April Fools!: Publishing Pranks of the Past

Map of San Serriffe, from the Guardian special report Guardian

Map of San Serriffe, from the Guardian

The connection between April Fool’s Day and the printed word has a long and spirited tradition. Newspapers have a decided advantage in this area, especially when editors are willing to set aside their vaunted reputation for truth just for one day. Magazines and journals, too, have managed to hoodwink their readers on several notable occasions, creating such a stir that you look back and wonder, “How could anybody ever fall for that?”

With a tip of the hat to The Museum of Hoaxes (www.hoaxes.org) and its curator, Alex Boese, here are four of my all-time favorite April Fool’s Day published pranks:

San Serriffe: On April 1, 1977, The Guardian published a special seven-page supplement devoted to San Serriffe, a small republic in the Indian Ocean made up of several semi-colon-shaped islands. A series of articles described in glowing detail the geography and culture of this obscure nation. Its two main islands were named Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse; the capital was Bodoni; and the leader’s name was General Pica. The Guardian‘s phones rang all day as readers sought more information about the delightful-sounding holiday spot. Only a few noticed that everything about the island was named after printer’s terminology.

Sidd Finch: The issue of Sports Illustrated dated April 1, 1985 revealed that the New York Mets had recruited a rookie pitcher named Sidd Finch who could throw a baseball at 168 mph.  Surprisingly, the mysterious Mr. Finch had never played baseball before, but he had mastered the “art of the pitch” in a Tibetan monastery. Mets fans celebrated their luck and flooded Sports Illustrated with requests for more information. But this amazing (and obviously too-good-to-be-true) player only existed in the imagination of author George Plimpton, who had left a clue in the sub-heading of the article: “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd’s deciding about yoga —and his future in baseball.” The first letter of each of these words, taken together, spelled “H-a-p-p-y A-p-r-i-l F-o-o-l-s D-a-y — A-h F-i-b”.

The Norwegian Wine Surplus: On April 1, 1950, Norway’s largest newspaper, Aftenposten, announced on its front page that the government-owned Wine Monopoly (Vinmonopolet) had received a large shipment of wine in barrels, but had run out of bottles. To get rid of the extra wine, the stores were running a one-day bargain sale, offering wine at 75% off and tax-free. The catch was that buyers had to bring their own containers to put the wine in. “Buckets, pitchers, and the like” were recommended. When the Vinmonopolets opened at 10 a.m., Norwegian wine lovers rushed to line up, forming long queues that stretched around the block. According to legend, numerous empty buckets were later seen lying in the streets, left there by people who had realized, while standing in line, that the sale was a hoax

Image courtesy of Jornal GGN- Image of the cow-tomato hybrid prank

The Boimate, from the Jornal GGN

Boimate: New Scientist ran an article on April 1, 1983 about the first successful “plant-animal hybrid” that had resulted in a tomato containing genes from a cow. The cow-tomato was said to have a “tough leathery skin” and grew “discus-shaped” clumps of animal protein sandwiched between an envelope of tomato fruit. The article included clues that it was a joke, such as the names of the researchers, MacDonald and Wimpey, who supposedly worked at the University of Hamburg. But these clues weren’t recognized by the Brazilian science magazine Veja which ran a feature about the new cow-tomato hybrid several weeks later. Veja dubbed the hybrid “Boimate,” and even created a graphic to show how the cow-tomato hybridization process occurred. The magazine was subsequently relentlessly ridiculed in the Brazilian media, until it eventually apologized for its “unfortunate mistake.”

At the heart of these April Fool’s Day hoaxes is the faith readers put in the printed word, a trust that can be easily exploited for a bit of mischief. Caveat lector! (Translation: Look at the date on the calendar!)

This post was written by Senior Development Editor Barry Richardson (thank you, Barry!). Our in-house “book doctor,” he helps improve manuscripts while keeping the author’s voice and expertise–whether it’s heavy-duty editing, reorganization, rewriting, or coaching authors. Prior to joining AMACOM, he worked for 25 years at Prentice Hall (P-H). Visit our website for freelance development inquiries.

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