In 1707 Jonathan Swift played a celebrated practical joke on the successful astrologer John Partridge, publishing a fake almanac which predicted the fortune teller’s death of fever at 11pm on the 29th March 1708. The Dean of St Patrick’s went on to publish a famous account of the astrologer’s death (even though Partridge remained rather inconveniently alive) and later proof’s that, despite his public protests to the contrary, the astrologer was really dead.
Here, five feet deep, lies on his back
A cobbler, 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.
Elegy On the Supposed Death of Mr. Partridge, the Almanac Maker– Jonathan Swift
According to his vilifiers John Partridge was born John Hewson at an alehouse in East Sheen after his unmarried mother tarried too long in the taproom on a journey to London. Neither the insinuation of illegitimacy nor the sly hint of dipsomania on the part of his mother were true; John Partridge was born on the 18 January 1644 in East Sheen, the son of a Thames Waterman who was respectable enough to act as a sidesman (a sort of assistant churchwarden) and parish assessor but not rich enough to ensure his precociously intellectual son more than a rudimentary education or able to arrange for him a career more elevated than cobbler. The young artisan taught himself Latin along with a smattering of Greek and Hebrew and sought instruction in medicine and astrology from local mages like Dr Francis Wright. Again his calumniators concocted baseless stories alleging that he had everything he knew of the zodiacal arts from John Gadbury, (“neglecting his shoes,” they said, “to attend on this fellow’s heels”), the lie meant to undermine him in his later public battles with the Oxfordshire soothsayer. In his early thirties he left Sheen and moved to Covent Garden where he simultaneously plied his two main two trades, cobbler and astrologer. He published his first almanac from Henrietta Street, Covent Garden in 1678, the Calendarium Judiacum and then swiftly went on to publish a stream of astrological treatises including Mikropanastrōn, or, An Astrological Vade Mecum; Ekklēsialogia: an Almanack, Vox lunaris, (‘being a philosophical and Astrological Discourse of two Moons which were seen in London on 11 June 1679’) and Prodromus, ‘an astrological essay’.
In the 1680’s Partridge was increasingly drawn into politics, joining the Calves Head Club and practicing Whiggery almost to the point of republicanism. On the accession of the pro Catholic James II he prudently removed himself to the Netherlands from where he published An Almanack for the Year of our Redemption (1687) and Annus mirabilis (1688) under the transparent pseudonym John Wildfowl. These attacked James’ government and declared that ‘a commonwealth's the thing that kingdoms want.’ In 1688 he went a stage further and used pseudo biblical prophecy in Mene Tekel to predict that King James would die that year. In November he returned to England joining the glorious revolution that put William of Orange on the throne. Under the new protection of the new regime Partridge flourished and his annual almanac ‘Merlinus Liberatus’, became perhaps the most successful and widely read of the yearly flood of similar publications that hit the booksellers in the dying weeks of the old year.
By April 1708 the 64 year old John Partridge, who now resided at the sign of the Blue Ball in Salisbury Court, Blackfriars, became one of that select band of people who discover they are dead by reading about it in the newspaper. Unlike other people who find themselves in this situation however he had been given 4 months notice of his imminent demise; the advance warning coming from one Isaac Bickerstaff Esquire, a mysterious personage who had, in late 1707, published ‘Predictions for the Year 1708; Written to prevent the people of England from being further imposed upon by the vulgar Almanack makers.’ As was usual even with genteel almanac makers Bickerstaff’s opus predicted the death of several eminent personages including the Cardinal de Noailles and ‘upon the 29th of March next, about eleven at night, of a raging Feaver’ John Partridge. Being a hugely successful vulgar almanac maker Partridge could hardly object, on principle, to a colleague so precisely predicting his death, even if it could be considered rather bad manners to do so. Whatever his public protestations of belief in the systems of astrology, years of failed prediction must surely have secretly undermined Partridge’s faith in the accuracy of horoscopes; he would not have been overly concerned by Bickerstaff’s confident forecast. The 29th March came and went without Partridge feeling in the slightest indisposed, he went about his normal business, chatting to friends and neighbours, eating his meals, making plans for the following days and never giving a second thought to the prospect of dying. He would must have been astonished therefore when on the 1st April (all fools day we note) someone gave him a copy of a broadsheet publication entitled ‘The Accomplishment of the First of Mr. Bickerstaff’s Predictions being an account of the death of Mr Partridge, the almanack-maker, upon the 29th instant’ in which an anonymous author, identified only as someone ‘employed in the revenue’, related in great detail the lugubrious story of Partridge’s last hours on earth.
The revenue man explained that “to satisfie my own Curiosity, I have for some Days past enquired constantly after Partrige, the Almanack-maker, of whom it was foretold in Mr. Bickerstaff's Predictions, publish'd about a Month ago, that he should die the 29th Instant about 11 at Night, of a Raging Fever….I saw him accidentally once or twice about 10 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, was confin'd first to his Chamber, and in a few Hours after to his Bed, where Dr. Gase and Mrs. Kirlens 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 my self to go and see him, partly out of Commiseration, and, I confess, partly out of Curiosity. He knew me very well, seem'd surprized at my Condescention, and made me Complements upon it as well as he could in the Condition he was. The People about him said he had been for some Hours 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 Constrain.” Partridge’s tactless interlocutor could not stop himself asking what effect Bickerstaff’s predictions had on the astrologer, to which the response was that they were more or less what was killing him. After half an hour in the dying man’s company and “being half stifled by the Closeness of the Room” the man from the Revenue made his excuses and retired to a nearby coffee house, leaving a servant at the house to advise him as soon as Partridge expired. A couple of hours later the servant arrived with the news that the astrologer was finally dead at five past 7, to which the revenue man noted “it is clear that Mr. Bickerstaff was mistaken almost Four Hours in his Calculation”.
