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April Fools' Day pranks that ended in death

A hooded figure wearing a white mask
Image: Unsplash Images

It’s thought that the concept of April Fools’ Day comes from 16th century France. In 1582, France switched calendars, going from the old Julian calendar of the Roman era to the one used across large swathes of the world now, the Gregorian calendar. Folk that were slow on the uptake would continue to celebrate New Year on the old New Year’s Day which was, you’ve got it, April 1st. Those Frenchmen popping champagne corks and pulling party poppers in April were soon roundly mocked. From there, the tradition - many historians believe - began.

Over the years there have been some pretty memorable tricks pulled on people on the 91st day of the year. Burger King announced a left-handed Whopper, BBC News ran with the Swiss spaghetti crop failure, ‘Richard Nixon’ even announced he was running for POTUS again back in 1992. All harmless hoaxes.

But not all April Fools’ pranks are innocuous. Some tricks are so downright dangerous in their design that they’ve led to death. We’re talking about serious criminal negligence here. So be careful if you’re planning something. You don’t want to end up killing someone like this lot did…

The ‘poison your mate to death’ prank

In December 2015, a graduate student at the Shanghai Medical College of Fudan University was executed by the state for murder. Lin Senhao had poisoned his uni roommate Huang Yang with a chemical called N-nitrosodimethylamine. Senhao spiked his victim's drink with the hepatotoxic NDMA on April 1st 2013.

Yang died of multiple organ failure after a lethal dose was secretly poured into the water dispenser that Huang regularly drank from.

Lin Senhao was adamant that it was an April Fools’ stunt gone awry. He claimed he had caught word that Huang and his pals were planning a series of April 1st pranks and wanted to get in there before them. He said that he had only meant to dispense enough to make Huang's stomach upset and had merely got his measures wrong. Prosecutors, of course, claimed that the act was deliberate. The judge and jury agreed with them.

Scared stiff

On April the 1st 1896, a newly-married Tennessee man decided to pull some shenanigans on his new bride. It was to backfire in the most spectacularly tragic way imaginable.

Nashville farmer John Ahrens fancied himself as a bit of a jester and figured his wife would surely see the funny side of his dress-up prank. She may well have done, once she got over the fright. Trouble is, she never got over it.

Ahrens dressed in his shabbiest clothes, donned a creepy white mask and knocked on his own front door in the middle of the day. When his wife cagily opened the door he shouted at her, “I’m homeless, let me come in! Cook me a meal!”

She immediately fainted and later died in hospital. Doctors put it down to ‘fright’.

In 1875 New York City, customs house official HH Brown was something of a well-known and well-liked figure. He was quite wealthy and enjoyed a relatively lavish lifestyle with his family. All that would collapse in on itself on the first day of April 1875.

Brown returned home from work that day to find that his son was not at home as he would usually be. He went looking for him and soon found him in the barn. The 13-year-old was dead. It later transpired that the teenager was attempting to appear as if he had hanged himself as a ruse to trick his friends and siblings. In doing so, he had managed to accidentally kill himself.

The doctor will stab you now

Kaufman, Texas. In April of 1886, local joker Tom Rogers thought it’d be a lark to get one over on the local doctor. Local joker Tom Rogers was wrong.

It’s not hugely funny, but Rogers’ big April Fools’ gag was to send the town’s MD Dr Mosley out on a ghost job. Leaving a message with the doctor to attend ‘an emergency call’ some three miles out of town, Rogers sat back and waited for the ‘hilarity’ to ensue. It never came. What came instead was a brutal knife attack.

Enraged by the waste of his time - and clearly no fan of practical jokes - the doctor returned from his wasted trip an angry man. Ignoring his Hippocratic Oath to ‘do no harm’, Dr Mosley repeatedly stabbed Rogers in the face, head and neck until he was dead.

We’ll end on a lighter note… war. Well, technically there wasn’t a war after this prank, but there very nearly was. Still, no one died, at least. So it seems a slightly cheerier way to end our round-up.

Israeli intelligence services aren’t exactly known for their japesters. Understandably so too. Relations with neighbouring Muslim countries are notoriously rather fraught, to say the least.

An Israeli spook was sentenced to prison in 1986 after he contacted a radio station with a hoax story about gunmen attempting to assassinate Lebanese Shia Muslim leader and member of the Lebanese Cabinet Nabih Berri. It's the sort of story that would very likely lead to retaliation from Lebanon or, at least, rogue factions within the country. Where the intelligence officer saw the humour there is anyone's guess.

Unsurprisingly, no one else found it amusing and the man was sentenced to 35 days in jail by decree of the red-faced Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had believed and publicly announced the fake shooting.

It seems that intelligence isn’t always intelligent.

Maybe learn your lesson from the poor unfortunates here and steer clear of pranks, hoaxes and practical jokes this April Fools’ Day, eh?