It’s easy to think that the prank is a modern-day invention. But it really isn’t. Practical jokes are as old as time itself. And with our list of Top 10 Greatest Historical Pranks, we bring you the proof…
William Buckland, the 19th Century palaeontologist who later developed a fetish for eating almost any animal he could get his hands on, pulled off a stinker of a prank in his youth at Oxford University. He managed to get hold of some Bat Guano (poo) and used it to write the word ‘GUANO’ on the lawn of his University College. College Officials cleaned it up, but, as Buckand knew, due to the guano’s fertilising capability, the grass grew greener and longer in this spot, essentially leaving the word for ‘poo’ spelled out on one of the world’s most prestigious University’s lawns.
Who knew that in the days before Benjamin Franklin went on to become a famous US President, he used to be a female impersonator? He wrote for a newspaper ‘The New England Courant’, which was owned by his brother. His brother wouldn’t let Franklin publish letters himself, so in rebuttal, he decided to write letters to the newspaper impersonating a widow, ‘Silence Dogood’. Franklin wrote 14 letters in total, which became so popular with readers, marriage proposals were sent to the newspaper. When he wasn’t discovered, Franklin soon became bored with his ruse, and owned up to his brother, breaking many 18th Century men’s hearts.
Francis Dashwood, 18th Century British Politician, had a notorious reputation as a womaniser and general party-animal. He started the ‘Hellfire Club’ which threw many debauched parties . As well as hosting these wild events, Dashwood was also a bit of a prankster. He commissioned a portrait of himself modelled on the very religious St Francis of Assisi, but instead of showing him reading the Bible, he was displayed ogling a naked woman and a book of erotica. If this wasn’t enough to shock society, Dashwood published a shortened version of the Book of Common Prayer, so that people didn’t have to stand about too long in Church. Controversial yes, but many people around Britain were probably very thankful!
Knight was a well renowned Basketball Coach who, for three decades, coached the India Hoosiers. He wasn’t a big fan of the press, so in 1992 decided to play a trick which would target both the press and ‘sports insiders’. Knight announced on TV that he had hired a new recruit from Yugoslavia; 6” 8’ Ivan Renko. The press quickly picked up on this sensational news and began to discuss the new recruit, some even stating that they had seen footage of the player, despite him not even existing! Needless to say, there were eggs on faces all round, when they found out the truth to this giant of a story.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Some might know Romantic Poet, Percy Shelley’s wife, Mary, better being author of famous gothic novel, Frankenstein’s Monster. However Percy had a dark past of his own… He was an original geek: preferring studying the Sciences to sporting activities, which meant he was bullied horrifically whilst studying at posh, British school, Eton. He got his own back, however, as he used his knowledge of the Sciences to his advantage. He managed to electrocute his tutor by connecting a charged Leydon Jar (nope… us neither) to a door knob, and had a hobby of blowing up trees with dynamite. Hilarious, maybe, if not slightly alarming… the ‘stump of the willow’ is still reportedly in the South Meadow of Eton to this day.
As a teenager, Abraham Lincoln had the reputation of a being a bit of a joker. His step-mother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, frequently teased him for being tall and lanky and used to tell him to keep his head clean, or else she would have to clean her pristine, whitewashed ceilings. One day, Lincoln spied some boys playing in the mud, so turned them upside down so their muddy feet left marks on the ceiling. Luckily, his step mom took this in good humour, however not all of Lincoln’s pranks turned out so well. Rumour has it, when staying in a hotel in Illinois, Lincoln tried to scare local children by telling them to heat an inflated pig’s bladder on the fireplace. The bladder exploded sending burning coals flying and setting a broom on fire, fortunately causing no injury to one of America’s most celebrated future presidents.
Joseph Mulhatten became one of America’s most famous liars and pranksters. His day job was a salesman, however he spent much of his time deceiving newspapers by sending in fictional and normally, ludicrous, stories. One such story reported that a Kentucky farmer had hired a band of trained monkeys to work in his hemp fields. This story was subsequently picked up by other newspapers who cried out in horror how this would effect labour in the country. Although hard to believe, trained monkeys, to this day, are yet to take over the workforce of America.
When Thomas Edison was at the height of his fame as an Inventor, people believed that he could invent just about anything. A journalist for the New York Daily Graphic decided to use Edison’s reputation to fool the American public. He published a story in 1878 which told of Edison’s latest invention, the ‘Food Creator’, which was able to create food out of thin air. This was believed by fellow newspapers and their readers and was celebrated as an invention that could feed the world! The story was published on the 1st April, which should have been a clue, but nonetheless it amused Edison when he received an influx of requests for this miracle machine.
Harvey Stromberg was a conceptual artist who worked during the 1970’s. He held an exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, not that anybody noticed… For weeks prior to his ‘exhibition’, Stromberg had wandered around the Museum pretending to be a student with a notebook. He was really taking notes about everything other than the art on display. He described in detail bricks, air vents, keyholes, door handles, etc, so when he went away he could create detailed 3D effect stickers of all of these components. He then returned to the museum to put the stickers in place. It took a while for visitors to notice these stickers and some stayed on for up to 2 years until Stromberg held an impromptu gallery opening at the Museum. Stromberg certainly amused himself by sneaking his ‘exhibition’ into the gallery, but is it art or just a plain prank?
The Earl of Hardwicke
The Earl of Hardwicke, Philip York and his historian friend, Thomas Birch, decided to play a prank on the other historians and academics of the 18th Century. They created the English Mercurie which was reported to be the first English newspaper in history. Many other newspapers were in circulation at this point, however this newspaper was different as it was dated July 23 1588. This mock-Tudor paper told of the English defeat of the Spanish Armada, breaking news at the time – however, this would have been spread by word of mouth as actually no newspapers existed at this point in history. This faux-newspaper exited many historians, and it wasn’t until 45 years later that it was proclaimed as a fake.