Here in the 21st century, April Fool's Day is a pretty harmless holiday. Brands trot out their fake products and news organisations make silly claims and then we all go about our day. But back in the 19th century, April Fool's Day could be pretty brutal. In fact, it could be downright dangerous.
I looked through old newspapers from the 19th century to find the most weird, mean, and just plain horrific April Fool's Day pranks that made it into the news. From almost derailing a train to causing someone to nearly go blind, these are strange and cruel hoaxes of yesteryear.
Putting gunpowder in the pepper shaker to maim your cook
Sneaked into the kitchen, filled the pepper castor with gunpowder, and placed a cartridge in the coal scuttle. Ordered cook to keep up a good fire, and give me a beef bone for breakfast. Determined that wife should see that other people could blow up as well as herself. Went up stair and waited for row. Cook peppered the bone when it was on the gridirion, and, frightened into fizgigs, dropped castor into the fire. Both went off together — castor into atoms, cook into hysterics. Sam, the porter, who was toasting his bread and butter, that he might have a dejeune a la fourchette, said he was "narvish," and popped on a few coals to make up the fire.
Grand explosion: last scene of Miller and his Men. — Boiler blown up, scalding cat and three kittens, who jumped about, giving fine specimens of animal magnetism. Sam, with a live coal in his eye, dancing about, blind with rage, cleared the shelves of crockery with his toasting fork; and coming to anchor in a large block-tin dish cover, sat down to swear. Never laughed so much in my life.
via the Baltimore Sun (1839)
Hiring someone to shout FIRE at your sleeping wife
First of April. Got up early this morning to prepare for business. Sally still in bed. Made arrangements with the watchman, to whom I gave a shilling to rap at my door, and cry fire! Sally started up in a terrible fright; and, no light being in the room, overturned every thing in her way, until she reached the street nearly in a state of nudity. Obliged to talk sweet things to appease her warmth. Soothingly reminder her of the first.
via the Reading Times (1862)
Sending someone a live cat in a bag
"A live cat in a bag" was received at this office from LaGrange on "April fools" day. We suppose it was intended to fool our "devil." We learn also that a similar present was received by Capt. Richardson of the Midland Road. Fortunately the genial Captain is not a "cursing man," or else the cat fur would have darkened the atmosphere when he opened the bag expecting to find a fat turkey or perhaps a live pig, and beheld a Tom Cat. Better not say cat to Capt. John for some weeks to come.
via Goldsboro Messenger (1882)
Tricking desperate young men into meeting non-existent dates
Some lively young ladies concocted a passionate love letter, which wound up with the request that the receiver should meet the writer on the next evening, with a white rosette in his button hole, under the post office clock. This epistle they went to diverse gentlemen of their acquaintance. The result was that fifty-two young men with white rosettes in their button holes assembled at 8 o'clock the night under the post office time-piece.
via the Times-Picayune (1864)
Setting up a fake wedding
Managed a note to the clergyman of the parish, appointing him to call and perform the marriage ceremony between two expectant aspirants, who had been only "paying their devotions" seventeen years. The clergyman attended — but found it was a hoax.
via the Reading Times (1862)
Nearly causing a train accident
Engineer Givens, of the Colorado Central passenger train, was placed in a most trying and heart rending position Sunday. As he was brining the regular passenger train into a Collins from the south, running at quite a rapid rate, as he was behind time, on approaching a cut a short distance beyond the Agricultural College he was horrified at seeing the form of a man lying in the cut, and across the railroad track. For a moment his hair stood on ends and the blood ran cold in his veins, and he felt for an instant as though he were frozen to his seat and unable to move a muscle.
But almost in another moment he was equal to the emergency, his strength of nerve and muscle had returned as quickly as it had disappeared, and with a heroic grasp upon the throttle and the brake with his strong hands he reversed the motion of the engine, at the risk of blowing out the cylinder head, put on the breaks and came to a stop within three feet of the form upon the track, throwing all the passengers in the coaches out of their seats and creating general confusion on the train. The engineer, as he let go his firm grasp upon the lever and stepped down upon the ground, his face was pale and large drops of cold sweat stood out upon his forehead. As he approached the form lying in front of the cow-catcher a queer sensation came over him as the feelings of horror and fear passed into one of indignation. Without touching the form or, in fact without reaching it, he returned to his cab. He saw it all. It was April Fool's Day and he was April-fooled.
via the Daily Journal (1883)
Telling your wife that your baby is very ill
Woke my wife, after lots of jogging; told her the nursery maid was knocking at the door, with the infant very poorly. Chuckled when I saw her jump out of bed and unbolt the door. "Why, Peter, there is nobody here!" Called her an April fool, and laughed like fun. Wife very indignant and very eloquent — put me in mind of a locomotive letting off steam. In the torrent of her passion, she poured the contents of a water bottle over me, and thus emptied the phials of her wrath.
via the Baltimore Sun (1839)
Accidentally hanging yourself
A thirteen year old son of H.H. Brown, a well known New York custom house official, accidentally hung himself in his father's barn on April Fools day while preparing to play a first of April trick.
via the Record of the Times (1875)
Picture: 1884 cover of Puck magazine via the Library of Congress