No one quite knows how the tradition of April Fool’s Day pranks began, but they have become an annual delight for media readers and viewers and an occasional embarrassment for the unwary.
In 1860 numerous people in London received the following invitation: “Tower of London – Admit Bearer and Friend to view annual ceremony of Washing the White Lions on Sunday, April 1. Admittance only at White Gate. It is particularly requested that no gratuities be given to wardens or attendants.” By twelve o’clock a large crowd had reportedly gathered outside the tower. But of course, lions hadn’t been kept in the tower for centuries, particularly not white lions. The crowd eventually slunk away.
In 1919 the citizens of Venice woke on the morning of April 1 to find piles of horse manure deposited all over the Piazza San Marco. It was as if a procession of horses had passed through during the night. This was extremely unusual, since the Piazza is surrounded by canals and not easily accessible to horses. It turned out to be the work of the infamous British prankster Horace de Vere Cole, who was honeymooning in Venice. He had transported a load of manure over from the mainland the night before with the help of a gondolier and had then deposited small piles of it throughout the Piazza.
In April 1934 many American newspapers (including The New York Times) printed a photograph of a man flying through the air by means of a device powered only by the breath from his lungs. The man, identified as German pilot Erich Kocher, blew into a box on his chest that activated rotors to lift him aloft. Skis on his feet served as landing gear and a tail fin allowed him to steer. The photo first appeared in the April Fool’s Day edition of the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung and had made its way to America thanks to William Randolph Hearst’s International News Photo agency which not only fell for the hoax but also distributed it to all its U.S. subscribers.
In 1957 on its current affairs programme Panorama British television broadcast a three-minute clip about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. The success of the crop was attributed both to an unusually mild winter and to the “virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.”. The audience heard Richard Dimbleby, the show’s highly respected anchor, discussing the details of the spaghetti crop as they watched film footage of a Swiss family pulling pasta off spaghetti trees and placing it into baskets.
In 1977 The Guardian newspaper published a seven-page “special report” about San Serriffe, a small republic located in the Indian Ocean consisting of several semi-colon-shaped islands. A series of articles described the geography and culture of this obscure nation. The newspaper’s phones rang all day as readers sought more information about this idyllic holiday spot. This elaborate joke had a typographical twist, since numerous details about the island alluded to printer’s terminology. Each year British newspapers vie to come up with the most original and convincing April Fool spoof.
In 1993 The Independent newspaper announced the discovery by archaeologists of the 3000-year-old village of the cartoon hero Asterix. It was said to have been found at Le Yaudet, near Lannion, France, in almost precisely the location where René Goscinny, Asterix’s creator, had placed it in his books. Supposedly the team found evidence that the small village had never been occupied by Roman forces. They also discovered Celtic coins printed with the image of a wild boar (the favourite food of Asterix’s friend Obelix), as well as a large collection of rare Iron Age menhirs (standing stones) of the kind that Obelix himself used to heft. Caveat lector!