At noon on a spring day in Paris some years ago, an old motor truck broke down in the center of the Place de l’Opéra, requiring the driver to spend a half hour under it to make the repair. After apologizing for the trouble he had caused the policemen who had been directing the traffic around him, the truckman drove away — to collect several thousand dollars from friends who had bet that he could not lie on his back for 30 minutes at the busiest hour in the middle of the busiest street in Paris. He was Horace De Vere Cole, England’s celebrated practical joker.
— Collier’s, 1948
In 1897, con artist Soapy Smith opened a telegraph office in Skagway, Alaska. For five dollars, new arrivals in the Klondike Gold Rush could send 10 words to loved ones anywhere in the world, informing them of their safe arrival and imminent riches.
No one noticed that the cable was simply nailed to the back of the building, and that its other end disappeared in the waters of Skagway Bay.
Telegraph lines did not reach Skagway until 1901.
In 1936, Democrats took over Rhode Island’s state senate and began giving out $100 bonuses to veterans. Concerned at this liberality, a Republican quietly recommended a bonus for Sgt. Evael O.W. Tnesba of the Twelfth Machine Gun Battalion. A Democrat seconded the bill and it passed immediately, sending a ripple of laughter through the chamber.
Sensing they’d been had, the Democrats referred the bill to a committee for study. There they discovered that Evael O.W. Tnesba spelled backward is Absent W.O. Leave.
“It is true that members of the Rhode Island General Assembly, except dual office holders, get only $300 a year each for their legislative labors,” opined the Providence Journal. “But even for this modest sum they ought to do better than to vote gratuities to non-existent war veterans.”
In 1929 a well-dressed man approached Tony and Nick Fortunato, owners of New York’s Fortunato Fruit Company. He identified himself as T. Remington Grenfell, vice president of the Grand Central Holding Corporation, and he told the brothers that Grand Central Station had decided to shut down its information booth. If they could come up with $100,000, the first year’s rent, they could take over the booth and convert it into a fruit stand in the heart of the busy train station.
Overjoyed, the brothers brought $100,000 to the corporation’s offices. There they met the president, Wilson A. Blodgett, who accepted their money and gave them a contract saying they could take over the booth on April 1. But when they arrived at the station to begin renovations, they found employees operating the booth as normal, and when they began to argue officials kicked them out of the station. They returned to the Grand Central Holding Company but found an empty suite.
The Fortunato brothers never got their money back, and Grenfell and Blodgett, whoever they were, were never caught. But for years afterward the brothers would visit Grand Central Station regularly to castigate the employees there — a spectacle that itself became a small-time tourist attraction.
In 1984, Bob Ellis, managing editor of the Eldorado, Ill., Daily Journal, announced a contest “to recognize and honor the American summer tradition, Daylight Saving Time.”
“The rules are simple,” Ellis wrote. “Beginning with the first day of Daylight Savings Time this year, those entering the contest must begin saving daylight. Whoever saves the most daylight … will be awarded prizes.”
He arranged for the contest to end on April 1, and hoped he had inserted enough absurdities that readers would see the joke. No pre-dawn light or twilight would be accepted, and moonlight was disallowed. Contestants could store their light in any container and deliver it to the Journal’s office. “All entries will be donated to less fortunate nations that do not observe Daylight Saving Time.”
But they didn’t. Ellis was contacted by media in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Dallas, “every section of the nation” seeking more information about the contest.
That was all right with Ellis. He’s written the piece as “change of pace from the usual and often gloomy side of the news,” he said, so that people “could laugh at the world, and me, and perhaps even at themselves, with reckless abandon. And feel good. And therein lies the worth of such a diversion.”
Industrialist and gambler John “Bet-a-Million” Gates was lunching one day with John Drake, whose wealthy family had founded Drake University.
Gates proposed a bet. He dunked his bread in his coffee and placed it on his saucer. “You do the same,” he said, “and the piece that attracts the most flies wins. Shall we say $1,000 per fly?”
Drake agreed and lost $11,000. Gates made this bet many times, and he always won. His victims never noticed that he left his coffee untasted — because he’d added six spoonfuls of sugar.
In 1924, at the height of Prohibition, rumors began to circulate of rich people partying on a 17,000-ton steamship anchored 15 miles off the New York coast, safely out of the reach of law enforcement. “A Negro jazz orchestra furnishes the music to which millionaires, flappers, and chorus girls whirl on a waxed floor with the tang of salt air in their lungs,” wrote Sanford Jarrell of the New York Herald Tribune, who claimed to have spent a night aboard the mysterious ship.
Other newspapers picked up the story, but none could confirm it. Customs agents began an investigation even as boatloads of intrigued New Yorkers began to search the Atlantic off Fire Island, and Washington ordered a Coast Guard cutter to hunt down the ship.
