History and Humour

4 June 2018

By Polina Novikova - Most of us enjoy playing a nice joke on our friends every once in a while. It’s interesting that historically speaking, practical jokes (or pranks) have been around for a long time. For instance, controversial Roman emperor Elagabalus was an example of an early (albeit cruel) prankster: he invented the lottery to win sympathies of his subjects, but got bored of distributing pleasing prizes and refashioned it so that the winners wouldn’t know what they were about to receive; the prizes varied from money to execution notes. History knows many more examples of different practical jokes, and some of them will now be discussed.

An interesting prank originated in the seventeenth-century London. A newspaper Dawks’s News-Letter (published on April 2nd, 1698) reported that, on April 1st, several people were encouraged to go to the Tower of London to observe lions being washed, but the spectacle never took place. The joke turned out to be fascinating enough to be repeated throughout eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It evolved over time, and in the later versions people were asked to gather at the “White Gate”, but one small detail was left out: this gate didn’t exist. In 1856, invitations were sent to unsuspecting guests to observe the “Annual Ceremony of Washing The Lions” — which, naturally, didn’t happen. One of these “documents” is currently preserved in the archives.

Another fascinating practical joke took place in London in 1810. On the early morning of November 27th, a maid of wealthy Mrs. Tottenham saw a chimney sweep arriving at her employer’s house. She explained that his services were not required, but another sweep came later… and that was only the beginning. Large amounts of coal, more than twelve pianos, huge cakes, and an organ were delivered to the house that day. It was visited by lawyers, opticians, fishmongers, auctioneers, doctors, artists, barbers and representatives of other professions for no reason that Mrs. Tottenham was aware of. The person behind this mysterious commotion was discovered only years later — that was a young man called Theodore Hook, who sent over a thousand letters to people all around London to come to the house. His motive is not known for sure, but it’s considered that prior to the incident, Hook participated in a bet with his friend and claimed that he could make any house the most discussed one in London in seven days’ time.

A less well-known example of an April Fools’ joke is the one that was pulled by the small newspaper the Kootenay Review in the late twentieth century. In one of its issues, it told the story of a tough female pirate Gertrude Stubbs, who started a criminal career in 1898 as a result of running low on funds. The article was successful enough to have its contents presented as historically accurate by a television program… except, they weren’t: Gertrude’s story was little more than an elaborate practical joke. However, sometimes she is still reported as being real — more than ten years after the publication.

These pranks are primary examples of how diverse humour can be, and how different elements of the practical jokes can affect people differently. Some can even allow us to connect with our ancestors, but we need to remember that going too far isn’t the best thing to do.

Back to overview