Practical jokes, pranks and hoaxes - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
It’s that time of year again when playing a trick on someone is perfectly acceptable. There is no agreement about the true origins of “April Fool’s Day”. Whatever the reason may be for its inception, it has evolved into a day for a little fun and high jinks. Of course, playing practical jokes is not limited to one day of the year. As we look back at newspapers and books from our local area, we find some dandy tricks and jokes from the past.
Given time on one’s hands, a nimble mind and the perfect opportunity, the stage is set. But where is the line drawn between a joke, a prank and a hoax? Take the scenario presented in the 1992 East Wawanosh history book Wilderness to Wawanosh. A farmer had an exceptional flock of 10 laying hens. Each day, without fail, these prized pullets produced 10 eggs and the owner took great pride in that fact by announcing their prowess to his community. But his hens did even better. They began to lay 11 eggs a day, without fail. The farmer kept a close eye on them, hoping to find which hen was laying two eggs a day. If he could incubate those eggs, he just might be able to raise a superior chicken. One day, he found Harry Cook entering the coop with an egg in hand. The jig was up. No super hen, but rather a practical joker having some fun at his friend’s expense. In this instance, no one was hurt, other than a little bit of pride.
Leon Cantelon, in the Wingham Advance-Times of 1954, looked back to his high school days when he and his friends rigged up an alarm clock with wires to ring at inappropriate times during their rotary classes. This caused small disruptions in class time and general amusement for the students until one teacher caught on and ended the interruptions.
From the pages of the Brussels Post in July of 1886, comes the tale of a visitor to the village who had imbibed too much of the “Scott Act”, a euphemism for being drunk. Some local lads undertook to remove one of his high sulky wheels, replacing it with a much lower buggy wheel. The lop-sided appearance of the vehicle was not noticed for a couple of days, after which, the gent returned to Brussels using some very forceful language.
It took some planning for one caper that comes from the pages of A Harvest of Memories, the Morris-Turnberry history book of 2012. Late in the 1890s, Washington “Wash” Wilkinson saved a jar of blood from the time when his neighbour had butchered a pig. At a wood cutting bee that winter, workers found signs of a scuffle and drops of blood leading towards the river. Two sets of footprints led to a hole in the ice but only one set was found going away from it. There were conjectures about what had occurred. Had a murder been committed? When the workers decided to go to Clinton to get the police, Wash confessed his deed and the mystery of the “murder” at Bodmin was solved.
The term ‘prank’ brings with it a less innocent connotation. Instances of triggering fire alarms or setting actual fires to see the reaction of fire departments are taken very seriously and in the past have resulted in criminal charges as noted in several local publications over the years. The guise of Halloween or substance abuse seems to have fueled some of the senseless pranks in the area. A perpetual prank seems to be the unsolved mystery of crop circles. Much time must have been spent figuring out how to imply that an unidentified flying object had visited the vicinity.
In 1868, on a farm near Dungannon, a couple of men were digging a well searching for water. All that the men could find was dry sand. One night, after they left, two village mischief makers decided to have some fun. They poured a barrelful of coal oil into the hole thus “salting” the well to make it appear that oil was present. Imagine the surprise and delight the next morning when the diggers returned to find that they had struck it rich with an oil well.
The word quickly spread and the village boomed, taverns were crowded, stores did hriving business and a company to extract the oil was created. The company sold shares, built a derrick and engine house and ordered machinery. The pranksters even bought shares themselves, but, realizing that things had gone too far, they somehow passed word to the promoters without being identified.
The great oil boom in Dungannon was no more but many folks had been affected adversely. Perhaps it was not so much of a joke after all.
One of the more amusing large-scale April Fool’s pranks was carried out by Burger King in 1998. A full-page advertisement was published in USA Today, touting the “Left-Handed Whopper” that was specially designed for the millions of left-handed patrons. Condiments were to be rotated 180 degrees to redistribute the weight of the burger. Thousands of customers visited their local outlets looking for the left-handed burger, ironically called a “Whopper”. On April 2, the company confessed that the special Whopper was a hoax.
May all the tricks and pranks played be of a kind nature with folks having fun and no one being harmed as a result.
With appreciation to the Digitized Newspapers of Huron County Library and Museum.