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Jokes on You

The world’s greatest pranks

The world’s greatest pranks

When you see an old black-and-white photo, the people in it usually look pretty grim, right? No grins. Long faces. Even the kids in these pics often look like they’ve never cracked a smile!

The reason for the serious expressions was usually the length of time it took to actually take the photograph. Still, it’s kind of hard to picture olden days people pulling pranks on one another, isn’t it? But, as it turns out, pranks are as old as… history.

Here’s a look at some of history’s finest and most famous practical jokes.

The Great Spaghetti Harvest

Spaghetti harvest? Wait, what?! Spaghetti isn’t harvested!

In 1957, a BBC newscaster for the news program Panorama announced to his British audience that Ticino, a region of Switzerland, was experiencing an unusually bountiful spaghetti harvest that spring. The screen flashed to some actual footage of people picking spaghetti from trees. Then the workers laid the noodles out to dry in the sun.

No one really fell for that, did they?

Oh, but they did. Because if you’re seeing it, it must be true, right? (Thankfully, we know better than to believe everything we see! Isn’t that one of the main ideas behind dan l’chaf zechus?) In any case, many viewers did believe the segment, expressing their shock that spaghetti actually grew on trees. Others weren’t so gullible and called in to the program to express their skepticism.

The stunt, considered to be one of the most successful public pranks of all time, was the idea of Panorama cameraman Charles de Jaeger, who had a teacher who once jokingly made a comment about spaghetti growing on trees. You never know how what you say will end up inspiring people, huh?

The Rhino Representative

How does a rhinoceros end up in politics?

No, this isn’t a joke (I mean, it was a joke, but we’ll get to that). And no, “rhino” isn’t some mean nickname for a politician with a big nose. The mammal in question was a female black rhino named Cacareco — and she became a candidate (quite unexpectedly) for the Sao Paulo City Council in Brazil’s 1959 election.

It was pretty cool, because without even campaigning, Cacareco managed to snag over 100,000 write-in votes in the polls. That was ten times more votes than the runner-up got. Go, rhino!

Born in 1954 at the Jardim Zoológico do Rio de Janeiro, Cacareco became a candidate when some college students in Sao Paolo wanted to see what they could do to protest corruption in the city. They passed out homemade ballots and had people vote for the rhino, showing the real politicians how sick the people were of them and their shenanigans.

Cacareco was disqualified for office on account of being a rhino (was that discrimination?), but the point was made. Brazilians still use the term “Voto Cacareco” to mean a “protest vote.” The rhino’s stardom served as the motivation behind the Rhinoceros Party of Canada. (That party is led — in name only — by Cornelius the First, another rhinoceros.) It was a prank with a point. Not bad for a five-year-old rhino.

The Washing of the Lions

This hoax dates back to 1698 at the Tower of London. Now, to fully appreciate what this prank meant, you have to know a bit about the Tower of London. This building is a historic castle in London that has served as a fortress, palace, prison, treasure, zoo, and home of England’s Crown Jewels (that’s what it is now). It’s an important symbol of London’s heritage.

Anyway, back to the story: So, in 1698, the Tower was primarily a fortress, and some of the royals lived there. But back in the 1200s, lions had been brought there to be part of the royal menagerie (that’s a fancy way of saying pet collection or mini royal zoo), and many people still believed there were lions housed in the Tower.

A fast-talking trickster managed to persuade gullible victims that every year on April 1, the lions were taken down to the moat surrounding the Tower for their annual bath. And if they wanted to come watch, they just had to enter the Tower’s White Gate.

Although we don’t know today how many people actually showed up to witness the non-event, there were reports of people attending. Of course, there were no lions baths, just a little bit of lyin’ by a local jokester.

The Great Blue Hill Eruption

In 1980, a Boston media producer named Homer Cilley decided it would be good fun to produce a fake news bulletin for the six o’clock news broadcast. His idea? Reporting that a dormant volcano on the Great Blue Hill in Milton, Massachusetts, was erupting. He described the lava and flames and managed to pull it off all very seriously. Too seriously.

