by hook or by crook

Theodore Hook was an English author who launched a Sunday paper in 1820

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He was a famous practical joker who perpetrated a jest that disturbed and amused all England. This was the famous Berners Street hoax. Berners Street in 1810 was a quiet street, inhabited by well-to-do families and people of social importance. On the morning of November 26, soon after breakfast, a wagon-load of coals drew up before the door of Mrs. Tottingham, a widow living at No. 54. A van-load of furniture followed, then a hearse with a coffin, and a train of mourning coaches.

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Two fashionable physicians, a dentist, and an accoucheur drove up as near as they could to the door, wondering why so many lumbering vehicles blocked the way. Six men brought a chamber-organ; a brewer sent several barrels of ale; a grocer sent a cart-load of potatoes. Coachmakers, clock-makers, carpet manufacturers, confectioners, wig-makers, mantua-makers, opticians, and curiosity-dealers followed with samples of their wares.

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From all quarters trooped in coachmen, footmen, cooks, housemaids, and nursery-maids, in quest of situations. To crown all, dignitaries came in their carriages,—the Commander-in-Chief, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chief Justice, a Cabinet minister, a governor of the Bank of England, and the Lord Mayor.

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The latter—one among many who speedily recognized that all had been the victims of some gigantic hoax—drove to Marlborough Street police office, and stated that he had received a letter from a lady in Berners Street, to the effect that she was at death’s door, that she wished to make a deposition upon oath, and that she would deem it a great favor if his lordship would call upon her. The other dignitaries had been appealed to in a similar way.

London police women found here

Police-officers were despatched to maintain order in Berners Street. They found it choked up with vehicles, jammed and interlocked with one another. The drivers were infuriated and disappointed tradesmen were clamoring for vengeance. Some of the vans and goods were overturned and broken; a few barrels of ale had fallen prey to the large crowd that was maliciously enjoying the fun.

overturned car found here

All day and far into the night this state of things continued, meanwhile, the old lady and the inmates of adjoining houses were in abject terror. Every one soon saw that a hoax had been perpetrated, but Hook’s connection with it was not discovered till long afterwards. He had noticed the quietness of the neighborhood, and had laid a wager with a brother-wag, a certain Henry Higginson, who afterwards became a clergyman, that he would make Berners Street the talk of all London.

Charlotte Bronte’s dolls house found here

A door-plate had furnished him with Mrs. Tottingham’s name, and he had spent three days in writing the letters which brought the crowd to her door. At the appointed time he and Mr. Higginson had posted themselves in a lodging just opposite, which he had rented for the purpose of enjoying the scene. He deemed it expedient, however, to go off quickly into the country and there remain incognito for a time. Had he been publicly known as the author of the outrageous hoax, he might have fared badly.

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Published in: on April 19, 2011 at 8:37 am  Comments (36)  
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beware the unauthorised hole

Old Etonian Horace de Vere Cole was widely known as a practical joker.

“His pranks are legendary. The most well-known is probably the Dreadnought hoax of 1910, in which Cole and five friends (including a young Virginia Woolf) disguised themselves as the Emperor of Abyssinia and his posse, and were given a full VIP tour of the British warship, the H.M.S. Dreadnought.

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My favourites were more low key:

The Time-Life Library of Curious and Unusual Facts reports that “Cole often targeted his peers. For example, playing on the innate good manners of the well-bred English gent, Cole would pose as a surveyor on the street and politely ask a passing swell to help by holding one end of a string for a moment. Then the prankster would disappear around the corner, find another man to hold the other end of the string, and walk away.

Learn how to play cat’s cradle here

“He was also fond of spontaneous pranks. When he stumbled on a road crew without a foreman one day, Cole leaped into the breach and directed the men to London’s busy Piccadilly Circus, where he had them excavate a huge trench in the street. A nearby policeman obligingly redirected the heavy downtown traffic all day, and it was several hours before the city noticed the unauthorized hole.”

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The Museum of Hoaxes also lists three more, including the infamous cow’s udder trick

He once stood in the street handing out free theatre tickets to a series of extremely bald passers-by with the result that, when viewed from the dress circle, the assembly of shiny bald heads in the carefully chosen seats clearly spelt out an expletive – complete with a dot over the ‘i’.

He used to wander the streets with a cow’s udder poking through his flies. At the moment of optimum outrage, he would then produce a pair of scissors and snip off the offending protrusion.

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More adolescent pranks ranged from organising a large party where all the guests were called Ramsbottom or Winterbottom to driving around London in a taxi with a naked tailor’s dummy. Whenever he saw a policeman, he would stop the cab, open the door and beat the dummy’s head on the ground, shouting: ‘Ungrateful hussy!'”

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Published in: on July 17, 2010 at 9:02 am  Comments (40)  
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