William Horace de Vere Cole


William Horace de Vere Cole's 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.

The proud members of the British Navy came out in full colours to receive their distinguished guests, who were dressed in costumes, with dyed skin and hair, and speaking a language they were inventing on-the-fly. The hoax is sometimes referred to as the “Bunga-Bunga Affair” — a reference to this invented Abyssinian dialect the hoaxers used while on the ship.

The Dreadnought hoax has often been interpreted as just a “let’s see if we can get away with it” sophomoric prank, but others have seen a sharper barb. Gilbert Highet writes that the imposture “exposed the uncritical readiness of the British government and of the Royal Navy to entertain any odd-looking foreigner without inquiring closely into his character and background and to do him the honors so thoroughly that he went away awed and happy and pro-British. That kind of diplomatic courtesy helped to build up an enormous empire and to keep many spheres of influence in orbit. The Dreadnought hoax was a mocking exposure of its shallowness and insincerity. Thus, the silly little blackface impersonation by half a dozen unemployed youngsters proved to be a satire on the entire British imperial system.”

Cole may have been in training for his Dreadnought coup when, as a student at Cambridge, he impersonated the Sultan of Zanzibar, and was wined and dined along with his entourage (other Cambridge students) by the high mucky-mucks of the area. The hoax was revealed when it was discovered that the real Sultan had been in London at the time, but Cole and his gang kept quiet until they’d left college.

On April Fools’ Day, 1919, the citizens of Venice, Italy (you know, the city with canals instead of streets), woke up to find horse droppings scattered on the pavement of the Piazza di San Marco. Puzzled the Venetians a bit, that did, and somewhere along the Piazza sat one Horace de Vere Cole, chuckling to himself. He’d snuck off while on his honeymoon to carefully collect the manure from the Italian mainland so he could distribute it nocturnally…

Gilbert Highet also reports that Cole “once took every seat in the stalls at a pretentious and terrible play and gave tickets to many acquaintances. The performance was wrecked, because as soon as the lights went up, the circles and the gallery saw one short and expressive word spelled out by the bald heads of strategically placed men in the stalls.”

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.

“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.”

Cole once targeted a Member of the British Parliament thusly: he slipped his own gold watch into the M.P.’s pocket, then somehow convinced the man to join him in a brief footrace down the street. At some point, Cole began yelling “Stop! Thief!” The baffled M.P. was caught, red-handed, and (despite Cole eventually fessing up) arrested.

Cole is an also-ran on the list of possible suspects behind the Piltdown Man hoax as well.

Cole would occasionally impersonate prime minister and Labor party leader Ramsay MacDonald, giving speeches that contradicted MacDonald’s actual political views.

The Abyssinian delegation

The Abyssinian delegation; Cole is at the far right of the photo.

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On This Day in SniggleryJune 25, 2001: Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate, finally admits that the magazine’s report on the bizarre sport of monkey fishing was “willful inaccuracy.” (See News Trolls for more info)