Hoax Museum Blog: Pranks

The Girl Scout Cookie Order Hoax —
This is all over the news. [oregonlive, csmonitor] Some girl scouts in Portland, Oregon thought they had landed a massive sale of cookies when they received an order via email for 6000 boxes — a $24,000 order.

Whoever was handling the order (a scout's mother, I assume) exchanged some emails with the buyer, and everything seemed legitimate. The buyer was even an acquaintance of the troop. So the girl scouts went ahead and processed the order, committing themselves to receiving 6000 boxes.

And then they discovered the mega-order was a fake. The buyer was actually a young girl using her mother's email address. The girl was apparently young enough that she didn't fully understand the signficance of what she was doing. She just thought it was a funny joke. The Portland troop can't return the cookies, so it's now holding a special sale to try to unload all 6000 boxes. So far, half have been sold. (Which, already, is way more than the troop usually sells.)

My first thought, when I heard this story, was, "Wouldn't it be clever if the hoax order was itself a hoax... a ploy to drum up sales." But my next thought was, "No, I seriously doubt a bunch of girl scouts would be cynical enough, or brazen enough, to pull off a stunt like that." So I'm going to accept that everything here happened exactly the way it's being reported.
Posted: Mon Mar 18, 2013.   Comments (1)

Do not push this button! — Here's a prank that's also an interesting experiment in social psychology. In the middle of a busy public square, a big sign over a red button says, "DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON." Of course, random people walking by inevitably do push the button. At which point, everyone in the square appears to drop dead. So what does the person who pushed the button do? Does he/she try to help the people? No. Every single person who pushed the button runs away, as if trying to escape being found out.

The prank was filmed in a square in Rio de Janeiro. The TV presenter Silvio Santos provides a narration (in portuguese). More info at forbes.com.

Posted: Wed Feb 20, 2013.   Comments (4)

The Proposal Rejection Prank — The Proposal Rejection Prank is a perennial favorite. Back in 2005 I posted about how a couple had developed a routine they were performing at basketball game halftime shows, in which the guy would propose to the girl in front of the entire crowd. But instead of saying yes, the girl would break into tears and run away. It never failed to get a reaction from the crowds.

The PrankvsPrank duo recently performed the identical stunt at various locations outdoors. Their resulting youtube video currently has over 4 million views.

Posted: Mon Feb 18, 2013.   Comments (0)

The Frank Zappa Frieze Prank, 1975 — Bridges Auditorium stands on the campus of Pomona College in Southern California. A frieze on the front of the building displays the names of five great composers: Wagner, Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, and Schubert. But for a few days in April 1975, Chopin's name disappeared and was replaced by that of another iconic, but more modern composer — Frank Zappa.

For years, no one knew who put Zappa's name up there. But in 2012, the pranksters finally revealed themselves, submitting a dossier about their prank to Pomona College Magazine, which published the details in its Nov. 2012 issue.

The pranksters were Pomona math majors John Irvine and Greg Johnson (both class of 1976). Although neither of them were Frank Zappa fans, when they learned that Zappa would be performing at Bridges on April 11, 1975, they decided his name should be on the building. And they elected to have him take the spot of Chopin, since Chopin was their least-favorite composer among the five on the building.

To pull off the stunt the pair created a 15x5-foot frieze out of Styrofoam with an aluminum frame, weighing 70 lbs. The frieze displayed Zappa's name, bookended by a bust of him on one end, and a marijuana leaf on the other.

Fellow conspirators in the math department helped them to learn that between 2 and 3 in the morning was the time when campus security was least likely to walk by the auditorium. So this is when they installed their frieze.

Irvine working on the Zappa bust (left); accessing the roof (right)

They gained access to the roof of the auditorium by extending a ladder from an adjacent building. They managed to position the frieze in place, wedged it into the recessed space of the Chopin frieze, and then secured it with heavy fishing line.

Hauling the frieze into place

The next morning the campus woke to find their handiwork.

Unfortunately, the pair hadn't managed to pull off the prank in time for Zappa's concert. They were a week late. But still, what they did is remembered as Pomona's greatest student prank.

