On This Day In History: In 1698, Someone Pulled Off The Ultimate April Fools' Joke

Today happens to be April Fools' Day, a holiday best celebrated by tormenting the most gullible people you know with practical jokes and incredibly tall tales. Of course, some people aren't satisfied with a harmless prank involving a whoopie cushion and the boss's chair. If you wait for it, it's often the day where you'll read about some particularly audacious pranks that have fooled hundreds, thousands, if not millions of people.

Such was the case where on this day in 1957, the BBC had many Britsh television viewers believing that spaghetti grows on trees.

Tricking people into thinking they can get pasta directly from plants is a hilarious gag, but it pales in comparison to an ingenious prank played nearly 250 years earlier. In 1968, the world was gifted what was quite literally "the mother of all April Fools' jokes." According to KnowledgeNuts, the first officially recognized April Fools' Day joke took place in 1698.

It was a historical event involving the Tower of London, lions, and a lot of scrubbing.

What happened is that quite a few easily-fooled individuals turned up to see what they were told was an annual event: the washing of the lions. What helped this prank was the fact that there were indeed lions and other wild animals kept at the Tower of London at the time.

The Museum of Hoaxes laid out exactly how certain individuals found themselves merrily sent on a "fool's errand."

"A popular prank in London involved inviting unsuspecting victims to come view the annual ceremony of washing the lions at the Tower of London.

"Early versions of the prank promised the curious that the lions were going to be washed in the moat. Later versions told the gullible to seek entrance to the Tower at the 'White Gate' (there being no such gate). Whatever the details were, the hopeful sightseers would make the journey to the Tower in vain, because there was no annual lion-washing ceremony."

As if being duped weren't bad enough, the shenanigans were reported in the April 2 edition of the Dawks's News-Letter.

"Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed."

The joke was so popular that it's been pulled repeatedly through the centuries. Here's one such "invitation" that was sent out in the 19th century.

Image via the British Museum
[Image via the British Museum]

What made this one of the most trollish acts in history is that people continued for the "washing of the lions" trick decades after the Tower even housed lions.

The hoax is considered one of the greatest of its kind, and while the 1698 prank is deemed to be the very first April Fools' Day joke, it's acknowledged that the roots of today's holiday reach back even further in history.
According to History.com, some historians believe the first "April Fools" were just some unfortunate individuals in France who hadn't yet converted from the previously traditional Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.

The change meant that the start of the new year was moved to January 1; those who weren't aware of the chance right away continued to celebrate the holiday during the final week of March. Their lack of knowledge led them to be the butt of jokes, pranks, and even old school versions of the "kick-me" sign.

There's also some belief that the holiday is tied to the Roman Hilaria festival that took place in late March.

Still, the Tower of London "washing of the lions" gag remains the unsung hero, as within a couple of years of this infamous joke, April Fools' Day became genuinely popular and an enthusiastically celebrated (or outright dreaded) holiday ever since.

[Image via Doug Kerr | Flickr| Cropped and Resized | CC BY-SA 2.0 ]