The First April Fools’ Gag Was In 1698 And Used Lions

By Debra Kelly on Tuesday, April 1, 2014
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“As we all know, the most effective lies are the ones sprinkled with the most actual truths.” —Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism

In A Nutshell

The oldest recorded April Fools’ Day prank is also one of the longest running. Unsuspecting targets are sent to the Tower of London where they’re told they are going to be privy to one of the Tower’s annual ceremonies: the washing of the lions. The tower was, of course, once home to some lions—among other wild animals—but they’re long gone. Unfortunately, not all of the prank victims are good sports about the joke.

The Whole Bushel

If you’ve ever been massively taken in by an April Fools’ Day prank, don’t feel bad—you’re not alone. People have been falling for the same April Fools’ Day prank in London for centuries.

The prank involves an exciting honor, an invitation to go see an annual event at the Tower of London: the washing of the lions.

It’s not just one that’s sent countless people on something of a wild goose chase across London to try to find someone at the Tower who knew just what the heck they were talking about, but it’s one that’s been played for years and years. Dawks’s News-Letter reported that several people were sent to the Tower to see the annual washing of the lions on April 1, 1698, in what’s thought to be the earliest recorded reference to an April Fools’ Day prank.

Apparently, it was such a hit that people kept doing it, sometimes going to elaborate lengths. In 1848, 1856, and 1861, invitations were designed and handed out to those lucky, lucky people who were deemed worthy enough to view all of the regal tradition of the Annual Ceremony of the Washing of the Lions. An 1856 invitation is still at the tower in their archives, complete with a red wax seal and the signature of the so-called senior warden, Herbert de Grassen.

According to memoirs of one of the prank organizers, Gustave Louis Maurice Strauss, their 1848 attempt resulted in so many people showing up to see the lions being washed that the guards at the tower had been on the brink of calling for backup from members of the city’s military garrisons to control the throngs of people, so irate to find that there would be no washing of the lions.

Like all of the best pranks, this one’s rooted in just enough truth to make people believe it. The Tower of London did once house a massive menagerie. Most of the animals were gifts from other rulers; Emperor Frederick II gave King Henry III a trio of lions for the menagerie, and a Norwegian king gave him a polar bear that was allowed to go swimming and fishing in the Thames (on a leash, of course). Elephants came to the Tower of London from the French.

And the animals at the menagerie weren’t just for viewing, like boring old zoos today. In 1686, a woman was mauled to death while petting a lion, and there was once a zebra there that was notorious for mugging people for a drink of their ale. Sadly, the tower room that had been furnished for some monkeys were people could go and visit was dismantled when a boy had his leg torn off.

It was a long tradition that began in the 13th century and only ended in 1832, when the Duke of Wellington finally realized that there was some danger to the public happening there, and ordered the remaining animals moved to the London Zoo.

Of course, that didn’t stop the merry pranksters. They just started sending people to the zoo instead of to the Tower of London.

Show Me The Proof

Historical Royal Palaces: Tower of London—Royal Beasts
The Guardian: Who was invited to the annual washing of the lions at the Tower of London?
Museum of Hoaxes: Washing the Lions