Whatever else is in your family history, you can count on this: Your great -great (-great?) -grandpa probably was a wild little terrorist.
Several articles have appeared here earlier describing the bedlam of Hallowe’en in the years around 1900-1910, as boys prowled the streets in search of opportunities to inflict damage. Most common was removing front yard gates (sawing them off, if necessary) and hiding them some distance away. Other popular vandalisms included throwing paint on buildings, trampling gardens and dismantling a wagon or buggy. One year the Santa Rosa Republican suggested “parental floggings” and Petaluma had “special officers in plain clothes and bicycle police” on patrol. Still, it was worse in other places and some newspapers took to printing tallies of Hallowe’en deaths, which were usually caused by pranksters being shot as prowlers.
Hallowe’en tricks like gate stealing began appearing in the papers in the mid 1890s, but before that Hallowe’en hooliganism was rare; Oct. 31 was all about parties, costumed or not, and there was often dancing as most of these soirées were for young adults. Kids apparently kept to themselves after dark, whispering frightful stories about haunted places and divining their futures with Hallowe’en charms. (“…if you swallow a thimbleful of salt repeat a verse of poetry and go backward into bed, you will see your fate.” – Petaluma Courier, Oct. 29, 1884.)
But these kids in late Victorian America weren’t any better behaved than the ones who followed – they were probably worse. The only difference was that they conducted their mayhem on April Fool’s Day instead.
|San Francisco Call, April 2, 1900|
The worst was probably on April 1 in 1897, when about twenty boys ransacked Santa Rosa High School, trashing furniture and lab equipment. They were caught only because they were stupid enough to ring the school bell, drawing the attention of police.
The Petaluma Argus wrote in 1884 that “a mob of young hoodlums” with boys as young as eight were roaming the streets, ripping off front gates, trampling flowers and terrifying residents with tic-tac noisemakers (a homemade gizmo described in depth in one of the earlier Hallowe’en items). The town was being held under siege by its own children: “…A house cannot be left vacant for a short time without having number of windows broken out by boys, and during the fruit season trees are broken and fruit destroyed through pure deviltry.”
In the same issue Carrie Carlton, the Sonoma Democrat’s correspondent in Petaluma, wrote that April 2 was “the day that the Petaluma small boy feels the bad effects of late hours, having sat up until midnight or thereabouts trying to accomplish the big job of unhinging all the gates in town and piling them up promiscuously where least likely to be found; the day that lone women may be seen walking forlornly through the streets looking for that which is lost and cannot be found…”
Most of the April Fool jokes popular back then are still familiar. The victim is tricked into eating soap/something else that tastes foul (or inhaling something that causes a sneeze). A prank letter lures victims into an embarrassing comedy of errors. Coins are glued to sidewalks, or a dollar bill is tied to a string. A load of manure is ordered to be delivered to the victim’s home. A pat on the back means the victim now wears a sign reading, “kick me” (or worse). There is a frightening surprise – an exploding cigar, a mouse in the sugar bowl.
Some of the old tricks are long out of fashion. A passerby is asked to help by picking up a package, unaware that the box is attached to a fire hydrant or other immoveable object. As it was apparently the habit back then to kick hats lying on the sidewalk, jokesters put bricks underneath. And in the horse and buggy days it was considered funny to con a victim into running a time-wasting errand. The latter probably faded in popularity after it was widely reported in 1886 that a guy named Tom Rogers sent a message to the doctor in Kaufman, Texas concerning a woman gravely ill three miles out in the country. The doctor made the trip and discovered he hadn’t been called. Boiling with rage over the stupid prank, he returned to town and viciously stabbed Rogers to death.
April Fool’s Day wasn’t limited to kids, although the age cutoff for gate theft and noisemaking seemed to be about 18. Most famous among the local grownup pranksters was “Doc” Cozad, who once phoned lots of men and told them to don their best suit and rush to the Press Democrat office because the paper wanted photos of prominent citizens. (For April Fool’s Day in 1907 the tables were turned when some of Santa Rosa’s movers-and-shakers surprised him with a perfectly choreographed prank).
