Sure, fake pizza orders and putting saran wrap on a toilet are funny, but if you really want to prank someone, you have to think big. And in these cases, really big. Some of the following pranks and hoaxes not only fooled people for decades, but changed the course of history, nearly started riots or international incidents, and made indelible impacts on pop culture. These are truly the greatest pranks in history, tricking thousands of people and making headlines.
Taking people by storm, these pre-Internet era pranks were genius, and historical in scope. From the left-handed whopper to Richard Nixon's infamous 1992 Presidential run, there's nothing like good pranks to keep fast-food lovers and the electorate on their toes. If you're looking for the best pranks ever, you could certainly take a page out of Caltech's playbook, or even respected publications like The Guardian.
These are the greatest pranks and hoaxes in history, from fake military operations to ersatz versions of famous bands to artists and writers who never existed. If you're going to pull something on April Fools; Day, or any day really, make sure your funny prank ideas are up to snuff with these historical pranks.
Broadcast to football fans around the world, the Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961 might have been the apex of college pranks. It was pulled off by students at Caltech, a school with a glowing reputation for both scientific education and magnificent japes. The University of Washington was playing Minnesota, and a group of Caltech students wanted to draw attention to their own school.
The ringleader found out the plan for Washington’s card flipping halftime stunt (a trademark of their fans), then they broke into the dorm where the school’s cheerleaders were staying, put new instruction sheets out, and altered the placards in the last of the card flips to make them spell out “Caltech.” Nobody caught on, and the prank went out live over the air.
In 1927, Georgia Tech student William Edgar Smith received two enrollment forms for the college. So he did what any good prankster would do, and created a fake student to use the other one. His creation, George P. Burdell, coincidentally took all of the same classes as Smith, as well as the same tests – because Smith did all the work twice. Smith took the prank so far that he managed to get Burdell both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and had him listed as a Georgia Tech alumnus.
Other students carried the prank forward, using “George P. Burdell” as an alias for everything from the Georgia Tech basketball team to bomber crews in World War II to getting him named to the Board of Directors of MAD magazine.
Maybe the most cunning hoax in military history, Operation Mincemeat was a British plan to fool Germany into redirecting their troops to defend against a non-existent invasion of Greece, leaving the way clear for an Allied landing in Sicily. British Intelligence created a backstory for a corpse, giving him the name William Martin and the rank of Major, then dropped it into the water, apparently the victim of a plane crash. The "Martin" carried highly classified intelligence papers detailing the Allied invasion of Greece – which wasn’t going to happen - and put them in an envelope that the Germans could open and re-seal.
Fooled by the care the British had taken in developing this fictitious officer, the German High Command bought the ruse and moved substantial forces to Greece, allowing for a fairly easy landing in Sicily.
The BBC pranked viewers around England with a 1957 broadcast by the news show Panorama. In a three-minute segment, they reported on a bumper harvest in southern Switzerland – of spaghetti. Apparently, a mild winter and the wiping out of “the spaghetti weevil," allowed Swiss families to simply pull uncooked strands of pasta off trees and boil them up for dinner. There was even “footage” of a Swiss family harvesting home-grown noodles.
Naturally, many people called the BBC wanting to know how they could get in on the bumper crop. The BBC replied: "Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."