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The Irishman who was the Greatest Prankster of the Early 20th Century

Samantha Flaum

Some people think that being a class clown is only something in ‘80s and ‘90s coming-of-age movies and that pranks are stunts pulled in the name of art or politics. Humor, however, wasn’t invented in the 20th century. Without the internet and television, people back in the day sometimes had to resort to pretty creative ways to pass the time. The same type of jokesters we get kicks out of today were known to our ancestors just the same.

Horace de Vere Cole was an Irishman born in County Cork, Ireland in 1881. He came from a well-to-do family and attended the prestigious Eton College and eventually Cambridge, though he never graduated from the latter. He served in the army during the Second Boer war, during which he was wounded.

Horace de Vere Cole in 1910

Horace de Vere Cole in 1910

Despite this respectable résumé, Cole had a penchant for pranks. His physical appearance allowed him to be mistaken for the prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, so he would often go off on long, politically-charged and controversial tirades in public, setting the bureaucratic world abuzz with scandal.

During his time at Cambridge, he once pretended to be an uncle of the Sultan of Zanzibar making an official visit to the university. It was credible because the actual uncle had traveled to England. According to the St. James Gazette, the Mayor of Cambridge received a telegram from Cole reading: “The Sultan of Zanzibar will arrive today at Cambridge at 4.27 for a short visit. Could you arrange to show him buildings of interest and send carriage? – Henry Lucas, Hotel Cecil, London.”

The Dreadnought Hoaxers in Abyssinian regalia

The Dreadnought Hoaxers in Abyssinian regalia

The convoy — dressed in robes, turbans, and heavy makeup — was given a tour of the university by the mayor and a town clerk, returning to the train station to apparently make their trip back to London but actually sneaking out a side exit and going back into town. Friends they had passed on campus didn’t recognize the imposters for who they truly were, and the Daily Mail printed an interview with Cole about the hoax the next day. The students involved just barely escaped expulsion.

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In 1910, with another group of indulgent friends which included famous author Virginia Woolf, Cole succeeded in tricking the captain of the HMS Dreadnought — a state-of-the-art battleship with an exemplary crew — that he and his compatriots were a delegation on official business from Zanzibar. The fake Abyssinians spoke a mix of Greek and Latin gibberish, exclaiming “Bunga Bunga” for delight.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

During their tour of the ship, they gave officers military honors (which were obviously fake). After it came out that it was all a hoax, Cole couldn’t be charged with anything as he hadn’t broken any laws. The most childish perhaps, of all his pranks, was in a prestigious theater in London’s West End. According to Ben le Vay’s Eccentric Cambridge, Cole bought eight seats in a row, right in front, for a highly-praised play.

He gave the tickets to eight bald men, on whose heads painted letters read the obscenity “bollocks,” setting audience members behind and above them laughing hysterically, all to the confusion of the play’s cast. Cole’s personal life seems to have suffered from his pranks, however. His first marriage ended in divorce — not because he spent April Fools Day on their honeymoon spreading horse droppings around Venice, but because of an investment failure that left him bankrupt — and his second wife bore the child of his friend during her marriage to Cole.

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With his advancing age came advancing problems and Cole began to lose his hearing. According to the New York Times, “[t]he ordinarily restrained Dictionary of National Biography reports that Cole’s ‘advanced deafness prevented him from realizing that his carefully timed coughing was inadequate to cover his explosive breaking of wind.’”

Or maybe he knew just what he was doing, and continued to have a good laugh.