Not one to miss a chance for mischief, Jonathan Swift set his sights in 1708 on astrologer and almanac-maker John Partridge. In January of the same year, Swift released his own almanac under the pseudonym “Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.” His Predictions for the year 1708 made light of the famous astrologer’s predictions—even foretelling Partridge would die “of a raging fever” upon the 29th of March. On or about April Fools’ Day, 1708, Swift published the letter reproduced below, this time as “a man employed in the Revenue,” confirming Bickerstaff’s prediction of Partridge’s death. Partridge was, of course, still alive, but the hoax began to turn its gears: mourners faithful to his guides kept John Partridge awake at night with their dirges and laments, funeral assistants rang his doorbell to inquire about interment, and clever passers-by greeted Partridge on the street by asking how his widow was coping with his sudden expiration.
BEING AN ACCOUNT OF THE DEATH OF MR. PARTRIDGE THE ALMANACK-MAKER, UPON THE 29TH INSTANT. IN A LETTER TO A PERSON OF HONOUR; WRITTEN IN THE YEAR 1708.
MY LORD, – In obedience to your lordship’s commands, as well as to satisfy my own curiosity, I have for some days past inquired constantly after Partridge the almanack-maker, of whom it was foretold in Mr. Bickerstaff’s predictions, published about a month ago, that he should die the 29th instant, about eleven at night, of a raging fever. I had some sort of knowledge of him when I was employed 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, though I hear his friends did not seem to apprehend him in any danger. About two or three days ago he grew ill, was confined 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 inquire 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, seemed surprised 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 spoke strong and hearty, without any seeming uneasiness or constraint. After I had 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 ingenuously, whether the predictions Mr. Bickerstaff had published relating to his death had not too much affected and worked on his imagination. He confessed 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 surprised 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 convinced of Mr. Bickerstaff’s ignorance. He replied, “I am a poor, ignorant follow, 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 replied, “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 physic than my astrology; though 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 fanatic 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 imagined 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 nearly 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 confessed the matter is odd enough, whether we should endeavour to account for it by chance, or the effect of imagination. For my own part, though 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 do Noailles is to die upon the 4th of April, and if that should be verified as exactly as this of poor Partridge, I must own I should be wholly surprised, and at a loss, and should infallibly expect the accomplishment of all the rest.
Swift shows his satiric wit in his appropriation of his mocked subject’s own vitriol—echoing Partridge’s sarcastic blast at the “infallible Church,” Swift-as-Bickerstaff declared that the petulant prophesier would “infallibly die upon the 29th.” for the full text of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.’s original prediction, read here
Swift published this elegy to the ostensibly deceased Partridge
The hoax continued for quite some time: Partridge invested significant effort into reclaiming himself as a living soul, and Swift published The Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff later that year. He dispelled his clever edifice, but not before upturning the authenticity of Partridge’s ‘post-mortem’ letters, reasoning that “there were sure no man alive ever to writ such damned stuff as this.”
John Partridge would never live down this grandest April Fools’ pranks: the jeers and jokes purportedly followed him until his second (and final), death in 1714.