11 of History’s Biggest Pranksters

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.

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.