Peter the Great’s April Fool’s jokes

Of dwarves, arson, stammerers, and binge drinking.

The Mathew Brady Studio's photo of the marriage of Charles Sherwood Stratton (Barnum's General Tom Thumb) to Lavinia Warren in 1863.

The Mathew Brady Studio's photo of the marriage of Charles Sherwood Stratton (Barnum's General Tom Thumb) to Lavinia Warren in 1863. Image: Wikipedia.

John Richard, A Tour from London to Petersburgh, from Thence to Moscow, and Return to London by Way of Courland, Poland, Germany and Holland (1780):

Peter the Great was inflexible in his disposition and determinations; generosity and mercy had but little share in his resolutions; levity, indeed, sometimes intruded on his serious moments.

The first of April was a day the Czar took great delight in. In the year 1719, a person of the name of Sampson, remarkable for his strength, was in Petersburgh;[1]Which one? his Majesty had given orders to all persons of distinction, the Czarina Dowager, and her princesses not excepted, to appear at the playhouse to see the famous Sampson exhibit. Pit and boxes were soon filled. The expectations of the spectators being raised by long preparations made on the stage, they grew impatient to see the shew begin, when a machine was let down from the clouds, with this inscription in capital letters, APRIL. The Harlequin afterwards appeared, and having in a merry compliment ridiculed the company for being thus come on an April errand, thanked them for the present, and invited them to come again next day for better diversion.

The year before the Czar had pleased himself with another sort of humour, on the like occasion; he had ordered an old house to be set on fire on the first of April, in the night time, in some remote part of the town, and the drums to be beaten; he went to the place himself, much delighted, to see his soldiers running full speed to extinguish the flames. After which, however, he ordered them beer and brandy for their pains.

In the reign of Peter, the fashion of keeping dwarfs was universal with the great. In the year 1719, a woman dwarf was brought to bed, and added a new number to the society, or species of those diminutives of mankind, whom they then took particular care, in Russia, to propagate, by marrying them together. In the year 1710, the Czar was pleased to add to the solemnities of the nuptials between Princess Ann, his niece, and the Duke of Courland, Frederick William, the diversions of a dwarf wedding. The day before the wedding two dwarfs, of well proportioned shape, finely dressed, drove about in a little chaise to invite the guests. On the day appointed, a very little dwarf marched at the head of the procession, as marshal; he was followed by the bride and bridegroom, then came the Czar, attended by his ministers and other officers, next marched all the dwarfs of both sexes, in couples, in number seventy-two. The procession was closed by a vast number of spectators. After dinner the dwarfs began to dance, which diversion lasted ’till night, to the great diversion of the spectators, and the new married couple were bedded in the Czar’s own bed-chamber.

It sounds as if Peter may have then engineered the happy groom’s death for territorial ends (Walter R. Kelly, History of Russia from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (1875)):

The newly married duke was obliged to indulge to such an extent in immoderate drinking during the festivities consequent upon the marriage that he brought his life to an early termination [two months after the ceremony, on his way home]. The czar availed himself of this unexpected death to exclude the brother of the deceased duke, to claim the province as a settlement on the widow, and cause the administration to be carried on in the name of the grand duchess. The custom of immoderate drinking, which proved fatal to the duke of Courland, was taken advantage of by Peter, as well as by diplomatists in general, to promote their political objects. He compelled his guests, according to Russian usage, to drink brandy, that he might the more easily extract the secrets of his nobles and the foreign ambassadors or destroy them.

Back to John Richard:

About the same time the Czar caused a wedding between one Sotoff, a writing master, in his 84th year, to a buxom widow of 34; the company consisted of 400 persons, every four persons had their particular dress, so that they represented an hundred different nations. The four persons appointed to invite the guests, were the greatest stammerers that could be found in all Russia. Old decripid men, who were not able to walk or stand, were picked out to serve for bridesmen, stewards and waiters. There were four running footmen, who besides the gout, were so unwieldy as to want others to lead them. The Czar himself was dressed like a boor of Frizeland, and skilfully beat a drum, of which he was fond. In this manner, bells ringing every where, the ill matched couple were attended to the altar of the great church, where they were joined in matrimony by a priest an hundred years old, who had lost his eye-sight and memory, to supply which defect a pair of spectacles were put on his nose, two candles held before his eyes, and the words sounded into his ears which he was to pronounce. From church the procession went to the Czar’s palace, where the diversions lasted some days.

It will naturally occur to you, that diversions of this kind are, in truth, a species of cruelty. To collect together a set of miserable cripples, and to expose them in the manner above recited, must, in the minds of rational beings, excite compassion and pity, not merriment. To the honour of the present times, objećts of this kind are concealed, not exposed.


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Last updated 11/06/2018

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