Swift’s Spectacular April Fool’s Joke

Isaac Bickerstaff, editor of "The Tatler"

Isaac Bickerstaff, editor of “The Tatler”

April Fool’s Day

Today being April 1, I take the occasion to tell the story of one of the greatest April Fool’s Day pranks ever. Jonathan Swift set this one up months in advance.

Astrologers were popular in the early 18th century, as they are now, and Swift considered them all frauds and the people who believed them fools. The most prominent astrologer of his day, the 18th century’s Jean Dixon, was one John Partridge, who published a yearly almanac of predictions. In January of 1708 Swift, under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff, called out Partridge in his own set of “Predictions for the Year 1708.”

Among his predictions—the prediction that was indeed the entire purpose of his pamphlet—was the following:

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 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.

Literary scholars believe that Swift chose the March 29 date so that he could then publish “The Accomplishment of the First of Mr. Bickerstaff’s Predictions” as close to April 1 as possible. (April 1 itself was out because it was a Sunday.) In any event, a follow-up letter–someone supposedly reporting to a nobleman–announced the death of Partridge. Here’s how it begins:

In obedience to your lordship’s commands, as well as to satisfy my own curiosity, I have for some days past inquired constantly after Partridge the almanack-maker, of whom it was foretold in Mr. Bickerstaff’s predictions, published about a month ago, that he should die the 29th instant, about eleven at night, of a raging fever. I had some sort of knowledge of him when I was employed in the Revenue, because he used every year to present me with his almanack, as he did other gentlemen, upon the score of some little gratuity we gave him. I saw him accidentally once or twice about ten days before he died, and observed he began very much to droop and languish, though I hear his friends did not seem to apprehend him in any danger. About two or three days ago he grew ill, was confined first to his chamber, and in a few hours after to his bed, where Dr. Case and Mrs. Kirleus were sent for, to visit and to prescribe to him.

The observer goes on to describe Partridge’s final hours, including his final death bed retraction where he admits to being a fraud:

“By what I can gather from you,” said I, “the observations and predictions you printed with your almanacks were mere impositions on the people.” He replied, “If it were otherwise I should have the less to answer for. We have a common form for all those things; as to foretelling the weather, we never meddle with that, but leave it to the printer, who takes it out of any old almanack as he thinks fit; the rest was my own invention, to make my almanack sell, having a wife to maintain, and no other way to get my bread; for mending old shoes is a poor livelihood; and,” added he, sighing, “I wish I may not have done more mischief by my physic than my astrology; though I had some good receipts from my grandmother, and my own compositions were such as I thought could at least do no hurt.” 

An elegy about Partridge also appeared. Here’s the first stanza:

Well, ’tis as Bickerstaff has guess’d,
Tho’ we all took it for a jest;
Partridge is dead, nay more, he dy’d
E’re he could prove the good ‘Squire ly’d.
Strange, an Astrologer shou’d die,
Without one Wonder in the Sky!

Needless to say, Partridge was still very much alive and in his almanac the following year unwisely published a rebuttal claiming that he was still alive. In other words, he didn’t realize that only a humorous response would have been effective. Instead, his title seems to indicate that he thought Bickerstaff was an actual person who could be exposed by the mere fact that he mispredicted Partridge’s death. The rebuttal carried the title, Squire Bickerstaff detected; or, the astrological impostor convicted.

In addition to asserting that he had not died, Partridge also revealed how he had become the butt of jokes:

I could not stir out of doors for the space of three months after this, but presently one comes up to me in the street; Mr Partridge, that coffin you was last buried in I have not been yet paid for: Doctor, cries another dog, How d’ye think people can live by making of graves for nothing? Next time you die, you may e’en toll out the bell yourself for Ned. A third rogue tips me by the elbow, and wonders how I have the conscience to sneak abroad without paying my funeral expences. Lord, says one, I durst have swore that was honest Dr. Partridge, my old friend; but poor man, he is gone. I beg your pardon, says another, you look so like my old acquaintance that I used to consult on some private occasions; but, alack, he’s gone the way of all flesh —- Look, look, look, cries a third, after a competent space of staring at me, would not one think our neighbour the almanack-maker, was crept out of his grave to take t’other peep at the stars in this world, and shew how much he is improv’d in fortune-telling by having taken a journey to the other?

Of course, Partridge’s claim that he was still alive was too delicious an opportunity for Swift to pass up. Therefore Bickerstaff defended himself in A vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq; against what is objected to him by Mr. Partridge in his almanack for the present year 1709. In it Bickerstaff/Swift is righteously indignant for being so roughly handled:

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.

Bickerstaff then goes on to prove that, despite Partridge’s assertions to the contrary, he is in fact dead. Here is Bickerstaff’s proof:

[My vindication] relates to an article in my predictions, which foretold the death of Mr. Partridge, to happen on March 29, 1708. This he is pleased to contradict absolutely in the almanack he has published for the present year, and in that ungentlemanly manner (pardon the expression) as I have above related. In that work he very roundly asserts, That he is not only now alive, but was likewise alive upon that very 29th of March, when I had foretold he should die. This is the subject of the present controversy between us; which I design to handle with all brevity, perspicuity, and calmness: In this dispute, I am sensible the eyes not only of England, but of all Europe, will be upon us; and the learned in every country will, I doubt not, take part on that side, where they find most appearance of reason and truth.

Without entering into criticisms of chronology about the hour of his death, I shall only prove that Mr. Partridge is not alive. And my first argument is thus: Above a thousand gentlemen having bought his almanacks for this year, merely to find 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 damn’d stuff as this.” Neither did I ever hear that opinion disputed: So that Mr. Partridge lies under a dilemma, either of disowning his almanack, or allowing himself to be “no man alive”. But now 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.”

Secondly, Mr. Partridge pretends to tell fortunes, and recover stolen goods; which all the parish says he must do by conversing with the devil and other evil spirits: And no wise man will ever allow he could converse personally with either, till after he was dead. 

He gives a couple of other reasons but those two are the best. If you want to read the entire back and forth, you can go here for the complete Bickerstaff-Partridge papers.

Bickerstaff’s career didn’t end there. He would go on to become the fictional editor of The Tatler, Addison and Steele’s famous publication. Unfortunately for those who love truth, Patridge’s career didn’t end either. As Swift himself frequently lamented, satire isn’t very good at changing the world, and people continued to turn to astrologers, including to Partridge, for psychic information.

The affair, however, made for a spectacular April Fool’s joke.

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