What’s surprising is how often adults seemed to attempt actual crimes only to claim, “April Fool!” when caught, like the fellow in Philadelphia who was interrupted during an armed robbery and claimed he was just kidding. On April 1, 1876, a man went to the Santa Rosa Bank to deposit a roll of $20 silver coins in a wrapper from the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa. When the roll was weighed it was found to be slightly lighter than expected, so it was unwrapped and revealed to be simply an iron bar. “Serious results might have followed this very trick,” commented the Sonoma Democrat. In 1910 two autos in Santa Rosa were stolen and driven away for joy rides. Although the cars weren’t returned until one of them got stuck on a country road and had to be towed back to town, “a visit to the police station was threatened, but nothing came of it,” according to the Press Democrat. Try any of those stunts today and see if the “hey, it was just April Fool!” excuse still works.
Hallowe’en and April Fool’s Day switched places as the most riotous children’s holidays near the turn of the century, and April 1 mostly settled down to being more of an excuse for a party or dance – although I’ll bet guests sometimes eyed the refreshments suspiciously, wondering if the eclairs might actually be filled with soap. Aside from ads for such get-togethers, the newspapers most often declared the day passed without incident except for “usual” April Fool pranks.
Likely the last truly original trick happened in 1932 when an Argus-Courier staff writer received an important call. He dutifully took notes and at the appointed time, used a handkerchief to cover his desk telephone and sat back, patiently waiting for the phone company to blow all the dust out of the line.
|San Francisco Call, April 2, 1901|
April Fool. —Everybody was on the look-out on Saturday last, April fool’s day, to victimize any person or persons that came within their jurisdiction. Several very good jokes were perpetrated, the best one of which was the sending of a number of parties to the stable of James P. Clark to see a certain blooded animal which bad been lately imported here. Jim showed the “thoroughbred” to all who applied, and the joke was fully appreciated.– Sonoma Democrat, April 8 1871An April Fool Joke.
All Fools’ Day came as usual and was numbered in the past. Many pranks were played on unsuspecting individuals and which were innocent in their character, but one person whose name has not yet been called to mind, thought to take advantage of an innocent custom and turn an honest penny at the time of creating merriment by the joke. So the said unknown individual procured a bar of iron of the dimensions of a twenty-dollar silver roll and wrapped the same carefully and neatly up in a paper having the card of the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa upon it, and passed it in to the cashier of that institution, who in turn passed it to Mr. Prindle and he to Mr. Gray, and he to Mr. Hopper. Mr. Hopper took it to the Santa Rosa Bank to deposit it when it was placed upon the scales and found to be some two or three dollars light. Then Mr. Hopper unrolled the paper and the bar of iron was exposed to open day, and Hopper was hopping mad. Mr. Gray returned it to the Savings Bank, and there the joke ended. This is carrying a joke rather beyond the limits, and serious results might have followed this very trick.– Sonoma Democrat, April 8 1876
About one o’clock Sunday morning the fire bell commenced ringing, causing the few people who were awake at that hour to hurry out in the streets in order to ascertain where the fire was. The bell had only rung a few times, however, when it suddenly ceased, and a conviction slowly dawned upon the minds of the alarmed ones that they had been sold. “April fool!”– Sonoma Democrat, April 7 1883Carrie Carlton’s Letter. Petaluma, April 1st.
The day that the Petaluma small boy feels the bad effects of late hours, having sat up until midnight or thereabouts trying to accomplish the big job of unhinging all the gates in town and piling them up promiscuously where least likely to be found; the day that lone women may be seen walking forlornly through the streets looking for that which is lost and cannot be found; the day that the principal of our public schools generally gets the biggest dose of April Fool! And just here we are reminded by the presentation of another of those ominous little notes that have been fluttering down upon us all the morning, that it is the day in which you are immensely fooled as to the amount of money you owe people…– Sonoma Democrat, April 5 1884Malicious Mischief.
