6 College Pranks We Wish We'd Thought Of

What is it about the collegiate atmosphere that inspires pranks? Maybe it's the lure of becoming a school legend, your hilarious exploits recounted 'round bonfires for years to come. Or maybe it's just the natural result of putting too many smart, hormone-addled young folk together in one place. Whatever the reason, colleges (and to a lesser extent, boarding schools) are a breeding ground for awe-inspiring pranks -- and here are some of our favorites. (Some of these entries appeared in the Mental_floss article "History's Greatest Hoaxes" by Alex Boese, vol. 2, issue 6.)

1. The Explosives Were Just A Warm-Up

Alright, this is a high school prank, but it has all the hallmarks of a collegiate job (think of it as AP pranksterhood). Our very own John Green masterminded this elaborate, hilarious two-parter as a senior at his Alabama boarding school, and not only did it make he and his cohorts living legends at Indian Springs High School for years to come, it also became the basis for several major plot points in John's debut novel, Looking for Alaska (soon to be a movie). Warning: some crude (but contextually appropriate) language.

2. Bonsai Kittens

"You no longer need be satisfied with a house pet having the same mundane shape as all other members of its species," declared the website, which debuted in 2000. "With Bonsai Kitten a world of variation awaits you, limited only by your own imagination." According to the website, you could treat a young kitten in much the same way that you treat a young juniper: by sealing a furry friend inside a specially-designed glass jar, you could force Fluffy's still-pliable bones to conform to the jar's shape. Special feeding tubes supposedly took care of all kitty's nature-related needs (just make sure you drill an air hole!), and with a little careful pruning now and then, the rest would take care of itself!

Of course, the website was total hokum, devised by a group of bored MIT students and housed on the school's servers. Even after the site was found to be of questionably authentic origin, however (it proved to be impossible to actually purchase said Bonsai Kittens), outraged emails kept pouring in. The Humane Society and PETA both denounced the site publicly, and in 2001 the FBI subpoenaed all information about the site they could get from MIT. No evidence of abuse was ever found, but even after had been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked as a prank, vitriolic emails from outraged animal lovers forced it site to bounce around from hosting service to hosting service for several years.

3. Lady Liberty Goes for a Swim

In February 1979, the Statue of Liberty appears submerged in the waters of Wisconsin's Lake Mendota. It's the brainchild of the infamous Pail & Shovel Party, a small group of (mischief-prone) undergrads running the University of Wisconsin at Madison's student government that year. As part of their election campaign, they had promised to bring Lady Liberty to Wisconsin, which they do ... sort of. The group spends three days constructing the statue of of papier-mache and chicken wire. When it appears peeking up from the lake, they claim it was flown in by helicopter from NYC, but after the rope snapped, it sent her crashing through the ice. So did they make their fellow students proud? Not exactly. The P&S party used $4,500 of student funds for the construction.

4. Hugo N. Frye, Father of the Republican Party

Hoping to make a statement about the superficiality of politicians, a pair of Cornell students in 1930 make special plans to honor one Hugo Norris Frye, father of the Republican party, at the school's annual banquet. Problem is, he doesn't exist. ("You go and fry" -- get it?) They print up letterhead for the H.N. Frye Sesquicentennial Committee and mail letters to many notable Republicans, asking that they issue statements honoring the important, if little-known, patriot on the occasion of his 150th birthday. In response, they receive several letters of glowing praise for Frye -- including one from the Vice President of the United States, Charles Curtis -- which they read aloud to an amused crowd at their banquet. It would have been harmless enough, but when the story landed on the front page of The New York World, the victims were exposed -- and they weren't laughing.

5. Greasing the Tracks

The night before an 1896 football game with their arch-rival Georgia Tech, a group of Auburn students set out for the local train station. To greet the arriving Tech team, the Auburn kids decide to do a particularly impressive job of the old "greasing the tracks" prank, covering the rails around the station and well down the line heading out of town. When the Tech train rolls in the next morning, it can't stop and reportedly slides for 10 miles, leaving the team an its accompanying fans well outside their intended destination. Forced to walk into town for the game, the players are so exhausted when they finally reach the field, Tech loses 45 to nothing.

