7 of History's Greatest Pranks

In the 19th century, a New York newspaper convinced readers these creatures lived on the Moon.
In the 19th century, a New York newspaper convinced readers these creatures lived on the Moon.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It's not known for certain where or why April Fools' Day originated. Some say the humorous holiday goes back to a Roman festival or events in the Bible, while others point to a change in the calendar in 16th-century France. According to the theory, people in various regions across the country marked the new year on different dates, and when the King of France, Charles IX, signed the Edict of Roussillon and standardized the new year to January 1, not everybody got the memo. This led some to continue celebrating the new year around April, and therefore become the butt of jokes.

What we do know is that, at some point, duping people on April 1 became something of a pastime. One of the most common early pranks was to send potential “fools” on impossible tasks—literally, on a fool’s errand—to look for “a bucket of striped paint, a bucket of steam, pigeon milk, a jar of elbow grease,” writes folklorist Nancy Cassell McEntire. In the spirit of good-hearted tomfoolery, here are seven more great pranks from history.

1. Rome’s Most Unbearable Party Stunt

Not surprisingly, the juvenile emperor had a juvenile sense of humor.Carole Raddato, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Considered one of the most incompetent Roman emperors, the teenage Elagabalus was, if nothing else, a solid prankster. According to archaeologist Warwick Ball’s book Rome in the East, Elagabalus routinely seated “his more pompous dinner guests on ‘whoopee cushions’ that let out a farting noise.” Purportedly, the emperor also thought it was funny to release snakes in public. One of his favorite stunts, supposedly, was to place a tamed bear, lion, or leopard in the rooms of his sleeping, drunken guests.

2. Anthemius’s Fake Earthquake Machine

Anthemius of Tralles, a 5th-century Greek architect who helped build Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, knew his way around a toolbox. So when a feud erupted between him and his neighbor, Zeno, Anthemius knew exactly what to do. The architect erected several boilers of water in his house and connected them to a hose, which he fed into a small hole leading into Zeno’s cellar next door. According to the 1888 Magazine of Western History, “When Anthemius desired to annoy his neighbor, he lighted fires under his boilers, and the steam produced by them rushed in such quantity and with such force under Zeno’s floors that they were made to heave with all the usual symptoms of an earthquake.”

3. The Misleading Monk’s Apple Trick

One of the earliest documented pranks dates to the late 15th century, when Thomas Betson, a monk at England’s Syon Abbey, hollowed out the core of an apple and inserted a large beetle, causing the fruit to rock back and forth. That wasn’t the only trick hidden up the monk’s tunic. Betson was also a fan of making objects in the monastery levitate. Using a strand of fine hair and wax, he could suspend a hollow egg in midair.

4. London’s Washing of the Lions

Your one-way ticket to being duped.Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For centuries, the Tower of London was home to a menagerie of wild animals, from polars bears to lions and even a beer-drinking zebra. On April Fools’ Day in 1698, a clever trickster convinced a handful of people the lions were receiving their annual bath. No such event existed, but that didn’t stop hordes of gawkers from visiting the Tower to have a look. For the next two centuries, the con remained a running gag, even long after the last lion left the Tower. By the 19th century, tricksters were distributing fake tickets to the “Annual Ceremony of the Washing of the Lions.”

5. The English Mercurie: The Prank Newspaper That Keeps On Pranking

Philip Yorke, a Cambridge-educated member of British Parliament and the Second Earl of Hardwicke, used his privilege to pull off some grade-A pranking. In the 1740s, he and his friend Thomas Birch printed The English Mercurie, a phony newspaper purportedly published in 1588—a date that, if true, would make it one of the world's first newspapers. In 1766, Birch gifted the paper, along with other documents, to the British Museum, which treated the publication as legitimate for decades. In fact, the “information” in the fake news report is still erroneously used today! Even the paper's Wikipedia page calls out other Wikipedia entries for citing The English Mercurie as a legitimate source.

6. The New York Sun’s Moon Hoax

On August 25, 1835, readers of the New York Sun were stunned to learn there was a civilization on the Moon. An English astronomer, the paper reported, had traveled to the Southern Hemisphere to study the night’s sky and, upon glancing at the Moon, discovered vegetation, pyramids, unicorns, bipedal beavers, and humanoid creatures with wings. The story, of course, was fake. The series of satirical articles aimed to poke fun at people like science writer Thomas Dick, who had recently claimed the Moon was home to an alien population of more than 4 billion extraterrestrials. Unfortunately, the Sun underestimated the public’s gullibility. News of the “discovery” spread across the globe.

7. William Buckland’s Guano Graffiti

A 19th-century paleontologist and poop expert—yes, poop expert—William Buckland believedguano was the next great lawn fertilizer. As an undergrad at Oxford, he proved his point by carefully sprinkling a bucket of bat guano across one of the university’s lawns, spelling out the word GUANO. Officials quickly noticed the feces and removed it. Little did they know, however, that the fertilizer had invigorated the grass below. Within weeks, the word GUANO was growing in the university’s lawn—and university officials had no way to remove it. According to Buckland’s biographer, “[T]he brilliant green grass of the letters amply testified to [guano’s] efficacy as a dressing.”

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Florence’s Plague-Era Wine Windows Are Back in Business

A wine window in Florence's Via Santo Spirito.
A wine window in Florence's Via Santo Spirito.

Many bars and restaurants have started selling takeout cocktails and other alcoholic beverages to stay in business—and keep customers safe—during the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, 17th-century Florentines are surely applauding from their front-row seats in the afterlife.

As Insider reports, a number of buildings in Florence had been constructed with small “wine windows,” or buchette del vino, through which vendors sold wine directly to less affluent customers. When the city suffered an outbreak of plague in the 1630s, business owners recognized the value of these windows as a way to serve people without spreading germs. They even exchanged money on a metal tray that was sanitized with vinegar.

Wine not?sailko, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Things eventually went back to normal, and the windows slowly fell out of fashion altogether as commerce laws evolved. This year, however, they’ve made a comeback. According to Food & Wine, there are currently at least four in operation around Florence. Osteria delle Brache in Piazza Peruzzi is using its window to deliver wine and cocktails, for example, and the Vivoli ice cream shop, a go-to dessert spot since 1929, is handing out sweet scoops and coffee through its formerly dormant aperture.

Apart from the recent resurgence of interest, the wine windows often go unnoticed by tourists drawn to the grandeur of attractions like the Uffizi Gallery and the Florence Cathedral. So in 2015, locals Matteo Faglia, Diletta Corsini, and Mary Christine Forrest established the Wine Window Association to generate some buzz. In addition to researching the history of the windows, they also keep a running list of all the ones they know of. Florence has roughly 150, and there are another 100 or so in other parts of Tuscany.

They’re hoping to affix a plaque near each window to promote their stories and discourage people from defacing them. And if you want to support their work, you can even become a member of the organization for €25 (about $29).

[h/t Insider]