It's April Fools' Day which means that every story you read needs to be taken with a heaping dose of salt—but not this one, I swear.
The first recorded instance of a hoax was in London in 1698, according to The Museum of Hoaxes. People were tipped off about a heretofore unknown ceremony where the lion statues at the Tower of London were to be washed. For whatever reason, people showed up to see some ritualized statue cleaning and were, of course, fooled.
The history of April Fools' Day is a little murky—no one really knows when it started. Historians have nailed down that it's a folk holiday tied to spring, but that could be any number of festivals: the ancient Roman "Hilaria" and the Jewish holiday Purim, to name two, had or have aspects of mischief tied to them.
April Fools' Day could also be traced to the Catholic Church's decision in the 1500s to move the start of the calendar year to January, leaving those who kept celebrating at the end of March "fools." However, in 1983, a Boston University history professor pulled the wool over the eyes of the newspaper-reading public with an inadvertent prank that slipped by the fact-checkers and editors at The Associated Press.
It all started in the public relations department at BU. They called Joseph Boskin, a history professor, and asked if they could pitch him to media outlets as an expert on the history of April Fools' Day. He agreed, thinking it was funny and that no one would follow through with it. He probably hoped that no one did because he didn't have the faintest idea what the history of the holiday was. Later that week, while traveling to work on a book proposal, he was surprised to learn that Fred Bayles, a reporter from The Associated Press, wanted to talk to the April Fools' Day expert. From Boston University Today:
“I said, ‘I don’t know anything about the holiday, and I really can’t be of help to you,’” Boskin recalls. “The reporter said, ‘Don’t be so modest.’ When the reporter kept pushing, Boskin says, “I created a story.”
The first thing that came to his mind was a friend who liked the Jewish noodle pudding kugel, so Boskin came up with a story there on the spot about an ancient Roman jester named Kugel. According to "legend," a jester named Kugel told Emperor Constantine that he could run the empire more efficiently. Constantine allowed Kugel to rule for a day, and during his brief reign, King Kugel declared that each year from that day forward, there would be one day set aside to be ruled by wit, whimsy, and absurdity. Boskin was quoted by the AP, saying, “In a way, it was a very serious day. In those times fools were really wise men. It was the role of jesters to put things in perspective with humor.”
The Roman Empire was one of the earliest places that jesters appeared in history, so this story certainly wasn't implausible, but Boskin was sure he'd be called on his 300-level horse hockey:
“Since I was calling New York, where kugel is famous, and it was April Fools’ Day, I figured he would catch on,” Boskin laughs. “Instead, he asked how to spell kugel.” As he was telling the outlandish story, he kept expecting the reporter to wise up to what he was doing, but all he heard was the clatter of a typewriter on the other end of the phone.
The AP went with the story and Boskin was inundated with requests from other outlets like the Today show, but he decided to use the story in his Media and Social Change class instead. The story was funny, yes, but it was also an example of how the media can run with rumor and innuendo as fact. You have to question everything you hear. What Boskin didn't know is that the editor of the student newspaper was in the class and was just given a scoop. "Professor Fools AP" read the Daily Free Press' headline the next day.
The AP caught wind of this, but not until after the story was published, of course. They ran a correction and an editor called Boskin, fuming. The editor admonished him for ruining a young reporter's career by lying. But that was hardly the case. "‘A lie?’ I asked, ‘I was telling an April Fools’ Day story,’" Boskin told BU Today in 2009.
Boskin, in that same interview, said the AP always checks their stories and for some reason that time did not, saying, "It was their fault for not checking the story, and I embarrassed them. But I mean, really—kugel? What reporter from New York doesn’t know what that is?”
But things turned out pretty well for both men involved in this story. Boskin is currently a professor emeritus at BU and has written several books, including one about a uniquely American type of jester. Bayles' career was hardly ruined by the false story. He spent 20 years as a national correspondent for the AP and later USA Today covering two presidential elections and four Olympic games. He's currently an associate professor of journalism. At Boston University.
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org