6. The Crimson Sparks a Red Scare

A long-running rivalry between Harvard's school papers, the Crimson and the Lampoon, came to a head with this 1953 prank. Crimson staffers play one of their favorite pranks by stealing the Lampoon's Ibis, the large bird statue perched on top of their office. But this time, they send a letter to the Soviet consul in New York to report that the editors of the Lampoon wish to offer the Ibis as a symbol of friendship, billing the bird as "sort of an American peace dove." The Soviets accept, and the Ibis is handed off to a confused U.N. delegate in a formal ceremony. Not wanting to be outdone, the Lampoon retaliates with a letter of their own. With help from then-editor John Updike, they write to Joseph McCarthy, insisting the prank clearly proves the Crimson's communist leanings and calling for a full investigation.

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Where Did The Easter Bunny Come From?
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Getty Images

The Easter Bunny is an anthropomorphic, egg-laying rabbit who sneaks into homes the night before Easter to deliver baskets full of colored eggs, toys and chocolate. A wise man once told me that all religions are beautiful and all religions are wacko, but even if you allow for miracles, angels, and pancake Jesus, the Easter Bunny really comes out of left field.

If you go way back, though, the Easter Bunny starts to make a little sense. Spring is the season of rebirth and renewal. Plants return to life after winter dormancy and many animals mate and procreate. Many pagan cultures held spring festivals to celebrate this renewal of life and promote fertility. One of these festivals was in honor of Eostre or Eastre, the goddess of dawn, spring and fertility near and dear to the hearts of the pagans in Northern Europe. Eostre was closely linked to the hare and the egg, both symbols of fertility.

As Christianity spread, it was common for missionaries to practice some good salesmanship by placing pagan ideas and rituals within the context of the Christian faith and turning pagan festivals into Christian holidays (e.g. Christmas). The Eostre festival occurred around the same time as the Christians' celebration of Christ's resurrection, so the two celebrations became one, and with the kind of blending that was going on among the cultures, it would seem only natural that the pagans would bring the hare and egg images with them into their new faith (the hare later became the more common rabbit).

The pagans hung on to the rabbit and eventually it became a part of Christian celebration. We don't know exactly when, but it's first mentioned in German writings from the 1600s. The Germans converted the pagan rabbit image into Oschter Haws, a rabbit that was believed to lay a nest of colored eggs as gifts for good children. (A poll of my Twitter followers reveals that 81% of the people who replied believe the Easter Bunny to be male, based mostly on depictions where it's wearing a bowtie. The male pregnancy and egg-laying mammal aspects are either side effects of trying to lump the rabbit and egg symbols together, or rabbits were just more awesome back then.)

Oschter Haws came to America with Pennsylvania Dutch settlers in the 1700s, and evolved into the Easter Bunny as it became entrenched in American culture. Over time the bunny started bringing chocolate and toys in addition to eggs (the chocolate rabbit began with the Germans, too, when they started making Oschter Haws pastries in the 1800s).


The Easter Bunny also went with European settlers to Australia—as did actual bunnies. These rabbits, fertile as they are, got a little out of control, so the Aussies regard them as serious pests. The destruction they've caused to habitats is responsible for the major decline of some native animals and causes millions of dollars worth of damage to crops. It is, perhaps, not a great idea to use an invasive species as a symbol for a religious holiday, so Australia has been pushing the Easter Bilby (above, on the right), an endangered marsupial that kind of looks like a bunny if you squint. According to some of our Australian readers, the Easter Bunny is not in danger of going extinct.

Gregor Smith, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The Men Behind Your Favorite Liquors
Gregor Smith, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Gregor Smith, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's hard to walk down the aisle of a liquor store without running across a bottle bearing someone's name. We put them in our cocktails, but how well do we know them? Here's some biographical detail on the men behind your favorite tipples.

1. Captain Morgan

FromSandToGlass, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Captain wasn't always just the choice of sorority girls looking to blend spiced rum with Diet Coke; in the 17th century he was a feared privateer. Not only did the Welsh pirate marry his own cousin, he ran risky missions for the governor of Jamaica, including capturing some Spanish prisoners in Cuba and sacking Port-au-Prince in Haiti. He then plundered the Cuban coast before holding for ransom the entire city of Portobelo, Panama. He later looted and burned Panama City, but his pillaging career came to an end when Spain and England signed a peace treaty in 1671. Instead of getting in trouble for his high-seas antics, Morgan received knighthood and became the lieutenant governor of Jamaica.

