Engraving by John Surt, 1710
Source: British Museum

Isaac Bickerstaff was a pseudonym used by the satirist Jonathan Swift in a hoax predicting the “infallible” death of John Partridge, a well-known 18th-century astrologer and almanac maker. In his almanacs, Partridge predicted the deaths of well-known people throughout the coming year; Swift’s idea was that publishing a prediction about Partridge’s own death would be a way to express his displeasure with Partridge’s attack on the “infallible church” in the 1708 issue of his Merlinus Almanac.

Pretending to be an astrologer himself, in his “Predictions For The Year 1708” Bickerstaff writes:[1]

My first prediction is but a trifle, yet I will mention it, to show how ignorant those sottish pretenders to astrology are in their own concerns. 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 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.

Partridge responded by publishing a “blustering and labored attempt” to laugh off Bickerstaff’s prediction, which only succeeded in keeping the joke alive in the public imagination. He ended with a couplet that may have determined Swift to continue with his hoax:[2]

His whole Design was nothing but Deceit,
The End of March will plainly show the Cheat.

Within hours of Partridge’s predicted death on 29 March, Swift published a letter under the title of “The Accomplishment of the First of Mr. Bickerstaff’s Predictions”, in which he writes not as Bickerstaff but as a former officer in the Revenue Service and a friend of Partridge’s, confirming that the latter had died, preceded by his “Elegy” which begins:[2]

Here, five Foot deep, lies on his Back,
A Cobler[a]Before becoming an astrologer Partridge had worked as a cobbler.[3], Starmonger, and Quack;[b]Partridge also practised as a quack doctor.[3]
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 there the matter may have ended, had Partridge recognised Bickerstaff’s attack for what it was, an April Fools’ joke – of which Swift was very fond – and decided instead to respond by publishing his “Squire Bickerstaff detected; or, the astrological impostor convicted”.[2] In his final pronouncement as Isaac Bickerstaff, Swift ends the hoax by attempting to prove that Partridge must indeed be dead whatever he might say to the contrary, and may even have practised necromancyNecromancy is a form of magic in which the dead are re-animated and able to communicate with the sorcerer who invoked them, just as they would if they were alive. on himself:

Without entering into criticisms of chronology about the hour of his death, I shall only prove that Mr. Partridge is not alive … Mr.Partridge pretends to tell fortunes, and recover stolen goods; which all the parish says he must do by conversing with the devil and evil spirits. And no wise man will ever allow he could converse personally with either, till after he was dead.[4]

Bickerstaff goes on to dismiss airily the fact that Partridge apparently continues to write almanacs after his death by saying:

But this is no more than what is common to all that profession: Adbury, Poor Robin, Dove, Wing, and several others, do yearly publish their almanacs, though several of them have been dead since before the Revolution … Time, whose registers they are, gives them a lease in reversion, to continue their works after death.[5]

Aftermath


As a result of Partridge’s reported death, the Company of Stationers applied to the Lord Chancellor for the exclusive right to continue publishing a Partridge’s Almanac, which they were granted despite Partridge himself subsequently appearing in court in an attempt to restore his trade name;[3] “as an almanac-maker [he was] truly ‘dead’ ”.[2] By 1710 Partridge was thoroughly discredited as an astrologer and physician.[2]

Citations



Bibliography


Eddy, W. A. (1932). The Wits vs. John Partridge, Astrologer. Studies in Philology, 29(1), 29–40. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/4172153
Mayhew, G. P. (1964). Swift’s Bickerstaff Hoax as an April Fools’ Joke. Modern Philology, 61(4), 270–280. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/436196
Swift, J. (2017). Bickerstaff-Partridge Papers (ebook). Create Space Independent Publishing Platform.

Notes

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a. Before becoming an astrologer Partridge had worked as a cobbler.[3]
b. Partridge also practised as a quack doctor.[3]