Who Were the Merry Pranksters?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The seeds of the 1960s counterculture movement were planted during the 1940s and 1950s by the so-called Beat Generation. Poets and writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg defied mainstream society by publishing jazz-influenced works, often laced with drug references and obscene language. During the late 1950s, author Ken Kesey and several of his friends living in a Bohemian section of Stanford, California formed a loose alliance called the Merry Pranksters. The original Merry Pranksters patterned their lifestyles after the New York-based beatnik culture, especially the On the Road experiences of Jack Kerouac.

The original Merry Pranksters patterned their lifestyles on the experiences in Jack Kerouac's novel On The Road.
The original Merry Pranksters patterned their lifestyles on the experiences in Jack Kerouac's novel On The Road.

Around 1960, Ken Kesey volunteered for a series of medical experiments involving various psychedelic drugs, such as mescaline, peyote, morning glory seeds and most significantly, LSD. Kesey smuggled many of these substances back to the other Merry Pranksters, who later discovered legal methods for importing peyote from Mexico. Meanwhile, Kesey himself became a successful novelist with the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. Fueled by their mind-expanding drug experiences, the Merry Pranksters began to form grandiose ideas about turning on the rest of the country's youth to LSD and other psychedelic drugs.

Ken Kesey, leader of the Merry Pranksters, was arrested for marijuana possession.
Ken Kesey, leader of the Merry Pranksters, was arrested for marijuana possession.

In 1964, Ken Kesey wanted to visit the New York City beatnik scene at the same time his novel Sometimes a Great Notion would be published. To accomplish this cross-country trip, the Merry Pranksters bought a retired school bus and completely refurbished it. Inspired by the pop art of Andy Warhol and the comic book style of Roy Lichtenstein, the Merry Pranksters created numerous Day-Glo murals on both the interior and exterior walls. The bus also contained a number of film cameras and microphones, which the Merry Pranksters used to record nearly every second of their trip. Ken Kesey named the bus Further, perhaps referring to the mind-expanding effects of LSD.

The bus was driven primarily by Neal Cassady, a legendary counterculture figure made famous through Jack Kerouac's writings. The plan was to drive around the United States with a large supply of LSD and other drugs. Visitors would be encouraged to ingest drug-laced juices and join the Merry Pranksters in street theater pranks or other improvised events. Since LSD was considered legal until 1966, law enforcement officers could not seize the bus or arrest its occupants for drug possession. This cross-country trip culminated in a fateful meeting with Jack Kerouac and several other Beat Generation leaders. Kerouac did not embrace the new counterculture generation, since many of their experiences were fueled by harder drugs than marijuana or alcohol.

After returning to California, the Merry Pranksters sponsored a series of parties designed to introduce LSD and other hallucinogens to the burgeoning hippie movement. These events were informally called Acid Tests, with signs asking "Can YOU pass the test?" The venues were painted in Day-Glo colors and featured the psychedelic artwork often associated with the Haight-Asbury hippie culture. Local bands were often hired to provide background music for the participants, with psychedelia-inspired names such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors.

After LSD became illegal in 1966, the Merry Pranksters suffered a tremendous blow. Fearing a lengthy prison sentence for drug possession charges, Ken Kesey faked a suicide attempt and fled to Mexico. The other Merry Pranksters soon went their separate ways as well. In 1968, Neal Cassady was found dead near some railroad tracks in Mexico.

Ken Kesey was eventually arrested for a relatively minor marijuana possession and given a six month sentence. The bus called Further was moved to Kesey's home state of Oregon for safekeeping. Several Merry Pranksters have died since the 1960s, but Kesey continued to organize a series of reunions until his death from liver cancer surgery complications in 2001.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Merry Pranksters and offspring exist in Northern Calif. I could pinpoint their restaurant, etc., but if one is not aware of it, I guess it is better to let others find them for themselves if they wish to.

Hint: Start looking near Half Moon Bay.

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