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).

Nov 6, 2011

Predictions of Jonathan Swift on John Partridge Death

Here Five Foot deep lyes on his back
A Cobler, Starmonger, and Quack,
Who to the Stars in pure Good-will,
Does to his best look upward still.
(From Swift's 'epitaph' to Partridge)

John Partridge was a leading astrologer of the early 18th Century - a period when astrology was sliding into disrepute. Rejected by the scientific establishment of the Age of Reason, it became fair game for ridicule by the wits and satirists of the day. In 1708 Dean Jonathan Swift, best known now as the author of Gulliver's Travels, perpetrated an elaborate hoax at Partridge's expense.

Poor old Partridge had the misfortune to cross Dean Swift, partly for reasons of his political allegiance, partly because Swift had a poor view of astrologers in general, and partly because he was annoyed by the astrologer's attacks upon the church. Under the assumed name of Isaac Bickerstaff, Swift issued his own almanac to rival Partridge's Merlinus Liberatus.

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His predictions for the year 1708 are prefaced by a condemnation of..."mean illiterate traders between us and the stars". He names Partridge and Gadbury, whose.. ."nonsense and folly are offered to the world as genuine from the planets, though they descend from no greater height than their own brains". He condemns the pretensions, the learning and even the literacy of those named and offers himself as a true practitioner.

My first prediction relates to Partridge the almanack-maker. I have consulted the star of his nativity, and find that he will infallibly die upon the night of 29th of March next, about eleven at night, of a raging fever: therefore I advise him to consider of it, and settle his affairs in time.

The pamphlet continues with a series of predictions. It was apparently taken seriously enough to be burned by the Inquisition in Portugal, according to the ambassador of the time. Swift kept the jest running around town by next publishing - as 'a Person of Quality' - a critical account of 'Bickerstaff's' predictions, and challenging Partridge to refute them.

Word of Bickerstaff’s pamphlet quickly spread across London. Although astrologers, Partridge among them, were notorious for predicting the deaths of notable people each year, none dared to name a specific timeframe—or to target one of their own. The almanac reached far enough to be read and burned by the Portuguese Inquisition, while Partridge fanned the flames with a harshly-written reply to Bickerstaff. It read in part: “His whole design was nothing but Deceit, / The End of March will plainly show the Cheat.” Some wondered if the entire commotion was a joke by Bickerstaff, but the motivation for such a thing was hard to imagine—if he were false, he would be exposed and forgotten in just a few short weeks. In the meantime, all of London sat in anticipation.

And incredibly, on the 30th of March, word of Partridge did indeed arrive. A letter written to an unnamed lord and titled “The Accomplishment of the First of Mr. Bickerstaff’s Predictions” began to circulate around the city. In it, an anonymous man “employed in the Revenue” reported sitting at Partridge’s bedside on the evening of March 29. Partridge, he recalled, had fallen ill some three days earlier and was by then beyond hope. In his final hours, he had confessed to being a fraud and named Bickerstaff’s prediction as the self-fulfilling prophesy that had put him in this state. Finally, he had succumbed to his fever at 7:05 PM—just four hours off the time predicted by Bickerstaff.

The content of the letter (it is short, so I will publish it in full):

