If we have learned anything from Brexit, it is that not every joke is a laughing matter.
So on April Fool’s Day, as you take a break from the clowns in Westminster to have some fun, beware – history is full of outrageous gags that seriously backfired.
Here, History Revealed magazine , which is out now, shares 10 tales of hapless hoaxes and japes that really are mirth their weight in gold…
Cliff was the only one who cracked up
In 2001, a Brighton radio DJ told his listeners a replica of the Titanic was visible off the coast of Beachy Head – Britain’s highest chalk sea cliffs.
Hundreds of people rushed to the beauty spot, in nearby Eastbourne, East Sussex, only to discover it had all been a joke.
The cliffs developed a five-foot crack under the weight of the crowds, with police urging people to leave before tragedy struck.
Two days later, part of the site collapsed into the sea.
Till being scared to death do us part
A husband literally scared his new wife to death – although you’d like to think John Ahrens did not intend the tragic consequences of his spooky prank.
In 1896, Ahrens, a farmer from near Nashville, Tennessee, decided it would be hilarious to disguise himself as a tramp with a white mask to scare his beloved.
When he knocked on their front door and asked Mrs Ahrens to cook dinner, she fainted and died within an hour.
They had been married just a few months. Ahrens was said to be stricken with grief and remorse after the tragedy.
Poor water gag sparked terrorist concerns
It’s fascinating what the power of words can do.
In 2002, radio hosts in Kansas City created panic among listeners by reporting that local tap water contained high levels of dihydrogen monoxide.
They said the naturally occurring substance could lead to frequent urination and wrinkling of the skin.
It’s not as bad as it sounds: dihydrogen monoxide is the chemical name for water.
The police received more than 100 calls from worried residents and a city official likened the hoax to a terrorist act.
The dihydrogen monoxide parody pops up every few years, as does hydrolixic acid. But worry not – that’s water, too.
A lesson learned the hard way
A schoolgirl prank got out of hand in 1897 when pupils at the prestigious Lucy Cobb Institute in Georgia, US, thought it would be hilarious to abscond and have a day of fun.
As well as missing school, they also made the unladylike decision to wander around the town unchaperoned.
What they were not expecting was for their headmistress to quickly write a letter to all of their parents, asking for their removal from the school to ensure its reputation was maintained.
Astrologer didn’t see that coming…
English astrologer John Partridge was known for his inaccurate predictions – and he certainly didn’t see Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, coming for him.
Satirist Swift decided to have a bit of fun and give Patridge the bird with a bit of his own inaccurate medicine.
Writing under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff, he “predicted” Partridge would die “of a raging fever” in 1708.
To confirm the tale, Swift then wrote of the death, pretending to be “a man employed in the Revenue”, and the news became public on April 1.
Partridge protested but he never shook the rumours of his untimely demise and his career suffered. When he did die six years later, few believed it.
Close encounters of the absurd kind
The threat of aliens came to the town of Jafr in Jordan in 2010 as the front page of Jordanian newspaper Al-Ghad jokingly reported a UFO had landed near the desert town, with 10ft aliens sighted.
Reports of communications being affected and neighbourhoods lit up by the lights from flying saucers terrified the residents, with parents too scared to send their children to school while the local mayor considered a full evacuation.
One reason why this may have gone badly wrong is that April Fool jokes are not that well known in Jordan.
In the US, the prank was likened to the 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which some mistook as being real.
Jester had believers looking like a pudding
A history professor was asked by a reporter in 1984 about the origins of April Fool’s Day.
Pressed for an answer, Prof Joseph Boskin, of Boston University in the US, invented Kugel the jester.
Kugel, the tale went, told a Roman emperor that he – a lowly jester – could do a better job.
He was made emperor for a day, during which he called for pranks, thus starting the tradition.
Prof Boskin said: “In a way, it was a very serious day. In those times fools were really wise… Jesters put things in perspective with humour.”
The story was picked up by other media and it took weeks for them to get the joke: kugel wasn’t a jester – it’s a Jewish casserole or pudding.
No smoke without being fired
Fear spread among the residents of Milton, Massachusetts, after TV station WNAC-TV broadcast a news report in 1980 that Great Blue Hill, a local (and distinctly non-volcanic) mound was erupting.
They backed this claim with footage of Mount St Helens in Washington state, a volcano close to erupting, with an old commentary from President Jimmy Carter.
At the end of the segment, a card was held up saying “April Fool”. But it was too late.
Police were hit with calls from locals, with many considering leaving their homes.
TV producer Homer Cilley was fired for a failure to “exercise good news judgment”.
What a Cook up
The Times newspaper in 1972 ran an article on travel agent Thomas Cook celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founder’s first round-the-world tour.
A few pages later, the paper joked that the travel agent was offering such a round-the-world trip for the price it would have been in 1872: 210 guineas.
This was a fabrication, but queues formed at Thomas Cook shops across the country. Poor reporter John Carter lost his job.
Analyst didn’t show much intelligence
Tensions in the Middle East in the 80s were no laughing matter.
Yet in 1986, an Israeli intelligence analyst created a false April Fool’s Day report stating that Nabih Berri, the leader of the Amal Movement (one of the factions in the Lebanese Civil War), had been wounded in an assassination attempt.
The story spread across Israeli radio before it was found to be a hoax and had to be retracted to prevent an international incident.
The analyst was court-martialled and Israel’s defence minister faced questions in parliament.
When did April Fool’s Day start?
April Fool’s Day has been celebrated in the UK since at least the 19th century.
Although its origins are uncertain, the most likely explanation is it started after the 16th century Pope Gregory XIII decided to adopt the Gregorian calendar, which meant New Year’s Day would move from April 1 to January 1. Some people still celebrated the new year on April 1 and were branded “fools” – so the tradition of pranks began.
Some April Fool jokes have been surprisingly successful. Perhaps most famously, in 1957 the BBC’s Panorama ran a feature about spaghetti trees in Switzerland enjoying a bumper harvest due to good weather and the virtual extinction of the “spaghetti weevil”.
The broadcaster was inundated with calls from Brits asking where they could buy a tree and plant their own.
- The latest issue of History Revealed magazine is out now