The Zappa frieze remained in place for several days before being taken down by campus officials. The pranksters decided to keep their identity a secret in order to maintain a sense of "mystique" about the prank.
Posted: Fri Feb 15, 2013.   Comments (3)

Dead Bodies Rising — Viewers of The Steve Wilkos Show on CBS affiliate KRTV in Great Falls had the program interrupted on Monday by an emergency alert that delivered this warning:

Civil authorities in your area have reported that the bodies of the dead are rising from their graves and attacking the living. Follow the messages on screen that will be updated as information becomes available. Do not attempt to approach or apprehend these bodies as they are extremely dangerous.

Seems that someone had hacked into the station's emergency alert system. The police (who are looking into the matter) report that four people called them to check if the alert was true. [greatfallstribune]
Posted: Tue Feb 12, 2013.   Comments (3)

USC Glamour Queen Hoax, 1944 — In April 1944, the University of Southern California held its annual Campus Queens beauty contest. Each dormitory and sorority was allowed to put forward one candidate. Several "non-org" (or non-affiliated candidates) were allowed to enter the contest as well. This made for a total of 20 contestants vying for the title. Six winners would be selected by an all-university vote. Their prize was that their full-length portrait would appear in the university yearbook. (Not much of a prize, but I suppose it's something they could show their grandkids later in life.)

However, that year an imposter appeared among the candidates. Can you spot who it was?

The odd-woman-out, or odd-man-out as it were, was Sylvia Jones. She was actually a he — Cal Nixon, a male USC student who had dressed up as a woman as a prank in order to enter the contest.

What made this slightly more than just your average campus prank was the involvement of Max Factor, the famous makeup artist for the Hollywood stars. Factor had agreed to do Nixon's make-up, decking him out in a "gossamer-gold wig" and half-inch eyelashes. He also supplied a professional glamour photographer to take the picture used for the contest.

Unfortunately, Jones/Nixon never got a chance to see if he/she could win the title of Campus Queen, because a co-conspirator told the administration about the prank before the final vote could take place, and the Dean of the University, Francis Bacon, promptly declared that a male Queen wouldn't be allowed. So all the votes for Sylvia Jones were thrown out.

The prank, once it was revealed, made national news, thanks to a wire story that appeared in hundreds of papers.

Today what Cal Nixon did may not seem like a particularly noteworthy or shocking prank, but it was different times. Though, of course, we're still dealing with gender issues in beauty contests, such as that flap last year about whether Jenna Talackova, who was born a man but became a woman, could compete in the Miss Universe Canada pageant [Daily Mail]. Talackova looks a lot more like a woman than Jones did!

Jenna Talackova

For what it's worth, the final winners of the USC Campus Queens contest were Mary Blake, Jean Glover, Muriel Gotthold, Colleen Phipps, Lynn Walker, and Virginia Zerman.

Posted: Sat Feb 02, 2013.   Comments (1)

S?it Yourself —

This image that recently appeared on the May 4 cover of the Living section in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is all over the blogosphere. Does the heading say "Suit Yourself" or "Shit Yourself"?

The real question is whether this was an innocent accident, or an artist's prank. Kind of like the penis on the Little Mermaid video cover. The artist swore he didn't put it there intentionally, but that was kind of hard to believe. After all, how could he miss it?

Posted: Wed May 09, 2012.   Comments (6)

Poop Dollaring — Scatology has always provided fertile ground for pranks and humor. In fact, I've read scientific speculation that farts and feces probably provided the inspiration for the very first jokes told (or staged) by our early hominid ancestors. Witness how modern-day chimpanzees find it endlessly amusing to fling their feces.

This might provide us with some context for the prank called Poop Dollaring. (Though it's probably more analysis than the prank deserves.) Its method is simple: smear feces on a dollar bill and then place it so as to "tantalize the gullible".

Back when people used pay-phones, a variant of the prank involved stuffing dog poop into the coin return box. Unfortunately I remember falling victim to this once as a teenager. It was disgusting.

