If we were to examine the standard-issue prank repertory of the vintage April Fool’s day, it would include old chestnuts like the hat-covering-a-brick trick or the wallet-on-a-string. Epicures would be tempted by chocolate covered soaps, cotton-stuffed doughnuts, or peppered candy. “KICK/KISS ME” signs would be attached to coat-tails. Possibly exploding cigars would be offered to unsuspecting acquaintances. Unpleasant, but mostly benign stuff.
But since I am known for being a Little Ray of Sunshine, we will bypass these harmless japes in favor of more ghoulish fooleries, the ones involving fake corpses, staged murders and suicides. All in good fun, of course.
April Fool’s Day must have been hell for trainsmen and drivers of street-cars.
A ghastly April Fool joke was played on the Wilmington train yesterday as it was coming up to the city. Some party or parties had stuffed an effigy looking very much like the average bummer and laid it across the track. As soon as the object was sighted by the engineer he whistled down brakes, and the train was brought to a stop, but not until it had passed over the prostrate body and sent the mangled head rolling into the ditch at the side. There was a general scrambling out of the train and some excited people for a few moments. When the state of the case was ascertained, it would not have been healthy for the perpetrator of the joke to show himself in that crowd.
Los Angeles [CA] Daily Herald 2 April 1876: p. 3
It must have been an equally fraught holiday for the coroners.
The Coroner, His Assistants, and Newspaper Reporters Neatly Sold.
A ghastly, but unique “April Fool” joke was sprung on the Coroner yesterday. A party of fellows, thinking to have a little fun at his expense, arranged a “dummy” corpse so as to resemble a man, whose exit from life had been caused by railway car wheels. The “dummy” was located at the crossing of the transfer track and Pennsylvania street, a call issued, and in due time the coroner, his assistant, a number of reporters and quite a crowd of other people had assembled at the spot. There laid the “corpse.” A blood-stained handkerchief covered the face, and the misshapen trunk, cut and scarred by the marks of wheels, made a sight that filled the hearts of all present with horror.
Cautiously raising the ‘kerchief to take a preliminary squint at the remains, the Coroner fell back and muttered an imprecation that was far from being gentle or pious. The rag soaked with red ink covered a pile of straw, and the “corpse” was a made up “April Fool” joke that “worked to a charm” at the expense of an august Court, clerk and spectators.
Evansville [IN] Courier and Press 2 April 1890: p. 5
A GHASTLY HOAX
A “Floater” Turns Out to Be a Man of Straw
An idiotic April Fool joke possessing some elements of maliciousness was perpetrated on the Coroner last night by a lot of wharf hoodlums. A telephone message was received at 7:30 o’clock telling the Coroner to send the wagon to the foot of Third street, and conveying the information that a “floater” had been found in the bay at that point. Deputy Coroner Charles Johnston accepted the notice in good faith, and with an assistant drove down to the place where the alleged “floater” was found to be a man of straw.
The dummy was in the water and was fished out with much trouble before Johnston learned that he had been made the victim of a very feeble joke. A crowd of men and boys stood around the spot and guyed the officials and when remonstrated with stoned them. They drove away without having been hurt.
First Deputy Coroner Murphy investigated the matter and learned that the telephone message came in from Pope & Talbot’s lumber yard at Third and Berry streets. The telephone is in the private office of the firm, to which the night watchman has the key, and as this individual could not be found around the place when Murphy tried to hunt him up, it is supposed that he is the witless booby who conceived and perpetrated the hoax.
San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 2 April 1888: p. 3
Straw dummies were a popular April Fool’s Day accessory:
A GHASTLY APRIL FOOL JOKE
Dummy Thrown from Building and Several Women Fainted.
New York, April. 1. Hundreds of pedestrians crowded in narrow Nassau Street, in the financial district, shrank back in terror this afternoon when the form of a man came hurtling down form the twenty-fourth story of the Liberty Tower building. Several stenographers in windows on the opposite side of the street fainted and someone turned in an ambulance call. Police officers rushed to the spot where the figure fell and found it to be a dummy stuffed with hay, with a broomstick for a backbone and a false face to make it realistic. The ambulance surgeon did not appreciate the April Fool’s day comedy and drove away, leaving a street cleaner to gather up the debris.
Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA] 2 April 1912: p. 1
Woe to the unfortunates who had accidents on the wrong day.
