When you think about the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t, “Marie Curie, you rascal.” Likewise, solemn pictures of FDR and his fireside chats probably don’t inspire you to say, “That FDR was such a scamp.” But the truth is, even some of the most serious figures from history liked a good joke now and then.
1. Ben Franklin
Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanack in the 1700s, beginning in 1732. It included weather forecasts, household hints, puzzles, and (in 1733) a prediction of the exact date and time of the death of Franklin’s good friend, Titan Leeds. When 3:29 p.m. on October 17, 1733, came and went without a visit from the Grim Reaper, Franklin knew he would have to change his tactic for the following year. In the next Almanack, he claimed that Leeds had indeed died—and that someone had since fraudulently assumed his identity. In 1738, Leeds actually did pass away. Rather than admit that he had been joking for the past five years, Franklin published a piece praising the men who had stolen Leeds’ identity for giving up the ghost, so to speak.
2. Mark Twain
Known for his exaggerations and yarns, it probably comes as no surprise that Samuel Clemens wrote a few stories that weren’t entirely true back in his reporter days. While he was writing for the Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada, Twain came up with a whopper of a tale about the local discovery of a petrified man. He thought the way the man was sitting—thumbing his nose—would have given the story away as a joke, but no one put two and two together. Disappointed that his satire of what was apparently a widespread fascination with petrified objects had gone unappreciated, Twain later wrote, “My petrified Man was a disheartening failure; for everybody received him in innocent good faith.”
3. Abraham Lincoln
Though Lincoln was known for letting his boys get into plenty of mischief, it turns out he was pretty good at getting up to a little trouble himself. Abe was staying at the Tenbrook Hotel in Monticello, Illinois, when he saw a couple of youngsters playing with an inflated pig bladder, the 1800s answer to the modern-day balloon. He told the kids that they would get more enjoyment out of their toy if they heated it in the hotel’s fireplace. When they did, the bladder exploded, sending hot coals flying across the room. When Lincoln tried to help sweep them up, the broom caught fire. He nearly burned the hotel down.
4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Lincoln wasn’t the only prankster president. One night when he was 10 years old, young Franklin Roosevelt sneaked into his nurse’s room and slipped some effervescent powder into her chamber pot. When she used the pot the next morning, it steamed and roiled violently, making the poor nurse think there was something seriously wrong with her health. Though the nurse never figured out what happened, Franklin’s father did—and he couldn’t stop laughing about it. “Consider yourself spanked,” he told the future president.
5. Virginia Woolf
One hardly thinks of the author of Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse as a lighthearted jokester, but the Dreadnought Hoax proves she had a few tricks up her sleeve. In February of 1910, Woolf and five of her friends dressed in turbans and caftans, darkened their faces with makeup, and told the British Navy that they were Abyssinian princes. They managed to get themselves a tour of the H.M.S. Dreadnought, even crossing paths with Woolf’s cousin, a naval officer on board the ship, at one point. The disguises were so good that he was none the wiser. Though the imposters vowed to keep their escapade a secret, news leaked, and the prank was front-page news a few days later.
6. Marcel Duchamp
As a joke, French-American artist Marcel Duchamp entered a urinal into an art exhibit in 1917. The joke ended up being on him: The Fountain, as he called it, ended up becoming one of his most famous works, not to mention “an icon of twentieth-century art.”
7. Joseph Haydn
A cacophony of discordant noise might not seem very funny to you or me, but it left composer Joseph Haydn in stitches. He once hired a menagerie of musicians for an outdoor performance and had them scatter themselves throughout the neighborhood. At a specified time, Haydn asked them all to start playing—but not any specific piece of music. Just anything. The resulting noise was so awful that residents booed, hissed, and contacted the cops. Though most of the musicians got away, the drummer and the violinist from the bizarre band were arrested.
8. Marie Curie
If you think Curie’s prank involves radium or other lab shenanigans, think again—her tricky streak is pretty mild. Noticing that a relative of hers drank copious amounts of milk every day, Curie slowly thinned it out over time until he noticed. A little more advanced: Marie and her cousin once nailed the same relative’s furniture and shoes to the ceiling.
9. Leonardo Da Vinci
In order to shock and amaze his pals, Da Vinci crafted a miniature dragon for himself. He fashioned wings out of scales and attached them to a small lizard, then delighted in frightening his friends by pulling the creature out of his pocket, claiming that he had tamed it himself.
