Prank Recalling

Prank Recalling

Prepare yourself for today’s tricks, jokes and hoaxes by learning about yesterday’s.

It turns out April Fools’ Day is an old holiday, even in Puritan-blooded New Haven. Just how old is anybody’s guess. Under the headline “April Fools,” a writer in the April 4, 1811, edition of the New Haven Post-Boy poked his readers in the ribs. “Many of us are fools, all our lives,” he wrote. “Others soon begin to show ‘symptoms of wisdom.’” He then implored them to “produce some probable account of the origin of this custom of rendering each other ridiculous on the first day of April.” If he were still alive, he’d still be waiting: It seems nobody’s yet uncovered an authoritative origin story.

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We do, however, have accounts of the holiday in practice. On April 2, 1880, the New Haven Evening Register published an entry titled “A Day of Fun / Observing April Fool’s Day—All Sorts of Pranks Played by the Boys.” Calling the occasion “a grand holiday for fun for all classes, conditions and ages of people,” it went on to describe what we might conclude was a typical April Fools’ experience for a New Haven family circa 1880:

From the moment the rising bell is rung throughout the house the lively imaginations of the family at large are called into play, and when the family are assembled in the dining room waiting for the breakfast call, their hands are given steady employment in impinning their coat-tails, taking kite-tails off their back and getting interested in highly sensational and exciting stories told by one of the members of the family, holding a newspaper before his eyes, throwing out the idea that all the nonsense is being read out of the telegraph columns.

The writer then recounted a woman who made delicious-looking but inedible pancakes for her husband, producing a “volley of laughter” when, upon the first taste, she called him an “April Fool.” It also told tale of grocers who used the occasion to exact cold revenge. Targeting “inveterate loungers who hang around the store all day, thrusting their hands into the sugar barrels,” the proprietors baited their moochers with a sweet-looking concoction resembling unrefined sugar. In fact, it was a mouth-puckering, eye-watering, stomach-turning combo of molasses and salt.

A prank that was pulled more than a century later probably tasted no less astringent to its victims. It was 1992, by which time the media were getting in on the holiday fooling. KC101 had spread word of a secret show that night at Toad’s Place featuring the Boss, Bruce Springsteen. The problem, of course, was that there was no secret show. Fans lined up outside, then “staked out spots inside Toad’s without bothering to check the calendar—April fools, all,” as the New Haven Register put it.

Two Aprils ago, it was an artist, not a medium, doing the pranking. Believe in People—the funny, wily, relentlessly anonymous graffiti artist whose guerrilla work often interacted with Yale, including being erased by it—had already announced that he was moving on from the Elm City.

But not without firing one last April Fools’ Day shot. Early that morning, a wooden plaque made to look like bronze appeared on the front of the Yale University Art Gallery. It memorialized the lowbrow work of fictitious street artist Sam Dilvan—anagram: “vandalism”—with an ironically highbrow description of Dilvan’s contributions to the arts.

The plaque created a stir but, in a refreshing turn, didn’t seem to ruffle institutional feathers the way you’d expect. YUAG quickly unglued it from the facade, it’s true, but then displayed it in a glass case outside the main entrance, adding its own highbrow description via separate placard. Following a day of exhibition, YUAG, having determined not to keep the work, asked BiP to reclaim it or, failing that, promised to donate it to Artspace to be auctioned off during the nonprofit’s annual fundraising gala that month.

But BiP had another trick up his sleeve. He heaped praise on YUAG for taking the original act in stride, then ripped it for casting a piece of public art as though it should be sold to the highest bidder. Ultimately siding with the artist, Artspace rejected the auction proposal and accepted BiP’s offer to make a replica plaque for its auction. But the replica never materialized, and though Artspace would soon secure the original for safekeeping, it doesn’t have a permanent home, as far as we know.

It’s public art non grata, and just like April Fools’ Day itself, the joke’s on everyone.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. This updated story was originally published on March 31, 2015.

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