Knowing about poop dollaring might, if nothing else, spare you from too readily picking up some money you see lying on the ground.

Of course, youtube provides us with quite a few examples of innocent victims getting poop dollared.

Posted: Wed May 09, 2012.   Comments (3)

Get Goated — Imagine you're going about your day, minding your own business, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, there's a goat! That's the premise of the goat prank that's become a tradition in Spokane, Washington. The link includes a video of a Spokane anchorwoman who keeps repeating excitedly, "I've been goated! I've been goated!":

Surprise! You Have Just Been 'Goated!'

Spokane community members have the opportunity to play a great practical joke by having a real baby goat delivered to offices or meetings. A $50 donation to Wishing Star will send a goat to an unsuspecting friend or co-worker on the day of choice. The recipient will be asked to make a donation to Wishing Star to pay for the removal of the goat. Last year Wishing Star was able to raise over $20,000 through 'goating,' with five to six goats traveling to offices throughout Spokane each day.

Posted: Fri May 04, 2012.   Comments (1)

Lightly touching women’s stomachs while they’re sitting down… and other strange pranks — I noticed several odd pranks in the news:
  • Touching women's stomachs: Tosh.0 had a segment on his show about women's reactions when you lightly touch their stomachs while they're sitting down, and he encouraged his viewers to try this during the commercial break to see what would happen. According to Time, lots of people promptly began posting videos to youtube showing themselves doing this.

  • "I've buried the body": Over in Western Australia, many people are reporting that they're receiving a puzzling text message: "I have buried the body like you told me to. What do you want me to do now?”  Police are telling them to ignore the message, and are warning the pranksters that sending such a message could lead to fines or imprisonment. link: smh.com.au

Posted: Sat Apr 14, 2012.   Comments (2)

The Car Switcheroo Prank—this couldn’t be done today! — Marjorie writes in again, with a story told to her by an Aussie friend (in his words). What I love about this story is that it's set in a time and place where people actually left their cars unlocked, with the keys on the front seat, expecting that the cars would still be there when they returned.

I was living in Hobart in 1977 and, driving home, I noticed a friend's car parked outside the corner store at the bottom of my street. I was expecting her to come visit later that afternoon and thought she might be in the store, so I parked behind her. She wasn't in the shop, and I couldn't see her anywhere near. I went to her car, which was unlocked, and found her keys on the seat. I went back to my car and left my keys on the driver's seat, returned to hers, got in and drove home.

An hour or so later she emerged from the friend's house where she had been visiting. She immediately saw that her car was gone and recognised mine. Her companion was shocked to see her car missing and she played along, but when he insisted on going back to his house and calling the police, she stunned him by saying, "No don't worry about it... I'll just take this one!" With that, she got into mine and drove off, leaving him gaping in the middle of the street.

Posted: Thu Apr 12, 2012.   Comments (2)

The Pulling Up Piccadilly Prank — I recently received the following email from Marjorie:
In the late 50's, on the morning of April 1, a group of Sydney City Council workers went with jackhammers and other machinery and started an approved excavation in the middle of George St. (the main drag). Hoaxers from Sydney University called the police and warned them that a group of Uni Students dressed as Council workers were tearing up George St. They simultaneously went to the site and warned the workers that a group of students, disguised as police, were on their way to disrupt the job. The result was, understandably, chaos in the main street. I was told about this when I was about 19, (1963) but never saw an official report.

I love emails like this. They bring out the hoax-history geek in me. So here goes.

What Marjorie describes is a prank that was first pulled off by the British "King of Pranksters," Horace de Vere Cole, in 1910. Cole is best known for the Dreadnought hoax of 1910, in which he and a group of friends dressed up as a group of Abyssinian dignitaries, and tricked the British Navy into receiving them with full ceremonial pomp on the H.M.S. Dreadnought.

He staged the "Pulling Up Piccadilly" prank (as he called it) soon after. He and a group of accomplices dressed up as workmen, walked over to London's Piccadilly Street, and started digging a hole in the middle of it. They asked a policeman to direct traffic around them as they worked, and the policeman, thinking they were real workers, did as requested. After half an hour of work, they all dropped their tools and retired to the nearby Ritz Hotel to watch the mayhem they had created.