10. John F. Kennedy
As a young man at Choate High School in 1931, JFK pulled one of those pranks you think only happens in 1980s movies about all-boy prep schools: He threw firecrackers in a toilet and blew the lid off. Headmasters later denounced the vandalistic act, saying it was perpetrated by “muckers.” Pleased with the reaction, Kennedy went on to found the “Muckers Club,” a social circle that included 12 of his closest friends.
11. Thomas Edison
Edison was just 19 when he worked for Western Union, which may explain why he loved pranking his co-workers so much. Among his many gems: wiring a water bucket to a battery so it would shock anyone who took a sip.
Any Hoosier will proudly tell you that there’s more than corn in Indiana. Its capital, Indianapolis, is home to everything from sliced bread to one of the largest sporting events in the world. Here are a few things you might not know about the Midwestern city.
1. An Indiana Supreme Court judge picked the name Indianapolis by sticking the state's name together with the Greek word for "city."
2. Indianapolis wasn’t the first state capital of Indiana. The original capital, Corydon, was given the boot in 1820, just four years after the state was formed.
3. Today, the city's nickname of "Naptown" is thought to be a dig at its sleepy reputation. But the term was actually coined by jazz musicians in the 1930s. One of the first recorded uses was by blues singer Leroy Carr in 1929, who crooned, “When you get to Naptown, the blues won’t last very long. Because they have their pleasure, and they sure do carry on.”
4. In 1911, the legendary Indianapolis 500 race as we know it was born. The prize offered to the winner among 40 qualifiers: $25,000. The ticket cost for each of the 80,200 spectators in the grandstands: $1.
5. Forget champagne: Indy 500 victors take a celebratory sip of milk, as part of a tradition that is said to have begun with three-time winner Louis Meyer in the 1930s. After a hot day on the track, Meyer would refresh himself with buttermilk. Today, the American Dairy Association Indiana announces which local dairy will provide the quaff, and even maintains a list of drivers' milk preferences.
7. An Indianapolis native is to thank for the traditional tune sung during every seventh-inning stretch. Albert Von Tilzer of Indianapolis penned “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
8. The great Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in Indianapolis, where his father and grandfather, both architects, left their marks on the city in the form of historic buildings like the Athenaeum. Vonnegut himself once said that “All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis."
10. Indianapolis’ Gilbert Van Camp created his own American classic: Van Camp’s Pork and Beans. Van Camp worked as a grocer in the area and found that customers liked his recipe so much, he decided to start selling them to the masses.
11. Indiana is known as the Crossroads of America, and Indianapolis backs that name up, with six interstate highways crossing through town.
12. Washington, D.C. is the only city in the country that has more memorials and monuments that Indianapolis. The Hoosier capital comes in second, with 33 such commemorations.
16.The last concert The King ever gave was in Indianapolis—just three months before his death in 1977, Elvis Presley performed in Indianapolis’ Market Square Arena.
17. Indianapolis claims to be home to the world’s largest Christmas tree, a title the city has held since 1962. The tree sports 52 strands of garland and nearly 5,000 lights in the display known as the Circle of Lights.
21. Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company, which now has offices in 18 countries, can trace its roots to a building on Pearl Street in Indianapolis.
22. Notorious crime boss John Dillinger, whose gang was responsible for dozens of bank heists and a handful of police station robberies during the Depression era, hails from Indianapolis. He quit school to work in a machine shop in the state capital before moving on to a life of crime.
Any group of subversive students can cover campus trees with toilet paper or make a series of prank calls. These 11 school pranks went above and beyond, and that's what makes them the stuff of mischief legend.
1. Lady Liberty Takes a Soaking
In the spring of 1978, two students at the University of Wisconsin ran for student government as candidates of the facetious Pail and Shovel Party. To their astonishment, they got elected. Like all good leaders, the pair vowed to make good on their campaign promise, which was to move the Statue of Liberty from New York City to Lake Mendota near campus. No one took them seriously until…one day in February, rising up out of the frozen lake was Lady Liberty herself. Her gigantic green head and glowing torch floated above the icy surface. The two pranksters told everyone that they’d had the statue flown in by helicopter, but the cable holding it had broken and Lady Liberty crashed through the ice. The real story: They had the statue built out of wire, papier maché, and plywood and then hauled it onto the lake.
2. Card Trick
As far as we know, you can’t actually major in pranks at college. But if you attend the California Institute of Technology, you can come close. The school is famous for its brilliantly engineered pranks, and the Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961 is perhaps the crème de la crème.
