For several years during the Cold War, New York police guarded the Soviet consulate at 9 East 91st Street in Manhattan. Officers manned a pale blue guard post 24 hours a day. “It’s like being a prisoner of war stuck in a telephone booth,” one said.
The Soviets left in 1980, and the police department accordingly canceled the guard, but two months later the 23rd precinct received a call from an Officer Cowans who said that Inspector Whitmore of police intelligence had ordered the guard to be reactivated. So the police resumed their vigil over the now-disused building.
Five months later, in May 1982, the police happened to mention the consulate duty in a report. “What booth?” asked a bewildered intelligence official. It turned out that Officer Cowans and Inspector Whitmore did not exist; the police had been guarding an empty building around the clock for five months, right through Christmas, for no reason.
They closed up shop and removed the booth. “Whoever did this was someone who wanted to break chops or who stood to gain from it,” Lt. Robert McEntire told the New York Times. “We’re not sure which, and we probably never will be.”
In 1948, while a student at Cambridge, future MP Humphry Berkeley conceived “the only practical joke that I have played in my life.” He invented a public school called Selhurst and, writing on fake letterhead, began to send letters to public figures posing as its eccentric headmaster, H. Rochester Sneath.
Sneath invited George Bernard Shaw to speak, William Reid Dick to erect a statue, and Giles Gilbert Scott to design a new house at Selhurst (all declined). But mostly he plagued and bewildered the masters of English public schools, seeking advice regarding rats, ghosts, and other peculiar problems at his college. In March 1948 he sent a warning to the master of Marlborough College:
I am writing you this letter in the strictest confidence. I understand from a Mr. Robert Agincourt who was Senior French Master at Selhurst, for one term two years ago, that he is applying for a post on the staff of Marlborough College.
He has asked me if I could give him a testimonial to present to you and I told him that by no stretching of veracity was I able to do this. You will understand that nothing that I have to say about Mr. Agincourt is actuated by any personal malice but I feel it my duty to inform you of the impression that he gave while he was at Selhurst.
During his brief stay no less than five boys were removed from the school as a result of his influence, and three of the Matrons had nervous breakdowns. The pictures on the walls of his rooms made a visiting Bishop shudder and would certainly rule out another Royal visit. His practices were described by the Chairman of the County Hospital as ‘Hunnish.’ The prominent wart on his nose was wittily described as ‘the blot on the twentieth century’ by a visiting conjuror.
As you cannot fail to have noticed, his personal appearance is against him, and, after one memorable Carol Service, a titled Lady who was sitting next to him collapsed in a heap. He was once observed climbing a tree in the School Grounds naked at night and on another occasion he threw a flower pot at the wife of the Chairman of the Board of Governors.
Should you wish any further information, I should be glad to furnish it for I could not wish another Headmaster to undergo the purgatory that I suffered that term.
(When the Marlborough master replied that the man had not approached him, Sneath reported that he had abandoned the idea of an academic career and “has now become a waiter in a Greek restaurant in Soho.” He also asked for the name of a good private detective and a nursery maid.)
When Sneath wrote to The Daily Worker complaining that he was being prevented from teaching compulsory Russian at Selhurst, a reporter exposed the hoax. The master of Pembroke College formally rebuked Berkeley and barred him from the college for two years — though, Berkeley wrote, “I think that I saw a twinkle in his eye.”
In the early 1970s, University of Minnesota chemical engineer Rutherford Aris received a letter from Who’s Who in America requesting a biography of “Aris Rutherford.” Aris wrote back, explaining their mistake, but the requests kept coming. So in 1974 Aris gamely sent in a biography of Aris Rutherford:
- Born in Scotland, he earned a degree in 1948 from the Glenlivet Institute of Distillation Engineering.
- In 1955 he became the chief design engineer and tester for the Strath Spey Distillation Company.
- From 1960 to 1964, he was a visiting professor of distillation practice at the Technological Institute of the Aegean, in Corinth.
- He was active in the Distillation Club of Edinburgh and wrote three books, including Distillation Procedures (1963).
The news media quickly learned of the hoax, and Who’s Who cut the entry in the following year’s edition. That’s a pity, Aris said — his alter ego was about to publish another book, American Baseball: A Guide for Interested Englishmen.
When a visiting Englishman expressed disappointment that New York had revealed none of the bohemian color that he had hoped for, actor (and inveterate joker) Edward Sothern invited him to a dinner for twelve.
