In the early New England colonies, life was largely spent tending to essentials. But the colonists still managed a few laughs. Colonial pranks tended to be harmless, but still funny to those concerned.
If you were the victim of a chouse, a fetch or a jig, it meant you’d been tricked. Sometimes with ill intent, but often for laughs. A “rig” meant a “joke.” If someone ran his rig on others, it meant he’d made them the butt of his joke. If, on the other hand, the target caught on and spoiled the prank, he was a marplot or spoilsport.
Some things don’t change. Any one imposed on, or sent on a bootless errand, on April 1, earned the title “April Fool.” The “lower people,” servants and children would drop empty papers doubled up or send people on absurd errands and so forth. They imposed on everyone they could and then saluted them with “April Fool.”
Here are a few relatively harmless colonial pranks from that era:
Playing King Arthur. Sailors liked this game. One sailor sits on a stool and dons a wig made of oakham and old deck swabs. Beside him is a large tub of water. His fellow sailors are ceremoniously introduced to him, and one by one they pour a bucket of water over his head. If, however, the designated king can induce a smile or a laugh out of a sailor, then that man must take on the role of king.
Dowdying. A man would play this gag from England on an assembled group, usually one enjoying adult beverages. He would dress himself to look half mad and burst into a room to the shock of those inside.
Funk the Cobbler. “Funk” meant to smoke or to stink. To funk the cobbler meant someone, usually a child, stuffed a pipe with cotton and weeds. The prankster then lit the pipe and covered it with a cloth so that the stinking smoke would gradually make its way out of the pipe stem. He could leave the pipe in a cobbler’s stall to stink the place up.
To Catch an Owl
Hoisting. Hoisting was a ceremony performed on a man following his marriage – usually after returning to his military unit. Two soldiers would take bayonets and push them through the soldier’s hat, like horns. His friends would then lift him onto their shoulders and parade him around while he wore the hat.
Seating the Ambassador. Sailors also played this trick on unsuspecting souls who had never heard of the game. They would pretend to put on a play in which the victim playing the ambassador would have to give a silly speech to recite to two characters, dubbed the king and queen. The king and queen sat on two stools. The pranksters stretched a long cloth that looked like a bench between the two stools. The king and queen would invite the ambassador to sit between them. Once seated, the two on each side would suddenly stand up. The ambassador would then tumble backwards into a strategically placed tub of water.
Catching the Owl. People unfamiliar with the ways of the countryside tended to fall victim to catching the owl. Pranksters would invite the unwitting into a barn under the pretense they intended to catch an owl. After leading the person through any number of embarrassing stunts or fake calls, the perpetrators doused the victim with a pail of water.
Thanks to: Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, By Francis Grose (1785) and Villainies Discovered: OR The Devil’s Cabinet Broken Open, By Richard Head (1673). This story was updated in 2021.