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.”

10 LEGO Sets For Every Type of LEGO Builder 

Amazon
Amazon

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If you’re looking for a timeless gift to give this holiday season, look no further than a LEGO set. With kits that cater to a wide age range—from toddlers fine-tuning their motor skills to adults looking for a more engaged way to relax—there’s a LEGO set out there for everyone. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite sets on Amazon to help you find the LEGO box that will make your loved one smile this year. If you end up getting one for yourself too, don’t worry: we won’t tell.

1. Classic Large Creative Gift Box; $44

Amazon

You can never go wrong with a classic. This 790-piece box contains dozens of types of colored bricks so builders of any age can let their inner architect shine. With toy windows, doors, tires, and tire rims included in addition to traditional bricks, the building possibilities are truly endless. The bricks are compatible with all LEGO construction sets, so builders have the option of creating their own world or building a new addition onto an existing set.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Harry Potter Hogwarts Express; $64

Amazon

Experience the magic of Hogwarts with this buildable Hogwarts Express box. The Prisoner Of Azkaban-inspired kit not only features Hogwarts's signature mode of transportation, but also Platform 9 ¾, a railway bridge, and some of your favorite Harry Potter characters. Once the train is built, the sides and roof can be removed for play within the cars. There is a Dementor on board … but after a few spells cast by Harry and Lupin, the only ride he’ll take is a trip to the naughty list.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Star Wars Battle of Hoth; $160

Amazon

Star Wars fans can go into battle—and rewrite the course of history—by recreating a terrifying AT-AT Walker from the Battle of Hoth. Complete with 1267 pieces to make this a fun challenge for ages 10 and up, the Walker has elements like spring-loaded shooters, a cockpit, and foldout panels to reveal its deadly inner workings. But never fear: Even though the situation might look dire, Luke Skywalker and his thermal detonator are ready to save the day.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Super Mario Adventures Starter Course; $60

Amazon

Kids can play Super Mario in 3D with LEGO’s interactive set. After constructing one of the courses, young designers can turn on the electronic Mario figurine to get started. Mario’s built-in color sensors and LCD screens allow him to express more than 100 different reactions as he travels through the course. He’ll encounter obstacles, collect coins, and avoid Goomba and Bowser to the sound of the Mario soundtrack (played via an included speaker). This is a great gift for encouraging problem-solving and creativity in addition to gaming smarts.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Gingerbread House; $212

Amazon

Gingerbread houses are a great way to enjoy the holidays … but this expert-level kit takes cookie construction to a whole new level. The outside of the LEGO house rotates around to show the interior of a sweet gingerbread family’s home. Although the living room is the standout with its brick light fireplace, the house also has a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and outdoor furniture. A LEGO Christmas tree and presents can be laid out as the holidays draw closer, making this a seasonal treat you can enjoy with your family every year.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Elsa and Olaf’s Tea Party; $18

Amazon

LEGO isn’t just for big kids. Toddlers and preschoolers can start their LEGO journey early by constructing an adorable tea party with their favorite Frozen characters. As they set up Elsa and Olaf’s ice seats, house, and tea fixings, they’ll work on fine-motor, visual-spatial, and emotional skills. Building the set from scratch will enable them to put their own creative spin on a favorite movie, and will prepare them for building more complicated sets as they get older.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Collectible Art Set Building Kits; $120

Amazon

Why buy art when you can build it yourself? LEGO’s Beatles and Warhol Marilyn Monroe sets contain four options for LEGO art that can be built and displayed inside your home. Each kit comes with a downloadable soundtrack you can listen to while you build, turning your art experience into a relaxing one. Once you’re finished building your creation it can be exhibited within a LEGO brick frame, with the option to hang it or dismantle it to start on a new piece. If the 1960s aren’t your thing, check out these Sith and Iron Man options.

Buy it: Amazon

8. NASA Apollo Saturn V; $120

Amazon

The sky (or just the contents of your LEGO box) is the limit with LEGO’s Saturn V expert-level kit. Designed for ages 14 and up, this to-scale rocket includes three removable rocket stages, along with a command and service module, Lunar Lander, and more. Once the rocket is complete, two small astronaut figurines can plant a tiny American flag to mark a successful launch. The rocket comes with three stands so it can be displayed after completion, as well as a booklet for learning more about the Apollo moon missions.

Buy it: Amazon

9. The White House; $100

Amazon

Reconstruct the First Family’s home (and one of America’s most famous landmarks) by erecting this display model of the White House. The model, which can be split into three distinct sections, features the Executive Residence, the West Wing, and the East Wing of the complex. Plant lovers can keep an eye out for the colorful rose garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which flank the Executive Residence. If you’re unable to visit the White House anytime soon, this model is the next best thing.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Volkswagen Camper Van; $120

Amazon

Road trip lovers and camping fanatics alike will love this vintage-inspired camper. Based on the iconic 1962 VW vehicle, LEGO’s camper gets every detail right, from the trademark safari windshield on the outside to the foldable furniture inside. Small details, like a “Make LEGO Models, Not War” LEGO T-shirt and a detailed engine add an authentic touch to the piece. Whether you’re into old car mechanics or simply want to take a trip back in time, this LEGO car will take you on a journey you won’t soon forget.

Buy it: Amazon

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The Library of Congress Needs Help Transcribing More Than 20,000 Letters Written to Teddy Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt would want you to transcribe these letters.
Theodore Roosevelt would want you to transcribe these letters.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

With some historical figures, the best we can do is speculate about their innermost thoughts and imagine what their lives might really have been like. With Theodore Roosevelt, we don’t have to. In addition to a number of books, the 26th U.S. president wrote speeches, editorials, diary entries, and letters that document virtually every aspect of his self-proclaimed strenuous life both in and out of the Oval Office.

When it comes to letters, however, only reading those written by Roosevelt can sometimes be like listening to one side of a telephone conversation. Fortunately, the Library of Congress possesses tens of thousands of letters written to Roosevelt, too—and they need your help transcribing them.

The collection includes correspondence from various phases of his career, covering his time as a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War; his stint as William McKinley’s vice president (and abrupt ascent to the presidency when McKinley was assassinated); his own campaign and two-term presidency; and his work as a conservationist. Overall, the letters reveal the sheer volume of requests Roosevelt got, from social engagements to political appointments and everything in between. In January 1902, for example, Secretary of State John Hay wrote to Roosevelt (then president) on behalf of someone who “[wanted] to be a Secretary to our Special Embassy in London.” A little over a week later, The Gridiron Club “[requested] the pleasure of the company of The President of the United States at dinner” that weekend at the Arlington Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Of more than 55,000 documents in the digital archive, about 12,000 have already been transcribed, and nearly 14,000 need to be reviewed. There are also roughly 24,000 pages that still have yet to be touched at all. If you’d like to join the effort, you can start transcribing here.