Check Out These Fun April Fools’ Day Tricks from the 1800’s

I bought a copy of The American Girls Handy Book, by Lina Beard and Adelia Beard, copyright 1887.

The Victorian-era Beard sisters were born in the 1850’s in Kentucky. Their family moved to New York City in the 1860’s. The sisters wrote The American Girls Handy Book several years after their brother wrote a similar book for boys.

(FYI all of you English teachers and grammar snobs: I confirmed that this book possesses no possessive or plural apostrophe in the word Girls. So there.)

Chapter 1 is titled The First of April. The sisters began with these April Fools’ Day bits of lore:

1.) England: “Early Christians” referred to the day as “Festum Fatuorum” or “Fools’ Holiday.”

2.) France: The Beard sisters claimed that mackerel are easily caught on the French coast and that the fish have a reputation for low intelligence. Thus derives the term “Silly Mackerel” or “Poisson d’Avril” (French for “April Fish.”

3.) Scotland: The word “gowk” referred to a “cuckoo,” a bird that does not have the knowledge to build its own nest.

4.) India: The Huli Festival, held on the last day of March, encouraged celebrants to prank their friends.

One of the Beard sisters (the book doesn’t specify which one) then explained that one year she invited friends over to her parents’ house for a candy-pull to celebrate her April 1st birthday.

Then it hit her. What if everyone thought that this was a joke? What if nobody came? She worried. Then – all of her guests showed up at the same time. They arrived as a group so that nobody would look individually foolish if this were a prank.

5 Fun Pranks for Your April Fools’ Party

So, if you do hold your own “First of April” Party, the Beard sisters offer this advice: first assure invitees that your party is not a hoax. Then, they suggested these fun games:

1.) Who’s the Fool Now?

  • Position a large mirror in front of a doorway or window.
  • Write “We are April Fools” in soap on the top of the mirror.
  • Drape curtains over the mirror so that you completely cover the mirror.
  • Invite your guests to gather in front of the curtain-draped mirror to see a special show.
  • Draw aside the curtains so that your guests can see their own faces reflected in the mirror, under the words “We are April Fools.”

2.) The Chair

  • Write “APRIL FOOL” backwards in white chalk on a chair.
  • Convince “some boy” who is wearing a “coat” with a “dark woolly surface” to sit on said chair.
  • The boy will then walk around with “APRIL FOOL” written on his back.
  • Ha, ha! Isn’t that funny? The Beard sisters convinced me that this boy will “join in the general laughter his appearance creates” without knowing that everybody else is laughing AT him, not WITH him!
  • (Fun fact for you Stephen King fans: “APRIL FOOL” written backwards is “REDRUM.”)

3.) The Premises Liability Claim / Future Lawsuit

  • Replace the top of a “packing-box” with wrapping paper.
  • Throw a blanket or something over the thing.
  • Pile pillows on top of the blanket.
  • Make your creation look “exceedingly comfortable and inviting.”
  • Wait for someone to sit on your fake seat.
  • Watch said guest fall through the wrapping paper.
  • The American Girls Handy Book said that you should make sure that this fake couch should be “not more than twelve inches high, so that the fall will be only funny, not dangerous.”

4.) Noah’s Ark Peep-show (That’s the actual name of this prank!)

  • Procure a box shaped like a rectangle. Each end should be open but covered with a curtain.
  • Put a sliding divider in the middle of the box.
  • Announce that viewers to each side of the box will view a different animal from Noah’s ark.
  • Call up a boy to view one side of the box and call up a girl to view the other side of the box.
  • As soon as the boy and the girl peak through the curtains on their respective side of the box, slide open the middle divider.
  • The girl will view the boy and the boy will view the girl.

5.) The Cookie Table

  • Cover small blocks of wood with cake batter and bake them so that they look like cakes.
  • Cover small radishes with icing.
  • Coat button-moulds (what’s a button-mould?) with chocolate.
  • Fill a pill-box with flour. Paste tissue-paper on top. Cover the thing with icing. Offer the thing to party-goers as cake. Watch the flour fly when someone bites into the thing.
  • Mix the “trick” desserts with real desserts. What fun!

