Isaac Bickerstaff

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For the Anglo-Irish playwright, see Isaac Bickerstaffe.

Isaac Bickerstaff Esq was a pseudonym used by Jonathan Swift as part of a hoax to predict the death of then famous Almanac–maker and astrologer John Partridge.

“All Fools Day” (now known as April Fools Day which falls on 1 April) was Swift’s favorite of holidays and he often used this day to aim his satirically biting wit at non-believers in an attempt to “make sin and folly bleed.” Disgruntled by Partridge’s sarcastic attack about the “infallible Church” written in his 1708 issue of Merlinus Almanac, Swift projected carefully 3 letters and one Eulogy as an elaborate plan to “predict” Partridge’s “infallible death” to be revealed on April 1, All Fools Day.

The first of the three letters, Predictions for the Year 1708, published in January 1708, predicts, among other things, the death of Partridge by a “raging fever.” The second letter, The Accomplishment of the First of Mr. Bickerstaff’s Predictions, published in March 1708, Swift writes not as Bickerstaff but as a “man employed in the Revenue” where he “confirms” the imaginary Bickerstaff’s prediction. To accompany The Accomplishments Swift also publishes an Elegy for Partridge in which, typical of Swift’s satire, he blames not only Partridge, but those who purchase the Almanacs as well:

Here, five Foot deep, lies on his Back,
A Cobler, 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:
This Earth which bears his Body’s Print,
You’ll find has so much Vertue in’t,
That I durst pawn my Ears ’twill tell
Whate’er concerns you full as well,
In Physick, Stolen Goods, or Love,
As he himself could, when above.

The hoax, gaining immense popularity, plagued Partridge till the real end of his life. Mourners, who believed him to be dead, often kept him awake at night crying outside his window. Accounts of an undertaker arriving at his house to arrange drapes for the mourning, an elegy being printed and even a gravestone being carved, all culminate to Partridge publishing a letter in hopes to have a last word on the matter and proclaim (and reclaim) himself as living. In 1709 Swift, writing as Bickerstaff for the last time, publishes A Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff in which he abandons any real attempt to maintain the hoax. Bickerstaff counter-argues Partridge's letter of proclamation disputing, “ They were sure no man alive ever to writ such damned stuff as this.” He goes on to sarcastically reason that “death is defined by all Philosophers [as a] separation of the soul and body. [Partridge’s wife] has gone about for some time to every Alley in the neighborhood…that her husband had neither life nor soul in him.”

The Tatler[edit]

Later in 1709, Richard Steele bolstered the release of his new paper The Tatler by naming the fictitious Isaac Bickerstaff Esq. as editor. The Tatler had occasional contributions from Swift, although largely written by Steele and Joseph Addison.

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