These Vintage April Fools Day Tricks Show How Casually Cruel Our Ancestors Could Be

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Readers of The Cincinnati Enquirer gasped in astonishment one day in 1887 as they read how Jocko, the headliner elephant at the Cincinnati Zoo, burst his cage, raided the park’s barroom, and stumbled through a crazy bender, smashing cages and trampling flowers before finally charging a tourist train and beaning himself against the locomotive.

Astute subscribers would have noticed the publication date. Yes, it was April 1, and the entire pachydermic escapade, illustrations and all, was an elaborate April Fools joke.

Exploding cigars have a long and storied history as an April Fool prop.

Cartoon from the Cincinnati Post; image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

History explains why Zoo administrators may still cringe whenever the first day of April rolls around. Do kids still ask unsuspecting adults to telephone the Zoo and return a call from Mister Fox? There are undoubtedly Cincinnatians still living who participated in such tomfoolery. (Your proprietor pleads the Fifth.) Those phone calls to the Zoo were considered old-fashioned even 98 years ago, according to The Cincinnati Post [April 1, 1922]:

“There was nothing new in the way of April fool jokes Saturday except the boobs who fell for them. Avon 134, the Zoo telephone, was as busy with calls from persons who wished to talk to Mr. Baer, Mr. Wolf and Mr. Lyon as it was on the day the joke first came from the feeble mind that invented it.”

According to The Post, a lot of people also called the dog pound, asking for Mr. Barker.

Cincinnati’s police and fire departments used to get their share of April Fools prank calls. In 1874, a cop named Murphy used the police telegraph system to report a fire at the corner of Sixth and Stone streets. Needless to say, there was no Murphy on duty and Sixth Street did not intersect Stone.

Even the local courts engaged in the spirit of misrule. On April 1, 1921, Police Court magistrate W. Meredith Yeatman gazed upon four sorry miscreants, charged with stealing rides on freight trains. The judge solemnly intoned a sentence of 30 days and a $50 fine, plus costs. As the defendants groaned, the judge brightened up and announced that was an April Fool joke. (He did order the men to leave town within three hours.)

In 1904, the president of the truck drivers’ union, John Mullen, saw one of his members dashing frantically down the street, still struggling into his coat. Mullen asked the cause of his agitated flight and the teamster shouted that he was late for work, it being after 5 a.m. Mullen informed him that the bells were just about to ring 1 a.m., and the teamster shamefacedly trundled home to confront his mischievous landlady.

How far back did Cincinnati endure April Fools hoaxes? Pretty far back, as it turns out—all the way to 1849. In 1904, retired house painter Charles Stewart decided to celebrate his 55th wedding anniversary by getting a new marriage certificate to replace the original, lost some years before. As Marriage License Clerk Fred Bader issued the official duplicate, he noted the date of Stewart’s original marriage: April 1, 1849. Stewart confessed that, when he told his friends back in 1849 he had married pretty Martha Dawson that morning, they all thought it was an April Fools joke.

Soap-flavored pastries and candy indicate the sublimated hostility behind many good, old-fashioned April Fool pranks.

Cartoon from the Cincinnati Post; image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Reading about vintage pranks, it strikes the modern reader how casually cruel our ancestors could be. As you might expect, some old-fashioned tricks included exploding cigars or soap-filled cream puffs, but some could be dangerous and even fatal.

A group of Price Hill boys hauled a dozen empty coal oil cans up a hill at the western end of Gest Street for April Fool entertainment in 1872, and set them on fire. For added effect, they had filled one of the cans halfway with gasoline. When the inevitable explosion rocked the city, newspapers sent reporters scurrying to locate the cause. By then, the boys were in the wind, thankfully unharmed.

In 1901, someone sent word to a Covington widow that her son had been run over by a delivery wagon and was dying in a Dow drug store in Cincinnati. The elderly woman and her daughter hired a cab and raced to almost every Dow outlet in the city, being informed at each one that no one injured had been brought there. At length, they retreated to Covington, where they anxiously awaited grim news. Eventually, the young man, ignorant of their distress, came whistling up the block in perfect health. His elderly mother collapsed and required medical care. It had all been a wicked joke.

In 1904, two doctors, brothers Chase Ferris and Charles Ferris, ended up in court when their April Fool joke sent at least two people to the hospital. Both victims had eaten oysters and drank beer at a lodge meeting and became violently ill. Attorney Hiram Rulison alleged that the Ferris brothers had intentionally poisoned the refreshments as an April Fool joke but had exceeded the intended dosage.

One thing was certain: Uncle Sam has no sense of humor. A Cincinnati lawyer discovered this fact the hard way. As April Fool’s Day 1905, approached, Attorney Charles F. Williams came across what he thought was the perfect gag for his girlfriend. A local shop sold a bundle of newspapers, carved through the center to hide a stash of fake candy—red-pepper-filled chocolates, soap-flavored caramels, that sort of thing. The recipient, believing the newspaper container to be the trick, was likely to fall victim to the inedible candy.

Williams bought and mailed the booby-trap and then heard … nothing. A week later, he was summoned to the Post Office to learned his joke was now evidence of a federal crime. By mailing the joke as “newspapers,” he had defrauded the postal service, because it should have been mailed as “merchandise,” which would, of course, have ruined the joke.

Uncle Sam wasn’t laughing. Williams faced a potential $100 fine, plus a year in prison. By chance, he was known to Postal Inspector A.R. Holmes, who offered a lenient judgment of a $10 fine and postage due. Williams paid.

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