The Beard sisters ended the chapter by reminding us to “keep the jokes entirely harmless.”

After all,” they concluded, “the spirit of mischief must be kept within bounds even on All-Fools-Day.”

Happy Friday the 13th: Spooky Photos for You

New Kensington, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jonathan Woytek and Jenny Gaffron Woytek (The photo was an exercise for a photography lesson.)
Pet Cemetery, Hartwood Acres, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek
Tintern Abbey, Wales, United Kingdom. Photo: Jonathan Woytek
Round Island, off of Mackinac Island, Michigan. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek
Ohio Turnpike. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek
Ohio Turnpike. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woyek

The Lead-Lined Coffin

Byers Mauseoleum, Allegheny Cemetery, Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh, PA
Byers Mausoleum, Allegheny Cemetery, Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh, PA. November 10, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I took a guided tour of Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, in 2018. This tour included the Byers Mausoleum. The industrialist Eben Byers now rests here, inside of a lead-lined coffin.

Let’s Have a Kissing Party!

Hershey, Pennsylvania. February, 2012. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

In the historical fiction novel The Day Must Dawn by Agnes Sligh Turnbull, a colonial family held a kissing party.

The novel explained that the fictional Murray family living in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania in 1778 could not attend their neighbors’ party. The neighbors were Lutherans and their party included dancing. The Murrays were Presbyterians and they did not attend events that included dancing. So, the Murrays held their own party: they held a kissing party.

Mr. Murray once fiddled, but that he lost his fiddle when the family crossed the Allegheny Mountains from Philadelphia. So, he borrowed a fiddle for use at the kissing party.

The party-goers formed a circle. Each young man took a turn standing in the middle of the circle. Mr. Murray fiddled and the party-goers sang King William Was. At the end of each verse, the young man in the middle of the circle chose a young woman and kissed her. The game continued until each young woman at the party had been kissed. The party-goers then played similar kissing games with the songs Lily in the Garden and Sister Phoebe.

The party-goers also played a game called Hurly-Burly. Judging by the way that the novel described this game, I am under the impression that it is vey much like the modern day party game Charades.

Since the party hosts had recently come into the possession of a rare and cherished small mirror, the party-goers took turns looking at their own faces in said mirror. Finally, they played the following fortune-telling game:

The young men formed a circle. Each young woman took a turn standing in the middle of this circle. The remaining young woman stood away from the circle. The party-goes darkened the room. The young woman in the middle of the circle held the room’s only lit candle and also the mirror. The party-goers blindfolded this young woman. The young men in the circle rotated the circle until the blindfolded young woman told them to stop. Someone removed the blindfold. After a short wait, the young woman opened her eyes. The young woman announced the first male face that she saw in the mirror. Per folklore, this would be the face of her future husband.

How fun!

(Nowadays, folks swipe right.)

Redux: Punxsutawny Phil Tribute

Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Circa early 1990’s. (Photo: Shirley Gaffron)

Groundhog Day happens this weekend.

My sister blogged about our family’s trips to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (Punxsy) and about her own meeting with Punxsutawny Phil.

Here you go: Happy Groundhog Day! My Brush With The Prognosticator of Prognosticators (Updated)

Absolute Best History Podcasts

Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. November 10, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Here are my absolute favorite history podcasts. These are the podcasts to which I re-listen to episodes.

I, personally, download podcasts from iTunes. However, I linked to each podcast’s website.

1.) Uncivil, from Gimlet Media, hosted by Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika

I blogged about this Civil War podcast a few months ago. Each episode discussed stories and events that aren’t part of the common Civil War narrative. For instance, one episode taught me about female soldiers who enlisted in the army as men. Many of the episodes featured stories and events involving African Americans.

I complained about this podcast last year because Season #1 ended with no announcement and Gimlet said nothing about the status of Season #2.

2.) American Hauntings Podcast by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck

I included American Hauntings because the podcast actually taught me more about history then it did about the supernatural.