An undated cartoon account of Cole's prank -- that gets the details of the prank wrong.

Cole is an interesting character. There was a violent, self-destructive side to his pranks, as if he felt compelled to lash out at the world around him. Although he inherited a great deal of money, he lost it all and died penniless. If you want to read more about him, I highly recommend a recent biography of him by Martyn Downer titled The Sultan of Zanzibar: The Bizarre World and Spectacular Hoaxes of Horace de Vere Cole.

The same prank was later reported to have been perpetrated by Hugh Troy in New York. (Troy was like the American counterpart to Horace de Vere Cole, but without the violent, self-destructive side). Or, at least, H. Allen Smith in his 1953 book The Compleat Practical Joker claimed that Troy repeated the prank, though Smith isn't the most reliable of sources:

Early one morning Troy led four companions down Fifty-fourth Street to Fifth Avenue. They wore overalls, carried picks and shovels and had provided themselves with red lanterns and 'Men Working' signs. Opposite the old Rockefeller residence they set to work ripping up the pavement. By noontime they had dug quite a hole in the street. Troy posted flags and signs and they knocked off for lunch. He led his grimy laborers into the dining room of a fashionable hotel near by. The headwaiter was horrified, of course, but Troy was prepared.
"It's all right," he whispered. "It's a little gag the manager wants us to put over."
After a hearty meal, during which some of the other diners stamped out of the place with their noses in the air, Troy led his men back to the excavation. They worked through the afternoon, widening and deepening the hole, then hung up the lanterns and signs and went home. The municipal authorities did not discover the hoax until evening of the following day and they were so bewildered by it that they never did find out who was responsible.

Marjorie's email was the first I had heard of an Australian version of the prank. So I did some searching in the National Library of Australia's newspaper archive, and eventually I found a brief reference to such an event — in the Perth Sunday Times, April 18, 1954.

The Sunday Times article discusses the tradition of student pranks during graduation week, complaining that Perth students hadn't been holding their own in this tradition when compared with students on the east coast of Australia. Towards the end, the author gives some examples of recent east-coast pranks (from around 1952). There's a brief reference to an Australian version of Cole's 'Pulling Up Piccadilly' prank at the bottom of the list:

I'm guessing that the story Marjorie heard (with the details about the students simultaneously warning the police and the workers) was an embellished version of what actually happened. Which isn't surprising, since pranks have a way of "improving" as they're retold. More likely, the students simply restaged Cole's prank. And it wasn't an April Fool's Day prank, but rather a graduation week prank. But it appears to be true that Sydney University students did stage the street-digging prank around 1952.

I'm not aware of any later stagings of the prank, but I'd be surprised if someone hasn't repeated it in the last half-century.
Posted: Fri Apr 06, 2012.   Comments (0)

The Society for Insulting Women and Frightening Children — The Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the year 1873 includes an article about the mathematician/inventor Charles Babbage. In this article, there's a page-long footnote discussing some hoaxes, and at the end of this footnote, there's a brief reference to the existence of a curious group that called itself the "Society for Insulting Women and Frightening Children":

What is this Society? I haven't been able to find it mentioned anywhere except in this Smithsonian Report. But it sounds like a clandestine group of 19th-century pranksters.

The footnote is signed "J.H.", which I assume stands for Joseph Henry, the Secretary of the Smithsonian at the time. He's a pretty credible source, so I assume he wasn't simply making up this Society.

If anyone has any information about this Society, let me know.
Posted: Wed Feb 15, 2012.   Comments (2)

Texas Roof Tiger — Add this to the 'Things on Roofs' file: Police in Houston, Texas received reports of a tiger sitting on the roof of an abandoned hotel. The animal was causing a bit of a traffic jam as drivers stopped to look at it. But upon investigation, it turned out to be a toy tiger. I'm assuming it was the work of a prankster, who's now out a pretty nice stuffed animal. Link: BBC News.