While the soup was being served, one man laid a battleax beside his plate, another a knife, and others produced guns, scythes, and staves.
“For heaven’s sake,” whispered the Englishman, “what does this mean?”
“Keep quiet,” replied Sothern, “It is just what I most feared. These gentlemen have been drinking, and they have quarrelled about a friend of theirs, a Mr. Weymyss Jobson, quite an eminent scholar, and a very estimable gentleman, but I hope for our sakes they will not attempt to settle their quarrel here.”
At that one guest leapt to his feet and cried, “Whoever says that the History of the French Revolution, written by my friend, David Weymyss Jobson, is not as good a book in every respect as that written by Tom Carlyle on the same subject, is a liar and a thief, and if there is any fool present who desires to take it up, I am his man!”
In the ensuing melee, someone thrust a knife into the Englishman’s hand and said, “Defend yourself! This is butchery — sheer butchery!”
Sothern sat by and said only, “Keep cool — and don’t get shot.”
Sothern was famous for such jokes; it’s said that few of his friends attended his funeral because they assumed the announcement was a hoax. Once, at a restaurant, he and a friend gathered up all the silverware and hid under the table. Outraged, the waiter ran off to summon the police. When he returned, the two were sitting at their places as if nothing had happened.
In 1892 an alarming tale made the rounds of British magazines — the adventure of a Mr. Dunstan, a naturalist in Nicaragua:
‘He was engaged in hunting for botanical and entomological specimens, when he heard his dog cry out, as if in agony, from a distance. Running to the spot whence the animal’s cries came, Mr. Dunstan found him enveloped in a perfect network of what seemed to be a fine, rope-like tissue of roots and fibres. The plant or vine seemed composed entirely of bare, interlacing stems, resembling, more than anything else, the branches of the weeping-willow denuded of its foliage, but of a dark, nearly black hue, and covered with a thick, viscid gum that exuded from the pores.’ Drawing his knife, Mr. Dunstan attempted to cut the poor beast free; but it was with the very greatest difficulty that he managed to sever the fleshy muscular fibres of the plant. When the dog was extricated from the coils of the plant, Mr. Dunstan saw, to his horror and amazement, that the dog’s body was bloodstained, ‘while the skin appeared to have been actually sucked or puckered in spots,’ and the animal staggered as if from exhaustion. In cutting the vine, the twigs curled like living, sinuous fingers about Mr. Dunstan’s hand, and it required no slight force to free the member from its clinging grasp, which left the flesh red and blistered. The gum exuding from the vine was of a greyish-dark tinge, remarkably adhesive, and of a disagreeable animal odor, powerful and nauseating to inhale. The natives, we are told, showed the greatest horror of the plant, which, as we have noted above, they called the ‘devil’s snare,’ and they recounted to the naturalist many stories of its death-dealing powers. Mr. Dunstan, we are told, was able to discover very little about the nature of the plant, owing to the difficulty of handling it, for its grasp can only be shaken off with the loss of skin, and even of flesh. As near as he could ascertain, however, its power of suction is contained ‘in a number of infinitesimal mouths or little suckers, which, ordinarily closed, open for the reception of food.’ ‘If the substance is animal, the blood is drawn off and the carcass or refuse then dropped. A lump of raw meat being thrown it, in the short space of five minutes the blood will be thoroughly drunk off and the mass thrown aside. Its voracity is almost beyond belief.’
None could quite agree on the piece’s source or author, but they were surprisingly open-minded as to its truth. “It must be admitted to be circumstantial enough in all its details to be possible,” wrote the editors of the Spectator. “The story is unquestionably a very curious one, and we may rely upon it, that if the plant really does exist, we shall soon have a specimen at Kew. The digging of the Nicaragua Canal will bring plenty of Americans and Englishmen into the very country where the ‘vampire vine’ is said to exist, and the question whether the whole thing is or is not a hoax may very soon be tested.” Indeed, they said, this argued in favor of the story’s truth: A hoaxer would have placed his plant in a more obscure location.
Apparently bored in 1940, Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson sent a note to socialite Sibyl Colefax:
I wonder if by any chance you are free to dine tomorrow night? It is only a tiny party for Winston and GBS. I think it important they should get together at this moment. There will be nobody else except for Toscanini and myself. Do please try and forgive this terribly short notice. Eight o’clock and — of course — any old clothes.