My Lord,
In obedience to your Lordship’s commands, as well as to satisfy my own curiosity, I have for some days past enquired constantly after Partridge the almanack-maker, of whom it was foretold in Mr. Bickerstaff’s predictions, publish’d about a month ago, that he should die on the 29th instant about eleven at night of a raging fever. I had some sort of knowledge of him when I was employ’d in the Revenue, because he used every year to present me with his almanack, as he did other gentlemen, upon the score of some little gratuity we gave him. I saw him accidentally once or twice about ten days before he died, and observed he began very much to droop and languish, tho’ I hear his friends did not seem to apprehend him in any danger. About two or three days ago he grew ill, and was confin’d first to his chamber, and in a few hours after to his bed, where Dr. Case and Mrs. Kirleus were sent for to visit, and to prescribe to him. Upon this intelligence I sent thrice every day one servant or other to enquire after his health; and yesterday, about four in the afternoon, word was brought me that he was past hopes: Upon which, I prevailed with myself to go and see him, partly out of commiseration, and I confess, partly out of curiosity. He knew me very well, seem’d surpriz’d at my condescension, and made me compliments upon it as well as he could, in the condition he was. The people about him said, he had been for some time delirious; but when I saw him, he had his understanding as well as ever I knew, and spake strong and hearty, without any seeming uneasiness or constraint. After I told him how sorry I was to see him in those melancholy circumstances, and said some other civilities, suitable to the occasion, I desired him to tell me freely and ingeniously, whether the predictions Mr. Bickerstaff had publish’d relating to his death, had not too much affected and worked on his imagination. He confess’d he had often had it in his head, but never with much apprehension, till about a fortnight before; since which time it had the perpetual possession of his mind and thoughts, and he did verily believe was the true natural cause of his present distemper: For, said he, I am thoroughly persuaded, and I think I have very good reasons, that Mr. Bickerstaff spoke altogether by guess, and knew no more what will happen this year than I did myself. I told him his discourse surprized me; and I would be glad he were in a state of health to be able to tell me what reason he had to be convinc’d of Mr. Bickerstaff’s ignorance. He reply’d, I am a poor ignorant fellow, bred to a mean trade, yet I have sense enough to know that all pretences of foretelling by astrology are deceits, for this manifest reason, because the wise and the learned, who can only know whether there be any truth in this science, do all unanimously agree to laugh at and despise it; and none but the poor ignorant vulgar give it any credit, and that only upon the word of such silly wretches as I and my fellows, who can hardly write or read. I then asked him why he had not calculated his own nativity, to see whether it agreed with Bickerstaff’s prediction? at which he shook his head, and said, Oh! sir, this is no time for jesting, but for repenting those fooleries, as I do now from the very bottom of my heart. By what I can gather from you, said I, the observations and predictions you printed, with your almanacks, were mere impositions on the people. He reply’d, if it were otherwise I should have the less to answer for. We have a common form for all those things, as to foretelling the weather, we never meddle with that, but leave it to the printer, who takes it out of any old almanack, as he thinks fit; the rest was my own invention, to make my almanack sell, having a wife to maintain, and no other way to get my bread; for mending old shoes is a poor livelihood; and, (added he, sighing) I wish I may not have done more mischief by my physick than my astrology; tho’ I had some good receipts from my grandmother, and my own compositions were such as I thought could at least do no hurt.

I had some other discourse with him, which now I cannot call to mind; and I fear I have already tired your Lordship. I shall only add one circumstance, That on his death-bed he declared himself a Nonconformist, and had a fanatick preacher to be his spiritual guide. After half an hour’s conversation I took my leave, being half stifled by the closeness of the room. I imagine he could not hold out long, and therefore withdrew to a little coffee-house hard by, leaving a servant at the house with orders to come immediately, and tell me, as near as he could, the minute when Partridge should expire, which was not above two hours after; when, looking upon my watch, I found it to be above five minutes after seven; by which it is clear that Mr. Bickerstaff was mistaken almost four hours in his calculation. In the other circumstances he was exact enough. But whether he has not been the cause of this poor man’s death, as well as the predictor, may be very reasonably disputed. However, it must be confess’d the matter is odd enough, whether we should endeavour to account for it by chance, or the effect of imagination: For my own part, tho’ I believe no man has less faith in these matters, yet I shall wait with some impatience, and not without some expectation, the fulfilling of Mr. Bickerstaff’s second prediction, that the Cardinal de Noailles is to die upon the fourth of April, and if that should be verified as exactly as this of poor Partridge, I must own I should be wholly surprized, and at a loss, and should infallibly expect the accomplishment of all the rest.

The news left London in a state of shock and wonder. At the same moment it had lost one of its oldest and most respected almanac writers, the city had gained what was surely the first indisputably genuine astrologer in history. The implications were staggering.

It’s likely that no one was as surprised to hear the news as John Partridge. For Partridge, as it happened, was alive and well, having spent the night of March 29 smugly celebrating his victory over the fraud Isaac Bickerstaff. Word of his death became widespread on the morning of April 1, making it apparent that Partridge had been the victim of one of history’s grandest All Fools’ Day pranks.