Posted: Thu Jan 19, 2012.   Comments (7)

Car lands on roof of house—real or fake? — About two weeks ago a story hit the news wires about a car that landed on the roof of a house in Fresno, CA. The story goes that Benjamin Tucker stole the car, was driving fast, but lost control as he was going round a corner and hit some landscaping rocks, causing the car to become airborne. And it flew through the air until it landed on the roof of a nearby house.

The autoshopper blog points out that this chain of events is highly improbable:

Let’s put together some relevant facts for the sake of reason. The speed limit was 30 MPH, which suggests really high speeds might be difficult to attain on a small community road. The apartment received no major interior or structural damage. It also seems insanely improbably that small landscaping rocks would cause a car to receive more than a few feet of lift. Ergo, the current official explanation is a bit difficult to stomach.

So could the story of the car that landed on a roof possibly be a prank, or a hoax? Well, putting cars on top of buildings is a classic prank. For instance, back in 2006 I blogged about a car-on-a-roof senior prank. But I haven't seen anything related to this current story to suggest it was a prank. Apparently the driver leapt out of the car once it landed on the roof, fell to the ground, and broke his leg. So if it was a prank, the joke was on him.

Unless some other details emerge, I'm going to have to go with the car getting up there by accident, as unlikely an event as that might have been.

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Posted: Wed Jan 18, 2012.   Comments (8)

Cows In The Library — Apparently Bethel College in Kansas has a history of pranks. Enough so that there's now a website dedicated to collecting all the pranks perpetrated there. The site has a great name: CowsInTheLibrary.com. The name refers to an actual prank at Bethel, but also (perhaps unintentionally) gives a nod to Neil Steinberg's classic book about college pranks, If At All Possible, Involve A Cow.

Bethel's most famous prank is Herman Bubbert, a fictional student "who began appearing on class rolls and in the pages of local newspapers sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s." Bubbert is now the curator of Cows In The Library. (via mennoweekly.org)
Posted: Tue Oct 25, 2011.   Comments (1)

Coning: A Strange New Prank — Coning (or cone-ing) involves ordering an ice-cream cone at a fast-food drive-thru window, and then taking it by the ice cream instead of the cone when it's handed to you. If you do a search for coning on youtube, you can see a lot of examples of it. Even Justin Bieber is a fan of coning.

It's a strange prank because it inverts the typical logic of pranking. Usually pranks involve humiliating or one-upping a victim. For instance, a victim sits on a whoopee cushion, prompting everyone to laugh at him. But in the case of coning, the prankster pays for the ice cream cone and then proceeds to ruin his own cone by grabbing it incorrectly. The person handing him the cone isn't put out in any way. They may be puzzled by the strange behavior, but they're not inconvenienced. In other words, in coning the prankster becomes the victim of his or her own prank.

I was confused by this until (at the risk of greatly overanalyzing this) I realized that coning is essentially a form of breaching experiment. Breaching experiments are a form of experimentation used by social psychologists. They involve acting in a way that violates an unwritten rule of social behavior, and then observing how people respond to this violation. The experiments reveal that society functions smoothly because we all (usually) obey these unwritten social rules. Sniggle.net has collected some examples of famous breaching experiments, which include volunteering to pay more than the posted price for an item, ordering a Whopper at McDonald's, or saying hello at the end of a conversation.

Breaching experiments are most frequently associated with the work of Harold Garfinkel (who died earlier this year). The NY Times, in its obituary of Garfinkel, wrote:

He wrote about so-called “breaching” experiments in which the subjects’ expectations of social behavior were violated; for example, a subject playing tic tac toe was confronted with an opponent who made his marks on the lines dividing the spaces on the game board instead of in the spaces themselves. Their reactions — outrage, anger, puzzlement, etc. — helped demonstrate the existence of underlying presumptions that constitute social life.