“There was only one thing wrong about this heaven-sent epistle, which was written in longhand,” wrote Beverley Nichols. “The address and the signature were totally illegible. The address looked faintly like Berkeley Square, but it might equally have been Belgrave Square and the number might have been anything from 11 to 101. As for the signature she could not tell whether it was male or female.”
Lady Colefax called everyone she knew, but she never found the source. “There is something almost heroic in the thought of her small, thin, determined figure, sitting in her drawing-room in a hail of bombs, reaching out so desperately for the next rung of the social ladder that, for her, reached to heaven.”
In the early 1980s Doris Lessing published two novels under a pseudonym. “I wanted to highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that ‘nothing succeeds like success,'” she told the New York Times. “If the books had come out in my name, they would have sold a lot of copies and reviewers would have said, ‘Oh, Doris Lessing, how wonderful.'”
It appears her concerns were justified. Diary of a Good Neighbor was rejected by Lessing’s regular U.K. publisher as “not commercially viable”; another house said it was “too depressing to publish.” When it did appear and no one recognized her work, she wrote a second novel, If the Old Could, under the same pseudonym. Each book received promotion typical for a novel by an unknown author, garnered few reviews, and sold only a few thousand copies.
“Some of the so-called experts on my work, people who I know looked at the novels by Jane Somers, didn’t recognize it was me,” Lessing said. “And many of the readers’ reports to the publishers were very patronizing and very nasty. … What happens mostly is that an immense amount of space will be given to not very good books by established writers.”
On Oct. 15, 1856, the London Times published an alarming account of a rail journey in Georgia — the author, “John Arrowsmith of Liverpool,” claimed that half a dozen duels had broken out during a single day’s ride:
Of the two dozen passengers fifteen are mentioned as entering more or less into the action of the drama; twelve took a direct part in duels; six were killed, and three were left on the way fighting. Four of the duels were fought at convenient spots, the train stopping for the purpose; one was fought in the luggage car while the train was in motion; and the one with uncertain results was fought at a regular stopping place. Three of the dead bodies were left behind; one was carried from the scene of the duel and deposited on the luggage; another lay where it fell in the luggage car; another was throw out on the roadside.
After a torrent of ridicule from the American press, the retraction-shy Times tried to claim that the affair had taken place in 1828 — but that was “some dozen years,” one critic noted, “before the erection of a railroad in Georgia, or the invention of revolvers, the terrible weapons used upon the sanguinary occasion.” The hoaxer was never identified.
A publishing sensation swept the United States in 1926: The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-1765 offered scandalous insights into 18th-century society through the observations of one Cleone Knox, who met Louis XV at Versailles, was introduced to Voltaire in Switzerland, and led a pretty eventful private life:
March 3rd . This morning had a vastly unpleasant interview with my Father. Last night, Mr. Ancaster, who is the indiscreetest young man alive, was seized suddenly while riding home along the shore with the desire to say good night to me. He climbed the wall, the postern gate being locked at that late hour, and had the Boldness to attempt to climb the ivy below my window; while but half way up the Poor Impudent young man fell. (If he hadn’t Lord knows what would have happened for I am terribly catched by the Handsome Wretch.) As ill luck would have it Papa and Ned, who were conversing in the library, looked out at that moment and saw him lying prostrate on the ground!
America swooned, and the book went through nine editions in two months. One critic wrote, “No modern girl will ever write a diary like this. Cleone Knox breathes the very spirit of the witty, robust, patriotic, wicked, hard-drinking, hard-swearing 18th century.”
Alas, a modern girl had. Embarrassed by the publicity, 19-year-old Magdalen King-Hall came forward to say that she had invented the tale using books from the Brighton town reference library. “I wrote the book in a few weeks,” she said, “but, if I had realized so many distinguished people would have taken it seriously, I should have spent much more time and pains upon it.” She had not meant to deceive anyone — but perhaps her publisher had.
In 1913, German acrobat Otto Witte was traveling through the Balkans when Albania declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire. A fellow circus performer noted Witte’s resemblance to Prince Halim Eddine, whom a local faction were entreating to head the new state.
Witte maintained that he forged a couple of telegrams, arrived in the fledgling nation posing as Eddine, took control of the military, and was proclaimed king. For five days he disported with harem girls, ordered amnesty for prisoners, and distributed gold among the local chieftains. When inquiries began to arrive from Constantinople, he slipped out of town “to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.”