At first the Herald Tribune defended Jarrell against skeptics, but finally it reported that the story was untrue. The episode had begun with a tip from a reputable source, but Jarrell had followed it up and found nothing. He’d filed his story of the “sin ship” as a hoax, and it had snowballed out of control. Finally he sent a written confession to the paper’s editors.
“In anticipation of the natural penalty for my misdemeanor,” he wrote, “and assuring you of my sincerest regret about the whole affair, I herewith tender you my resignation as a member of the Herald Tribune staff, to take effect at once.”
On Aug. 17, 1921, a bedraggled carrier pigeon landed at the feet of a policeman in Columbus Circle in New York. Tied to its leg was this message:
Notify Dan Singer, Belleclaire Hotel. I am lost in Hoodoo Mountains, Yellowstone Park. Send help, provisions and pack-horses. HELLER. 8-13-21.
At the Belleclaire Hotel police found insurance agent Daniel J. Singer, who identified Heller as naturalist and photographer Edmund H. Heller and recognized the bird as a veteran that had accompanied him on a trip to Africa with Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. Heller had kept it on the roof of the Belleclaire and taken it with him to Yellowstone recently to gather material for a lecture tour.
This was both dramatic and fishy. If the bird had left Wyoming on Aug. 13 then it had flown 1,900 miles in five days, an astonishing feat. Sure enough, when reporters contacted the superintendent of Yellowstone, he responded, “Edmund Heller is here. There is no foundation whatever for the report that he is or has been lost.”
Apparently someone had arranged the hoax in order to publicize Heller’s lectures, forging his signature on the note. The district attorney saw little humor in the stunt and began issuing subpoenas. The New York Times noted, “At the Belleclaire it was said that Singer was out of town, but had disclaimed responsibility and insisted that some person in the hotel perpetrated the hoax.”
This “parable against persecution” was a favorite of Benjamin Franklin, who would sometimes pretend to recite it out of a Bible as “the 51st chapter of Genesis.” He wrote that “the remarks of the Scripturians upon it … were sometimes very diverting”:
1. And it came to pass after these things, that Abraham sat in the door of his tent, about the going down of the sun.
2. And behold a man, bowed with age, came from the way of the wilderness, leaning on a staff.
3. And Abraham arose and met him, and said unto him, ‘Turn in, I pray thee, and wash thy feet, and tarry all night, and thou shalt arise early on the morrow, and go on thy way.’
4. But the man said, ‘Nay, for I will abide under this tree.’
5. And Abraham pressed him greatly; so he turned, and they went into the tent; and Abraham baked unleavened bread, and they did eat.
6. And when Abraham saw that the man blessed not God, he said unto him, ‘Wherefore dost thou not worship the most high God, creator of heaven and earth?’
7. And the man answered and said, ‘I do not worship the God thou speakest of; neither do I call upon his name; for I have made to myself a God, which abideth alway in mine house, and provideth me with all things.’
8. And Abraham’s zeal was kindled against the man; and he arose, and fell upon him, and drove him forth with blows into the wilderness.
9. And at midnight God called unto Abraham, saying, ‘Abraham, where is the stranger?’
10. And Abraham answered and said, ‘Lord, he would not worship thee, neither would he call upon thy name; therefore have I driven him out from before my face into the wilderness.’
11. And God said, ‘Have I borne with him these hundred ninety and eight years, and nourished him, and clothed him, notwithstanding his rebellion against me; and couldst not thou, that art thyself a sinner, bear with him one night?’
12. And Abraham said, ‘Let not the anger of my Lord wax hot against his servant; lo, I have sinned; forgive me, I pray thee.’
13. And Abraham arose, and went forth into the wilderness, and sought diligently for the man, and found him, and returned with him to his tent; and when he had entreated him kindly, he sent him away on the morrow with gifts.
14. And God spake again unto Abraham, saying, ‘For this thy sin shall thy seed be afflicted four hundred years in a strange land;
15. ‘But for thy repentance will I deliver them; and they shall come forth with power, and with gladness of heart, and with much substance.’
(In reality it’s thought to have originated with the Persian poet Saadi.)
In 1925, small-time criminal Alves Reis convinced the British firm that printed Portuguese currency to make some for him, and he passed some 5 million phony escudos into the Portuguese economy. Because the unauthorized bills came from official presses, the government at first could detect nothing wrong, but finally it found some duplicate serial numbers in Reis’ accounts and the game was up.
Reis argued that he had cheated no one, but he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Lord Macmillan of Aberfeldy called the scheme “a crime for which, in the ingenuity and audacity of its conception, it would be difficult to find a parallel.”
And it raises an interesting legal question: If currency is produced by an official government printer, can it still be called counterfeit?