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The Extraordinary Astrologer Isaac Bickerstaff

Article #318 • Written by Christopher S. Putnam

Teetering between its medieval past and the “Age of Reason,” early 18th-century London was an environment in which the ancient practice of astrology held wide appeal. No astrologer was more influential than John Partridge, a part-time cobbler and quack whose Merlinus Almanac delivered a healthy sense of impending doom to thousands of discerning readers each year. As with all astrologers, Partridge’s predictions had a habit of being vague, noncommittal, and wrong. Nevertheless, his position as a leading astrologer and physician went largely unchallenged among a London society eager to find order and meaning in its world.

All of that was about to change in January of 1708. In that month, a short almanac under the name Predictions for the Year 1708 was published across the city by a previously-unheard-of astrologer identifying himself as “Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.” The paper was written, the author claimed, “to prevent the people of England from being farther imposed on by vulgar almanack-makers.” Such boastful tirades were nothing new; what made Bickerstaff’s publication unusual was that he seemed to have the results to back himself up. Following his opening rant, he moved into a long list of strikingly bold and precise predictions unlike anything that had been seen before. Beginning the list was this:

“My first prediction is but a trifle… It relates to Partridge the almanack-maker; I have consulted the stars of his nativity by my own rules, and find he will infallibly die upon the 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.”

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 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.

John Partridge (image courtesy of Deb Houlding, www.skyscript.co.uk)
John Partridge (image courtesy of Deb Houlding, www.skyscript.co.uk)

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.”

Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift

“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.

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.
Article written by Christopher S. Putnam, published on 01 April 2008. Chris is a writer and bomb-disposal expert for the Damn Interesting A-Team. He posts from an undisclosed location in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows. Edited by Alan Bellows.
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50 Comments
Jaded
Posted 01 April 2008 at 10:52 am

First


Zamemee
Posted 01 April 2008 at 11:03 am

DI! But I'm curious, is 1708 considered to be the year of the first All Fool's Day? If not, when did it first begin?


Falos
Posted 01 April 2008 at 11:14 am

Ah, came in expecting April 1st to be taken advantage of... still interesting, of course


FixedFrequency
Posted 01 April 2008 at 11:15 am

I read an article recently about people who had inadvertently been marked as "deceased" on government records and what a hard time they had trying to convince the powers that be that they, in fact, were still alive. I never would have considered actually doing it to someone on purpose!


Jaded
Posted 01 April 2008 at 11:46 am

There's another article about doing it to people on purpose

http://www.damninteresting.com/?p=784#more-784

to inherit the "dead" persons property.


Diablo
Posted 01 April 2008 at 11:56 am

DI indeed, happy april fool's.


imicahi
Posted 01 April 2008 at 12:06 pm

I am so glad you mentioned 'A Modest Proposal.' It used to be required high school curriculum but now, any time I reference it, nobody has a clue as to what I'm talking about...

Damn Potato Famine!


Ard Ri
Posted 01 April 2008 at 12:12 pm

DI, Was he part of the Partridge Family???


Bell*
Posted 01 April 2008 at 12:39 pm

DI and very funny as well.


Evil Twin
Posted 01 April 2008 at 12:49 pm

An appropriate April Fool's Day story! For once it was not a joke on me. A truly great story, although Mr. Patridge probably didn't think so. Maybe once he passed on, he appreciated the irony.


Silverhill
Posted 01 April 2008 at 01:14 pm

Zamemee said: "DI! But I'm curious, is 1708 considered to be the year of the first All Fool's Day? If not, when did it first begin?"
It varies according to which country, or region, you're in. See the Wikipedia article for much more information.


Brombachian
Posted 01 April 2008 at 01:35 pm

Swift was an asshole! A damn interesting one at that.


sh0cktopus
Posted 01 April 2008 at 01:42 pm

Wow - that is one hardcore prank. Sure beats covering someone's office with aluminum foil or nailing the furniture to the ceiling. One little tidbit I found on Wikipedia regarding Swift's selection of Partridge as a target: not only had Partridge made "sarcastic remarks" about Swift's employer,the Church of England, but he had also falsely predicted the deaths of some church officials. So, the punishment fits the crime. Also, Swift was an ordained priest in the Church of Ireland, so his revenge may have been more deeply rooted than merely defending his employer. Although, what kind of priest would pull something like this? Ummm... I'm dropping that can of worms like a hot potato. Happy April Fools' Day everybody! I hope if you pranked or got pranked, it was more tame than this.