But Partridge’s ordeal was only beginning. It’s reported that he woke up the morning of his death to the sound of the church bell announcing his passing. Before long, he was visited by an undertaker looking to prepare his home, and later by the church sexton seeking orders for the funeral sermon. Throughout the day a string of mourners, funeral workers, and church officials were shooed from the cobbler’s door.

It wasn’t difficult to piece together what had happened. The letter announcing Partridge’s death had, of course, been written by Isaac Bickerstaff himself—as he had planned to do from the very start. But this one authentic-sounding account was more than enough to convince London of the news. Partridge’s name was removed from the Stationer’s Register—making him essentially legally dead—and crowds of his fans held vigils outside his home. Meanwhile, Partridge’s published responses asserting his continued functioning went largely ignored. The public had decided he was dead, and the words of a dead man obviously couldn’t be trusted.

Some Londoners seemed to genuinely believe the good astrologer was deceased, while others merely reveled in tormenting him; Partridge would frequently be stopped on the street for inquiries into how his widow was coping, or to be chided for lacking the decency to be properly buried. The old astrologer had no shortage of enthusiastic enemies willing to perpetuate the myth of his death, and the more literarily inclined among them—some the past victims of Partridge’s own predictions—set about printing additional denials and confirmations of his passing, adding to the confusion. Some of these forgeries were released under Partridge’s own name, making it difficult to separate his genuine protests from the comically-enhanced accounts of his imposters.

What is clear is that the hoax plagued Partridge for the rest of his life. As a preface to all of his future public dealings he would invariably need to argue—sometimes unsuccessfully—that he was the real John Partridge and that he wasn’t dead. Even among those who knew he was alive, Partridge had become something of a living joke, so that he was unlikely to be taken seriously any longer as a sober dispenser of astrology or medicine. Publication of his almanac ceased, and while he was far from ruined, the Bickerstaff incident essentially marked the end of Partridge’s life as a public figure. He spent the rest of his days trying to discover the true identity of Isaac Bickerstaff, but to no avail.

The answer that eluded Partridge was not lost to history. It was eventually uncovered that Isaac Bickerstaff was a pseudonym for none other than the legendary author and cleric Jonathan Swift. In the years before writing such classic works of satire as Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal,” Swift amused himself by terrorizing his friends and enemies with elaborate pranks on All Fools’ Day, his favorite holiday. Not a fan of charlatan physicians and astrologers to begin with, Swift had taken a special interest in John Partridge over some sarcastic remarks the old cobbler had made about Swift’s employer, the Church of England.

Swift published as Bickerstaff one last time in 1709 with a letter titled “A Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff.” In it, he outlined a series of elegant arguments to prove that Partridge was indeed dead. Among them, he reasoned that it was “sure no man alive ever writ such damn’d stuff” as the tripe printed in Partridge’s almanacs, and that Partridge’s wife had been heard to swear that “her husband had neither life nor soul in him.” “Therefore,” Swift continued, “if an uninformed carcass walks still about and is pleased to call itself Partridge, Mr. Bickerstaff does not think himself any way answerable for that.” Swift had by now abandoned all pretense of seriousness, but it no longer mattered.

In the end, half of Swift’s prophesy came true: John Partridge did eventually die. The precise date fell somewhere around 1715, putting Swift’s prediction off by a mere 62,000 hours—the blink of an eye on fate’s great cosmic scale. Partridge’s legacy included an impressive assortment of publications, titles, and honors, but he would be remembered for nothing better than the epitaph written for him by Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq. in 1708, part of which is included as epigraph to this post.

Here, five Foot deep, lies on his Back,
A Cobler, Starmonger, and Quack;
Who to the Stars in pure Good-will,
Does to his best look upward still.
Weep all you Customers that use
His Pills, his Almanacks, or Shoes;
And you that did your Fortunes seek,
Step to his Grave but once a Week:
This Earth which bears his Body’s Print,
You’ll find has so much Vertue in’t,
That I durst pawn my Ears ’twill tell
Whate’er concerns you full as well,
In Physick, Stolen Goods, or Love,
As he himself could, when above.

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