Up to no good

Practical jokes come with an inherent risk; they have the potential to go wrong. The way a prank can go wrong varies. Usually, hiding somebody’s personal belongings will only slightly annoy the victim, but even an act as innocent as that could end in an altercation.

Then there are the more risky pranks – drugging, rigging traps, feigning the death of 3yourself or someone you know – practical jokes that can end in prosecution.

It comes as no surprise that early New Zealand was the stage for countless practical jokes, some of which were of a dangerous and reckless manner. Most pranks pulled were tame, of course, and the ones that were covered in the Ashburton Guardian were either the funniest, or the most dangerous.

The ideas many people had for pranks were quite Victorian, or in other words, tame. One Reverend described a potential practical joke where you would steal a £5 note off somebody you know who is less than enthusiastic in their faith, and hide the money inside their Bible. This Reverend then implied that the congregation had better check their bibles often to see if they have had their money hidden inside – a clever way to get the public to peruse the good news more often.


Standard gags

In the early 1880s, the Ashburton Guardian reported on three particular pranks that are notable for their genius. The first of these pranks took place in the North Island near Greytown, at the residence of a doctor. He was awoken by a loud, continuous noise that he could not quite recognise, prompting him to arm himself and investigate.

The doctor ventured downstairs, and found that once he unlocked his front door he was unable to open it. He managed to open his door slightly, and to his surprise he discovered a full-grown male calf tied to his doorknob, which was making a great deal of noise in trying to escape. The journalist concluded with, “The doctor’s feelings may be better imagined than described.” To our knowledge, the prankster was never identified.

In 1883, a weirder prank of a more premeditated nature occurred in Nelson involving a 30 year old goat and a gullible populace. It was not yet deer shooting season, when a man claimed to have some quality venison in his possession. Commissions poured in, and 1eventually a feast was held where the prime haunch was devoured with gusto.

By now you are probably wondering, or have guessed how the goat fits in. A friend of the man who presented the venison had a large, elderly pet goat that was nearing its end. The owner of the goat requested that the prankster kill and dress it as venison to fool the others into eating it, most likely just for fun. The Guardian journalist commented, “It would seem to be scarcely safe to talk about venison at present to certain Nelson residents.”


Dire consequences

The pranks people pulled in the 1880s did not always have a favourable outcome. A case was brought before the Havelock police court in November 1883, regarding an instance of poisoning. A man named Charles Frederick Horton was secretly given croton oil, a strong purgative, by the landlord of the Commercial Hotel. The landlord had managed to get this oil from the local doctor, who agreed to help him with his prank and gave it to him without charge. The landlord snuck the oil into a jug of egg flip, which the landlord urged Horton to drink it as it was his son’s birthday. The result was excruciating for Horton, and he was ill for days after being drugged. The case was brought before the Blenheim court, where as well as the landlord and the doctor, two others were charged with poisoning.

One more amusing case of a prank gone wrong was the Wellington ghost affair. It was reported in late September 1886 that a man was arrested on Thorndon Quay. He was charged with breaching the Police Offenses Act for carrying items of disguise – a spooky ghost costume. Apparently there may have been more than one person doing this, but 2the person who got arrested had been scaring people while wearing a white sheet. He claimed to have “only been having a bit of fun”, but the police did not enjoy his antics evidently, and a journalist wrote on the matter, “he will be made an example of, for such senseless freaks as these have often the most disastrous results.”

By Connor Lysaght



1 – 3. These ‘humorous’ or ’novelty’ postcards as they were termed all had small images of the town

4.  A ‘funny’ postcard from Ashburton.

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