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.
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.
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.