Much to the disappointment of the many readers of Isaac Bickerstaff (who proved so popular that his works were translated and published on the continent) Partridge did not deign to respond to this transparent hoax. If he was not prepared to join the fray on his own account there were others who prepared to join it for him. Thus there appeared a counterblast under Partridge’s name but in actual fact composed by Dr Thomas Yalden, assisted by no less a figure than William Congreve the dramatist; 'Squire Bickerstaff detected; or, the astrological impostor convicted’ in which Bickerstaff was attacked for lambasting Partridge’s reputation, “most inhumanly” burying him alive, and defrauding the country of “those services, that I daily offer to the publick”. The false Partridge thanked his “better stars, I am alive to confront this false and audacious predictor, and to make him rue the hour he ever affronted a man of science and resentment.” He went into battle for himself only though, poor Cardinal Noailles “may take what measures he pleases with him; as his excellency is a foreigner, and a papist, he has no reason to rely on me for his justification; I shall only assure the world he is alive--but as he was bred to letters, and is master of a pen, let him use it in his own defence.” He then at great length demolished the pretensions of Isaac Bickerstaff to be as astrologer and a man of learning, and several thousand words later set down his pen thoroughly satisfied with himself.
The laughter had barely died down when in April 1709 shortly after the publication of Partridge’s latest almanac, the Bickerstaffian riposte was finally published; ‘A vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq; against what is objected to him by Mr. Partridge in his almanack for the present year 1709.’ Bickerstaff’s opening salvo was that “Mr. Partridge hath been lately pleased to treat me after a very rough manner, in that which is called, his almanack for the present year: Such usage is very undecent from one gentleman to another, and does not at all contribute to the discovery of truth, which ought to be the great end in all disputes of the learned. To call a man fool and villain, and impudent fellow, only for differing from him in a point meer speculative, is, in my humble opinion, a very improper style for a person of his education.” He felt forced to proudly “tell the reader that I have near a hundred honorary letters from several parts of Europe (some as far as Muscovy) in praise of my performance. Besides several others, which, as I have been credibly informed, were open'd in the post-office and never sent me.” He claimed that there had been only two objections made concerning the accuracy of his predictions, the first from a “French man, who was pleased to publish to the world, that the Cardinal de Noailles was still alive, notwithstanding the pretended prophecy of Monsieur Biquerstaffe: But how far a Frenchman, a papist, and an enemy is to be believed in his own case against an English Protestant, who is true to his government, I shall leave to the candid and impartial reader.” The second was from Partridge himself, but Bickerstaffe was determined to “prove that Mr. Partridge is not alive.” He pointed out that the increased sales of Partridge’s almanac that year had been down to “above a thousand gentleman” wanting to know what Partridge said against Bickerstaff “at every line they read, they would lift up their eyes, and cry out, betwixt rage and laughter, ‘They were sure no man alive ever writ such damn'd stuff as this.’ Neither did I ever hear that opinion disputed.” If “an uninformed carcase walks still about, and is pleased to call itself Partridge, Mr. Bickerstaff does not think himself any way answerable for that. Neither had the said carcase any right to beat the poor boy who happen'd to pass by it in the street, crying, "A full and true account of Dr. Partridge's death, etc."
No one is sure why Jonathan Swift (for the author of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ was the true identity behind the pseudonymous astrologer Isaac Bickerstaff - and of the ‘man from the revenue’ for that matter) picked John Partridge, to be the butt of his joke when he was clearly infuriated by the whole tribe of soothsayers, seers, mystics, astrologers and compilers of almanacs. Perhaps it was simply because ‘Merlinus Liberatus’ was the most successful and widely read of the yearly crop of horoscopic publication. Or perhaps it was because Partridge’s mystical mumbo jumbo was so strongly Whig and so obviously served the cause of Republican propaganda; Swift was by this point a tepid Tory after starting life as a lukewarm Whig and he generally eschewed extreme political opinions of any stripe. The hoax he played on Partridge is generally credited with finishing the astrologer’s career and often cited as the final nail in astrology’s coffin. Whilst it is true that Partridge’s almanac did not appear in 1710 this was not because, as is often alleged, the author was too disheartened at being the laughing stock of Europe to continue publication but because he was locked in a dispute over money with the Company of Stationer who were reluctant to give him the £150 fee he was demanding to allow them to print his work. When this dispute was resolved ‘Merlinus Liberatus’ continued to roll off the presses and make as much money as before. Partridge was certainly wealthy when he died; he left over £2000 in his will, an enormous sum for the time. And as for astrology itself, the quackery is alive and well as a cursory search of any tabloid newspaper will tell you and London itself, 300 years later has as many psychics, seers and fortune-tellers per head of population as it did in the early 1700’s.
John Partridge really died in London on 24th June 1715 and at his own request was buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s in Mortlake on 30th June. His handsome chest tomb with the black marble top and white marble sides has weathered badly and the Latin inscription, which is no longer legible, said “Johannes Partridge astrologus et medicinæ doctor, natus est apud East-Sheen in comitatu Surrey 8° die Januarii anno 1644, et mortuus est Londini 24° die Junii anno 1715. Medicinam fecit duobus Regibus unique Reginæ Carolo scilicet Secundo, Willielmo Tertio, Reginæque Mariæ. Creatus medicinæ doctor Lugduni Batavorum.” Little or no knowledge of Latin is required to translate the first sentence and the second claims, almost certainly unjustifiably, that he was a doctor of medicine for two kings and one queen, Charles II, William III and Queen Mary and that he was made a doctor of medicine at Leiden in Holland. A more fitting epitaph would have been “Dean Swift granted me what little fame I have” for without the Dean of St Patrick’s joke at his expense Partridge would have long since disappeared into obscurity.