2. Johnnie Walker

Kevin Chang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Walker, the name behind the world's most popular brand of Scotch whisky, was born in 1805 in Ayrshire, Scotland. When his father died in 1819, Johnnie inherited a trust of a little over 400 pounds, which the trustees invested in a grocery store. Walker grew to become a very successful grocer in the town of Kilmarnock and even sold a whisky, Walker's Kilmarnock Whisky. Johnnie's son Alexander was the one who actually turned the family into famous whisky men, though. Alexander had spent time in Glasgow learning how to blend teas, but he eventually returned to Kilmarnock to take over the grocery from his father. Alexander turned his blending expertise to whisky, and came up with "Old Highland Whisky," which later became Johnnie Walker Black Label.

3. Jack Daniel

LeeRoyal, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Jasper Newton "Jack" Daniel of Tennessee whiskey fame was the descendant of Welsh settlers who came to the United States in the early 19th century. He was born in 1846 or 1850 and was one of 13 children. By 1866 he was distilling whiskey in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Unfortunately for the distiller, he had a bit of a temper. One morning in 1911 Daniel showed up for work early and couldn't get his safe open. He flew off the handle and kicked the offending strongbox. The kick was so ferocious that Daniel injured his toe, which then became infected. The infection soon became the blood poisoning that killed the whiskey mogul.

Curious about why your bottle of J.D. also has Lem Motlow listed as the distillery's proprietor? Daniel's own busy life of distilling and safe-kicking kept him from ever finding a wife and siring an heir, so in 1907 he gave the distillery to his beloved nephew Lem Motlow, who had come to work for him as a bookkeeper.

4. Jose Cuervo

Shane R, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1758, Jose Antonio de Cuervo received a land grant from the King of Spain to start an agave farm in the Jalisco region of Mexico. Jose used his agave plants to make mescal, a popular Mexican liquor. In 1795, King Carlos IV gave the land grant to Cuervo's descendant Jose Maria Guadalupe de Cuervo. Carlos IV also granted the Cuervo family the first license to commercially make tequila, so they built a larger factory on the existing land. The family started packaging their wares in individual bottles in 1880, and in 1900 the booze started going by the brand name Jose Cuervo. The brand is still under the leadership of the original Jose Cuervo's family; current boss Juan-Domingo Beckmann is the sixth generation of Cuervo ancestors to run the company.

5. Jim Beam

Jim Beam, the namesake of the world's best-selling bourbon whiskey, didn't actually start the distillery that now bears his name. His great-grandfather Jacob Beam opened the distillery in 1788 and started selling his first barrels of whiskey in 1795. In those days, the whiskey went by the less-catchy moniker of "Old Tub." Jacob Beam handed down the distillery to his son David Beam, who in turn passed it along to his son David M. Beam, who eventually handed the operation off to his son, Colonel James Beauregard Beam, in 1894. Although he was only 30 years old when he took over the family business, Jim Beam ran the distillery until Prohibition shut him down. Following repeal in 1933, Jim quickly built a distillery and began resurrecting the Old Tub brand, but he also added something new to the company's portfolio: a bourbon simply called Jim Beam.

6. Tanqueray

Adrian Scottow, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

When he was a young boy, Charles Tanqueray's path through life seemed pretty clear. He was the product of three straight generations of Bedfordshire clergymen, so it must have seemed natural to assume that he would take up the cloth himself. Wrong. Instead, he started distilling gin in 1830 in a little plant in London's Bloomsbury district. By 1847, he was shipping his gin to colonies around the British Empire, where many plantation owners and troops had developed a taste for Tanqueray and tonic.

7. Campari

Michael, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Gaspare Campari found his calling quickly. By the time he was 14, he had risen to become a master drink mixer in Turin, and in this capacity he started dabbling with a recipe for an aperitif. When he eventually settled on the perfect mixture, his concoction had over 60 ingredients. In 1860, he founded Gruppo Campari to make his trademark bitters in Milan. Like Colonel Sanders' spice blend, the recipe for Campari is a closely guarded secret supposedly known by only the acting Gruppo Campari chairman, who works with a tiny group of employees to make the concentrate with which alcohol and water are infused to get Campari. The drink is still made from Gaspare Campari's recipe, though, which includes quinine, orange peel, rhubarb, and countless other flavorings.


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