So all these videos of coning pranks on youtube can be viewed as examples of amateur breaching experiments. (It's good to see that today's youth has such an interest in social psychology.) And from this perspective, it's interesting to observe the reactions of the fast-food employees to the coning. Most of them simply look with bewilderment at the prankster. Some laugh nervously. But a few get quite angry, even though the prankster isn't doing anything to hurt them. In one video, as a young woman tries to grab her cone by the ice cream, a McDonald's employee pulls the cone away from her and says, "I don't know what you think you're doing, but I could actually mush this in your face." He's obviously quite mad at her attempt to violate the unwritten social rule of how to properly take ice cream cones. (via scribbal.com)

Posted: Thu Sep 22, 2011.   Comments (7)

Sussex Zebras — zebra donkeyUnidentified pranksters broke into the Sussex Horse Rescue Trust in Uckfield, East Sussex and transformed "Ant" the donkey into a zebra by spray-painting stripes on him (express.co.uk). Ant wasn't hurt in any way, though the spray paint reportedly had a strong, unpleasant smell. The RSPCA condemned the prank: "It's shocking people would think it was funny to spray-paint a donkey in this way. We take reports of animals being painted very seriously." This prank immediately reminded me of the tradition of Tijuana Zebras, which I last posted about back in 2006. I noted then that the Tijuana tradition of painting donkeys to look like zebras was dying out, but perhaps it's reemerging in Sussex.
Posted: Thu Sep 22, 2011.   Comments (2)

The Script Kiddies Strike Again — There's a long history of hoaxers finding ways to slip fake stories into newspapers. Back in 1864 Joseph Howard tried to manipulate the New York stock market by sending fake Associated Press telegrams to newspaper offices. The telegrams claimed Lincoln had decided to conscript an extra 400,000 men into the Union army. Several papers printed the fake news. The stock market panicked, because the news suggested the Civil War was going to drag on for a lot longer, and Howard (who had invested heavily in gold) made a nice profit.

During the 1870s and 1880s, Joseph Mulhattan (a very odd character) made a kind of career out of tricking newspapers into printing fake stories. One of his more notorious hoaxes was when he fooled papers into reporting that a giant meteor had fallen in Texas. And on April Fool's Day 1915, a worker in the printing press of the Boston Globe surreptitiously made a minor alteration to the front page of the paper, lowering its price from Two Cents per Copy to One cent.

Technology changes, but the hoaxes remain much the same. And so yesterday a group of pranksters calling themselves The Script Kiddies (or TH3 5CR1PT K1DD3S) managed to hack into the Twitter feed of NBC News and posted a series of fake newsflashes. The first of these announced: "Breaking News! Ground Zero has just been attacked. Flight 5736 has crashed into the site, suspected hijacking. more as the story develops."

Obviously NBC News didn't much appreciate this. Their Twitter account was soon taken offline and the fake messages deleted.

The Script Kiddies perpetrated a similar stunt back in July when they hacked into the Twitter account of Fox News and posted tweets claiming President Obama was dead.

According to an interview they conducted with Think magazine, The Script Kiddies see themselves as anti-corporate activists, and they intend their pranks to embarrass and annoy the corporations they target.
Posted: Mon Sep 12, 2011.   Comments (1)

The Secret Meaning of Hanging Shoes and Hats — Here's an example of how people can interpret what is basically the same phenomenon in very different ways. Yesterday, kcautv.com (Sioux City, IA) reported that the Sioux City police were concerned about shoes hanging from power lines, noting that far from being just a harmless prank, the dangling shoes have a sinister meaning. They "give the alert that there is drug activity here. That you can find your drug needs at this location or in this area." (I've blogged about Secret Powerline Codes before).

However, over in Olney, Illinois (home of the white squirrels) a couple woke to find 31 hats hanging from a tree in their front yard. Instead of worrying that the hats had a sinister meaning, they concluded their presence there was just "good, clean fun." In fact, they decided their sons must have put the hats in the tree as a roundabout way of saying "Hats off to you, Mom and Dad," or "We'll always have a place to hang our hats."

The parents don't seem to have considered the possibility that the hats mean, "We're selling drugs here, Mom and Dad!"
Posted: Thu Sep 08, 2011.   Comments (6)

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