harassed star of The Birds (1963), a wax doll of her mother in a coffin, wearing her movie costume. “He was a motherf**ker, and you can quote me,” said Griffith years later. (Hitchcock’s darker pranks may have stemmed from his father having the police lock his five-year-old son in a jail cell for 10 minutes when he misbehaved.)
With the computer having replaced electricity as a source of pranks, it’s no wonder that Steve Jobs, the guy who cultivated Apple liked to joke around. Often in cahoots with buddy and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, he announced a “Bring Your Pet to School Day,” with predictably chaotic results, put firecrackers under a teacher’s chair, and pranked the telephone system of yesteryear with a “blue box” device that enabled them to call the Vatican for free while pretending to be Henry Kissinger. Jobs also wired his family’s home with speakers, which he then used as microphones, much to the annoyance of his dad when he found out the master bedroom was being bugged. Jobs’ advice for success? “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”
(Just kidding, by the way, about Roosevelt and April Fool’s Day. It was President Abraham Lincoln who decreed it a holiday, in 1866. Both, by the way, were noted pranksters in their youth, as was John F. Kennedy.)