Bleupea
Posted 01 April 2008 at 01:50 pm

DI! I've always been a huge Swift fan, now even more so ;-)


Flammadeao
Posted 01 April 2008 at 03:24 pm

DI! Happy April fools day :P


sh0cktopus
Posted 01 April 2008 at 03:25 pm

Hello again. I'm sure all you more observant types saw this a long time ago, but I just noticed the link for "Micro-Donate!" under Options at the end of the article. Check it out, people. I think it's a Damn Interesting concept in and of itself. Judging from the response to the book donation drive and the ever-growing readership, I think we could put DI into the top five by the end of the week. And no, I am in no way affiliated with the staff at DI. I just wish nothing but success for my favorite website.

P.S. Anthropositor is the new Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Not like that's a bad thing ...


Paul_in_SF
Posted 01 April 2008 at 04:02 pm

I've heard this story before, but never told so Damn Interestingly!

Thanks for another fantastic article.


uthor
Posted 01 April 2008 at 04:03 pm

Man, I love Jonathan Swift. I need to read more stuff by him. Funny guy.


GiddyGiant
Posted 01 April 2008 at 04:05 pm

I had no idea that a satrirical mind such as Swift could have published such an outrageous and aggressive attack on a fellow writer and englishman. Oh wait, yes I can. That's kind of what they had to occupy themselves before TiVo. Furthermore, I have read a modest proposal, and found that there is more than one person who agrees with its precepts, though it only a joke, it's scary how some people nod instead of laugh.


pog-mo-thon
Posted 01 April 2008 at 04:25 pm

I predict that Alan Bellows brain will turn into pudding on April 23rd 2008. The improvement will not go unnoticed. Keep up the good work Alan....best of luck on the hard copy.


oldmancoyote
Posted 01 April 2008 at 08:14 pm

Bad joke or not, it's a good reason not to go to work. "Gee, boss. I can't come to work today. Last night I caught a bad case of death. Hopefully I'll be better soon."
Unfortunately calling in dead only works once. After that they catch on real quick. Happy AFD, everyone.


supercalafragalistic
Posted 01 April 2008 at 09:20 pm

I love pranks. My most favorite April Fool's event was when a good friend of mine who is gay decided to tell his parents that he was of that persuasion. He called them and said- Mom, Dad, I'm Straight. April Fools!!! Absolute classic.


Anonymousx2
Posted 02 April 2008 at 05:52 am

uthor said: "Man, I love Jonathan Swift. I need to read more stuff by him. Funny guy."

We desperately need either a Swift or a Twain today.

Just think what one of them could do with our current crop of Three Stooges: Clinton and the two Irishmen McCain and O'Bama.

Uther, I think that you will like one of my Swift favorites: A Modest Proposal - For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being Aburden to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to The Public -- By Jonathan Swift (1729)

Here's the description on Google's page: Jonathan Swift's satirical essay from 1729, where he suggests that the Irish eat their own children.

Here's the url: http://art-bin.com/art/omodest.html


Richard Solensky
Posted 02 April 2008 at 06:07 am

Dead man walking!

Seriously, a prank like this would not have been so successful for so long if Partridge had been liked and respected. Evidently, he wasn't highly thought of, which encouraged people to continue to have fun at his expense.

One also has to admire Swift's planning. He had to set it up well in advance, and keep it going for weeks. Recruiting others to keep annoying Partridge, contacting undertakers and churchmen...

By the way, would you consider Partridge a zombie? He was in a strange "undead" state...

But for sheer audacity, considering the skill and subterfuge needed, and the size of the audience, one cannot top the Great Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Rose_Bowl_Hoax


Lisette
Posted 02 April 2008 at 07:13 am

What a DI April Fool joke... not so DI for the victim though!