PLUNGE TO HIS DEATH
Friends Thought Young Man Was Hanging for Fun.
In view of several hundred persons, who thought he was playing an April fool prank, Luther Williams, aged 22, a painter, dangled for a few minutes at the end of a rope attached to the smokestack of the Georgia Railway and Electric Light company plant at Atlanta and then plunged 150 feet to earth. He was still breathing when picked up, but died ten minutes after arriving at a hospital. In its descent the body of Williams crashed through the roof of the boiler shop.
The Manning [SC] Times 10 April, 1912: p. 6
Some April foolers went entirely too far. This one deserved to be named and shamed, although it appears that the young lady survived.
A Fool April Fool Joke
As the result of an April fool joke, Edith Walrach, of Camden, N.J., who is visiting friends at Binghampton, N.Y., is said to be dying. Miss Walrach is 19 years old and of a very nervous temperament. In the family she is visiting is a young practical joker. He procured a small live mouse which he put in an egg shell, covering the opening with plaster of Paris. This was brought in with the breakfast Sunday, and when Miss Walrach broke the shell and the liberated mouse jumped out she screamed and fainted away. During the day she had three nervous fits, and her physician pronounces her condition critical. The young man is nearly wild with grief, as he and Miss Walrach were shortly to be married.
Jackson [MI] Citizen 6 April 1900: p. 6
April Fool’s prank letters caused as much havoc as vinegar valentines.
AN APRIL FOOL MURDER
A Sumter County Girl’s Joke Causes Death
Americus, April 14. Jack Tyner, a young man 18 years old, was stabbed to death yesterday afternoon by Henry Weaver, a companion about the same age. Your correspondent has obtained the following particulars of the tragedy:
Young Weaver received an April fool letter that made him very mad. It was signed by Tyner. Yesterday Weaver met Tyner and the matter was referred to. Tyner denied writing the letter or knowing anything about it. Weaver did not believe him and assaulted him with the result above stated.
Since the killing a young lady admits that she wrote the letter and signed Tyner’s name to it. The killing occurred in the country a few miles from Ellaville. Weaver fled and at last accounts had not been captured.
Macon [GA] Telegraph 15 April 1889: p. 1
We may seriously doubt that this wife would have described her husband as “delightful” and “a great humorist.”
A Nashville, Kansas, farmer, who is a great humorist, planned a delightful April Fool joke on his wife. He disguised himself as a tramp, appeared before his wife, and scared her into a faint from which death relieved her within an hour. Thus is again illustrated the fact that the breed of fools is perennial; it blooms forever. And the fool who thinks it funny to scare somebody usually is particularly evident. If only the homes for the feeble minded were large enough to contain everybody who should be in them, ow many of us would cease going at large.
Fresno [CA] Morning Republican 5 April 1896: p. 2
Even the dead were not safe from the April Fool’s prankster.
That was a ghastly April fool joke of some Eastern correspondent, who telegraphed to the Associated Press that the tomb of George Peabody had been entered by burglars, and the coffin robbed of silver plate and handles. [on March 31st] The telegraph to-day exposes the canard. What will April Fool do next?
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 2 April 1870: p. 2
LOST THE CORPSE
Might Have Been an April Fool’s Joke But Undertaker Couldn’t See It.
Boston, April 1. Visions of the dead arisen floated before the eyes of Undertaker Jas. A. Coudey today when a body in his charge disappeared. Mr. Coudey had driven his hearse containing the body of a man, to the old court house, and entered the municipal offices to secure a burial permit. When he came out, body, hearse and horse were gone. A search revealed the vehicle around the corner, with another man on the box. A policeman, whose suspicions had been aroused, was talking to the man and, after he had heard Coudey’s story, he placed the stranger under arrest. The man, Donald Beauslack, explained that another man had asked him to drive the hearse around the corner.
Evening Times [Grand Forks, ND] 1 April 1910: p. 1
In this article there is an obvious subtext of admiration for the joker who so effectively faked a suicide. The coroner must have thrown his hands up in despair.
GHASTLY APRIL FOOL HOAX
A Man Puts Up a Suicide Fake at Chattanooga, Tenn., with Much Success.
