A Conflict Among the Stars

Three hundred fourteen years ago today on March 31, 1708, well-known astrologist, physician, and former shoemaker John Partridge died right on schedule. The prediction of his “infallible death” had been published earlier that year in a letter written by a man called Isaac Bickerstaff, who then at the prescribed date, also published a clever rhyming eulogy.

Turns out the pen really is mightier than the slap.

No one was more surprised by the timely demise of Partridge than the man himself who returned home from a trip shortly after the report to discover that even those he knew well had heard and were so convinced by the news that he had a hard time persuading them that he was, in fact, still alive. When he wrote an article explaining that he had not died, Bickerstaff quickly answered with an admonition for the rogue that would write so insensitively of the dead.

As mean-spirited as Bickerstaff’s pronouncement might have been, from one perspective, Partridge may have earned it. He was a self-proclaimed reformer of astrology who published an annual almanac in which he regularly and erroneously predicted the deaths of renowned individuals. He was also somewhat outspoken against the Church and in his 1708 almanac had referred satirically to it as the “infallible Church.”

Partridge, who lived another six or seven years after Swift’s pen killed him off, and whose precise date of death is unknown, which might also be Swift’s fault. He’d probably have preferred a public slap. See page for author, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The barb settled uncomfortably on Isaac Bickerstaff, which was a pseudonym of the highly offended writer, satirist, astrology skeptic, and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift. In the moment, Swift decided against charging the stage and slapping the spit out of Partridge and instead chose to give the man a taste of his own medicine by predicting his death.

Swift’s revenge was definitely effective. After the news spread that the prediction had been spot on, Partridge coincidentally also found himself in a dispute with his publisher that led to the discontinuation of his almanac for a few years. When he finally did attempt to re-emerge, he found his reputation damaged beyond repair. Some astrology enthusiasts even suggest that it was this prank of Swift’s that led to a general discrediting of the entire field that lasted through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries.

So, maybe the satirist who once modestly proposed that the most sensible solution to Irish poverty was to eat babies, pushed it a little too far this time. Comedy can, after all, be a hit or miss, depending on context and perspective and perhaps whether or not one’s spouse has a penchant for the dramatic and a mean right slap.