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An April Fools' Guide to Idaho History

How the trickiest day of the year shaped the Gem State

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"When viewed from one perspective, it could be said that April Fools' Day adventures may have had as much influence on the shaping of the Gem State as any single governor, legislature, or historical event."

—from Fooled You Good! The Part Tomfoolery Played in Shaping Idaho, by Dr. Malcolm Flaut

Don't say we didn't warn you. On Friday, April 1, your friends, coworkers, spouse, perhaps even your children, will be hiding your car keys, putting hand sanitizer in your toothpaste, rearranging the furniture in your cubicle, posting Photoshopped pictures of you kissing a pig or doing whatever passes for pranks in your particular social circle. The occasion—April Fools' Day—along with only Christmas and Easter, is a day recognized by virtually the whole world for a specific activity.

April Fools' Day may be even more universal than Christmas and Easter. While the roots of this day so revered by tricksters are to be found in Middle Ages Europe (see Page 11) the perverse pleasure so integral to the day has spread throughout the New World and much of Asia. In most countries, the antics have no set traditions or official sanction, although in Thailand and Cambodia, the day has taken on such cultural relevance that Buddhist priests wear their robes inside-out and burn incense of the most offensive odors imaginable, all to signify the capricious nature of existence. In many of the isolated villages of Bolivia and Paraguay, one man or woman is picked by secret ballot to be the Abril Tonto, and is strapped to a pole, then carried about the community from dawn to dusk by revelers who grow increasingly intoxicated on singania, a brandy native to the Andes.

In Japan the day is called "When Fish Walk On Land" and among Hindi-speaking Indians it translates to "The Day Shiva Looks Askance." Even the Inuit of Greenland have a version of April Fools' Day, when unsuspecting seal hunters might find an unpleasant surprise stuffed into the bow of their kayaks, usually in the form of some rotting fish or walrus blubber.

Benjamin Franklin, America's prankster-in-chief. - COPYRIGHT: RA3RN / 123RF STOCK PHOTO

Monkeyshines In America

April Fools' Day got off to an uneasy start in the North American colonies. In territories controlled by the French, stretching from the Mississippi delta on the Gulf of Mexico north to what would become French-speaking provinces of Canada, April Fools' Day was wildly popular and seen as a tribute to St. Martin of Tours (circa 325-397A.D.), the patron saint of troubadours and jugglers.

In the Puritan and Quaker settlements of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, frivolity and jest were frowned upon, so any observance of April Fools' Day could earn an offender a day in the stocks. Cotton Mather, the infamous prosecutor of witches in Salem and elsewhere, actually condemned a farmer's young wife to death by stone crushing for the homely offense of putting a fake spider on her husband's shoulder as he ate breakfast and shrieking "April Foolishness!" when he was startled by the hand-knotted creature.

Still, the impulse among the newcomers to pull tricks on friends and neighbors could not be suppressed. In 1607, at the earliest English settlement on the North American continent, Jamestown, it is reported one of the favorite diversions among some of the younger males was to race through the fort in the middle of the night, shrieking that a band of "wild men" were attacking the outer defenses. After many a panicked response, the jokesters were ignored. However, the actual "wild men"—the indigenous Powhatan tribe on whose land Jamestown was founded—came to be so offended by the recurring joke, they eventually did attack the fort.

Benjamin Franklin was the most prolific April Fools' prankster in early American history. Almost forgotten is that his initial reason for flying a kite in a thunderstorm was that he was trying to convince a gullible nephew he was "angling for flying fish." It was only after the kite was struck by lightning that he got the idea of capturing electricity. It is also telling that the first issue of Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack was released on April 1, 1732—which might explain why within it were predictions of "a deluge from the skye of frogges and toades come reaping season" and an article detailing the best method to sow lima beans was at midnight during a full moon, with the sower as "naked as a newly-hatched jay."

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