The Epic (And Wrong) Predictions Of Isaac Bickerstaff

By Debra Kelly on Friday, October 24, 2014
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“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” —Alan Kay

In A Nutshell

In 1708, astrologer Isaac Bickerstaff predicted the death of one of London’s preeminent almanac writers, John Partridge. On April 1, 1709, the announcement of his death was issued—but Partridge was alive and well. A back-and-forth ensued, with Bickerstaff insisting that he was dead, and Partridge insisting that he was alive. Bickerstaff was the more convincing of the two, and Partridge was ultimately driven out of the almanac business . . . by the pseudonym of one of the period’s greatest writers.

The Whole Bushel

Almanacs were once one of the most popular forms of literature, supposedly containing all the information and astrological premonitions that you’d need to get you through the coming year. In the early 18th century, one of the most popular almanac writers was a man named John Partridge. Partridge wasn’t without his naysayers, though, and one of those naysayers went pretty far.

In the pamphlet called “Predictions for the Year 1708,” written by Isaac Bickerstaff, it was recorded that one of the prophecies he’d gained from studying the stars was the death of his contemporary astrologer, John Partridge. The prediction said that according to the stars, he was going to die at 11:00 PM on March 29, after suffering from a fever.

Partridge issued a statement, calling the prediction nothing less than bologna—and saying that his continued presence on the Earth would show who the real astrologer was.

Sure enough, in the spring of 1709, another pamphlet was published for immediate and widespread circulation. This second one was called “The Accomplishment of the First of Mr. Bickerstaff’s Predictions,” and detailed the death of the famed almanac writer. Although he had been slightly wrong, (Partridge had supposedly died at 7:05 PM, instead of the foretold 11:00 PM), Bickerstaff had read the stars correctly. It was accompanied by an elegant and apparently authentic document called “Elegy,” a formal announcement of the death of the famous astrologer.

The only problem was that Partridge was alive and well, although he was suddenly finding it difficult to convince people of it. The sexton in charge of his church’s affairs wanted to know what orders his household had for his upcoming funeral. People on the street stopped and told him what a striking resemblance he bore to the deceased astrologer.

The war of the astrologers wasn’t over yet. When it came time for Partridge to publish his 1709 almanac, he found himself fighting something of an uphill battle to convince people that yes, he really was well and truly still alive and kicking.

Isaac Bickerstaff then published his own response, making it clear to the public that he was the astrologer who had been right, not that other Partridge fellow. The pamphlet A Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff contained logical, inarguable proof that Partridge did, in fact, die in March as predicted – and included supposed testimony from Partridge’s wife that he was dead.

If anyone noticed that it was April Fool’s Day by the time word of his supposed demise got around London, no one was pointing it out.

Eventually, the rumors of his death were so accepted that he had no choice but to stop publishing his almanac.

So who, exactly, was this mysterious astrologer, Isaac Bickerstaff? It was Jonathan Swift.

Swift didn’t like Partridge, who had issued a handful of attacks on the Anglican church. As a dean for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Swift certainly wasn’t about to stand for that sort of thing and decided the best way to make his point was to use Partridge’s own predictions against him. The fever that “Bickerstaff” had predicted Partridge would die of? It was based on one of Partridge’s own predictions that a fever epidemic would strike London in April.

The rest, though, was all Swift.

Show Me The Proof

The Predictions of Isaac Bickerstaff
Project Muse: “There Is No Such Man as Isaack Bickerstaff”: Partridge, Pittis, and Jonathan Swift
Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer, by Sir Richard Steele