11 of History’s Biggest Pranksters

istock / getty images
istock / getty images / istock / getty images

When you think about the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t, “Marie Curie, you rascal.” Likewise, solemn pictures of FDR and his fireside chats probably don’t inspire you to say, “That FDR was such a scamp.” But the truth is, even some of the most serious figures from history liked a good joke now and then.

1. Ben Franklin

Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanack in the 1700s, beginning in 1732. It included weather forecasts, household hints, puzzles, and (in 1733) a prediction of the exact date and time of the death of Franklin’s good friend, Titan Leeds. When 3:29 p.m. on October 17, 1733, came and went without a visit from the Grim Reaper, Franklin knew he would have to change his tactic for the following year. In the next Almanack, he claimed that Leeds had indeed died—and that someone had since fraudulently assumed his identity. In 1738, Leeds actually did pass away. Rather than admit that he had been joking for the past five years, Franklin published a piece praising the men who had stolen Leeds’ identity for giving up the ghost, so to speak.

2. Mark Twain

Known for his exaggerations and yarns, it probably comes as no surprise that Samuel Clemens wrote a few stories that weren’t entirely true back in his reporter days. While he was writing for the Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada, Twain came up with a whopper of a tale about the local discovery of a petrified man. He thought the way the man was sitting—thumbing his nose—would have given the story away as a joke, but no one put two and two together. Disappointed that his satire of what was apparently a widespread fascination with petrified objects had gone unappreciated, Twain later wrote, “My petrified Man was a disheartening failure; for everybody received him in innocent good faith.”

3. Abraham Lincoln

Though Lincoln was known for letting his boys get into plenty of mischief, it turns out he was pretty good at getting up to a little trouble himself. Abe was staying at the Tenbrook Hotel in Monticello, Illinois, when he saw a couple of youngsters playing with an inflated pig bladder, the 1800s answer to the modern-day balloon. He told the kids that they would get more enjoyment out of their toy if they heated it in the hotel’s fireplace. When they did, the bladder exploded, sending hot coals flying across the room. When Lincoln tried to help sweep them up, the broom caught fire. He nearly burned the hotel down.

4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Lincoln wasn’t the only prankster president. One night when he was 10 years old, young Franklin Roosevelt sneaked into his nurse’s room and slipped some effervescent powder into her chamber pot. When she used the pot the next morning, it steamed and roiled violently, making the poor nurse think there was something seriously wrong with her health. Though the nurse never figured out what happened, Franklin’s father did—and he couldn’t stop laughing about it. “Consider yourself spanked,” he told the future president.

5. Virginia Woolf

One hardly thinks of the author of Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse as a lighthearted jokester, but the Dreadnought Hoax proves she had a few tricks up her sleeve. In February of 1910, Woolf and five of her friends dressed in turbans and caftans, darkened their faces with makeup, and told the British Navy that they were Abyssinian princes. They managed to get themselves a tour of the H.M.S. Dreadnought, even crossing paths with Woolf’s cousin, a naval officer on board the ship, at one point. The disguises were so good that he was none the wiser. Though the imposters vowed to keep their escapade a secret, news leaked, and the prank was front-page news a few days later.

6. Marcel Duchamp

As a joke, French-American artist Marcel Duchamp entered a urinal into an art exhibit in 1917. The joke ended up being on him: The Fountain, as he called it, ended up becoming one of his most famous works, not to mention “an icon of twentieth-century art.”

7. Joseph Haydn

A cacophony of discordant noise might not seem very funny to you or me, but it left composer Joseph Haydn in stitches. He once hired a menagerie of musicians for an outdoor performance and had them scatter themselves throughout the neighborhood. At a specified time, Haydn asked them all to start playing—but not any specific piece of music. Just anything. The resulting noise was so awful that residents booed, hissed, and contacted the cops. Though most of the musicians got away, the drummer and the violinist from the bizarre band were arrested.

8. Marie Curie

If you think Curie’s prank involves radium or other lab shenanigans, think again—her tricky streak is pretty mild. Noticing that a relative of hers drank copious amounts of milk every day, Curie slowly thinned it out over time until he noticed. A little more advanced: Marie and her cousin once nailed the same relative’s furniture and shoes to the ceiling.

9. Leonardo Da Vinci

In order to shock and amaze his pals, Da Vinci crafted a miniature dragon for himself. He fashioned wings out of scales and attached them to a small lizard, then delighted in frightening his friends by pulling the creature out of his pocket, claiming that he had tamed it himself.

10. John F. Kennedy

As a young man at Choate High School in 1931, JFK pulled one of those pranks you think only happens in 1980s movies about all-boy prep schools: He threw firecrackers in a toilet and blew the lid off. Headmasters later denounced the vandalistic act, saying it was perpetrated by “muckers.” Pleased with the reaction, Kennedy went on to found the “Muckers Club,” a social circle that included 12 of his closest friends.

11. Thomas Edison

Edison was just 19 when he worked for Western Union, which may explain why he loved pranking his co-workers so much. Among his many gems: wiring a water bucket to a battery so it would shock anyone who took a sip.