I posted about American Hauntings last month. Co-host Cody Beck commented on my post! Thanks, Cody!

Season #4 is Haunted New Orleans! I learned that Jean Lafitte the pirate might actually have NO actual connection to the building known as “Lafitte’s” Blacksmith Shop Bar. That the most graphic stories about Madame LaLaurie’s mansion may be fiction. (Though the LaLaurie family’s brutal cruelty towards their enslaved servants DID happen.) I learned about “quadroon balls.”

I even learned that Nicholas Cage (who also owned the LaLaurie Mansion) purchased for himself a pyramid-shaped tomb in New Orleans’ St. Louis Cemetery No. 1!

The entire first season highlighted Alton, Illinois. I didn’t even know that Alton existed until I found American Hauntings. I learned that Alton competed economically with St. Louis. It hosted a Civil War Prison AND a tuberculosis sanitarium. A LOT of people died horrible deaths in Alton.

I learned that an abolitionist named Elijah Lovejoy ran a printing press in St. Louis. Three angry mobs destroyed Lovejoy’s printing press three separate times. Lovejoy moved to Alton, Illinois and bought yet another printing press.  A FOURTH angry mob, this time in Alton, destroyed Lovejoy’s fourth printing press. Also, the fourth angry mob shot and killed Lovejoy.

The Season #2 taught me about St. Louis, Missouri. Season #2 included a multi-episode feature on the Lemp brewing family. I learned that the most atrocious stories about the Lemps did NOT happen! (There is NO record that the young boy known as “Zeke” Lemp actually existed. Charles Lemp DIDN’T kill his dog. Lillian Lemp AKA “the Lavender Lady” DID face a child custody challenge from her ex-husband after she wore trousers in a photo.)

The audio quality of the episodes in the middle of the first season was not great. However, the audio quality improved greatly in Season #2.

Season #3, titled Murdered in Their Beds, covered the string of midwestern ax murders (including Villisca) that occurred at the turn of the last century. This was my least favorite season.

3.) Southern Gothic by Brandon Schexnayder

Each episode explored a dark historical event, place, or folklore tale from American Southern history.

I included Southern Gothic on this list because the host did advise when folklore did not match historical records. For example, in the episode about the Myrtles Plantation, the host noted that dates on the local death records do not match the storyline involved with the plantation’s most famous ghost story. (Troy Taylor mentioned this same thing during an episode of American Hauntings.)

It Started Here: Lochry’s Defeat

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. January, 2010. (Photo: Jonathan Woytek)

Lochry’s Defeat started in 1781 when Archibald Lochry raised a militia unit in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. About one hundred men set off down the Ohio River from Fort Pitt (which later became Pittsburgh). A few weeks later, the entire group ended up captured or killed.

Archibald Lochry was a Westmoreland County leader during the American Revolutionary War. The British occupied Detroit. The American colonists in Western PA were at war with the British and their Native American allies. Many of these Native American allies attacked from the Ohio territory west of PA.

(The colonists referred to the British general in Detroit as “Hair Buyer Hamilton” because the British paid for the scalps of American colonists.)

Thomas Jefferson, then the governor of Virginia, promoted George Rogers Clark to the Virginia rank of Brigadier General. In 1781, Clark left Fort Pitt to navigate down the Ohio River into the Ohio territory.

Lochry and his militiamen followed in their own flotilla some time later. Lochry was supposed to meet up with Clark’s expedition downriver. Unfortunately, after a number of issues including supplies, communication, and the threat of desertions among Clark’s men, Lochry missed Clark several times. Lochry never caught up to Clark.

In August 1781, Joseph Brant and George Girty led Native Americans allied with the British. (George Girty was Simon Girty‘s brother.) This group set out looking for Clark.

Brant and Girty instead surprised Lochry, who had stopped on the banks of the Ohio River in present-day Indiana. Brant and Girty ambushed Lochry and killed him. They killed dozens of his men and took the rest prisoner.

The families back in Westmoreland County didn’t learn about this until a significant time later.

