Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 43.djvu/435

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.

endangered by the unscrupulous publication of other almanacs in his name, and he frequently warned the public against such impostures.

His obtrusive methods of advertisement probably suggested him to Swift as a fitting scapegoat for the sins of the numerous charlatans and empirics who were practising in London at the time. If the public at large were too dense to appreciate an exposure of the knavery of such quacks, a laugh could at least be raised among the wits at Partridge's expense. Consequently when almanac time came round with the close of 1707, there appeared simultaneously with Partridge's ‘Merlinus Liberatus’ ‘Predictions for the year 1708 … written to prevent the people of England from being further imposed upon by vulgar almanack makers, by Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.’ The writer professed it to be his aim to rescue a noble art from illiterate impostors, and with exquisite gravity contrasted the ambiguous methods of the latter with the detailed precision of his own prophetic utterances. He went on to apologise for the trifling character of his first prediction, which was the death of John Partridge the almanac-maker. ‘I have consulted the star of his nativity by my own rule, and find he will infallibly die upon 29 March next, about 11 at night, of a raging fever.’ An equal particularity characterised the subsequent predictions, to which, said Swift, ‘I have set my name at length to be a name of infamy to mankind, if they find I deceive them.’ The name of Bickerstaff had caught Swift's eye over a locksmith's house in Longacre (Swift, Works, 1762, i. 105). These ‘predictions’ were followed by a provocative ‘Answer to Bickerstaff: some Reflections upon Mr. Bickerstaff's Predictions for the year, by a person of quality,’ which was also written by Swift. The latter took good care that the expectations raised among the quidnuncs should not be disappointed. On 30 March duly appeared a small pamphlet 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 inst.,’ in a letter purporting to be addressed by a revenue officer to a person of honour. The deathbed scene was here graphically depicted, and there were also given a confession by Partridge that he was an impostor, and many circumstantial details, such as the closeness of the room, and a demonstration that Mr. Bickerstaff was almost four hours out in his calculations. This little pamphlet, which was bought and read with avidity, prepared the way for Swift's broadside ‘Elegy on the Death of Mr. Partridge,’ concluding with the celebrated epitaph:

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.

The jest was now successfully launched. The company of stationers struck the dead Partridge from their rolls, and asked for an injunction against the continued publication of almanacs in his name. The fame of Bickerstaff extended over Europe; and the inquisition of Portugal, having heard of the verification of his ‘Predictions,’ ordered the book to be burnt, as an unmistakable emanation from the evil one.

Meanwhile, the indignant and perplexed ‘philomath,’ as Partridge called himself, was trying to convince the world that he was still alive; but the task proved beyond his powers. On 2 April he wrote to Isaac Manley, the postmaster of Ireland: ‘I don't doubt but you are imposed on in Ireland also by a pack of rogues about my being dead.’ The authorship of the report Partridge attributed to one Pettie, who was ‘always in a garret, a cellar, or a jail.’ Unfortunately, Manley happened to be an intimate friend of Partridge's unknown tormentor, so that the letter soon appeared in print and greatly heightened the amusement. Partridge next proceeded to advertise in the papers that he was ‘not only now alive, but was also alive upon the 29th of March in question.’ The grotesque earnestness of his endeavours to convince London that he was still alive elicited two of the most humorous skits in the language. The first of these, purporting to be by the injured philomath himself, was entitled ‘Squire Bickerstaff detected, or the Astrological Impostor convicted.’ It has been attributed to Rowe, to Steele, and to other wits of the day, but was probably mainly the work of Thomas Yalden [q. v.] Many of the happiest touches, however, were added by Congreve, while Swift himself was in all probability consulted about it. The second piece was Swift's own ‘Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., against what is objected to him by Mr. Partridge in his Almanack for the present Year, 1709.’ It is a masterpiece of grave, ironical expostulation, and pretends to convict Partridge of futile absurdity in arguing that he is still alive. There was a small aftermath of ‘predictions’ and squibs purporting to be by Bickerstaff, but none of these attracted, or deserved to attract, any special attention. When, however,