CHARLOTTE, NC, April 1, 2019 – April First may just be the happiest day of the year thanks to its designation as “April Fool’s Day.” Which naturally leads to a discussion about its origins.
As with so many facets of folklore, April Fool’s has several theories. For instance, some ancient cultures once celebrated New Year’s Day on or near April 1st.
That fact is hardly enough evidence with which to base an entire legend, but when you add in the decision by Pope Gregory XIII to create a new calendar in 1582, the explanation begins to gain credibility.
The Fool on April 1st
When first adopted by France, the Gregorian Calendar changed the first day of the year to January 1. Thus New Year’s Day was moved from April, according to the old Julian Calendar used in Rome, to January.
At first, many rejected the idea and refused to observe the new system, thereby continuing to celebrate New Year’s on the first day of April. Hence the fools holding on to April 1.
In the process, as the pope’s calendar became the standard we still use today, other people began poking fun at traditionalists by sending them on “fool’s errands” or tricking them with some outlandish false prank.
Another version of April’s Fool
A second version of the legend was offered by Boston University history professor, Joseph Boskin, who claimed that the observance began under the reign of Emperor Constantine, led by a group of his court jesters.
At that time, jesters, or fools, were highly intelligent due to the need to be in tune with all things current. Their jobs were to jab fun at the ruling class. Without getting beheaded.
When his court jesters informed Constantine that his “fools” could do a better job of running the empire than he could, a fool named Kugel was granted the opportunity to be king for one day. April 1?
In 1983, numerous newspapers picked up the story from an article by the Associated Press and published it.
The only problem was that Boskin had invented the whole story, and it took the AP a couple of weeks to realize they had been duped.
Over the centuries, there have been numerous classic hoaxes that have taken place, though not necessarily on April Fool’s Day.
Here are a few of the best:
The Piltdown Man & Sherlock Holmes:
Ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, scientists have been searching for the missing link. The quest is to discover a transitional fossil that will solve the controversy of human evolution once and for all.
In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur geologist, and an archaeologist produced a skull which he claimed to have discovered in a gravel pit in Piltdown, England.
The relic consisted of a human skull with the jaw of an ape. Naturally, there was considerable skepticism, but there was also equally as much enthusiasm by some scientists who marveled at the find.
In December of that year, the Geological Society of London hosted a ceremony where Dawson was allowed to present his “Piltdown Man.”
When another similar discovery was made in 1917, the scientific community believed they had, indeed, at long last legitimized their theory.
Unfortunately, over the next several decades, similar fossils began appearing in China and Africa with features that were opposite of those in the Piltdown skulls; apelike skulls with human jaws rather than vice-versa.
In 1953, two anthropologists proved the Piltdown Man was nothing more than a fake artifact combining a man for the skull, an orangutan for the jaw and a chimpanzee for the teeth.
Perhaps the scientific world should have listened to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and also a member of Charles Dawson’s archaeological society.
After many visits to the Piltdown site himself, Doyle hinted in his novel The Lost World, that it was no more difficult to make a fake set of bones than to forge a photograph.
The Great Spaghetti Crop of 1957:
BBC News duped everyone on April Fool’s on their Panaorama program in 1957 when they reported that a warm spring combined with the eradication of the spaghetti weevil had created a major crop of the world’s favorite noodle in a small town in Switzerland.
The following day, the network was swamped with calls from viewers wanting to know how to grow their own pasta.
The BBC perpetuated the hoax by advising anyone wishing to grow a pasta tree to “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”
The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower — Twice:
Victor Lustig was one of the greatest scam artists of all time. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1890, he had more than 45 aliases and spoke five languages fluently.
While sitting at a sidewalk café reading the French newspaper Le Monde, Lustig read an article reporting that the Eiffel Tower was in dire need of repair.
According to the article, the costs to repair the tower were prohibitive.
Lustig then printed some fake government stationery and gave himself the title of Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs.
He then arranged a confidential invitation-only meeting with six scrap metal dealers at the exclusive Hotel de Crillon. The businessmen were told they had been exclusively selected because of their high standards of quality in the scrap metal industry.
Each company was to asked submit a bid to tear down the Eiffel Tower, but Lustig’s goal was to select the best “mark” for his con.
Lustig emphasized the need for secrecy due to the controversy that would be aroused by the public at tearing down their beloved landmark.
Choosing a man named Andre Poisson, Lustig confided in him that though he was a “high ranking” government official, his salary was not as prestigious as his position appeared to warrant.
The scrap metal dealer quickly realized he was being awarded the project as a bribe and paid Lustig handsomely to secure the deal.
Lustig skipped town and just to be certain there was no danger of being caught, he checked Paris newspapers daily to stay informed about the escapade.
With no news of any scandal, Lustig concluded that Poisson had been too embarrassed at falling for the con and never reported it to the authorities.
Emboldened, Lustig returned to Paris and attempted the same plot with five different scrap iron dealers.
Amazingly, Lustig sold the Eiffel Tower for a second time using the identical techniques as before. This time, however, his mark contacted the police after being fleeced of $100,000, and Lustig abruptly fled to the United States to avoid capture.
Eventually, Lustig was caught and sentenced to time in Alcatraz.
The Great Doggie Bordello:
Another world-class prankster was Joey Skaggs who once made waves by posing as an outraged gypsy who was determined to rename the gypsy moth.
One of his best bits took place in 1976 when he opened a brothel for dogs. Skaggs ran an ad in The Village Voice offering dog owners a chance to buy their pets a night of intimacy with companions such as Fifi, the French poodle. Before long, he was getting calls from potential patrons who were willing to pay $50 for his service.
It became too good to be true when reporters showed up, so Skaggs staged a night at his “cathouse for dogs.”
Eventually, the ASPCA launched an investigation along with other government agencies, to uncover Skaggs’ lewd and outrageous acts of “canine carnality.”
Even after Skaggs admitted it was a prank, not everyone believed him. To this day, WABC New York argues that the doggie brothel was real and that his hoax excuse was a cover-up.
WABC had a good reason for their claims, however, because the station won an Emmy for its coverage that Skaggs was operating a genuine ring for poodle prostitution.
Happy April Fool’s!
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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Lead Image: A depiction of the Feast of Fools. KIM STØVRING/CC BY 2.0