Mikell
Posted 02 April 2008 at 08:30 am

I can think of several candidates suited for this humiliation in the US today - blowhards who could use a bit of air let out of their egos and public images. But, alas, I fear the perpetrator would find himself in court for the rest of his days.


ggnutsc
Posted 02 April 2008 at 10:42 am

Kind of gives a whole new light to "live by the sword, die by the sword" even if the death is not real... What a great gag to pull on Partridge (presuming he was the fake windbag history suggests) Sadly I must confess, I played no April Fools day pranks on anyone this year.


bones mcgee
Posted 02 April 2008 at 02:00 pm

Somebody tried a similar scheme this year - it did not go over well:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/01/AR2008040102564.html


LogicGate
Posted 02 April 2008 at 06:46 pm

Richard Solensky said: "Dead man walking!

Seriously, a prank like this would not have been so successful for so long if Partridge had been liked and respected. Evidently, he wasn't highly thought of, which encouraged people to continue to have fun at his expense.

One also has to admire Swift's planning. He had to set it up well in advance, and keep it going for weeks. Recruiting others to keep annoying Partridge, contacting undertakers and churchmen…

By the way, would you consider Partridge a zombie? He was in a strange "undead" state…

But for sheer audacity, considering the skill and subterfuge needed, and the size of the audience, one cannot top the Great Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Rose_Bowl_Hoax"

While the 1961 prank was clever, the effort displayed by Yale in 2004 was, in my opinion, more humorous...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yale%27s_%22We_Suck%22_prank


nona
Posted 03 April 2008 at 04:33 am

I love Jonathan Swift. he was just so viciously clever! I read A Modest Proposal at school, and I thought it was hysterical - much to the horror of the rest of my class, who just thought it was cruel. Even when patiently explained to them that it was a joke, and was a fine example of satire, they thought it was cruel and horrible and I was nasty for laughing at it. (good thing I never told them about the Bonsai Kittens)


Hiland
Posted 03 April 2008 at 04:58 am

Hmmmmm, I wonder if I could convince the IRS I was dead and not have to fill out tax returns? Death and Taxes. Oh well.


adehp
Posted 03 April 2008 at 06:20 am

It leads to an interesting paradox. You could call in to work dead, claim all sorts of outrageous exemptions so that the IRS almost has to audit you. And then they realize that you are, according to their records, quite dead. The auditor would then call in the supervisor, who would say: "Well, if they're dead, they don't need any money back." You wouldn't be able to get a driver's license, and even if you did drive, if you got caught, you'd be headed to jail for Driving while Dead. I've heard it's even more impairing than Driving while Intoxicated.


another viewpoint
Posted 03 April 2008 at 11:06 am

...the only real problem these days is that too people are dying to get to the cemetary. ;-)


FixedFrequency
Posted 03 April 2008 at 12:49 pm

Sadly, most countries nail you with a rather hefty "death tax" when you pass on, so faking your own death could actually be quite costly!


KireSunfer
Posted 03 April 2008 at 01:12 pm

Wow. Swift is one of my favorite literary figures and I never knew this. Thanks DI!


superslicedog
Posted 04 April 2008 at 01:09 pm

brilliant!


stinger
Posted 04 April 2008 at 02:02 pm

DO NOT TRY AND CAPTURE THE LOOF LIRPA ON YOUR OWN. IF YOU HAVE A LARGE DOG, PLEASE KEEP YOUR DOG INSIDE

A careless zookeeper had been distracted while the animal's enclosure was unlocked, and the 350-pound lirpa, which has "gazelle-like horns," hurtled off, according to community activist Bill Adler's posting on the Cleveland Park electronic message board.

Police Cmdr. Andy Solberg quickly weighed in, alerting residents that a department helicopter was on the case. In his e-mail to the 6,200 people on the neighborhood e-mail list, Solberg added: "If we are not successful in assisting the Zoo with finding the lirpa today, I have the utmost confidence we will probably get him tomorrow."


Anthropositor
Posted 05 April 2008 at 02:45 pm

(Sniff) I smell the dung of the Loof Lirpa. Very much like bull manure. Did you bring your pooper scooper?