As usual, the Caltech football team did not stand a chance of actually playing in the storied Rose Bowl game in 1961. But a group of students decided to get Caltech in on the action anyway. They learned that the Washington Huskies cheerleaders were planning a halftime stunt where their fans would hold up colored cards in prearranged patterns to spell out a series of pro-Husky messages. A Caltech student managed to liberate the master plan for the stunt while the Huskies were visiting Disneyland the day before the big game. CalTech pranksters then replaced the plan with their own, revised version.
The next day at halftime, the Washington fans started performing the card stunts. The first 11 stunts were just as the Huskies had planned. Then things went awry: The 12th stunt was supposed to be the team’s dog mascot. Instead, the cards formed the unmistakable silhouette of a beaver, the Caltech mascot. Stunt 13 spelled out HUSKIES, only backwards. In the final stunt, gigantic letters filled the stands—and TV screens across America—with, you guessed it: CALTECH.
Like Caltech, MIT is famous for its audacious, tech-savvy pranksters. Over the years, students have placed many objects on top of the campus’s 15-story Great Dome, including a fake cow, a piano, a small house, and a giant nipple. In 1994, they managed to park a campus police car, complete with a dummy officer in the driver’s seat, on the curved roof. To do it, they took the car apart, hauled the pieces up the side of the building using a system of rollers, then reassembled the vehicle and even got the lights on the roof to flash. Then they placed a ticket on the windshield, since after all, the car was in a no-parking zone.
4. Politicians Are Animals
Most college pranks have relatively trivial consequences, but in 1959, a group of students in Sao Paolo, Brazil, managed to swing an election when they got a five-year-old rhinoceros named Cacareco elected to city council. The four-legged candidate won by a landslide, garnering 100,000 votes—one of the highest totals for a local candidate in Brazil’s history to that point. The students had ballots printed up with Cacareco’s name on them and then got thousands of voters to send them in. “Better to elect a rhino than an ass,” commented one voter.
After Cacareco won, the head of the zoo where she lived demanded that the rhino receive a councilman’s salary, but the election was nullified before any paychecks were cut. Today Cacareco’s memory lives on in the expression “Voto Cacareco,” which is used in some parts of Brazil to mean “protest vote.”
5. Flaming Undies
As the Olympic Torch neared the end of its 1,695 mile-journey to Melbourne, Australia in the summer of 1956, it had already faced several challenges, including torrential rains and temperatures so high that the runners carrying it nearly collapsed. But nothing beat what happened when the Olympic flame arrived in the city of Sydney. A champion runner named Harry Dillon was scheduled to carry the torch into the city and present it to Mayor Pat Hills. Some 30,000 people lined the streets, waiting for Dillon’s arrival. At last, a runner came sprinting into the city. The crowd cheered as he made his way to the podium and handed the torch over to the mayor. The mayor quickly launched into his speech without giving the torch a second glance until someone whispered in his ear, “That’s not the torch.” The mayor looked down and realized that he was holding a fake torch, constructed from a wooden chair leg painted silver and a can stuffed with a pair of kerosene-soaked underwear.
By then, the man who had delivered the fraudulent torch had disappeared. He was Barry Larkin, a student at the University of Sydney, who along with eight other students felt that people were overly reverent about the torch and that the tradition was ripe for ridicule. The mayor took the prank in good humor, and minutes later the official torchbearer arrived. Larkin received a standing ovation when he returned to his college along with a “Good job, son!” from the headmaster.
When your college’s mascot is a concrete brick with arms and legs named Wally the Wart, it is imperative that you win the Victoria’s Secret “Pink Collegiate Collection” contest so Wally’s image can grace some fashionable lingerie. Or at least that’s what students at Harvey Mudd College thought when they heard about the contest in 2009. The contest website was set up so that people could cast only one vote a day, which put colleges with large student bodies at an advantage. But the site’s flawed security put colleges with a high quotient of tech wizards who like to pull pranks at an even greater advantage. A group of Mudders went to work and wrote a computer program that bypassed the CAPTCHA and automatically cast a vote every 2 or 3 seconds. Suddenly HMC, with fewer than 800 students, was at the top of the list, with over a million votes. That wasn’t enough for the HMC pranksters. They rigged the voting so that the schools in second through fifth places spelled out the acronym WIBSTR, which stands for “West Is Best, Screw the Rest,” the motto of a famously wild dorm at HMC. Not surprisingly, HMC was disqualified from the contest, and Wally is still waiting for his underwear op.
