April Fools!

Outrageous pranks or strange-but-true life tales, can you tell the difference?

Van Gogh's severed ear was exhibited in 1935 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Self Portrait, 1889 (oil on canvas), Gogh, Vincent van (1853-90) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images
False. The truth? The 1935 exhibition was the first time many of Van Gogh's paintings had been displayed in America and it attracted record attendance. Hugh Troy was frustrated by the crowds, as they made it difficult for art lovers such as himself to view the works, not to mention that he was convinced people were more interested in the lurid fact that the artist had cut off his own ear. To prove a point, he fashioned a fake ear out of dried beef and mounted it in a velvet-lined display box, placing it on a table in the exhibit. Beside the box, a sign: "This is the ear which Vincent Van Gogh cut off and sent to his mistress, a French prostitute, Dec. 24, 1888." He accomplished his goal, in the end people flocked around the "ear" and he was able to enjoy the exhibition, minus the crowds.

In 1878, Thomas Edison invented a machine that could transform water into wine.

Thomas Edison in his laboratory, 1906 (silver gelatin print), Byron Company (fl.1890-1942) / © Museum of the City of New York, USA / Bridgeman Images


False. The truth? After Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, Americans firmly believed that there were no limits to his genius. Therefore, when the New York Graphic announced in 1878 that Edison had invented a machine that could transform soil directly into cereal and water directly into wine, thereby ending the problem of world hunger, it found no shortage of willing believers. Newspapers throughout America copied the article, heaping lavish praise on Edison. The conservative Buffalo Commercial Advertiser was particularly effusive in its praise, waxing eloquent about Edison's brilliance in a long editorial. The Graphic took the liberty of reprinting the Advertiser's editorial in full, placing above it a simple, two-word headline: "They Bite!"

During World War II, the US Army filed reports on catching flies in the mess halls.


The Horsefly, 18th century (w/c on paper), Ehret, Georg Dionysius (1710-70) / Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK / Bridgeman Images


Strange, but true! During World War II, the illustrator Hugh Troy was given a desk job stateside. He found it excruciatingly boring. To amuse himself he began preparing Daily Flypaper Reports in the style of standard army regulations. These were counts, printed on official-looking paper, of all the flies trapped on flypaper in the mess hall during the last twenty-four hours. He analyzed the results according to wind direction, nearness to windows, nearness to the kitchen, length of the flypaper, etc. He then would mimeograph the report and slip it in among the other official forms submitted to headquarters each day. After keeping this up for a month, he received a call from an officer in another company: "Lieutenant, Can you tell me the proper procedure for filing fly reports? We've been catching hell from the Pentagon for not sending them in."

Hitler did a little dance upon France's surrender in World War II.


Adolf Hitler dancing a jig on hearing the news of the capitulation of France, 1940 (b/w photo) / © SZ Photo / Scherl / Bridgeman Images


False. The truth? On June 21, 1940, Hitler accepted the surrender of France at a ceremony in Compiegne, France in the same railroad car in which Germany had signed the 1918 armistice that had ended World War I. After Hitler accepted France's surrender, he stepped backwards slightly, as if in shock. But this is not what audiences in the Allied countries who watched the footage of the ceremony saw. Instead they saw Hitler dance a bizarre little jig after signing the documents, as if he were childishly celebrating his victory by jumping up and down. Following the war, it was revealed that John Grierson, director of the Canadian information and propaganda departments, had manufactured the clip after noticing that Hitler raised his leg rather high up while stepping backwards. He realized that this moment could be looped repeatedly to create the appearance that Hitler was jumping with joy.

The oldest documented person to ever live was over 122 years old.


The Three Ages of Woman, 1905 (oil on canvas), Klimt, Gustav (1862-1918) / Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome, Italy / De Agostini Picture Library / A. Dagli Orti / Bridgeman Images 


Strange, but true! Jeanne Calment holds the longest confirmed human life span in history, living to the age of 122 years and 164 days (44724 days total). She was born on February 21st 1875 and died on August 4th, 1997. She lived in Arles, France, for her entire life, and outlived both her daughter and grandson. She became especially well known from the age of 113, when the centenary of Vincent van Gogh's visit brought reporters to Arles. At age 85, she took up fencing, and at 100, she was still riding a bicycle. She was reportedly neither athletic, nor fanatical about her health. She ascribed her longevity and relatively youthful appearance for her age to olive oil, which she said she poured on all her food and rubbed onto her skin, as well as a diet of port wine and 2 pounds of chocolate every week!

The Loch Ness Monster was photographed in 1934.


