Abel was born in 1924 in Zanesville, Ohio, but grew up in nearby Coshocton where his father kept the local general store, teaching his son the value of hucksterism at an early age.
“He’d put ‘Limit — Two to a Customer’ in front of the things that wouldn’t sell and they’d be gone in a minute,” Abel told The New Yorker in 1990.
Abel was a natural performer and after graduating from Ohio State University he attempted a career as a stand-up comedian but found that it simply didn’t pay and so he worked at more conventional jobs, including once as a liquid fertiliser salesman.
But his sense of fun didn’t leave him and in 1958 he embarked on one of his most elaborate hoaxes by creating the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA). Its mission was to clothe naked animals throughout the world under the slogan ‘a nude horse is a rude horse’.
SINA was fronted by the actor Buck Henry when he posed as its president in an interview on NBC’s Today Show in 1959. (Henry was later nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay of The Graduate) Thousands of letters of support poured in to SINA’s headquarters as a result of his appearance and the hoax was well and truly laid.
What started as a satire of media censorship took on a life of its own over several years of tv and radio interviews generating unsolicited financial contributions to the cause (always returned) and citizen summonses that concerned members of the public could issue against their fellows for walking naked dogs.
SINA chapters sprang up across America and their activities were faithfully reported by the media until the hoax was finally exposed by Time Magazine in 1963.
Abel continued his career as a professional prankster throughout his life once explaining that his primary intent was “to give people a kick in the intellect.”
He invented the Jewish grandmother Yetta Bronstein to run in the 1964 presidential election under the slogan “Vote for Yetta and things will get betta” on a platform that included holding national Bingo tournaments, putting truth serum in congressional drinking fountains as well as installing a mental detector along with the metal detector in the Senate.
Yetta never appeared in public and was voiced by Abel’s wife in a series of radio interviews that attracted many actual supporters.
Abel’s many pranks continued into the new millennium until his death last year at the age of ninety-four and his career was covered in the 2005 documentary ‘Abel Raises Cain’ – see the trailer below.