History’s Biggest April Fool’s Pranks Ever!

Samuel Chase
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Pranksters are born every day. Some are quite good at it too. Presidents have even been known to get in on the fun sometimes.

One American President loved to prank people while driving them around in his blue convertible and suddenly screaming, “the brakes have failed,” while headed into a lake on his property. After splashing into the lake, the President would then pilot the frightened passengers around the lake in his boat/car. (Read more here)

Then of course, there’s the infamous 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” by Orson Welles that caused mass hysteria nationwide. Question, was the fake news story about an alien invasion really meant to be a prank? We may never know for sure. Welles remained coy about it when asked for the rest of his life.

Pranksters like to prank all year long. But there is one day when everyone likes to get in on the act, April Fool’s Day, the first day of April. In France they call it April Fish and it may well be that this is where April Fool’s Day originated. However, we aren’t sure about that.

Florida April Fool’s Joke Gone Wild!

Like “War of the Worlds,” some April Fool’s hoax’s can cause mass panic in the community.

Two long time disc-jockeys in the Fort Myers, Florida metro area learned this the hard way back in 2013.

The two DJ’s, Val St. John and Scott Fish, were pulled off the air in the middle of their show on WWGR Gator Country 101.9 FM for telling their audience that “Dihydrogen Monoxide” was coming out of Lee County residents’ taps.

“Dihydrogen Monoxide” is the technical name of water.

It is unclear exactly how much or how Val and Scott fueled the fire in promoting this prank before being pulled off the air. But it was enough that panicked listeners began calling the Lee County Water Utility concerned about their water quality. So many in fact that the Utility had to issue an official statement explaining that it was a joke and that “Dihydrogen Monoxide” is actually water.

Officials were so upset that Val and Scott were threatened with being charged with a felony. At the time, USA Today reported that Diane Holm, PIO for the Florida Department of Health in Lee County, stated, “My understanding is it is a felony to call in a false water quality issue.”

The DJ’s were never charged. Partly, I think, because it might be difficult to charge and convict someone for telling the truth.

A few hours later the DJ’s posted the following on their Facebook page, “Yikes! It’s April Fools Day! Dihydrogen Monoxide ….. there’s water in the water!”

So, what are the biggest April Fool’s pranks ever? Here’s a short list of the most interesting we’ve found:

Spaghetti being harvested from Spaghetti trees.

In 1957 the BBC in Great Britain ran a 3-minute report on the news show Panorama about a spaghetti harvest. In the segment they show spaghetti being harvested from trees by Swiss farmers. The segment was so convincing that vast numbers of people believed the fake news segment and many called the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree.

Elizabeth Tower – Better known as “Big Ben.”

In 1980 the BBC again decided to broadcast a fake news event by announcing that London’s historic Elizabeth Tower, better known as Big Ben (the tower with the big clock), would soon be getting a facelift by replacing the old-fashioned clock-face with a new modern digital version. Callers flooded the station with complaints.

Big Ben going digital!

Not to be outdone, in 1992 NPR in America ran a news spot announcing that former President Richard M. Nixon was running for President again. NPR reported that the President’s new slogan was, “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I won’t do it again.” NPR also solicited the help of comedian and famed Nixon impressionist, Rich Little, to create audio clips of Nixon announcing his run. The show was besieged by angry callers in protest.

Nixon left, talking to Rich Little. (image provided by BHBPR)

Unfortunately, NPR seems to have misplaced the audio clip of this prank. If they find it before April 1st, maybe they can use it once again. How many people would fall for it a second time I wonder? Nixon died in 1994. In April, believe it or not.

The “Taco Liberty Bell”

However, its not just the news media getting in on the act. Corporate America wants a slice too.

In 1996 Taco Bell ran full page newspaper ads around the country announcing that they had purchased the Liberty Bell from the government in a move to help reduce the national debt. The ad also announced that they were renaming the bell, “Taco Liberty Bell.” Thousands of people turned out in protest of renaming the bell.

BMW Advertises new “Magnetic Tow Technology.”

Then there’s BMW, yes the car company, who in 2009 ran ads promoting its new “magnetic tow technology,” an invention that enabled drivers to turn off their engines and get a free tow from the car ahead via a magnetic beam. “Why burn your fuel, when you can burn someone else’s?,” BMW said.

I wonder how many people bought a new BMW thinking they were getting the new technology.

Jonathan Swift

This is my personal favorite. It goes all the way back to 1708.

The writer of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, publishes the death notice of John Partridge, an astrologer and almanac-maker who Swift despised. The prank was actually very involved, and the letters were written under the pseudonym of “Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.” Other writers and publishers, thinking the death notice was true, picked up the story and published their own articles about Partridges death.

Of course, Partridge was still alive. But that did not stop mourners and funeral assistants from visiting Partridge’s home and knocking on his door. Even after Partridge declared to the public in an open letter that he was indeed still alive, no one believed him because Swift quickly responded in his own letter that Partridge’s letter was false. Many did not believe Partridge was alive until they actually saw him in person.

Why was this hoax so successful?

The success of this hoax hinged on the fact that Partridge was profoundly unpopular in the community at large already. Under the charade of being an astrologer, Partridge regularly published his own predictions of notable individuals who would soon die, with dates and other details. Those whose deaths he falsely predicted then became an enemy for life.

Even after Swift abandoned the hoax, others picked it up and kept it going indefinitely. It wasn’t uncommon for people to ask Partridge on the street how his poor widow was doing.

Partridge suffered from the effects of the hoax for the rest of his life.

John Partridge

April 1st will soon be upon us. It will be interesting to see if any individual, media group, or corporation can surpass any of these pranks.

Do you have an idea for a great prank? We’d love to hear from you. In fact, we are willing to pay 1 million dollars to the person that we think has the best idea for a prank that can go viral and fool millions. Think you have the perfect prank? Share your idea by clicking here.

Maybe you could be the next millionaire!

April Fool’s!

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