Emergency services were inundated with calls, some Milton locals attempted to flee their homes, and widespread panic, chaos, and pandemonium ensued. Oops.

Although Cilley had intended the prank to be harmless and all for fun, his hoax didn’t exactly go as planned. The incident caused a lot of controversy, the news station was condemned, and the prank went down of as one of the most infamous ever pulled. Lesson 1: People are pretty gullible, so be careful what you tell them. Lesson 2: Think things through first!

The New York City Moon Hoax

If Jr. wrote that there was life on the moon, would you believe it?

We’d like to say we wouldn’t fall for such a thing. But sometimes if information is presented well enough, we absolutely would. That makes it easier to understand what went down in this prank…

In August 1835, The Sun, a New York newspaper, began publishing a six-part series of “scientific” articles, reporting that Sir John Herschel, a famous astronomer, had made some incredible discoveries during his observation of the Moon. His “findings” included spotting some amazing lunar creatures, like what appeared to be man-shaped bats, beavers that walked on two legs, and even unicorns. Oh, my!

The articles, written by Richard Adams Locke, a British journalist, were quite well received… at first. The newspaper experienced a surge in subscribers and the articles were widely discussed. But as the series continued and the “discoveries” became more outrageous, some readers began questioning them. Could all these claims really be true?

A month later, the hoax was exposed, and The Sun received a lot of criticism for it. (Note to Jr.: don’t write fake articles about life on the moon.) Although the fraud created major negative publicity, it remains significant because it’s a great example of how the media can shape public opinion.

Found: A “Real” Unicorn

Wouldn’t we all love to see a unicorn? They seem to be more popular today than ever. So what happens when two famous and respected scientists report the discovery of an authentic unicorn skeleton? People listen and believe, that’s what!

In 1663, a strange skeleton was discovered in a gypsum quarry in Germany. (Gypsum is a grey-white mineral. It’s pretty common and is often used in building.) The discovery caught the attention of Otto von Guericke, a scientist from Prussia (a historical state in Eastern Europe). Von Guericke was known for his contributions to physics — and he was the inventor of the first air pump. Intrigued by the finding, he sketched it and called it a “unicorn skeleton.” Then, about five years later, philosopher and scientist Gottfried Leibniz wrote about it in a book, and “the unicorn” gained even more credibility.

What we now know as the Magdeburg Unicorn wasn’t a unicorn at all. It was actually a combination of bones from several different animals, including a long horn possibly from a narwhal (those cool whales with one long tusk) and bones from a woolly rhino (which is now extinct — and was then, too). The bones (an impressive horn, stout body, long tail, and two huge legs) still stand on display at the Museum of Natural History in Magdeburg, Germany, today.

Though we can’t know for sure, many people think von Guericke himself put the bones together from assorted fossils he found. To modern-day viewers, the skeleton looks absolutely ridiculous, like one of the most abominable fossil reconstructions possible. But maybe von Guericke truly believed those bones belonged together? After all, the woolly rhino’s existence wasn’t even known about until a century after von Guericke discovered his “unicorn.” We’ll never know, will we?

Funnily enough, the “unicorn” is still being used as a prank. The State Office for the Preservation of Monuments and Archeology Saxony-Anhalt (in Germany) publicized several years ago that they’d found new DNA evidence that the bones belong to an extinct species called “Monoceros Mendaciloquus,” a hoofed animal that went extinct during the Middle Ages. (Monoceros means unicorn in Latin. Mendacious, which is similar to the second word in the name, means lying or untruthful.) No scientists are known to have fallen for the joke.

Aliens Attack!

In 1898,  H.G. Wells wrote a science fiction novel called The War of the Worlds. Forty years later, in 1938, Orson Welles (no relation, different spelling), a famous actor and director, adapted the science fiction story for a radio broadcast. He and his theater group presented the dramatic story as a news bulletin broadcast that described an alien invasion of Earth — yep, as in Martians attacking.

