March 31, 2011, 8:30 PM
Fools of a Long-Ago AprilBy ADAM GOODHEART
Philadelphia, April 1, 1861
In that pre-Civil War season of strange reports, dubious dispatches and false rumors, the news that day was even odder than usual throughout much of America. The august precincts of the Philadelphia stock exchange, for instance, were rocked with the startling announcement that Secretary of State William H. Seward — widely viewed as the leader in whose hands lay the future of the Union — had suddenly, inexplicably, resigned.
Amid the uncertainty that brokers already felt over the standoff at Fort Sumter and the possibility of impending war, this was the worst news imaginable. For a moment, the prices of securities and commodities teetered on the precipice of a sickening plunge. But then, according to the next day’s Philadelphia Inquirer, the prudent financiers appointed a special committee “to inquire into the truth of the announcement … Of course, the report of said committee was April 1st.” The distinguished gentlemen, in other words, had been pranked.
They were not alone. Throughout 19th-century America, April Fool’s Day — then more commonly known as All Fools Day — was an occasion for hoaxes, merriment and practical jokes. Even the rupture of the Union provided no respite; if anything, anxious citizens seem to have relished the opportunity to break the tension.
Elsewhere in Philadelphia that day, the newspaper reported, “many an antiquated trick was played off by the juveniles, as successfully as had been done in the days of their fathers, despite of the supposed increasing sharpness of each succeeding generation.” Many of these tricks were of the “made-you-look” variety. Some local youths spread rumors that a ship called the John Trucks, which had sunk two weeks earlier in the Delaware, was about to be raised from the riverbed by “a powerful machine.” Then they stationed themselves along a nearby wharf — lounging against the deck of a conveniently moored steamboat — to watch passers-by stop and peer curiously at the unruffled water. But the pranksters themselves ended up pranked. Some sailors had spread wet paint on the steamboat’s deck, and the boys came away freshly coated.
That day’s New York Herald, noting that “the First of April is the day of all others dedicated to the God of Mischief,” listed a catalogue of fool’s errands that were already old a century and a half ago — such as sending a friend to the bookstore to fetch “The Life of Adam’s Grandfather,” to the milkman’s for a pint of pigeon milk, or to the hardware store for a glass whetstone. Another old favorite — especially among children — was to leave a silver coin, a wallet or a tempting-looking bundle on the sidewalk, ready to be yanked away with a hidden string whenever a covetous passer-by stooped to pick it up.
Nor were these traditions limited to the North. In New Orleans the previous spring, doctors were urgently summoned to attend to nonexistent patients, firemen called to extinguish imaginary fires and tenderhearted folk roused from their beds before dawn to rescue friends from fictitious jails. A newspaper editor was tricked into paying freight charges for a large champagne basket sent C.O.D. — only to discover, when he hastened thirstily to open it, that it contained a dead cat.
As to the origin of the holiday, even as early as 1861 it was wreathed in the mists of an indeterminate past — “much debated, doubted, but never clearly defined,” as one writer put it. Classicists traced its roots to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, while Christian biblical scholars connected it with the Jews’ supposed mockery of Christ. (Meanwhile, according to a newspaper, “one learned rabbi dated its institutions as far back as the Deluge, or twenty-four hundred years before the Christian era.”)
Over the years to come, Union and Confederate soldiers — many of them scarcely more than boys, after all — would carry April Fool’s traditions into many far-flung camps and bivouacs. “This is ‘all fools day’ and we have had great sport in camp with its practical Jokes,” one Alabaman wrote home in 1862. “Some of the boys early in the morning ran whooping into the bushes in rear or our camp and raised quite a crowd on the pretense that they were after a rabit [sic].”
“Yesterday was ‘All Fools’ day, and it was generally observed in the army,” a Pennsylvanian wrote the following spring. “Our camp was in a roar from sunrise till ‘tattoo’ with the cracking of practical jokes.” Even the company captain was not immune: his long-awaited appointment to a colonelcy arrived that day, purporting to come from the War Department — and it was not until after he had treated everyone to multiple rounds of celebratory drinks that his brother officers confessed to the forgery.
At times — amid the rumors and uncertainties of wartime — it would begin to seem as if the holiday had spread beyond the bounds of just one calendar day. “To judge by the various reports circulated, one would suppose it to be a perpetual first of April,” one Southerner wrote in 1862. “The [latest] canard is the capture of Jeff Davis.” In 1865, a New Yorker would refer to April 1 — just before Davis’ actual capture — as “the April Fool Day of the Rebel Confederacy.”
But in 1861, the holiday was — apart from the Seward prank in Philadelphia — still largely free of political overtones. One of the rare exceptions, however, was an editorial in the next morning’s issue of the New York Times. “The 1st of April in each year, is the day of all others by common usage consecrated to folly,” its author noted. “If there are more senseless acts committed within its twenty-four hours than on any other single day of the three hundred and sixty-five, it has a record not much better than James Buchanan’s.”
Sources: Philadelphia Inquirer, April 1 and 2, 1861; New York Herald, April 1, 1861; New Orleans Daily Delta, April 3, 1860; The Farmers’ Cabinet, April 19, 1861; Herbert Mitgang, “Civilians Under Arms: The Stars and Stripes, Civil War to Korea”; John Kent Folmar, ed., “From that Terrible Field: Civil War Letters of James M. Williams, Twenty-first Alabama Volunteers”; Oliver Willcox Norton, “Army Letters 1861-1865”; New York Herald, July 4, 1865; The New York Times, April 2, 1861.
Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.