Act 343 of 1983 (April Fools' Day Act)
2010 April Fools' Day Entry
Act 343 of 1983, also known as the April Fools’ Day Act, made Arkansas the only state in the Union to recognize April Fools’ Day as an official state holiday. The act recognized “the historical impact of April Fools’ Day celebrations upon the history of Arkansas” and encouraged a “healthy, but not overzealous, continuation of this proud tradition for Arkansans of all ages in our modern era.”
The celebration of April Fools’ Day has a long history in the state of Arkansas. Though not much is known about how it was celebrated by early French or Spanish explorers, the holiday apparently did lend its name to some geographical features. Poison Spring in Ouachita County, according to some early records, takes its name not from any actual poison but rather from the French phrase Poisson d’Avril, which means “April Fish” (the French equivalent of “April Fool”). Especially during the territorial and early statehood era, when many settlers lived the isolated lives of pioneers, April Fools’ Day events proved a quite popular form of entertainment. In the upland country of the Ouachita Mountains and Ozark Mountains, a popular jest consisted of proclaiming the discovery of gold in some mountain stream. So many people believed these stories throughout the years that the state finally appointed John Casper Branner as state geologist to investigate the claims.
The popularity of April Fools’ Day survived even as Arkansas began the process of modernization. However, some attempted jokes had disastrous consequences. In 1923, when the date for Easter fell on April 1, members of the First Baptist Church of Mount Pisgah (White County) were fooled into believing that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ had occurred when a stranger bedecked in white robes and a fake beard burst into the church and condemned the entire congregation as a “brood of vipers unworthy of salvation.” One congregant, Emily Pickinsworth, immediately died of fright. The stranger, later discovered to be local freethinker Derrick Bandyman, was charged with manslaughter and atheism and sentenced to sixty years in prison.
The popularity of April Fools’ Day in Arkansas also unfortunately resulted in some people taking as jokes actual events that happened on April 1. For example, the election of former Union general and “carpetbagger” Powell Clayton to the office of governor on April 1, 1868, was originally assumed to be a joke by many an unredeemed Confederate and Democrat. Only later that month did people realize that Clayton’s election was in earnest and responded by hurriedly forming local chapters of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to oppose his agenda. Likewise, when Governor George Washington Donaghey, on April 1, 1909, signed into law a bill creating the state’s four district agricultural schools—which later evolved into full universities—administrators at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) believed it to be in jest. As historian Michael B. Dougan has written, “The pearl-encrusted elitists at the state’s only university were so isolated up in those hills of theirs that they could not believe, for one instant, that the state might dare to create four potential competitors to encroach upon their hog-calling monopoly of higher education. Many at UA still don’t believe other state universities exist.”
Efforts to enshrine April 1 as a state holiday began in the late 1970s under the leadership of state Representative Howard “Bubba” Thurbert of Goobertown (Craighead County). In 1981, the Arkansas General Assembly finally sent his bill to that effect to the governor’s desk. However, Governor Frank White vetoed the law, citing pagan connections with April Fools’ Day and claiming that “government sanction of this day would promote wickedness and heathenism.” Promoters of April Fools’ Day had to wait two years before trying again.
Governor Bill Clinton signed the legislation, appropriately enough, on April 1, 1983. Given that Section 39 of the bill stipulated that, upon the signature of the governor, its provisions were to go into effect immediately, the state legislature promptly took the rest of the day off, and schools across the state were peremptorily dismissed, some while in the middle of class, thus creating a great deal of confusion. Further adding to the general perturbation was a subsection that, in standard legislative boilerplate, noted that no state business could occur on April Fools’ Day, given its status as a state holiday. As the law went into effect immediately, some people argued that the governor signing the act itself was an illegal action. A lawsuit alleging just that even went to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which, in November of that year, ruled in the case of J. R. Poisson v. State of Arkansas that “the clear intent of the legislators, though poorly expressed, was not to create an ontological or legal paradox but rather to establish a new state holiday,” thus allowing the law to stand.
Further controversy ensued regarding whether the name of the holiday should be April Fools’ Day or April Fool’s Day, with passionate debate on both sides. Eventually, an addendum to the bill consecrated April Fools’ Day as the official spelling, encompassing a multitude of fools.
Occasional efforts to change the law have been made, most notably attempts to move the state’s official celebration of April Fools’ Day from April 1 to the first Monday of the month, thereby creating a three-day weekend. All such attempts, however, have failed.
For additional information:
Dougan, Michael B. Foolishness unto Death: The Emily Pickinsworth Affair of 1923. Mount Comfort, AR: Far West Seminary Press, 2003.
Sawyer, Paul. “This Is Not a Joke—State Proclaims April 1 Official Holiday.” Arkansas Gazette. April 2, 1983, pp. 1A–2A.
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