Class Clowns

April 4, 2017 What is history's greatest prank? There's the intimate—perching a bucket of water over the door. And the grandly ambitious—say, humiliating an entire navy. These are some good pranks indeed. But history's greatest prank was something much stranger... and much darker.

Read a full transcript of this episode on the Something True website.

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Music on this week’s episode:
Jahzzar – Roads that Burned our Boots
Jahzzar – Railroad’s Whiskey Co
Josh Woodward – Water in the Creek
Alialujah Choir – After All
Abunai! – Dreaming of Light
Josh Woodward – Crazy Glue
(All tracks have been modified for the podcast)

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The prank. For years, the world has had a love affair with the prank. Everybody, from children to the ancient, appreciates a good-natured laugh at the expense of another. Wikipedia defines a ‘prank’ as ‘redirecting to “practical joke”’, but we know them by many names: a trick, a jape, a high-jink, a put-on.

There have been countless pranks played in the history of human civilisation, but how many of those could honestly be claimed to be Great? Pranks so daring, so humorous, that they render all other pranks ever pulled about as funny as a rat relieving itself on the graves of our city fathers.

You’re listening to Something True – stories from the footnotes of history. Written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Ashby. This week’s episode: Class Clowns.

When you think of modern pranksters, one of the first names that comes to mind must surely be George Clooney, who loves to humiliate his fellow actors. On the set of Ocean’s Eleven, for example, Clooney put a bucket of water over the doorway of his co-star Julia Roberts’s hotel room, which accidentally soaked a hotel bellman instead, who had to laugh, and say, ‘This is good, I like this.’

Clooney, however, is far from the only celebrity prankster. Nearly a century earlier, the author Virginia Woolf once teamed up with her brother Adrian to play a practical joke so outlandish, it became headline news. Adrian Stephen was a student at Cambridge and, like his sister, belonged to the Bloomsbury Group, a highly influential literary society. Adrian loved to deceive others with a fervour Clooney could never hope to match. In the early 1900s, he pitched an extremely ambitious prank: taking control of a German army battalion and making them march across the border into France, sparking international outrage and delight. His idea was unfortunately shot down, presumably on the grounds that people would find it too funny.

But in February 1910, Adrian, Virginia and four of their Bloomsbury friends went ahead with something almost as good: A prank on the Royal Navy. The Navy’s prize flagship, the HMS Dreadnought, was moored in Dorset, and the gang sent a telegraph informing them to expect an official visit from six princes of Abyssinia. And the Navy bought it. So, Virginia, and the rest, got into costume, donning turbans, fake beards, and vast, vast amounts of blackface.

They were received upon the Dreadnought with royal honours, and given a tour, in which they pointed at things, spouting off gibberish like ‘Bunga Bunga’, barely able to contain themselves. When the story finally came out, the Royal Navy’s face was as red as Virginia Woolf’s was black. They demanded that Cambridge punish the pranksters, which they did, arranging for the boys to each receive a light spank with a cane upon their bare bottoms. Virginia managed to escape that fate, and would brag about ‘the Dreadnought hoax’ for years; even publishing a book boasting of their great adventure. But in the end, the joke was on her as the book was a financial failure.

Of course, Virginia Woolf did this before she was famous, when she was a younger woman. Elaborate pranks are generally the domain of the young and immature—except for George Clooney, of course, who is in his late 70s—and in some colleges, pranking is almost an institution. Take, for example, the history of Harvard University’s student magazine, the Harvard Lampoon.

In 1933, the Lampoon’s staff hatched a plan to steal the Sacred Cod, a huge wooden fish that still hangs in the chamber of the Massachusetts State House of Representatives. The Lampoon knew that their scholastic rivals, the blue-blooded snobs who ran Harvard’s serious student magazine, the Harvard Crimson, would foil their plans if they had the chance. So, the Lampoon played the very, very funny joke of abducting a Crimson editor. This was, of course, merely a distraction. While the Crimson staff was scared out of their minds searching the city for their missing friend, the Lampoon staffers booked it over to the Massachusetts State House, and, wouldn’t you know it, they got that cod, eventually returning it, if only to provide further opportunities to later steal it again.

The feud between the Lampoon and the Crimson generated constant amusement on the Harvard campus. The Lampoon had a cod-like trophy of its own: a big copper ibis, which they displayed proudly. As you might imagine, this was an obvious target for the folks at the Crimson, and they stole it repeatedly. On the occasion of one such theft, in 1941, the Lampoon retaliated in the classic Harvard Lampoon manner: they kidnapped five Crimson editors, bound and gagged them, beat them with copies of their own magazine, and held them hostage until the ibis was returned.

That sort of thing went on all the time at Harvard—theft, beatings, kidnapping, but all in good humour. The Dean just had to laugh, and say, ‘This is good. I enjoy that this is happening at my school.’

