Malicious posts about the death of somebody who is still alive constantly appear on the web these days. However, this is not a new phenomenon. Years before the advent of the Internet, people have been using almanacs and periodicals as media for writing about death predictions or an alleged death of someone.
The astrologer John Partridge (1644-1714) was known for publishing (mainly inaccurate) yearly predictions of deaths of famous personalities. He was also vocal against the church. For instance, he called the Church of England an “infallible church” in a sarcastic manner in the 1708 issue of Merlinus Almanac. His remark caught the attention of satirist and cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745).
Since Partridge liked to write about death predictions, Swift decided to give Partridge a dose of his own medicine. Swift, using the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff, a name he saw on a locksmith’s sign, stated in his Predictions for the Year 1708 that Partridge would “infallibly die” in the near future:
My first prediction is but a Trifle, yet I mention it to show how ignorant these Sottish pretenders to astrology are in their own concerns: It refers to Partridge the Almanac-Maker. I have consulted the Star 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.
On March 29, Swift published a letter apparently from a man who had visited Partridge a few hours before his demise. The letter professed that Partridge died 7 A.M., four hours earlier than Bickerstaff’s prediction.
Then Swift wrote an elegy to Partridge:
Here five foot deep lyes 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.
Partridge published a letter to inform the public that the news of his death was false. However, Swift claimed that the letter was fabricated, as “they were sure no man alive ever to writ such damned stuff as this.”
Even long after Swift stopped writing about the hoax, several journalists, satirists, and comedians continued to keep the hoax alive.
Swift’s hoax inspired Benjamin Franklin (1705-1790) to pull the same stunt. In the first publication of Poor Richard’s Almanac, Franklin, using the pseudonym Richard Saunders (a supposedly poverty-stricken scholar), predicted the death of a rival almanac publisher Titan Leeds (1699-1738):
He dies, by my Calculation made at his Request, on Oct. 17, 1733. 3 ho. 29 min. P.M. at the very instant of the Conjunction of the Sun and Mercury: By his own Calculation he will survive till the 26th of the same Month. This small difference between us we have disputed whenever we have met these 9 Years past; but at length he is inclinable to agree with my Judgment; Which of us is most exact, a little Time will now determine.
After the date of Leeds’ supposed death, Franklin published an obituary. Leeds took offense and published a condemnation of Saunders (Franklin) in his almanac and he firmly stated that he did not die. However, like Swift, Franklin proclaimed that the claim was false and an imposter had usurped the name of the “late” Leeds.
Franklin turned the “death” of Leeds into a running gag which continued for five years until Leeds really did pass away. After Leeds’ death, Franklin commended the men who had usurped Leeds’ name for finally ending their charade.
Irvin Ehrenpeis, Swift: Dr. Swift, 1983
Christopher Fox, Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Swift, 2003
Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin Reader, 2005