Slate posted this fun book review of Kembrew McLeod’s new book Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World.
The year: 1614. A strangely compelling piece of writing emerges in Germany, putting forth the Fama Fraternitatis Rosae Crucis—the “Fame of the Brotherhood of the Rose Cross.” Though several of Rosicrucians’ claims are dubious, to say the least, the movement gains steam among prominent thinkers and leaders. “These documents claimed that the Brothers of the Rose Cross were engineering a coming Golden Age that would transform all existing political and religious institutions,” writes Kembrew McLeod in his new book Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World. “Not only could these men bring about global utopian harmony; they could make themselves disappear! Readers who wanted to meet a Brother were told that if they concentrated really, really hard, one would probably drop by for a visit.”
The Rosicrucians are among the earliest pranksters discussed in McLeod’s entertaining book, which starts with the age of Enlightenment and covers four centuries at a breakneck pace. There are appearances from Jonathan Swift, P.T. Barnum, the Merry Pranksters, Steve Jobs, ACT UP, and the Yes Men, for starters. “If reduced to a mathematical formula, the art of pranking can be expressed as Performance Art + Satire x Media = Prank,” McLeod writes. “Put simply, pranks are playful critiques performed within the public sphere and amplified by media.”
Much of McLeod’s book centers on American history. Benjamin Franklin, to give one example, was a notorious prankster—and a bit of a troll. In the 1730s, Franklin used his Poor Richard’s Almanack as a platform to heckle an astrologer named Titan Leeds. Franklin detested Leeds’ pseudoscientific claptrap, and Leeds was a business competitor, which only compounded Franklin’s ire. Franklin repeatedly predicted Leeds’ death in the Almanack, lampooning astrology and taking aim at Leeds in increasingly specific ways. Leeds would perish on Oct. 17, 1733, at 3:29 p.m., according to one of Franklin’s predictions. In further editions of the Almanack, though Leeds was still among the living, Franklin hopefully initiated a discussion with his ghost. After Leeds finally died in 1738, Franklin continued the onslaught, which went on for several years beyond the grave. “The 1740 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack described a late-night visit from the Ghost of Titan Leeds, who entered Richard Saunders’s brain via his left nostril,” writes McLeod.
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