John Partridge was a leading astrologer of the early 18th Century - a period when astrology was sliding into disrepute. Rejected by the scientific establishment of the Age of Reason, it became fair game for ridicule by the wits and satirists of the day. In 1708 Dean Jonathan Swift, best known now as the author of Gulliver's Travels, perpetrated an elaborate hoax at Partridge's expense.
Poor old Partridge had the misfortune to cross Dean Swift, partly for reasons of his political allegiance, partly because Swift had a poor view of astrologers in general. Under the assumed name of Isaac Bickerstaff, Swift issued his own almanac to rival Partridge's Merlinus Liberatus.
His predictions for the year 1708 are prefaced by a condemnation of..."mean illiterate traders between us and the stars". He names Partridge and Gadbury, whose.. ."nonsense and folly are offered to the world as genuine from the planets, though they descend from no greater height than their own brains". He condemns the pretensions, the learning and even the literacy of those named and offers himself as a true practitioner.
My first prediction relates to Partridge the almanack-maker. I have consulted the star of his nativity, and find that he will infallibly die upon the night of 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.
The pamphlet continues with a series of predictions. It was apparently taken seriously enough to be burned by the Inquisition in Portugal, according to the ambassador of the time. Swift kept the jest running around town by next publishing - as 'a Person of Quality' - a critical account of 'Bickerstaff's' predictions, and challenging Partridge to refute them.
At the end of March, Swift published The Accomplishment of the First of Mr Bickerstaff's Predictions. Being an account of the death of Mr Partridge, which claimed that Partridge had died precisely in the manner foretold. Next he issued a pamphlet under Partridge's name entitled: Squire
Bickerstaff Detected, or The Astrological Impostor Convicted, in which Partridge was supposed to have protested... "I thank my better stars I am alive to confront this false and audacious predictor..."
The jape was too good for Swift, or the town, to let drop. He followed quickly with a farcical account, again under the name of poor Partridge, of the night of his alleged death - The bell tolling for him brought straight away the undertaker's men to measure the house for mourning hangings, who brushed aside his protestations that he was not deceased....
In short, what with undertakers, embalmers, joiners, sextons and your damned elegy hawkers, I got not one wink of sleep.
Partridge's humiliation continued in the succeeding months, with those he met in the street amusing themselves at his expense and referring to his wife as 'Widow Partridge'. His only published response seems to have been in his almanac for 1709, where he roundly abused Bickerstaff, alas without the wit of his persecutor.
Swift's next paper was a response to Partridge's invective. As Bickerstaff he objected - again satirising Partridge's lack of education - to his rough language, and proceeded to prove that Partridge was not alive.
And my first argument is this: about a thousand gentlemen having bought his almanacks for this year, merely to find out what he said against me, 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 damned stuff as this"....
Here Five Foot deep lyes on his back
A Cobler, Starmonger, and Quack,
Who to the Stars in pure Good-will,
Does to his best look upward still.
From Swift's 'epitaph' to Partridge
The full text of the Bickerstaff Papers are available in the University of Adelaide Library Electronic Texts Collection.
© Jonathan Ledbury
This article was first published in The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, issue 4, Spring 1994, p.10