Many of the people who had tuned in believed it was real. There was a disclaimer at the beginning saying it was a work of fiction, but lots of listeners missed that bit. (I mean, who reads or listens to the fine print?) And the fact that it was broadcast without commercial interruption led many people to believe that aliens were actually invading. (The broadcast sounded so realistic!) The audience became quite frightened, leading to widespread panic. I mean, wouldn’t you freak out if you thought Martians were roaming around invading the planet?

Some listeners fled their homes and packed up their cars (not sure how that was supposed to help), while others called the police. The show became one of the most famous public hoaxes of all time, especially because it created a true sense of panic in the public. Welles went on to become a famous director, and the War of the Worlds remains a classic example of how broadcast media can make a big impact on society.

The Dreadnought Hoax

Back in 1910, a group of six friends, including famous writer Virginia Woolf, disguised themselves as a delegation of Abyssinian royals. Now, if you don’t know who Abyssinian royals are or what they’re supposed to look like, don’t worry, you’re in good company… Britain’s Royal Navy didn’t either. That’s how the group of friends managed to trick the navy into showing them their flagship, the HMS Dreadnought. (FYI, in addition to being the name of a breed of cats from Egypt, Abyssinian refers to people from the historical region of Abyssinia in eastern Africa, today near Ethiopia.)

So, these friends dressed up in extravagant costumes and used fake accents to charm their way into the navy flagship with lots of creativity and a good dose of chutzpah. They demanded prayer mats and tried to bestow military honors on some of the officers on board. The officers bought it lock, stock, and barrel.

The hoax turned out to be a huge embarrassment for the Royal Navy. The officers on board were ridiculed for their gullibility, and the whole prank exposed how vulnerable the navy really was. After all, using only their wits and some outlandish costumes, the group had gained access to a navy flagship! After the event, the navy began to take security and privacy much more seriously. So, all’s well that ends well, huh?

The Great Balloon Hoax

Remember The Sun, the newspaper that published the fake news stories about life on the moon? Well, they didn’t learn their lesson. In 1844, a famous writer named Edgar Allan Poe wrote a (fake news) article for that newspaper about a balloon that flew over the Atlantic Ocean… from England to Paris… and people believed it. (Note: there is no ocean between England and Paris. There’s only the English Channel.)

The balloon Poe described had a diameter of 75 feet and made the trip from England to Paris in “only” 75 hours. He described the balloon’s journey in great detail… but none of it was true. He managed to fool a lot of people. Readers even wrote into the paper asking for information about the balloon, its journey, and where they could learn more on the story.

Poe wasn’t just doing it for fun…. He was trying to show people how simple it was for newspapers to print fake stories — and how easily people believed them.

The Trojan Horse

This is the oldest prank on our list today, but it’s also one of the most important. And you’ve maybe even heard of it: the Trojan Horse. It’s a famous story from Ancient Greece that happened around 3,200 years ago during the Trojan War (which took place for ten years between the Greeks and the Trojans). Troy was an ancient city located in what’s now modern-day Turkey. It was an important place because it was positioned between the Mediterranean Sea and the civilizations to the East.

Anyway, the Trojans had built Very Strong Walls around their city, and the Greeks couldn’t figure out how to breech those walls. Instead of using their brawn, which hadn’t been helping them very much until then, they finally used their brains. They built a large wooden horse that they left outside the gates of Troy, presenting it as a “peace offering.”

Hmm, a big horse! the Trojans thought. That looks like a nice gift. They dragged the horse in through the city walls. But — surprise! — the Greeks had hidden their soldiers inside the horse. When the Trojans were fast asleep, the Greek soldiers crept out of the horse and attacked the sleeping city. The Greeks conquered the city of Troy, winning the war.

Unlike most pranks, even those that had negative consequences, this trick-and-deceit determined the outcome of an entire war. It also became the inspiration behind the idea not to trust gifts from strangers.

Although pranks can be pretty funny, many of them have served other purposes throughout history. So, getting serious for a sec, what do you think? Can pranks be used to make positive changes in the world? Or are the drawbacks and fallout too great? Let us know what you think!


(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 953)

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