The Wikipedia entry for this event also refers to it as the Lochry Massacre. I chose to not use the word “massacre” because indignenous people were involved in the victory. I explained my choice of semantics in this other blog post.

If you want a much more detailed account of Lochry’s Defeat and Clark’s expedition, by all means go read the Wikipedia entry on this. The Wikipedia page includes a photo of the Lochry’s Defeat site in Indiana. I also saw in this photo some military equipment that I believe came from a 20th century war. To be honest, at first glance I mistook this equipment to be an empty boat trailer. (This is IS along the Ohio River banks.)

I wrote today’s blog post for all of the people who, like me, don’t remember learning about this in high school history class. In fact, I never even heard this story from my Westmoreland County family members who first told me about Simon Girty. I learned about Lochry’s Defeat from the historical fiction novel “The Day Must Dawn” by Agnes Sligh Turnbull.

Just to keep this in context with other local history, Lochry’s men from Westmoreland County set off from Fort Pitt in the summer of 1781. Lochry’s Defeat happened in Indiana in August 1781. The Crawford Expedition set off down the Ohio River in May 1782. (William Crawford led this expedition. Most of his militiamen came from Westmoreland and Washington counties.) The British and their Native American allies captured and executed Crawford in Ohio in June 1782. Simon Girty was present at Crawford’s execution. Then, the British and their Native American allies attacked and burned Hannastown in Westmoreland County in July 1782. The Revolutionary War ended in 1783.

According to Wikipedia, Joseph Brant allegedly got into a violent, drunken brawl with Simon Girty over the issue of whether Brant or George Girty deserved the credit for Lochry’s Defeat. Brant was a Mohawk military leader and Girty (who was himself raised by Native Americans) has an infamous reputation in frontier America. At least one Canadian monument refers to Simon Girty as a British Loyalist. Keep this in mind when you read such tales.

Extremely Rich People in Alcohol Caves

A cave / railroad tunnel. NOT a wine cave or a beer cave!
An abandoned railroad tunnel. NOT a wine cave or a beer cave!

This week, I learned about modern-day billionaires in wine caves.

Last year, I learned about the 19th century Lemp family in St. Louis, Missouri. This family owned a brewery empire. They integrated caves into their beer making process. They also entertained and socialized in a cave.

I learned about the Lemp family and their caves on Season 2, Episodes 6 – 11 of the American Hauntings podcast. Be sure to check out the second episode in this Lemp series (Season 2, Episode 7 on the website) to learn about the Lemp caves. Here is the podcast, hosted by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck. Just type “Lemp” into the search bar.

Lock Him Up: An Election Story

I own a signed copy of Pittsburgh: The Story of An American City, written by Stefan Lorant with several contributors. I purchased it for $5 from a used bookstore. The book came apart in several places at the binding. The book contains almost seven hundred pages of Pittsburgh history and photos.

This book’s Chapter 3 The City Grows by Oscar Handlin includes a sidebar titled Pittsburgh in the News. This sidebar includes the following item:

Joe Barker, a colorful street preacher, was arrested in 1849 when he was involved in a riot while delivering one of his many tirades against Catholicism. He was thrown into jail and while in prison he was elected as mayor of the city. After serving for one year he was defeated for re-election and sank into obscurity. He died in 1862 when run over by a train.

(Wikipedia taught me that the train decapitated Mayor Joseph Barker. He is buried in Allegheny Cemetery.)

Book Report: American Ghost

Hill, railroad tracks, Lamy, new mexico.
Lamy, New Mexico. June 2009. (Photo: Jonathan Woytek)

What’s it like to be the real-life great-great granddaughter of a famous ghost? A ghost that prime time television featured?

I just learned all about this from reading American Ghost, by Hannah Nordhaus.

This is a non-fiction / travel/ family memoir. Julia Staab, a Jewish German American who died in 1896, allegedly haunts an upscale hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The author Nordhaus is Julia’s real-life great-great-granddaughter. (The book referred to her as “Julia” so I will as well.)

