A Writer's Tale, Literary Liaisons

A Writer’s Tale-Jonathon Swift

With it being April Fool’s Day today, I thought I would take this edition of A Writer’s Tale to feature one of the greatest April Fool’s pranks of all time. Our featured author today is that most famous English-Irish satirist Jonathon Swift, most known for his work Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships or as it is more commonly called Gulliver’s Travels.
But Swift was no one-hit wonder. He is widely recognized as one of the greatest English language satirists who ever lived, often publishing under pseudonyms to avoid the long reach of the governments he regularly lambasted.
It is with one such pseudonym that we will engage with presently. You see in Swift’s day one of the most widely read forms of literature was the almanac (Ben Franklin’s Poor Man’s Almanac being the most famous example). These almanacs usually contained day by day horoscopes for the coming year.
In 1708, during the month of February, Swift published an almanac called Predictions for the Year 1708 under the name Isaac Bickerstaff. In this almanac, he predicted the death of John Partridge, a famous astrologer of the day, “by a raging fever” on March 29th of that year at precisely 7 pm.
The prediction caused quite the commotion and was widely circulated around London. Partridge, of course, derided the prediction as a shame (he did so in verse “His whole Design was nothing but Deceit,/ The End of March will plainly show the Cheat,” really quite awful verse). Still many looked forward to March 29th with great anticipation.
On the evening in question Swift, again under the name Bickerstaff, posted a beautiful elegy announcing Partridge had in fact died. In the elegy Swift, as Bickerstaff, claims to have visited Partridge on his deathbed where the astrologer had confessed to him that he was, in fact, a fraud and had only published his untruths to be a provider to his wife.
The next day, March 30th, Swift published another pamphlet, this time anonymously, called The Accomplishment of the First of Mr. Bickerstaff’s Predictions in which he proclaims the accuracy of Bickerstaff’s prediction though noting that Partridge had died at 11 pm and not 7 pm as originally predicted.
By April 1st, all of London believed John Partridge dead and Bickerstaff a clairvoyant. Much to the chagrin of a very much alive Partridge and the delight of a very mischievous Jonathon Swift.
So the next time you pull a prank do so in honor of the original master of April Fool’s Day: Jonathon Swift.

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