Chattanooga, Tenn., April 1, 1892. Some one went to some expense to play a joke to-day, but the success of his efforts must gratify him. Chattanooga evening papers are full to-day of graphic description of the suicide of Thomas W. Johnson, of Brooklyn, and special correspondents have burdened the wires with accounts of the suicide. Two butchers coming into the city at daybreak this morning were startled by finding a handsome overcoat and derby hat lying upon the Tennessee River bridge. Investigation followed by the Coroner, who was awakened by the police. In a pocket of the satin lined coat was found a well written letter of farewell, finishing up with a plaintive lament in rhyme. The letter was addressed to Miss Stella Woolbridge, Brooklyn, N.Y., who was addressed as “My Darling.”
Despite the fact that it was April 1, the Coroner, after careful investigation, determined that the find was genuine, and for hours the river was dragged and river men cautioned to look out for the corpse. In the letter was a lock of golden hair tied with blue ribbon. In a pocketbook were found coins, newspaper clippings, sleeping car receipts and a request that the remains be sent to Brooklyn if recovered. By a curious coincidence the name signed to the letters corresponded with one registered at the Shiff Hotel four days ago.
The joker, frightened at the proportions his joke was assuming, confided to me to-night that the whole thing was a fake. At three o’clock this morning he left coat and hat, with its carefully prepared contents, on the bridge. He took the name of Thomas Johnson at random, and had no idea that a Thomas Johnson, of Brooklyn, had really registered here a few days ago.
New York [NY] Herald 2 April 1892: p. 5
And finally, some April foolers just did not understand why their victims failed to appreciate their carefully arranged pranks.
But Then It Did Not Seem to be Duly Appreciated
“Can I stay here and sleep on a lounge to-night?” asked a sad-faced young man as he walked into the Press club last evening and joined a group of reporters. “I’ve got to, anyway, whether I can or not. I’m a victim of the boomerang April-fool joke. It started in like this: I was just getting my comfortable second nap this morning when a call came on my door and the voice of the landlady notified me that the postman was below with a registered letter for which I must give a receipt in person. Had I been good and awake I would not have been caught by such a transparent joke, but I was just stupid enough to hustle into a portion of my clothes and tramp downstairs, where everybody hailed me with that old chestnut about ‘April fool.’
“I went back to my room, sore in spirit, and kept thinking of a plan to get even all through the day. By afternoon I had the thing all fixed up and proceeded to work out my plan. I went home between five and six and took occasion to mope about for a little while, making all the folks see me and notice my glumness. I was the very embodiment of woe and would only respond in monosyllables. Then I went to my room, took off my coat and vest and put a streak of red ghastly grease paint across my neck resembling a slash with a razor. In addition to this I put a red spot on my shirt front, and then, grasping a razor in my left hand—the blade clotted with imitation blood—and a revolver in my right, I fired two blank cartridges, let a wail out of me, staggered and fell with a thud to the floor. There I lay, with the revolver firmly grasped in my right hand and the razor in my left.
“In a second I heard feminine screams and pattering footsteps on the stairs. Then the landlady and two or three married women and the servants broke into my room, saw my blood-stained corpse stretched out on the floor, and set up an assortment of shrieks, which made the pictures turn face to the wall. Then I heard some moans and a woman flopped to the floor in a faint. More moans and another flopped. The landlady and her sister came to me and bent over me with horrified exclamations, and the first thing I knew the sister let loose a little wail and fell across my stomach. In about a second the landlady herself sunk in a heap with an arm thrown across my neck, whereupon the servant girls turned and fled with shrieks.
“I dragged myself from beneath the forms of my sympathizers and sat up. It was a beautiful sight. Four women dumped down on the floor regardless of appearances, some of them with their noses puncturing the carpet and some tied in knots. I threw a glassful of water in each woman’s face, and lit a cigarette and watched ‘em come to. They opened their eyes about the same time, and pretty soon sat up and looked about ‘em. I watched their faces, and when I saw that they had about got their bearings, I blithely remarked: ‘April fool’ and rubbed the red grease paint off my neck with a towel. Just then the servant girls returned with a policeman and came charging upstairs. I happened to know him and gave him a wink, and told him it was a mistake; that one of the boys had worked a little April-fool joke on the folks, and he went away. But the women turned on me and abused me scandalously, and the landlady ordered me out of the house at once. To escape their wrath I fled, and when I sneaked back after supper found my trunk on the doorstep with a note tacked to it ordering me not to try to enter on pain of being murdered in my bed.
“That’s why I’m here. When will the American people learn to appreciate real humor? That’s what I want to know.”
The Hope [ND] Pioneer 25 March 1892: p. 3
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.