Skeptics note that this story is uncomfortably close to The Prisoner of Zenda, whose first film adaptation had appeared in that year. But Witte insisted the story was true, pointing to his official identity card, issued by the Berlin police, which listed his occupation as “circus entertainer” and “onetime king of Albania.” He seems to have convinced at least himself of the tale — when Witte died in 1958, Time noted that he would accept only mail that was addressed to “Otto I, ex-King of Albania.”
This is James Norman Hall. He co-wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, operated a machine gun for the Royal Fusiliers, flew with the Lafayette Escadrille, and spent months as a German POW.
And he wrote the poetry of a 9-year-old girl.
Literally. In 1938 a girl came to Hall in a troubled dream and began dictating poems to him about life in his childhood home of Colfax, Iowa. “She told me things about people in our hometown that I had completely forgotten, or thought I had.”
He typed them up and published them under the title Oh, Millersville!, claiming they were the rediscovered work of a turn-of-the-century Iowa farmgirl named Fern Gravel:
Oh, it is wonderful in Millersville
On many a winter night,
When the ground is covered with snow
And the moon is shining so bright.
You can hear the sleigh-bells jingling
I don’t think there could be
A more beautiful sound.
Keats it ain’t, but its homely charm brought writeups in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Hall let six years elapse before he published a confession in the Atlantic Monthly, explaining that he’d been ruminating on the evils of industrialization when the girl’s voice had entered his thoughts. The voice, it seemed, remained: Hall wrote a dozen more books and moved to Tahiti, but in his autobiography he wrote that “Iowa, for all the years I have been away from it, has always been, and still is, home for me.”
Posing as a surveyor, English prankster Horace de Vere Cole asked a passerby to hold one end of a length of string while he made a measurement. He chose the “pompous sort of good citizen of the bowler hat and rolled umbrella sort,” according to his friend David Scott-Moncrieff. Then he walked around a corner and give the other end to “another consequential ass.”
“Both victims held their ends for fully ten minutes, each invisible to the other, while the perpetrator of the joke quietly slipped away and joined me in a pub commanding a full view of the fun,” Scott-Moncrieff wrote later. “It succeeded far better than I had dared to hope, due to his brilliant selection of two absolutely perfect victims. Each blamed the other, and they nearly came to blows.”
On his honeymoon in 1919, Cole deposited neat piles of horse manure on Venice’s Piazza San Marco … which was devoid of horses. More of his pranks.
Literary critic A.N. Wilson panned Bevis Hillier’s 1988 biography of John Betjeman. To get even, Hillier forged a love letter ostensibly written by Betjeman in 1944 and forwarded it to Wilson under the name Eve de Harben (an anagram for “Ever been had?”). Wilson took the bait and included the forged letter in his own biography of Betjeman, which was published in 2005.
Here’s the letter. It contains a hidden message — can you find it?
I loved yesterday. All day, I’ve thought of nothing else. No other love I’ve had means so much. Was it just an aberration on your part, or will you meet me at Mrs Holmes’s again — say on Saturday? I won’t be able to sleep until I have your answer.
Love has given me a miss for so long, and now this miracle has happened. Sex is a part of it, of course, but I have a Romaunt of the Rose feeling about it too. On Saturday we could have lunch at Fortt’s, then go back to Mrs. H’s. Never mind if you can’t make it then. I am free on Sunday too or Sunday week. Signal me tomorrow as to whether and when you can come.
Anthony Powell has written to me, and mentions you admiringly. Some of his comments about the Army are v funny. He’s somebody I’d like to know better when the war is over. I find his letters funnier than his books. Tinkerty-tonk, my darling. I pray I’ll hear from you tomorrow. If I don’t I’ll visit your office in a fake beard.
All love, JB
In 1969, convinced that anything prurient would sell in the era of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady decided to manufacture his own bestseller. He asked 24 colleagues to write a chapter apiece, following two rules: They had to write badly, and there had to be an “unremitting emphasis on sex”:
In the darkened room, now thirstier than ever, Gillian was suddenly aware of the presence beside her of Mario Vella. He had allowed his left elbow to brush gently against her. In any other surrounding, in any other circumstances, Gillian Blake would have gracefully withdrawn. She didn’t. She held her ground and his elbow became more persistent.
Sadly, McGrady was right. With two sex scenes per chapter, Naked Came the Stranger quickly became a national bestseller, ending the year at number 7 on the fiction charts, five slots behind The Godfather.
“Penelope Ashe’s scorching novel makes Portnoy’s Complaint and Valley of the Dolls read like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” wrote the Long Island Press. And the Asheville, N.C., Citizen-Times said it was “witty and written in good taste, and brings out many new angles in man-woman relationships.”