7. All America Hoaxers
When Steve Noll was a junior at the College of William and Mary in 1972, he and his friends loved college basketball, but they hated the fact that the top honor for players involved being named to All America teams by national sports journalists. The students were just as unhappy that their own school’s top player, guard Mike Arizin, would never make one of those teams. Noll and three friends decided to correct the situation themselves. They formed the Association of Collegiate Basketball Writers (even though none of them had ever penned a word about sports) and they invented the Leo G. Hershberger Award, which they named for a cigar-smoking New York City sportswriter who never existed. The four spent hours poring over player stats to select their team of honorees, which included, of course, Mike Arizin. They designed an official-looking certificate, and stationery bearing the slogan “Serving the Sport.” When every detail was perfect, they told the Associated Press about the award, and soon the news was in every major paper in the country. Then the pranksters shut their mouths. For forty years. They didn’t reveal the award was a hoax until 2013, on the eve of the Final Four tournament. Most of the winners said they were surprised but amused to learn that the award was a fake—and Mike Arzin decided he was “sort of flattered.”
8. Tetris on Steroids
Some pranks make you laugh out loud while others make you grin in quiet awe. The gigantic, playable Tetris game that lit up one side of the 21-story Green building on the MIT campus one April night in 2012 is one of the latter. MIT pranksters had dreamed about achieving this “Holy Grail” of hacks since at least 1993. It took a large team of students more than four years of work to finally pull it off. They installed custom color-changing LED lights in 153 of the building’s windows and connected them wirelessly to a podium where players controlled the game. This game was not for the timid: Upon losing, all the blocks would fall to the bottom of the building and all of Boston could watch the player's failure from across the Charles River.
9. A Pregnant Pause
Aquinas College economics professor Stephan Barrows did not like his students answering their cell phones during class, so he had a rule: If your phone rings, you must answer it on speakerphone. He should have had another rule: No prank calls. On April 1, 2014, students arranged to have a friend call a female student named Taylor Nefcy during class. As required, Nefcy put the call on speakerphone.
“Hi, this is Kevin from the Pregnancy Resource Center,” the voice on the other end said, as Nefcy’s friends switched on their hidden recorders. “Per your request, I am calling to inform you that the test results have come back positive. Congratulations!”
Professor Barrows, who had been smiling until then, suddenly became anxious and suggested that Nefcy might want to “shut that down.” But Nefcy let the call continue and Kevin explained that with the father “no longer in the picture,” the center would provide Nefcy with counseling and maternity services at no charge.
At this point, Barrows attempted to interrupt, and Nefcy politely told the caller, “Thank you, I’ll call back later.” Barrows then launched into a sober apology, but before he could get very far, Nefcy brushed him off: “That’s okay, I’ve been expecting this call,” she said, adding sweetly, “I already know what I’m going to name the baby. The first name will be April, and the middle name will be Fools.” Barrows lost it, along with the rest of the class, and the video promptly went viral.
10. Veterans of Future Wars
In 1936, Congress passed a controversial bill allowing veterans of World War I to receive their war bonuses 10 years early due to the economic hardships of the Great Depression. With another war brewing in Europe, two Princeton University students formed an impromptu group called Veterans of Future Wars. They demanded that draft-eligible men receive $1,000 payments in advance. They reasoned that they would likely be called into the military soon, and they might as well get the money when they could still enjoy it. The idea hit a nerve, and soon there were 500 chapters on campuses across the country. They adopted the group’s satirical salute: an arm outstretched, palm up, towards Washington. Eleanor Roosevelt admired the hoax, calling it a “grand pricking of a lot of bubbles.” But many real veterans did not see the humor. “They’re too yellow to go to war,” scoffed VFW Commander James E. Van Zandt. He misjudged the pranksters, however. The two founders and nearly all members of the Princeton chapter ended up serving in World War II.
11. A Traffic-Stopping Prank
In 2006, students at Austin High School in Austin, Minnesota engineered a prank that capitalized on the unusual architecture of their school. A busy street separates two buildings on the school’s campus. Students can use the crosswalk or an underground tunnel to get from one building to the other. At an appointed time on the day of the prank, 94 students began filing across the street, using the crosswalk. Then they circled back through the underground tunnel and crossed the street again—and again, and again—creating an endless stream of pedestrians. Traffic was tied up for nearly 10 minutes as cars lined up waiting for the students (including one dressed as a cow and another as a chicken) to finish crossing.