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This April fools’ day, learn from the experts

By Philip Carter


As the First of April nears you may be planning the perfect joke, hoax, or act of revenge. If so—and if you’re looking for inspiration—may we recommend some of British history’s finest hoaxers, courtesy of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. So this year, how about …

1. Going shopping. In 1809 Theodore Hook performed a spectacular act of revenge by ordering enormous quantities of coal, musical instruments, upholstery, linen, and jewellery for delivery in unison to the same address in Berners Street, London. The lord mayor of London, governor of the Bank of England, and the duke of Gloucester were also tricked into making an appearance at the victim’s door. The Berners Street hoax took Hook, and two accomplices, six weeks to plan. This was before internet shopping. Think what you could do.

2. Doing-it-yourself. Follow the example of Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright and cut out your own imitation fairies and gnomes. Next take some photos of them at the bottom of the garden, and bring them to the attention of a devotee of the paranormal, such as Arthur Conan Doyle. With his backing the ‘Cottingley fairies’ became a worldwide sensation and continued to convince (some) until 1983 when Griffiths and Wright admitted their hoax. As Elsie remarked: ‘I’m old now and I don’t want to die and leave my grandchildren thinking that they had a loony grandmother.’

3. Being a bit more ambitious. For this one you’ll need a Royal Navy battleship, a few false beards, and Virginia Woolf. Masterminded by the professional practical joker Horace De Vere Cole, the party (including a youthful Woolf) tricked their way onto HMS Dreadnought and toured the ship while masquerading as the Abyssinian royal family. Here’s the proof.

4. Making use of your balding friends. To imitate this one, another of De Vere Cole’s, you’ll need to block book some theatre tickets (must be in the stalls) and then carefully arrange your balding associates, having first consulted a book of rude words. Read the biography for more—and don’t forget to cross your Ts and dot your Is.

5. Making a career of it. Hoaxes that last a day are really for beginners. Instead let Archibald Stansfield Belaney be your inspiration. Though born at 32 St James’s Road, Hastings, Sussex, Belaney passed himself off as Grey Owl—a native American whose deception was only uncovered after his death. If you think big, the rewards can be great. In 1937 Grey Owl was invited to give a lecture at Buckingham Palace; AND he was played by Pierce Brosnan in the film version of his unusual life.

6. Not discarding those fragments of orang-utan. In 1912 Charles Dawson and Arthur Woodward caused a sensation by announcing the discovery of the ‘missing link’ in human evolution—uncovered in a gravel pit not too far from Grey Owl’s boyhood home. The body, dated to 4 million BC, became known as Piltdown Man, and was for several decades widely regarded as the oldest fossil human found in Europe. Then, in the 1950s, came new scientific techniques and the revelation that Piltdown Man was simply an odd assembly of stained bones and the jaw of a young orang-utan. By then Dawson and Woodward were dead—and the who and why remain unanswered.

7. If can’t get hold of an orang-utan, rabbits will do. This was the experience of Mary Toft, the so-called ‘Rabbit woman of Godalming’, in 1726. It’s quite a story, though not for the faint hearted.

8. Going bump in the night. Rattle your plumbing in a convincing way, and who knows who’ll come by to investigate. This is what Elizabeth Parsons did in 1762 and she met Samuel Johnson and the duke of York! Like Grey Owl, her deception was commemorated in art, with a poem, play and an engraving by William Hogarth.

9. Breathing in. Staying with the eighteenth-century, we come to John Montagu, second earl of Montagu, who’s thought to have been behind the ‘bottle conjuror’ hoax, as performed to a packed Haymarket theatre, London, in 1749. The trick saw a full-size man squeeze himself into a wine bottle. If this were not enough, ‘during his stay in the bottle any person may handle it, and see plainly that it does not exceed a common tavern bottle’ (General Advertiser, 16 Jan. 1749).

10. Not promising violence, especially against foreigners. Be careful, not all April Fool’s day tricks go to plan, and the fooled can turn nasty—as the seventeenth-century actor Thomas Jevon can testify.

As well as reading their entries, you can also listen to the stories of the Cottingley fairies, Piltdown Man, and Elizabeth Parsons (the ‘Cock Lane ghost’) in the Oxford DNB’s 175-strong biography podcast.

Philip Carter is Publication Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the national record of men and women who have shaped British history and culture, worldwide, from the Romans to the 21st century. In addition to 58,500 life stories, the ODNB offers a free, twice monthly biography podcast with over 175 life stories now available. You can also sign up for Life of the Day, a topical biography delivered to your inbox, or follow @odnb on Twitter for people in the news. The Oxford DNB is freely available via public libraries across the UK. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ allowing members to log-on to the complete dictionary, for free, from home (or any other computer) twenty-four hours a day.

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  1. [...] got April Fool’s Day off on the right foot… But he’s got nothing on these ten great hoaxes from British [...]

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