Gotcha! 5 of History's Most Outrageous April Fools' Day Hoaxes

Learn about 5 great hoaxes, including the famous Swiss spaghetti harvest.

Websites like Google and YouTube use April Fools’ Day to prank the public with fake videos and announcements (like last year’s Pokémon Challenge)—but they didn’t start the trend.

On April 1, 1957, the British Broadcasting Corporation told viewers that there had been an “exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop” in Switzerland that year, due in part to “the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil” (see the YouTube video above).

The BBC showed footage of spaghetti harvesters diligently picking noodles from trees. Some viewers were upset—but some called to ask where they could find a spaghetti bush.

By 1957, April Fools’ pranks were already common in American and European newspapers. No one knows how the holiday started, but we do know something about how it’s changed. Here are a few of the greatest hoax hits in history.

The Washing of the Lions

The earliest April Fools’ Day hoax on record was in 1698, says Alex Boese, curator of the Museum of Hoaxes.

“People in London were told to go see the annual ceremony of the washing of the lions at the Tower of London,” he says. “They showed up at the Tower of London, but”—alas—“there was no annual lion-washing ceremony.”

The street prank worked so well that people kept pulling it year after year, targeting mostly out-of-towners.

“By the mid-19th century, pranksters had printed up fake tickets,” he says. “Hundreds or thousands of people would show up,” only to realize they’d been tricked.

Silver and Gold

In 1905, the Berliner Tageblatt, a German newspaper, reported that thieves had tunneled underneath the U.S. Federal Treasury and stolen all of its silver and gold.

The story was quickly picked up by papers throughout Europe and the United States. It was huge news—or would have been, if true.

“It was only in the mid-20th century that April Fools’ Day shifted to be a media event,” says Boese. This shift, which led to the Swiss spaghetti harvest, had its roots in early 20th-century German newspaper pranks like the treasury heist.

Nixon in ’92

"I never did anything wrong, and I won't do it again," said former President Richard Nixon, announcing that he would run for president in 1992.

But the man speaking wasn’t Nixon, and the news segment that aired the announcement wasn’t real.

National Public Radio’s piece on Nixon’s 1992 presidential run is one of its most famous April Fools’ Day pranks. Not only did people believe it, they were outraged.

“A lot of people’s worst dream was Nixon running again,” says Boese. “The idea that he would run again was absurd, but it played on their fears so much that thousands of people believed it.”

The Taco Liberty Bell

In 1996, Taco Bell ran an ad announcing that it had purchased the Liberty Bell.

The ad was “a risky thing to do because it annoyed a lot of people,” says Boese, but it proved to other companies that “you get a huge bang for your buck if you pull off a stunt that everybody talks about.”

The ad represented a shift in the way that companies looked at April Fools’ Day. Before that, it was a light-hearted jest and bit of fun, but starting with the Taco Liberty Bell, and continuing into today, companies began to see it as a way to promote their brand and make money.

The Museum of Hoaxes (Not)

Boese has written about hoaxes on his website since 1997. According to the site, the Museum of Hoaxes is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in San Diego.

People frequently email him to ask how they can find his museum. Because he’s an honest man, he tells the truth: It’s a hoax.

“It all started because I was calling the [website] the ‘Museum of Hoaxes,’ and at some point one of my readers emailed me some pictures he’d created with photoshop,” says Boese. He decided to post these fake museum photos on his site, explaining that “it seemed appropriate since the whole subject is hoaxes.”

When he posted the photos, Boese made sure to add some helpful directions to the museum: “Keep driving until you see a giant floating jackalope off to your right … If you reach LA, you've gone too far.”   

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