It’s not exactly clear how far back the tradition of pranking people on the first of April goes, but most reports suggest its at least a few centuries old. And local newspapers have been using (and abusing) their platform as purveyors of political news for such pranks since at least the early 1900s, too.
Here’s a (totally selective) roundup of some of those prank political and policy reports, mostly courtesy of the Museum of Hoaxes, which is based in San Diego. (At least, we think it is — but, who knows, maybe it’s an elaborate hoax.)
Al Capone for Mayor (1931)
One of the oldest April Fools’ Day pranks played by a local news organization comes from the Newspaper Enterprise Association, according to the Museum of Hoaxes. In 1931, the group produced a fake report that the infamous gangster Al Capone was running for mayor of Chicago as, of all things, a dry candidate:
“Adopting the slogan, ‘Dry Up Chicago,’ Al (Cornpone) Capone, prominent proprietor of a leading ice cream emporium here, entered the Windy City’s fight for mayor here today with rare good spirits. Given to ironic speech, the new candidate is said to be planning to take his opponents for a ride when the campaign opens. ‘You have only to consider my record,’ he told his followers in a stadium rally, ‘to judge my fitness for the chair, er — the mayor’s chair.'”
Wisconsin’s capital dome collapses (1933)
“Wisconsin’s beautiful $8,000,000 capitol building was in ruins today, following a series of mysterious explosions which blasted the majestic dome from its base and sent it crashing through the roof of the east wing,” The Capital Times reported on its front page in 1933. But the prank was short-lived for any reader: the paper printed the words “April Fool” in tiny font near the headline and at the end of the article.
Hawaii becomes a state and gets a universal tax refund (1954)
The Associated Press had to set the record straight in 1954 when a local radio disc jockey stirred up what he described as “the greatest commotion in Hawaii since the Pearl Harbor attack.” Newspapers, radio stations and the Internal Revenue Service were swamped with phone calls.
The deejay, Hal Lewis, had pranked the not-yet-a-state by announcing that the Senate had not only repealed the islanders’ income tax, but that they would be getting a full refund for the year before and that the body had approved statehood. (Hawaii wouldn’t become a state for another five years.)
Banks and other financial institutions even got calls to place stock orders to be paid for with the fictitious tax refunds.
Indiana’s taxpayer-funded private club (1965)
The Kokomo Tribune no doubt stirred public outrage, at least among those who didn’t initially recognize the joke, when it reported in 1965 that a new tax would fund a half-million dollar health club for the local bureaucracy.
The club would sport a possible pool, billiard parlor, gym, locker room, reading room, basketball and handball courts, shuffleboard facilities, reception rooms and a cafeteria, the paper reported. The local jail was the front-runner for a location, they reported.
Texas legislature commends the Boston Strangler (1971)
It’s not a news organization, but it does make news. Back in 1971, the Texas House unanimously passed a resolution in praise of Albert DeSalvo, the infamous rapist and murderer known as the Boston Strangler. How and why would the legislature do such a thing? It’s all in the wording. The Tampa Bay Tribune explained how it unfolded in a 1997 report:
According to the legislative library in Austin, Rep. Tom Moore Jr. of Waco sponsored a resolution commending Albert de Salvo for his unselfish service to “his county, his state and his community.
“This compassionate gentleman’s dedication and devotion to his work has enabled the weak and the lonely throughout the nation to achieve and maintain a new degree of concern for their future. He has been officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts for his noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology.”
The Texas House of Representatives passed the resolution unanimously.
Moore then withdrew the motion, and said he only introduced it to show how the Legislature often passed bills and resolutions without reading or understanding them.
You see, Albert de Salvo is known by another name:
The Boston Strangler.
Pennsylvania Capitol building collapse (1976)
The Patriot in Pennsylvania celebrated the nation’s bicentennial with a special prank: it published a doctored photograph of the state capitol falling apart due to “an abnormal expansion of hot air.” The paper apologized a few days later after readers complained, according to the Museum of Hoaxes.
Providence closes for a day (1986)
The joke that Rhode Island’s capital would close for a day flew over a lot of heads, the Associated Press reported in a 1986 article.
A disc jockey on WHJY had reported that a city board had decided Providence was closed for the day, and residents should just go home. The deejay, Carolyn Fox, also gave out a number to call for more information: one that belonged to a rival station.
“It was not very appropriate,” an employee at the rival station told the AP. Fox set the record straight about an hour after her fake report, but not before listeners swamped local officials with calls.