How April Fool’s Day became our least funny holiday
April Fool’s Day was officially designated a U.S. holiday on October 18, 1920, the pet project of Republican Speaker of the House Frederick H. Gillett of Massachusetts.
Gillett, an inveterate practical joker who once gave William Howard Taft a hotfoot that caused Taft to take the Lord’s name in vain for the first time in his life, had been trying to get the April Fool’s Day legislation passed since the early 1890s only to see it vetoed by the President or blocked in Congress by a coalition of the pompous, the isolationists and the Bull Moose Party.
He finally succeeded due to the incapacity of President Woodrow Wilson, who had been partly paralyzed by a stroke. The seriousness of Wilson’s condition was hidden from the public. His wife, Edith, allowed no one to see him but his doctors, deciding on her own which matters of state should be brought to his attention.
Wilson, a man totally devoid of humor, had vetoed Gillett’s April Fool’s bill three years in a row, terming it “a frivolous waste of my precious time,” but now Gillett saw his opportunity. Disguising himself with a thick beard and an even thicker accent, he bluffed his way past Mrs. Wilson, claiming to be Professor Otto von Schmecklenberg, the foremost brain specialist of Europe. Once in the presidential bedroom, he found it child’s play to obtain a shaky signature from the befuddled Wilson.
The inappropriateness of playing a joke on a mentally and physically impaired person set the tone for the holiday. Funny Americans looked down upon it, leaving the observance to the crude and witless, who perpetrated primitive hoaxes, vulgar jests and offensive puns on their unsuspecting targets. Sometimes injury or even death resulted but the victims could not sue, due to a provision of the April Fool’s law that was later struck down by the Supreme Court in what legal scholars call “the Banana Peel Decision.”
Discussing that case, the great commentator H.L. Mencken wrote, “The so-called practical joke is the bane of civilized man and the delight of Boobus americanus who, lacking in genuine wit, hangs a pail of water over the door so as to chortle at the discomfort of a fellow creature. Expose him to the works of such great humorists as Mark Twain, Bill Nye or Petroleum V. Nasby and he can but scratch his prognathous visage in perplexity.”
Ironically, Frederick H. Gillett, the man who had made April Fool’s Day a national holiday, soured on the occasion in 1926, after a Democrat placed a thumbtack on his chair. The thumbtack was rusty and Gillett contracted a near-fatal case of tetanus. He never again played another practical joke.