Josh Sincer
Posted 06 April 2008 at 04:21 am

hehe, manipulations are have always been there and always will be, the question is, do we understand that someone tries to direct us ? came across an article recently, where authors of ICDL language claim that creating free-access search databases will open a new era in Web technology. Can Google sometimes be biased? - sure! At omfica.org thay say that every single user can make a change ...creating independent information databases is the clue to our independent future...maybe they're going to be Swift our our days!?


casaba
Posted 06 April 2008 at 02:53 pm

FixedFrequency said: "Sadly, most countries nail you with a rather hefty "death tax" when you pass on, so faking your own death could actually be quite costly!"

Sorry to butt in with a bit of seriousness but I'm a bit a crusader when it comes to the taxation (mis)conceptions. FF, I don't know which country you are in, but if it's the US, I suggest you look up how the inheritance tax (aka 'death tax') actually works. Perhaps you feel that you are addressing a DI-readership full of multi-millionaires. Maybe you're right and I'm the exception, but in all likelihood, the (US-based) readership here resembles the general population, and very few will ever pay a cent of 'death tax'. (By the way, if you are in the US, and of that 'persuasion'--i.e. worth more than US$3.5 million--2010 is your year... to die tax free! Not 2009, and 2011 they practically go back to pre-Bush rules; only 2010. And be careful: Is that within the calendar year 2010 or the fiscal year 2010?)

{And FF, if you are not in the US, my apologies...}


FixedFrequency
Posted 07 April 2008 at 09:44 am

No worries, I'm not in the US actually, but if I do decide to fake my own death for tax purposes, I'll be sure to acquire US citizenship first and "die" there! Useful info!


Erasure
Posted 11 April 2008 at 12:37 am

That is one nasty April fools prank. I'd hate to have gotten on the wrong side of Jonathan Swift, he is one nasty piece of work.

Erasure

[spammy link removed]


Inti
Posted 11 April 2008 at 06:39 am

Good for John Partridge. Pseudoscience and superstition should pay their lies in generous quantities. There are few things so harmful to humanity than superstition and the belief in surreal entities that govern our lives and destinies. We are alone, and our lives are just a brief flash of consciousness after which there is nothing else.


SisterGirl
Posted 12 April 2008 at 06:17 am

Bouquets! A rose to the author of this piece (who was it again?) and a bow to one of my favorite people, Jonathon Swift.


Hoekstes
Posted 15 April 2008 at 06:34 am

So let me get this straight... Partridge is that guy with the black robe and the sickle right? The one featured in amongst others Terry Pratchett's Soul Music?


Rachelita
Posted 02 May 2008 at 10:35 am

Absolutely hilarious!


USATODAY
Posted 15 May 2008 at 06:42 am

Josh Sincer said: "hehe, manipulations are have always been there and always will be, the question is, do we understand that someone tries to direct us ? came across an article recently, where authors of ICDL language claim that creating free-access search databases will open a new era in Web technology. Can Google sometimes be biased? - sure! At omfica.org thay say that every single user can make a change …creating independent information databases is the clue to our independent future…maybe they're going to be Swift our our days!?"

I dont believe that a website can truly remain unbiased as peoples conflicting opinions will prevent that. Yes swift did a great thing for society by showing people's true opinions on the man, almost in an "Emperor's New clothes way," but peoples opinons did all shift over at once. From this article we get one single opinion about partridge, and if he was so influencial ( even if his predictions were wrong) who's really to blame? Partirdge himself, or the people who followed him? I believe that the londoners got themselves into a rut by believing this man, and that by targeting only him it only woke them up from believing everything they heard, almost in the sazme way that people are ignorant to the influences of the media.


mysticgirl
Posted 03 June 2008 at 05:31 am

Ooooh better watch out for Isaac Bickerstaff.. I think thats the name of my long lost neighbour.


DJ-Anakin
Posted 07 July 2008 at 07:46 am

Someone please remind me why the mining company just left without cleaning up? And why they're not being made to clean it up?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anaconda_Mining_Company
"The Anaconda Company was purchased by Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) on January 12, 1977. At present (2007), Anaconda exists only as an environmental liability for BP, the current owner of ARCO."

Fine, have ARCO clean it up, they bought Anaconda and all it's problems.


jffgrdn24
Posted 01 April 2009 at 12:24 pm

Happy April Fools Day!!


END OF COMMENTS
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