“These are the kind of people,” McGrady told Life, “who are running around setting literary standards.”
In 1924, irritated with the undiscerning faddishness of modern art criticism, Los Angeles novelist Paul Jordan Smith “made up my mind that critics would praise anything unintelligible.”
So he assembled some old paint, a worn brush, and a defective canvas and “in a few minutes splashed out the crude outlines of an asymmetrical savage holding up what was intended to be a star fish, but turned out a banana.” Then he slicked back his hair, styled himself Pavel Jerdanowitch, and submitted Exaltation to a New York artist group, claiming a new school called Disumbrationism.
The critics loved it. “Jerdanowitch” showed the painting at the Waldorf Astoria gallery, and over the next two years he turned out increasingly outlandish paintings, which were written up in Paris art journals and exhibited in Chicago and Buffalo.
He finally confessed the hoax to the Los Angeles Times in 1927. Ironically, “Many of the critics in America contended that since I was already a writer and knew something about organization, I had artistic ability, but was either too ignorant or too stubborn to see it and acknowledge it.” Can an artist found a school against his will?
In 1875, the Associated Press reported a novel business enterprise being planned near Lacon, Ill. A prospectus summed it up:
Glorious Opportunity To Get Rich!!! — We are starting a cat ranch in Lacon with 100,000 cats. Each cat will average 12 kittens a year. The cat skins will sell for 30 cents each. One hundred men can skin 5,000 cats a day. We figure a daily net profit of over $10,000. Now what shall we feed the cats? We will start a rat farm next door with 1,000,000 rats. The rats breed 12 times faster than the cats. So we will have four rats to feed each day to each cat. Now what shall we feed the rats? We will feed the rats the carcasses of the cats after they have been skinned. Now Get This! We feed the rats to the cats and the cats to the rats and get the cat skins for nothing!
It was only a hoax dreamed up by local newsman Willis Powell, but, legitimized by AP’s coverage, the story bounced around the country for 65 years before the National Press Club finally debunked it in 1940. There’s a moral here somewhere.
Rep. Tom Moore was dismayed at how often his colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives passed bills without understanding them. So in April 1971 he sponsored a resolution honoring Albert de Salvo:
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.
That’s true as far as it goes — Albert de Salvo is the Boston Strangler.
The measure passed unanimously.
A well-known story is that of the showman who had a big placard on his tent, announcing that he was exhibiting a horse with his tail where his head ought to be. The inquisitive paid their money, were admitted within, beheld a horse turned around so that his tail was in the oat-bin, laughed shamefacedly, and then lingered outside the tent to watch their fellow-creatures get victimized in the same way.
— William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892
Prosper Mérimée is best known as the author of Carmen, the novella that inspired Bizet’s opera. But he began his career as an unknown writer in Paris in the 1820s, where a passing fad for Spanish literature led him to commit a modest hoax — he published Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul, a collection of plays supposedly written by a Spanish actress.
The effort worked: The plays were well received and launched Mérimée’s career. But some admirers wondered — if Clara Gazul doesn’t really exist, who is the fetching Spanish lady in the book’s frontispiece?
It’s Mérimée in drag.
In January 1749, the Duke of Portland bet the Earl of Chesterfield that “let a man advertise the most impossible thing in the world, he will find fools enough in London to fill a play house and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there.” The earl agreed, and shortly afterward the London newspapers announced a wonderful new performer:
He presents you with a common Wine Bottle, which any of the spectators may first examine; this Bottle is placed on a Table in the middle of the Stage, and he (without any equivocation) goes into it, in the sight of all the Spectators, and sings in it; during his stay in the bottle, any Person may handle it, and see plainly that it does not exceed a common Tavern Bottle.
A crowd packed the theater on the appointed night and, when the performer failed to appear, they rioted, gutting the building. It was jokingly said afterward that perhaps the man had been corked during rehearsals.
The Cheltenham Journal actually topped this in 1825 with an advertisement for five Arabian conjurors:
[T]hey will take each a lighted torch in either hand, when lo! incredible to relate! Suckee, with the burning torches, will jump clean down Mustapha‘s throat, who in an instant, with equal dexterity, will pass down the throat of Abdallah, then Abdalluh will jump down that of Benassar, and Benassar down his brother Muley‘s; who, lastly, notwithstanding he is encumbered with his four brothers and their four torches, will throw a flip-flap-somerset down his own throat, and leave the audience in total darkness!–Probatum est.