Julia died in the Santa Fe mansion that her husband, the merchant Abraham Staab, built for their family. She was 52 years old and the mother of eight children. Her youngest child passed away a few years before Julia’s own death. Julia allegedly spent a significant part of the end of her life shut up in her bedroom. She did not attend her own daughter’s wedding.

Decades later, this mansion became the La Posada de Santa Fe, a hotel and spa.

In the 1970’s, a La Posada hotel employee reported seeing a ghost. More ghost claims followed. Rumors and local folklore spread regarding Julia’s “real” cause of death and her existence in the spirit world.

Nordhaus researched family documents, letters, diaries, immigration records, etc. She interviewed family members who had personally known Julia and her children. Nordhaus is a direct descendent of Julia’s daughter, Bertha. She obtained Bertha’s diary, written during the final years of Julia’s life. She travelled to Santa Fe and to Julia’s childhood home in Germany. She discovered that although Julia died in Santa Fe in 1896, Julia’s younger sister, Emilie, perished (at the age of 81) in a Nazi concentration camp in 1943.

Years ago, I watched the NBC primetime show Unsolved Mysteries each week. This show’s season 7, episode 2 (which aired October 2, 1994) included the story of Julia Staab’s haunting at La Posada. The show included coverage of an actual “scientific” ghost hunt, complete with EVP recordings! (If you have an Amazon Prime membership, you can watch this episode on Prime at no additional charge. The episode is SO CHEESY!)

If you listen to the Spooked podcast by Snap Judgment, note that Season 2, Episode 14 (The Intruders) told Julia’s story. The podcast included an interview with Nordhaus and promoted her book. I actually found out about American Ghost from this podcast episode.

Now, to be honest, the “tragic story of Julia Staab,” as the general internet presented it, reminded me very much of the internet rumors about the Lemp family of St. Louis. (Here’s a good podcast about the Lemp family.) The patriarchs of both families were extremely rich self-made German immigrants in the mid 1800’s. Both had matriarchs named Julia. Both families included significant amounts of children. Rumors of unexplained tragic deaths followed both the Staabs and the Lemps. Both families struggled with mental illness. Both families lived (and died) in Victorian mansions that fell into decline, underwent renovations, and then became upscale “haunted” hotels.

Dark tourism industries (including ghost hunts, etc.) sprang up around both the Staab and the Lemp family tragedies.

How refreshing to read about Julia in American Ghost, a family memoir written by her own great-great granddaughter!

Now, on a more personal level, I thought about my own personal travel experience to Santa Fe in 2009 when I read American Ghost.

Jonathan and I rode an Amtrak from Pittsburgh to Chicago, and then in Chicago we switched trains and rode to Lamy, New Mexico. The train didn’t go to Santa Fe. In Lamy, an Amtrak contractor picked us up in a cargo van and drove us 18 miles to a car rental in Santa Fe. We did a reverse of this route for the trip home.

We went to Santa Fe that weekend for a wedding. The other guests from Pittsburgh all flew into Chicago, and then flew from Chicago to Albuquerque, and then rented cars and drove to Santa Fe.

We joked that a city that had a RAILROAD NAMED AFTER IT didn’t actually have direct access to the railroad.

I learned from reading American Ghost that Abraham Staab fought to have the railroad build a spur from Lamy to Santa Fe. American Ghost even remarked on the irony that Santa Fe had a railroad named after it, and yet Staab struggled to have the railroad come to Santa Fe. A few decades later, Santa Fe lost its railroad spur.

Speaking of the reference to “Lamy, New Mexico,” American Ghost devoted over a chapter to that town’s namesake, the Catholic Archbishop Lamy. Abraham and Julia Staab apparently fostered a very close relationship with Archbishop Lamy.

American Ghost explored the claims that Abraham Staab’s money helped to build Santa Fe’s Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi (St. Francis Cathedral).

We actually toured the cathedral when we visited Santa Fe.

St. Francis Cathedral, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
St. Francis Cathedral, Santa Fe, New Mexico. June 2009. (Photo: Jonathan Woytek)

American Ghost has a copyright date of 2015. I wish that I could have read this before I toured Santa Fe in 2009.