It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Apr 29, 2012

Berners Street Hoax – One of the Best Practical Hoaxes of 19th Century

The year was 1809.  Famed English author, Theodore Hook, made a bet with one of his close friends, the noted architect and writer, Samuel Beazley, that within one week, he could make any house in London the most talked about place in the city.  The house he ended up choosing was the home of the widow Mrs. Tottenham on 54 Berners Street, London, which was the same street that Earl Stanhope and the Bishop of Carlisle and of Chester, among other wealthy and well-to-do individuals, lived on at that time.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

The event began on November 27.  Hook and Beazley positioned themselves in the home across the street, which they had recently rented, and around 5:00 am, the fun began.  First, a chimney sweep arrived. 

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

The problem was that Mrs. Tottenham hadn’t requested the services of a sweep.  Within a few minutes, 12 more sweeps arrived; they too were also turned away.  Next, coal delivery workers began showing up with several large carts packed with coal to be delivered to Mrs. Tottenham; they were turned away.  Next, a cart load of furniture arrived; then workers showed up bearing a coffin for Mrs. Tottenham.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Next came several cake makers attempting to deliver custom made, very large, weddings cakes; then around fifty other chefs arrived attempting to deliver a total of around 2,500 raspberry tarts; then several doctors, lawyers, gardeners, fishmongers, dentists, grocers, priests, couch makers, carpet-manufacturers, wig-makers, coach-makers, curiosity dealers, opticians, brewers, and shoemakers, among others.  They all came offering their services or bringing very large orders of their wares that were to be delivered to that address on that day at various times throughout the day.

At one point, over one dozen pianos were delivered to her door step.  After that, six men carrying a huge chamber organ showed up.   Eventually the dignitaries arrived, including: the Governor of the Bank of England; the Duke of York; the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Mayor of the London; the Lord Chief Justice; several cabinet ministers; and the Chairman of the East India Company.

Throughout the entire day, various parties and delivery people crowded the area outside of 54 Berners Street.  By mid-day, the streets in that area of London became so crowded that the roads were jammed for several blocks in every direction with delivery people and on-lookers.

All the while, Hook and Beazley sat and watched the chaos from across the street.  Hook’s part in the madness, that did indeed become the talk of London, was not known until much later.  He did it all by sending around 4,000 letters out to various entities in London, ordering various items from the simple to outlandish.  He also wrote several notable individuals like the Mayor of London and the like, creating tales sufficient to get those people to come and call on Mrs. Tottenham on that day.

What was written in most of the letters to convince these people to come isn’t known.  One of the few that is known is the letter to the Mayor of London. Once he realized that everyone there was the victim of an elaborate practical joke, he went to the police station.  At the police station, the Mayor stated that he had received a letter supposedly from Mrs. Tottenham explaining that she was at death’s door and she requested that the Mayor call upon her home to bear witness to a deposition she would give under oath.

The following are a few other notes sent in the name of Mrs. Tottenham, for the purpose of collecting this most extraordinary group:

·     Mrs. Tottenham requests Mr.-- will call upon her at two to-morrow, as she wishes to consult him about the sale of an estate. -54, Berners-street Monday.

·     Mrs. Tottenham requests that a post-chaise and four may be at her home at two tomorrow, to convey her to the first stage towards Bath. -54, Berners-street, Monday.

·     Mrs. Tottenham begs the Hon. Mr.-- will be good enough to give her a call at two to-morrow, as Mrs. T. is desirous of speaking with him on business of importance. -54, Berners-street, Monday.

The Mayor then sent officers out to attempt to instill some order in the chaos in the streets, including attempting to calm the crowds who were reportedly on the brink of rioting with the streets jammed with angry travelers and hundreds of merchants who were infuriated that Mrs. Tottenham would not pay for the often massive orders of their wares they had come to deliver, some of which were completely destroyed by the crowds with several wagons overturned and other damage to various product the merchants had attempted to deliver.  Along with the damaged goods, several fights broke out throughout the day within the pressing masses. On top of that, a few barrels of ale had fallen prey to the large crowd that was maliciously enjoying the fun.

Once the crowds dissipated late in the evening, Hook and Beazley emerged from the house across the street and went home.  For successfully making the home the talk of London within a week of the bet, Hook reportedly received a guinea from Beazley.

All day and far into the night this state of things continued, meanwhile, the old lady and the inmates of adjoining houses were in abject terror. Every one soon saw that a hoax had been perpetrated, but Hook’s connection with it was not discovered till long afterwards.
He deemed it expedient, however, to go off quickly into the country and there remain incognito for a time. Had he been publicly known as the author of the outrageous hoax, he might have fared badly. He eventually confessed to the prank, but apparently never received any punishment.

From The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar by Robert Chambers, 1832

By dispatching several thousands of letters to innumerable quarters, he completely blocked up the entrances to the street, by an assemblage of the most heterogeneous kind. The parties written to had been requested to call on a certain day at the house of a lady, residing at No. 54 Berners Street, against whom Hook and one or two of his friends had conceived a grudge. So successful was the trick, that nearly all obeyed the summons. Coal-wagons, heavily laden, carts of upholstery, vans with pianos and other articles, wedding and funeral coaches, all rumbled through, and filled up the adjoining streets and lanes; sweeps assembled with the implements of their trade; tailors with clothes that had been ordered; pastry cooks with wedding-cakes; undertakers with coffins; fishmongers with cod-fishes, and butchers with legs of mutton. There were surgeons with their instruments; lawyers with their papers and parchments; and clergymen with their nooks of devotion. Such Babel was never heard before in London, and to complete the business, who should drive up but the lord mayor in his state-carriage; the governor of the Bank of England; the chairman of the East India Company; and even a scion of royalty itself, in the person of the Duke of Gloucester. Hook and his confederates were meantime enjoying the fun from a window in the neighborhood, but the consternation occasioned to the poor lady who had been made the victim of the jest, was nearly becoming too serious a matter. He never avowed himself as the originator of this trick, though there is no doubt of his being the prime actor in it. It was made the subject of a solemn investigation by many of the parties who had been duped, but so carefully had the precautions been taken to avoid detection, that the inquiry proved entirely fruitless.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

About Theodore Hook

Theodore Hook, the forgotten genius of the English language. He founded, and wrote anonymously, the brilliantly satirical John Bull newspaper which directly influenced British history in 1820. Hook created the style of political satire which has lasted to the present.

He was the only 'improvisatore' whom the English language has known, instantly composing witty songs on any subject.

He was England's best-selling novelist immediately before Charles Dickens.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Sources and Additional Information:

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...