Napoleon married on the day, Dean Swift loved to commemorate it, money-grabbing scammers exploited it, and royal prisoners used it to launch daring escapes.
In the past, the origin of April Fool was blamed on the cuckoo and the “hunting of the Gowk" or fool’s errand. According to Dr Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary, this is the Scottish version of going on a wild goose chase.
The Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette of the 1830s convinced its readers that its origins were more ancient. It insisted that the practice of April Fool could be traced to the Bible, specifically the Book of Joel, Chapter 4, Verses 3 & 4.
April Fool's Day was a great favourite of Jonathan Swift. In 1713 the author of Gulliver's Travels tried to convince his friends that a recently hanged man had been spotted in a Dublin tavern. Nobody fell for it or thought it was remotely funny, which goes to illustrate how literary geniuses can often be poor practical jokers.
Money has often been behind early April Fool pranks. in 1865 an anonymous joker sold tickets to the public inviting them to view the annual walking of white lions at the Tower of London, causing scenes of chaos outside the popular London attraction.
Gullible London animal lovers were the target of a similar prank in 1866. A near riot outside London Zoo occurred when 300 people turned up at the same time bearing green tickets sold for a penny. The tickets allowed them to see the procession of all the animals at 3 o’clock. It was signed by the suspicious-sounding J.C. Wildboar, Secretary.
Soon afterwards a seventy year-old London bookseller called Sarah Marks was brought to court on fraud charges, where she stubbornly insisted the culprits had been her sons.
In France no April Fool joke is worth its salt unless a counter prank can be played.
But it was a lucky move that Francis, the Duke of Lorraine, and his Duchess, escaped from their captors at Nancy on April the First.
Twice the guards were alerted by a townswoman that the “duke and duchess are escaping across the river” and twice they ignored the warning because they thought it was an April Fool. The river Meurthe was their means of escape and the people of Lorraine prefer to call the day April Fish as a result.
It seemed only appropriate then that Napoleon should marry the said duke’s descendant Marie-Louise of Austria on April Fool’s Day in 1810.
Edgar Wallace, the creator of King Kong, was born on April Fool’s Day in 1875. Perhaps only a writer born on this day could come up with the character, the Squeaker, who kills with a blow pipe filled with snake venom crystals.
Also born on April Fool’s Day in 1883 was the terrifying actor, Lon Chaney Senior, the only actor who had the distinction of playing both the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Phantom of the Opera. A master of disguise, he insisted in his will that his grave should go unmarked.
April Fool’s Day loses its appeal during times of war or crisis while tragedy has often cured people of marking it forever. So it was with one old man from over a century ago who reminisced about a cruel trick he played in his youth.
A man in his village was well known for turning up each day at the train station in the vain hope that his long-lost son might be on the next train. The boy and his pals thought it would be fun to write him a letter pretending to be his son, announcing that he was homeward bound on the next day’s train.
So it was that the excited father turned up the next day at the station, where the boy and his pals were waiting for him. April Fool ! they roared. The man clutched his chest, staggered and died from fright.