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Museum of Hoaxes: A History of Outrageous Pranks and Deceptions

by Alex Boese

The Museum of Hoaxes

Boese, the "curator" of The Museum of Hoaxes (see our Links page), here collects some of the more fascinating hoaxes from medieval times to the dot-com era. This book is a fascinating historical tour of hundreds of documented hoaxes, many collected here for the first time. Read about the curiosities and cons of the most notorious hornswogglers and flimflam men of the nineteenth century; be astounded at the imposters, pretenders, and tricksters of the twentieth.

April clownsApril Fool’s Day: Is It Reserved For Fools, and If So, Who Is Left?
by Marjorie Dorfman

Why do we celebrate the first of April and why is it always associated with tricks? Is it the precursor to the trick or treat concept later in the year, or does it instead maintain its own special enigma? Read on, if you are a fool, a prankster, were born on April the first or none or all of the above.

April foolThe first of April some do say,
Is set apart for All Fools’ Day,
But why the people call it so,
Neither I, nor themselves do know.
But on this day are people sent
On purpose of pure merriment.
– Poor Robin’s Almanac, 1790

April Fool’s Day is an odd holiday because it is one of the few in our culture that is not associated with the consumption of special food. There’s no food at all, in fact, except maybe food for thought. It’s right up there with Arbor Day and Flag Day. (Unless, of course, trees and flags are eaten secretly in some ceremony I never heard of). Perhaps for this reason its passing is barely noticed, for no pumpkin pie, turkey, eggnog or barbecue comes along with the deal. For adults celebration of the day might be comparable to the attitude about the effects of a snowstorm. For kids it’s exciting to play in and usually means a day off from school; for adults it usually means a trudge to work with extensive delays and nuisances. Pranks are for children or are they? Still, one wonders how this idea got started in the first place.

No one seems to know exactly how the tradition began, but references to All Fool’s Day first appeared in Europe during the late Middle Ages when a number of celebrations developed which served as direct precursors to this odd holiday. The most important of these was the Festus Fatuorum (Feast of Fools) which evolved out of the Roman Saturnalia. On this day, which was mostly observed in France, celebrants elected a mock pope and parodied church rituals. The church, of course, did its best to discourage this celebration, but it still lingered on until the sixteenth century.

medieval foolsLet’s not forget the connection to the medieval figure of the fool, the symbolic patron saint of the day. Fools became prominent in late medieval Europe, practicing their craft in a variety of settings such as town squares and royal courts (where some called them jesters). Their distinctive dress remains well known today: multicolored robe, horned hat, scepter and baubles. They wear other things today as well, but they still rush in where wise men never go.

The most widespread belief about the origins of April Fool’s Day involves the Gregorian calendar reform of the late 16th century. In 1582 France became the first country to switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar established by the Council of Trent in 1563. This change meant, among other things, that the date for the New Year was moved from April the first to January first. Those who failed to keep up with the change, who stubbornly clung to the old calendar system and continued to celebrate the New Year during the week that fell between March 25 (known as Lady Day in England) and April one, became known as fools. These insubordinates worthy of flogging, received invitations to non-existent parties and had various other practical jokes played upon them. For instance, pranksters would surreptitiously stick paper fish to their backs and give them the moniker "Poisson d’Avril" or April Fish.

The link between the calendar change and April first however, has many problems as a theory. Although it might effectively explain why April the first is considered a holiday, the concept of a springtime festival honoring misrule and mayhem has far more ancient roots. Also, the process by which the observance of the day spread from France to protestant countries such as Germany, Scotland and England is left unexplained. These nations only adopted the calendar change during the 18th century at a time when the tradition of April foolery had already been well established throughout Europe. There also doesn’t seem to be any written evidence to support this theory, making it, no matter how pat it sounds, a matter of conjecture rather than solid research (or in other words, a theory for fools only).

Throughout antiquity numerous festivals included celebrations of foolery (tom and otherwise) and trickery. As mentioned earlier, the Saturnalia, a Roman winter festival observed at the end of December, involved dancing, drinking and general merrymaking. People exchanged gifts, slaves were allowed to pretend that they ruled their masters, and a mock king, Saturnalcius princeps (or Lord of Misrule) reigned for the day. (Queen for a day came many years later after the Roman Empire fell and television was discovered). By the fourth century AD the Saturnalia had transformed into a January 1, New Years Day celebration, and many of its traditions were incorporated into the observance of Christmas.

Another theory is that the origin of the holiday is connected to celebrations of the spring (Vernal) Equinox. In late March, the Romans honored the resurrection of Attis, son of the Great Mother Cybele, with the Hilaria celebration, which involved rejoicing and the donning of disguises. Anthropologically speaking, the reason for this could be as simple as comparing Spring to that time of year when Mother Nature and young hearts are fickle. Festivals occurring in the Spring traditionally mirrored this sense of whimsy and surprise, often involving inversions of the social order. Rules were suspended during this joyous transition as the seasons and their endless cycle were reborn. So does that mean wise people pretended to be fools and if so, how did anyone recognize each other? What’s a fool by any other name to believe anyway?

French foolThere is another story to consider about April foolery and the springtime. This one traces the origins of the custom back to the abundance of fish to be found in French streams and rivers during early April when the young fish have just hatched. (I always suspected some of my ex-husband’s family came into the world this way as well.) These young fish were easy to fool with a hook and a lure. The French called them Poisson d’Avril or April Fish. Soon it became customary to fool people on April 1, as a way of celebrating the abundance of foolish fish. The French still use the term Poisson d ’Avril to describe the victims of April Fool’s day pranks. They also observe the custom of giving each other chocolate fish on April the first.

Most pranks range from the standard "your shoe is untied" to some very creative and elaborate ideas. I myself fell victim to a prank published in April 1997 by Games magazine. It concerned an article about a product known as "Orion’s Crystal;" an invisible phenomenon created by an engineer named Davis Merran. Originally an attempt to produce a new and better windshield that would reduce glare and increase visibility, this new "Sunglass" as it became known, reduced glare and visibility alright, but not of the road but of the windshield itself.

After a debut at the Javitz Center in New York at the Toy Fair, where twelve transparent spheres were stolen, they finally made their way to market, particularly, F.A.O.Schwartz toy store. My boyfriend was intrigued, so much so that I decided to get him one for Christmas. Here, my friends, is where the plot really thickens. I should have worn a mask when I entered the store. After a simple request for one of those "transparent spheres" written about in Games magazine, the sales woman called over her shoulder, "here comes another one." I was then informed that I was "fooled" and that the entire article had been a hoax!

a big foolSo when you go to bed on March 31st of any given year, be very careful upon awakening. You never know what might jump out at you from any corner of your home or mind. It might help to bear in mind that whatever mayhem is in store for you it will only last a day. Resist the urge to stay in bed and pull the covers over your head. Odds are it will be a day just like any other, but still, one never knows, does one? In fact, no one really knows where fools lurk anymore.

Except for The Shadow. He knows.

An April Fool
Happy April Fool’s Day to all!

Did you know . . .

Related articles:
St Patrick's Day
Leap Year

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