Everybody loves a good prank — well, except whoever falls for it. “You’ve got something on your shirt” is way overdone at this point, but every once in a while, a stunt gets so elaborate that it can fool millions of people, or even the entire world.
These hoaxes may go down as the greatest pranks ever pulled off. Some are totally ridiculous in hindsight, though you might just be surprised by how real some of these stories appear. And before you ask: no, the moon landing is not on this list…
1. The Spaghetti Tree Hoax: How do people forget about April Fool’s Day? On April 1, 1957, the BBC aired a news segment about a Swiss family harvesting fresh pasta from trees. Some oblivious viewers called in asking how to grow their own pasta crop. The BBC responded, “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”
2. Taco Liberty Bell: Some people can’t take a joke. On April Fool’s in 1996, Taco Bell announced they purchased and renamed the Liberty Bell to help cut down on the national debt. Thousands of people took the marketing scheme literally and complained to the company and the National Park Service.
3. Balloon Boy: Richard and Mayumi Heene shocked the world in 2009 when they claimed their 6-year-old son Falcon climbed into a giant helium balloon and drifted away from their Colorado home. Authorities desperately followed the floating vessel to recover the “Balloon Boy” once he landed 50 miles away…
But they found no trace of the boy inside the balloon. As it turns out, he was hiding in the attic of his home the entire time. His parents — two wannabe reality stars — orchestrated the event to gain publicity. Their hopes floated away, however, when the court slapped them with multiple felony charges.
Reuters / Rick Wilking
4. Clever Hans: A German teacher named Wilhelm von Osten became a star when he debuted Clever Hans, a horse that could do math. When Wilhelm asked Hans a question, Hans would tap his hoof a number of times to signify the answer. It took years for anyone to realize that Wilhelm trained the horse to tap in response to face signals.
5. Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus: Prankster Lyle Zapato pulled a fast one when he created a website to save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. The creature supposedly lived off small animals but was endangered by the Sasquatch. The University of Connecticut later used the hoax in a study about why people fall for false information online.
6. Moon Creatures: Just because the moon landing actually happened doesn’t mean there aren’t any moon-related hoaxes. In 1835, a tabloid called The Sun wrote a story on fictitious astronomer John Herschel. He allegedly built a powerful telescope and used it to observe all kinds of wacky creatures, including unicorns and human bats, on the moon’s surface.
7. Sidd Finch: In 1985, Sports Illustrated published an article about the newest baseball phenom, Siddhartha Finch. Aside from an amazing backstory that involved studying with Tibetan monks, Sidd supposedly threw a 168 miles-per-hour fastball and just signed with the Mets. New York fans were thrilled until the magazine revealed it was a joke.
Sports Illustrated / Lane Stewart
8. Dog Brothel: The Village Voice posted a curious ad in 1976 about a “cathouse for dogs.” Here, customers could shell out up to $50 an hour for their dogs to spend the night with a canine companion. WABC New York fell for the hoax and did a story on the brothel.
The pet brothel was another creation of Joey Skaggs, one of the most prolific pranksters of our time. A proud member of the counterculture, he enjoys making a fool of mainstream institutions. Even in interviews, he will often provide hilariously false information or send a double in his place.
The Observer / Sam Ortiz
9. Walk Right: Another famous Joey Skaggs hoax was the formation of Walk Right! This militant political movement purported to roam the streets of New York and police citizens into following proper pedestrian etiquette. The Black Panther-esque berets made them almost believable.
10. The Turk: During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Turk — a chess-playing robot — became one of the biggest tourist sensations ever. The contraption toured around the world and could somehow defeat almost anyone. By 1857, however, the Turk’s secret came out: the owner put a chess master inside the machine to secretly operate its every move!
Wikimedia Commons / Marcin Wichary
11. Paul Is Dead: In the late 1960s, rumors emerged that Paul McCartney of The Beatles had died in an auto accident and the bandmates replaced him with a lookalike. The Fab Four later played up this urban legend by including clues in their songs and album covers. Some paranoid fans interpreted the Abbey Road artwork as a funeral procession.
12. Piltdown Man: Amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson announced a monumental discovery in 1912. He claimed he found a skull of the missing link between apes and humans near the town of Piltdown. However, a later examination showed that the skull of the new species was just bones from a human, orangutan, and chump pieced together.
BBC / Natural History Museum
13. I’m Still Here: When Joaquin Phoenix arrived at The Late Show with a long beard and sunglasses in 2009, David Letterman quickly realized it was no normal interview. Phoenix seemed incoherent and announced he quit acting to pursue a rapping career. A year later, Phoenix admitted he tanked the interview for the mockumentary film I’m Still Here.
CBS / John Paul Filo
14. War of the Worlds: Orson Welles performed a radio adaptation of War of the Worlds in 1938. He was so convincing, in fact, that some listeners panicked and thought it was an emergency broadcast about a real alien invasion. News outlets later tried to investigate Welles for inciting mass hysteria, though they exaggerated the number of people affected.
15. The First Bathtub: In another April Fool’s joke gone awry, journalist H.L. Mencken wrote a story in 1917 entitled, “A Neglected Anniversary.” He claimed that the bathtub caught on in the United States only after President Millard Fillmore put one in the White House. Other journals picked up his prank story, and a member of Congress even cited it as fact.
Mental Floss / John Ueland
16. The Great MIT Balloon Hack: Football spectators at Harvard Stadium in 1982 could hardly believe their eyes. A giant balloon began to inflate in the middle of the field, bore the name MIT in big letters, and exploded. Several MIT students snuck in the device the night before to prank their rivals, perhaps out of jealousy that they don’t have a football team.
17. Naked Came The Stranger: Bored housewife Penelope Ashe shot up on the bestseller list with her trashy pulp novel, Naked Came The Stranger. But the borderline-pornographic book was pure satire. Newsday journalist Mike McGrady wrote it to make fun of popular literary trends and got his sister-in-law to pose as Penelope.
18. The Cardiff Giant: Perhaps the biggest hoax in American history, George Hull claimed to find a 10-foot tall petrified man in Cardiff, New York. Of course, it was really a gypsum sculpture he buried underground. Many experts spotted the fraud immediately, but the Giant became such a huge tourist attraction that P.T. Barnum bought it!
Flickr / Jim Griffin