It has been the habit for several years past, in this city, on the eve of April 1st for a mob of young hoodlums to parade through the principal residence streets and commit misdemeanors that should not be allowed to go unpunished. On Monday evening last a large number of boys, ranging from eight years up to eighteen, were out until a late hour taking gates from their hinges and carrying them several blocks from where they belonged. They also rang door bells, played tic-tac and similar tricks. There is nothing funny or smart in any of these April fool jokes and this sort of nonsense has been allowed to go unpunished so long that the boys pay no regard to personal rights or property of others. No one objects to boys having all the fun they want so long as they confine themselves to harmless sports, but when a band of young hoodlums go around unhinging gates, tramping through flower gardens and indulging in like malicious mischief it is time that they be stopped. There is certainly a law against this sort of mischief and it should be enforced. It would be a very salutary lesson if a few of the boys engaged in this business were arrested and fined. If parents will allow their children to run around at night and indulge in all sorts of mischief unrebuked, it would be fitting for the City Marshal to attend to that branch of precocious youths’ educations. A house cannot be left vacant for a short time without having number of windows broken out by boys, and during the fruit season trees are broken and fruit destroyed through pure deviltry. It is a poor protection to persons trying to beautify their premises to allow every small boy in town to steal gates and carry them away and tramp among the flowers like a wild animal. There was once an ordinance in this city compelling boys under eighteen years of age to keep off of the street after eight o’clock, evening, but it must have been repealed as the boys are out in full force every night long after that hour.– Petaluma Weekly Argus, April 5, 1884
“April fool’s” day was an inglorious one for many. It was from morning till night that people could be seen doing decoy errands or carrying attractive placards on their backs. These idiotic jokes might have provoked a little fun in the days of the royal jester, but in this age of civilization it is amazing how many unhung sots there are who made themselves conspicuous figures on the first of the month by their silly, chestnutty and daft perpetrations.– Healdsburg Tribune, April 4 1895SOME WERE WISE OTHERS FOOLISHSOME APRIL FOOL JOKES HAVE BEEN PERPETRATED ON THE UNWARYMany Citizens Saw to it That Their Front Gates Were Moved to a Place of Safety
On Thursday evening many citizens mindful of the coming of the April fool joker removed the front gates leading into their yards to a place of safety until the time when the old time declaration, “April Fool’s Day is past,” etc., should arrive and the danger of molestation should have passed. Others forgot the advent of the joker and in consequence they may find their gate in somebody elses back yard.
Early Thursday evening some jokers must have been at work in the vicinity of the High School building, judging from the appearance of a buggy on the porch over the basement entrance to the building. No one seemed to know how it got there.
A well known citizen on Humboldt street chancing to go into his yard for a moonlight stroll discovered that had unawares become a florist. On the front lawn a sign had been reared bearing the legend, “Pansies for Sale.”
At Fifth and Humboldt streets some one found a chair suspended from a pole.
On Humboldt one of the street cars left outside the barn was propelled by hand power at a quicker clip down the track that the equine strength usually forming the motive power could have done.
A great many people and the officers on the outside beats kept on the lookout for the enacting of jokes which partook of too serious an aspect. It is reasonable to suggest that after the first few moments after the discovery of a missing gate or what not, the discomfiture of feelings will give way to the realization that “boys will be boys.”– Press Democrat, April 1 1904
The usual trick April fool packages decorated the sidewalks in the business streets on Thursday and quite a number of local people “bit.” The brick in the hat was also very much in evidence.– Petaluma Argus-Courier, April 1, 1909
A well known local man ate some soap on Monday under the impression it was candy. Another man tried in vain to talk through the telephone which had been doctored up so that he could not get central. Numerous other pranks were played.– Petaluma Argus-Courier, April 1, 1909APRIL FOOL JOKE TURNS ON JOKER
Some time last night two automobiles were found to be missing by their respective owners. A hunt was made for the machines. It transpired that after all the supposed theft was an April fool joke. Two jubilant youths took the cars for the joke of the thing, invited friends to accompany them and drive out into the country. The joke was turned on one of them, at least. His machine “got stuck” out on the Sonoma road, and a telephone message had to be sent to town for some one to come out and haul the car in. At first a visit to the police station was threatened, but nothing came of it.– Press Democrat, April 2 1910POLICE HAVE ORDERS TO ARREST DISTURBERS
Chief of Police Boyes has issued orders to his officers to see that the law is strictly obeyed in regards to the interference of private property particularly on April Fool’s eve. The practice of past years in removing gates, etc., will not be tolerated and the police department wish the public to take heed to this warning as it will he strictly enforced. A great many complaints have been received regarding this practice and the officers are going to put a stop to it.– Press Democrat, March 30 1917