Loch Ness monster legend in Scotland, 1934 photo on way toward Inverness / Bridgeman Images


False. The truth? British surgeon, Robert Wilson, came forward in 1934 with a picture of a sea serpent rising out of the water of the Loch. Wilson claimed he took the photograph early one morning, while driving along the northern shore of Loch Ness. For decades the photo was considered to be the best evidence of the existence of a sea monster in the Loch until 1984 when Stewart Campbell analyzed the photo for the British Journal of Photography. Campbell concluded that the object could only have been two or three feet long, and that it probably was an otter or a marine bird. But as it turned out, the object was not a marine animal, it was instead a toy submarine outfitted with a sea-serpent head. This was revealed in 1994 when Christian Spurling, before his death at 90, confessed. According to Spurling, he had been approached by his stepfather to make a convincing serpent model. The model was then photographed in Loch Ness. The picture was then given to Wilson, whose job it was to serve as a credible front-man for the hoax.

Spaghetti grows on trees.


Advertisement for Pates Supralta, c.1955 (colour litho), French School, (20th century) / Private Collection / DaTo Images / Bridgeman Images


False. The truth? On April 1, 1957 the BBC news show Panorama broadcast a three-minute segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. The success of the crop was attributed both to an unusually mild winter and to the "virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil." The audience heard Richard Dimbleby, the show's highly respected anchor, discussing the details of the spaghetti crop as they watched video footage of a Swiss family pulling pasta off spaghetti trees and placing it into baskets. The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest hoax generated an enormous response. Hundreds of people phoned the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. It is believed to be the first time the medium of television was used to stage an April Fool's Day hoax.

The Bard made up words for his writings.


Signature of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) (pen and ink on paper) / Private Collection / Ken Welsh / Bridgeman Images


Strange, but true! Among Shakespeare's greatest contributions to the English language must be the introduction of new vocabulary and phrases which have enriched the language making it more colorful and expressive. Some estimates at the number of words coined by Shakespeare number in the several thousands. However Warren King clarifies by saying that, "In all of his work - the plays, the sonnets and the narrative poems - Shakespeare uses 17,677 words: Of those, 1,700 were first used by Shakespeare." He is also known for borrowing from classical literature and foreign languages. He created new words by, "changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original." Many of Shakespeare's phrases are still used in conversation today. These include: "seen better days,"" full circle," "a sorry sight," and "strange bedfellows." A rather astounding fact when considering how much language has changed since his lifetime.

Evidence of life in outer space was first discovered in 1835.

Prelude to Abduction, 1984 (oil on canvas), Buhler, Michael (1940-2009) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images



False. The truth? In August 1835, an article appeared on the front page of the New York Sun bearing the headline: “GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES LATELY MADE BY SIR JOHN HERSCHEL.” The article listed a number of stunning astronomical discoveries that the famous British astronomer, Sir John Herschel, had apparently made “by means of a telescope of vast dimensions.” The end the article revealed Herschel’s final, stunning achievement: he had discovered life on the moon! Herschel had not observed life on the moon, nor had he accomplished any of the other astronomical breakthroughs credited to him in the article. In fact, Herschel was not even aware until much later that such discoveries had been attributed to him. However, the article caused enormous excitement throughout America, and the New York Sun managed to sell thousands of copies before the public realized it had been hoaxed.

Lord Carnarvon, the sponsor of Howard Carter's 1923 exploration of King Tut's burial chamber, succumbed  to the "curse of the pharoahs."


Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon at Opening of King Tutankhamun's Tomb, 1922 (b/w photo), English Photographer, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © GraphicaArtis / Bridgeman Images

False. The truth? In November 1922, Howard Carter located the entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamun and a few days later along with the expedition sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, peered into an opening with a candle. By February, 1923 he and his team had finally unsealed the door of the burial chamber. But a mere two months later, on April 5, 1923, the sponsor of his expedition, Lord Carnarvon, died in his Cairo hotel room, having succumbed to a bacterial infection caused by a mosquito bite. The media immediately speculated that Carnarvon had fallen victim to the "curse of the pharaohs." This curse supposedly promised death to all who violated Tut's tomb. In fact, legend has it that eleven of the people connected with the discovery of the tomb had died, including two relatives of Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter's secretary.

April Fool's means April's Fish in many other cultures.

'If you receive it with a good heart, it will bring you luck', an April Fool's Day postcard, sent in 1906 (mixed media), French School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images

Strange, but true! The April Fool's tradition is said to have originated in France in the 16th century when King Charles XIV moved the start of the calendar year from April 1 to January 1. Without the modern convienience of the internet, it took awhile for the news to reach everyone. Those who continued to celebrate the New Year on April 1 were teased by pranskters who stuck paper fish to their backs. Those poor souls were called 'Poisson d'Avril' or April Fish - a tradition which remains to this day. This is also widespread in other nations, such as Italy, where the term Pesce d'aprile is also used to refer to any jokes done during the day. Why the fish? No one knows for certain, but the fish is related to the zodiac sign of Pisces, which falls near April.


Back to top