An engraving by Johann Michael Voltz depicting an April Fools' Day riot against Jews in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1819.
For centuries, April Fools’ Day—known by a number of names—has been associated with class, race, and social status. Many date the day’s origins to the Persian holiday of Sizdah Be-dar, or “Day of Far Too Many Puddings,” when traditionally the king would give everyone the day off on the condition that they all make and consume pudding until they vomit. This, according to Zoroastrianism, would purge men of all bad thoughts and spirits. Notably, however, the nobility was exempt from actually making any pudding and would often play cruel tricks on their slaves; thus, it was actually a festival that enforced class privilege rather than a day of rest and equality.
Other candidates for the origin of April Fools’ Day include the Roman festival of Hilaria, a weeklong event that encouraged lying and homosexual horseplay, and the Feast of Fools, a holiday celebrated in medieval Europe where children would be given authority over their elders. This latter occasion gradually evolved into the Test of Fools, which mainly consisted of townspeople quizzing each other on the Bible. Those who answered too many questions incorrectly were determined to be Jews and stoned to death. (This tradition was particularly popular in Scotland, where it became Hunt-the-Gowk Day [gowk meaning “Jew” in Scots], which was banned in the 1970s.)
The tradition migrated to the Americas with Christopher Columbus, who instituted a Day of Fools at the gold mines he owned in the West Indies. His slaves were only required to mine two pounds of gold each, rather than four, and they were “rewarded” with a feast of roast pheasant that night. The real “trick,” however, was that Columbus, his mind by then addled by drinking from lead-lined goblets, forced the slaves to listen to his “light humorous verse” (mainly nonsensical doggerel that detailed Columbus’s fictional, and grotesque, sexual conquests). Those who did not laugh sufficiently, or consume enough pheasant, would have their tongues cut out.
Later, this holiday was celebrated in a more light-hearted manner in the English colonies, where pranks such as baking “tobacco pie” and forcing indentured servants to get so drunk that they vomited were common. In the 1750 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac, Benjamin Franklin attempted to popularize April 1 as Nay to Breeches Daye, on which “men and woman-folk of Gentle Breeding and Kind Manners shall go-about the towne and countrye verily clothed in Shoes and Coats only, exposing their Nether Regions to Passers-Bye in Celebration of the COMINGE OF SPRING,” though very few colonists except Franklin ever celebrated in this way.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that April Fools’ Day was appropriated by the marginal classes as a way to “get back” at their oppressors. In the 1830s, slaves adopted April 1 as Fool the Master Day and often planned escape attempts on that date. It wasn’t long, however, before the plantation owners caught wind of this and began adopting brutal preemptive countermeasures against slaves they suspected of plotting to flee—beatings, brandings, and even pouring boiling oil on slaves’ bare backs were common practices. It was no coincidence that John Brown and his followers picked April 1, 1855, as the date of the infamous Atchison Incident, when they attacked a proslavery settlement in Kansas and skinned four men alive.
Later, movements for social change adopted the date as a day of activism. Socialists, communists, and anarchists all engaged in marches and actions on this day in the late 19th century—the most famous of which was Emma Goldman’s release of hundreds of rats into Macy’s department store on April 1, 1899. Franklin Roosevelt nodded to this tradition in 1934, when, as part of the New Deal, he made April 1 a national holiday on which men could dig holes and fill them back up again in exchange for a government stipend. A year later, Congress canceled this program after it was revealed that FDR was “only kidding!” and the modern April Fools’ Day was born.
Notable April Fools’ Days:
1525, Norway: Frederick I, King of Denmark and Norway, promises to reward all his pagan subjects who come before him with a piece of gold, but instead tramples them to death with horses.
1801, England: The owner of a London textile mill serves his workers uncooked, rancid meat to see how many will notice. Subsequently, 117 die of food poisoning.
1915, France: On the Western Front, German and French infantrymen negotiate a truce in honor of April Fools’ and have a celebration in the no man’s land between their trenches, leaving their guns behind. Both sides betray each other and engage in pitched combat with knives and clubs in one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
1959, USA: A civil rights march in Monroe County, Alabama, is attacked by police despite having the proper permits; police claim the permits were issued on April 1 and therefore invalid.
1961, Cuba: The Bay of Pigs Invasion.
1987, USA: President Ronald Reagan performs oral sex on Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger before an amused White House press corps in one of the most notable presidential April Fools’ pranks.
2008: A series of April Fools’ pranks where people with extremely bad credit were issued mortgages, which were then securitized and traded on the stock market, were finally revealed, resulting in a worldwide financial crisis.