These were all good pranks, but not great. The story of the Great Prank begins in the nineteenth century, on the island of Nantucket, in the state of Massachusetts. The primary economy at that time was the whaling trade, and thousands of prospective sailors flocked to the island to try and get a berth on one of the many hunting vessels. That was a major commitment: ships traditionally sailed for two and a half years. The missions were hazardous, and sometimes returned completely empty-handed.

These were grim and serious men, in a profession both physically demanding and often unrewarding. They had little opportunity to laugh, but they might have been in need of it more than anybody.

Enter Thomas Chappel.

In 1819, Chappel gained a spot on a ship called the Essex, his job being to head up a small whaleboat that would pursue whales once sighted. He was from England, and his shipmates on the Essex remembered him as being ‘very wild, and fond of fun at whatever expense it might be produced.’ In contemporary terms, we’d call an Englishman like Chappel a lad who enjoyed a cheeky bit of banter, maybe even a football hooligan, or as they prefer to be called in England, a soccer dick.

The Essex left Nantucket in August 1819, for a two and a half year hunting trip off the west coast of South America. There are great romantic notions of whaling, of long voyages, and the thrill of the chase, but the work was also very boring, and extremely hard. It must have been hell on a man like Chappel, an enjoyer of humour and fun. He just didn’t have time to pull any pranks when he was so busy.

But the voyage was even tougher on the Essex’s captain, George Pollard. When the Essex arrived at her South American destination after about a year of sailing, they found the area almost entirely fished out.

Morale was low—and a habitual jokester might have chosen this moment to raise the crew’s spirits with a roaring good prank. But Chappel was in a league of his own, and held off for now, because he knew that the essence of any good joke was, of course, timing.

Captain Pollard, meanwhile, had no intention of returning to Nantucket a failure. So instead, he ordered a course be set for the South Pacific, where there was rumoured to be great whales, just fantastic, great, big, fucking whales. But since it would be a longer journey than they’d planned for, the Essex would have to restock first.

On October 22, 1820, the crew anchored at Charles Island, in the Galapagos, and they spent the day in the hot sun, rounding up hundreds of giant, edible tortoises, strapping them to their backs, and carrying them to the ship. Some of the men were so thirsty that they cut the tortoises’ heads off and immediately drank the blood that spurted from their necks. It was a grisly sight. And it was here that Thomas Chappel decided the time had come for a practical joke.

‘Ooh, you know what’d be a laugh?’ he said to himself, ‘If I went onto the island and just set it on fire.’

His sides sore from holding in laughter, Chappel snuck away from the other sailors, still out hunting. He got out a tinderbox he had a smuggled ashore with him.

‘They are gonna properly piss themselves at this,’ he chuckled, and set the underbrush alight. Looking back, we can probably say that Chappel only meant to start what pranksters call a mild fire. He probably didn’t consider that it was the dry season, and that the island was nothing but vegetation. Chappel’s fire promptly grew to an inferno covering everything in sight. The sailors on shore were quickly enclosed by walls of flame, and had no choice but to run through the blaze to get back to the Essex. The Galapagos tortoises of Charles Island were not so lucky. In hours, they became extinct, along with an entire population of birds.

Back aboard the Essex, Captain Pollard exploded, figuratively speaking.

‘What the hell were you thinking? Setting things on fire, do you think that’s funny, is that a joke to you? Maybe I should set you on fire, and then we’ll see how funny it is after that—hm? Look around you! These are your colleagues, OK? Not your mates from down the pub! You’re expected to work with them; to treat them with respect! I don’t care if you “think they’ll find it funny”! You cannot act like the obligation is on somebody else to find you amusing! Nothing gives you that right, and I expected so much better of you! I mean, Jesus Christ!’

Chappel kept his mouth shut, figuring that some people just can’t take a joke, and the Essex set sail the following morning, while the fire still raged.

About a month later, the ship was destroyed by a giant sperm whale in the South Pacific Ocean. The surviving sailors climbed into three small whaleboats and headed for land, about four thousand miles away. With most of their supplies destroyed, the sailors starved and drank urine as they counted down the days until cannibalism would become necessary.

When they found an uninhabited island, which they quickly ravaged for all its resources, Thomas Chappel decided he’d take his chances and remain behind with two other sailors while the rest of the Essex’s crew sailed on. Exploring the island, Chappel found no more food but did stumble upon two human skeletons lying entwined in a cave: a grave omen. Thinking back on the great whale that had attacked the Essex so suddenly, and delivered Chappel to this grim resting place, he had to respect the beast: because he knew a good prank when he saw one, and he, Thomas Chappel, the once great prankster, had been outdone.

That was Something True, a podcast on the Idle Thumbs network, written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Ashby, with artwork by Ray Chen. Music credits can be found in the description and on our website at Follow us on twitter @atruepodcast, and join us again for the next episode: Malpaso.