Here again the room was crammed, but five minutes before showtime “the conjuror decamped with the money and was no more heard of,” reports William Hone. “Probably he jumped down his own throat.”
A young man, poorly clothed, presented himself before a dealer in curiosities. ‘Sir,’ said he, showing a violin which he carried, ‘I am a musical artist; this is the season of balls and soirées; I have just had a long illness which has exhausted my purse; my only black coat is in pawn, I shall be much obliged if you will lend me ten francs to redeem it. I will leave as security one of the violins you see, for I have two; it is an excellent instrument. I shall return for it as soon as, thanks to my coat, I shall have earned enough money for the purpose.’ The young man had such an honest bearing that the dealer lent him ten francs and kept the violin, which he hung up in the shop. The next day but one, a gentleman, well-dressed, wearing at his buttonhole the ribbon of the Legion of Honor, was choosing from the dealer’s stock of goods some shell-work. Seeing the violin, he took it up, examining it narrowly. ‘What is the price of that instrument?’ said he. ‘It is not mine,’ replied the shopkeeper; and he related how he came to possess it. ‘This violin,’ continued the unknown, ‘is worth money, it is a Cremona. Perhaps its owner is ignorant of its value. If he returns, offer him two hundred francs for it.’ Then handing fifty francs to the shopman, the unknown said on taking his leave, ‘You will keep that for yourself if the affair succeeds; I will return in a few days.’ Two days after, the young man reappeared, bringing the ten francs to redeem his violin, for which the dealer offered him two hundred. After some hesitation, he agreed. At the end of a week, the dealer, not having seen the decorated gentleman, became suspicious; he carried the violin to an instrument-maker, who offered him three francs for it.
— Thomas Brackett Reed et al., Modern Eloquence, 1900
[In 1816] the interest in Napoleon and St. Helena was strong. A small paragraph in a local Chester paper told the inhabitants of that ancient and usually somnolent city that the British government desired to rid St. Helena of the rats and the mice which were understood to be leading the exiled emperor ‘such a life.’ Accordingly, said the paragraph, the government was offering large sums for cats–sixteen shillings for well grown males, ten for females, and half a crown for kittens. It was requested that all who desired to help in the good work by disposing of their pets at these prices should appear at a given hour at a given address.
At the time and place, an army of about three thousand generous and patriotic souls presented itself at the house designated. There were cats in baskets, cats in boxes, cats squirming restlessly in the warm clutch of children. The house was empty, and a little investigation soon proved that it had been unoccupied for a long time. Next morning more than five hundred cats were found drowned in the waters of the Dee; so that this hoax was not without its element of tragedy, and brutal tragedy at that.
— William S. Bridgman, “Famous Hoaxes,” Munsey’s Magazine, August 1903
So recently as 1860 some gay spirits in London put their heads together and perpetrated a successful and notorious piece of foolery on the wholesale plan. Towards the latter part of March many well-known persons received through the post the following invitation card, bearing the stamp of an inverted sixpence on one of the corners for official effect:
‘Tower of London–Admit Bearer and Friend to view annual ceremony of Washing the White Lions on Sunday, April 1, 1860. Admittance only at White Gate. It is particularly requested that no gratuities be given to wardens or attendants.’
The ruse worked so well that a succession of cabs rattled around Tower Hill all the morning, much to the disturbance of the customary peace of the Sabbath, in vain attempts to discover the White Gate.
— William Shepard Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs, 1898
On Jan. 16, 1926, a speech from Edinburgh on the BBC was interrupted with a shocking eyewitness report:
The Houses of Parliament are being demolished by an angry mob equipped with trench mortars. The clock tower 320 feet in height has just fallen to the ground, together with the famous clock, Big Ben, which used to strike the hours on a ball weighing nine tons. One moment, please. Fresh reports announce that the crowd has secured the person of Mr. Wurtherspoon, the minister of traffic, who was attempting to make his escape in disguise. He has now been hanged from a lamppost in Vauxhall. London calling. That noise you heard just now was the Savoy Hotel being blown up by the crowd.
Millions of Englishmen placed calls and wires to learn more about the calamity. Finally the radio company explained that the program they’d overheard had been intended by broadcaster Ronald Knox as a parody. One detail that should have tipped them off: According to the radio announcement, the riot in Trafalgar Square was led by one Mr. Popplebury, secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues.