10 April Fools' Pranks That Went Horribly Awry

April Fools' Day can have unintended consequences.
April Fools' Day can have unintended consequences.
LightfieldStudios/iStock via Getty Images

While people normally recoil at being tricked, April Fools’ Day on April 1 appears to be the one time annually that fart cushions are permitted. While many jokes are harmless, not everyone is able to temper their ambitions or reaction to orchestrated humiliation. Take a look at some pranks that escalated to unfortunate proportions.

1. Google’s Gmail mic drop

In 2016, web giant Google decided to add some levity to Gmail accounts by plugging in a “mic drop” option that inserted a GIF of a minion from the Despicable Me film franchise dropping a microphone. The idea was that the sender had (comically) put the final exclamation point on a conversation. The problem? Not all users understood the levity, causing some professional correspondence to be misinterpreted. Additionally, some users hit the “mic drop” button by accident since it replaced the “send and archive” feature, offending employers and others who didn’t appreciate having a mic-drop response to serious matters. At least one person said it cost him his job. Google swiftly apologized, saying the joke caused “more headaches than laughs.”

2. A comical case of mistaken mariticide

Turns out claiming to kill your husband is no laughing matter.ajr_images/iStock via Getty Images

On April Fools’ Day 2013, a Kingsport, Tennessee, resident named Susan Hudson thought it would be amusing to call her sister and “confess” to the murder of her spouse. “I shot my husband,” Hudson said. “I’m cleaning up the mess. Let’s go bury him in Blackwater.” Before Hudson could disclose it was a prank, her sister phoned another family member, who in turn phoned police. Authorities wound up surrounding her home with guns drawn and detaining her before her husband was determined to be alive and well. “The response was excellent,” Hudson later said, apparently impressed by the quick action of police.

3. A local news producer has a volcanic idea

In the midst of tragic or alarming local news, broadcasters sometimes like to try and keep things light. That was the case for WNAC-TV Boston news producer Homer Cilley, who decided it would be a good idea to air a segment on April 1, 1980, that claimed the nonvolcanic Great Blue Hill in suburban Milton, Massachusetts, had inexplicably begun spurting flames and lava. Cilley used footage of Mt. St. Helens as well as dubbed audio from then-president Jimmy Carter. Cilley thought the “April Fool” graphic at the end of the piece would be self-explanatory, but not everyone in the audience caught it. Panicked calls to authorities followed. The station fired Cilley for the ruse.

4. A Hooters waitress is suckered by Yoda

Sue or sue not, there is no try.Pixabay // Public Domain

In 2001, a Hooters restaurant in Panama City Beach, Florida, held a sales contest for employees that promised a new Toyota to whomever sold the most beer in the month of April. The winner, Jodee Berry, was directed to the parking lot, where she discovered the prize was not a Toyota vehicle but a toy Yoda. Rather than find this amusing, Berry found it to be a breach of contract and fraudulent misrepresentation. She filed a lawsuit against the restaurant and settled in 2002 for a sum that permitted her, in the words of her lawyer, to “pick out whatever type of Toyota she wants.”

5. A radio station taps the area water supply for humor

Co-hosts Val St. John and Scott Fish of The Val and Scott in the Morning program on Florida's WWGR/Gator Country 101.9-FM got into hot water in 2013 for broadcasting a warning that dihydrogen monoxide was coming out of faucets in the Fort Myers area. While the claim was technically correct—dihydrogen monoxide is the chemical name for plain water—it implied something dangerous was happening to the area’s water supply, promoting a flood of concerned phone calls to the Lee County Utilities company, including calls from the Florida Department of Health. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection was also asked to look into the prank. St. John and Fish were put on an indefinite suspension, but were eventually allowed back on air. They also avoided the very real possibility of felony charges.

6. The falling Space Needle

Seattle residents were thrown into turmoil in 1989, when local television station KING 5 reported the Space Needle had collapsed. The “report” came as part of a comedy show, Almost Live, which seemed as though it had been interrupted by a breaking bulletin. Producers even arranged for doctored footage that made it seem like the building had indeed toppled over, with the observation deck on the ground below. Despite an onscreen graphic labeling it as a joke, viewers frantically dialed both 911 and the station. The show made an on-air apology the following week.

7. The free train ride that ended in a riot

In 1844, pranksters in Dublin, Ireland, put up signs promising a free train ride to nearby Drogheda and back on—when else—April 1. When the would-be travelers showed up to the train station, confused conductors insisted there was no free ride. That was not what the crowd wanted to hear, and the ensuing arguments soon escalated into a full-scale riot. Once the ruse had been uncovered, people lodged complaints with local police, who dismissed them because it was intended as a harmless prank.

8. A juvenile bank heist ends poorly

Robbing a bank and getting sent to jail are two extracurricular activities that won’t look good on a college application.Artrotozwork/iStock via Getty Images

It sounded funny on paper. In 1963, a 14-year-old boy living in Milford, Connecticut, walked into a bank and handed the teller a note that demanded money. The employee complied, giving him $600. The child, thinking better of leaving with the money, turned around before he arrived at the door and gave it back. It was too late, however. Once authorities caught up with him, he was sent to a New Haven juvenile detention center.

9. A space shuttle draws attention

Dave Rickards, a disc jockey for radio station KGB-FM in San Diego, California, went on the air on April 1, 1993, and told listeners the space shuttle Discovery would be landing at a small airport nearby instead of Edwards Air Force Base. As a result, over 1000 people crowded tiny Montgomery Field, backing up traffic and prompting hundreds of children to miss school. In fact, Discovery had yet to even depart from Kennedy Space Center. (In addition, Montgomery Field had a 12,000 pound weight limit for aircraft. The Discovery weighed roughly 170,000 pounds.) A furious police department billed the station for the manpower needed to redirect traffic.

10. The Syracuse piranhas

In 1974, the Post-Standard in Syracuse, New York, told readers something dangerous was lurking in Onondaga County waters. Reporter Bob Peel wrote that piranha eggs had somehow gotten mixed in with the trout that was normally introduced into lakes for trout season. Peel wrote that the man-eaters could devour an ox in five minutes, and that fishermen shouldn’t get anywhere near the water. Though Peel ended his story by calling it “baloney,” readers who didn’t make it to the end made frantic calls to the paper.

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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.”