The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 5/An Account of the Death of Partridge the Almanack Maker












IN obedience to your lordship's commands, as well as to satisfy my own curiosity, I have some days past inquired constantly after Partridge the almanackmaker, of whom it was foretold in Mr. Bickerstaff's Predictions, published about a month ago, that he should die the 29th instant about eleven at night of a raging fever. I had some sort of knowledge of him, when I was employed in the revenue, because he used every year to present me with his almanack, as he did other gentlemen, upon the score of some little gratuity we gave him. I saw him accidentally once or twice about ten days before he died, and observed he began very much to droop and languish, though I hear, his friends did not seem to apprehend him in any danger. About two or three days ago he grew ill, was confined first to his chamber, and in a few hours after to his bed, where Dr. Case[1], and Mrs. Kirleus[2] were sent for to visit, and to prescribe to him. Upon this intelligence, I sent thrice every day one servant or other to inquire after his health; and yesterday, about four in the afternoon, word was brought me, that he was past hopes: upon which I prevailed with myself to go and see him, partly out of commiseration, and I confess, partly out of curiosity. He knew me very well, seemed surprised at my condescension, and made me compliments upon it, as well as he could in the condition he was. The people about him said, he had been for some time delirious; but when I saw him, he had his understanding as well as ever I knew, and spoke strong and hearty, without any seeming uneasiness or constraint. After I had told him how sorry I was to see him in those melancholy circumstances, and said some other civilities, suitable to the occasion, I desired him to tell me freely and ingenuously, whether the predictions Mr. Bickerstaff had published relating to his death, had not too much affected and worked on his imagination. He confessed, he had often had it in his head, but never with much apprehension, till about a fortnight before; since which time it had the perpetual possession of his mind and thoughts, and he did verily believe was the true natural cause of his present distemper: for, said he, I am thoroughly persuaded, and I think I have very good reasons, that Mr. Bickerstaff spoke altogether by guess, and knew no more what will happen this year, than I did myself. I told him his discourse surprised me; and I would[3] be glad he were in a state of health to be able to tell me, what reason he had to be convinced of Mr. Bickerstaff's ignorance. He replied, I am a poor ignorant fellow, bred to a mean trade, yet I have sense enough to know, that all pretences of foretelling by astrology are deceits, for this manifest reason; because the wise and the learned, who can only judge whether there be any truth in this science, do all unanimously agree to laugh at and despise it; and none but the poor ignorant vulgar give it any credit, and that only upon the word of such silly wretches as I and my fellows, who can hardly write or read. I then asked him, why he had not calculated his own nativity, to see whether it agreed with Bickerstaff's prediction? at which he shook his head, and said, oh! sir, this is no time for jesting, but for repenting those fooleries, as I do now from the very bottom of my heart. By what I can gather from you, said I, the observations and predictions you printed with your almanacks, were mere impositions on the people. He replied, if it were otherwise, I should have the less to answer for. We have a common form for all those things; as to foretelling the weather, we never meddle with that, but leave it to the printer, who takes it out of any old almanack, as he thinks fit; the rest was my own invention to make my almanack sell, having a wife to maintain, and no other way to get my bread; for mending old shoes is a poor livelihood; and (added he, sighing) I wish I may not have done more mischief by my physick, than my astrology; though I had some good receipts from my grandmother, and my own compositions were such, as I thought could at least do no hurt.

I had some other discourse with him, which now I cannot call to mind; and I fear have already tired your lordship. I shall only add one circumstance, that on his deathbed he declared himself a nonconformist, and had a fanatick preacher to be his spiritual guide. After half an hour's conversation I took my leave, being almost stifled by the closeness of the room. I imagined he could not hold out long, and therefore withdrew to a little coffeehouse hard by, leaving a servant at the house, with orders to come immediately and tell me, as near as he could the minute when Partridge should expire, which was not above two hours after; when looking upon my watch, I found it to be above five minutes after seven; by which it is clear that Mr. Bickerstaff was mistaken almost four hours in his calculation. In the other circumstances he was exact enough. But whether he has not been the cause of this poor man's death, ss well as the predictor, may be very reasonably disputed[4]. However, it must be confessed, the matter is odd enough, whether we should endeavour to account for it by chance, or the effect of imagination: for my own part, though I believe no man has less faith in these matters, yet I shall wait with some impatience, and not without some expectation, the fulfilling of Mr. Bickerstaff's second prediction, that the cardinal de Noailles is to die upon the fourth of April; and if that should be verified as exactly as this of poor Partridge, I must own I should be wholly surprised, and at a loss, and should infallibly expect the accomplishment of all the rest.

  1. John Case was many years a noted practitioner in physick and astrology. He was looked upon as the successor of Lilly and of Safford, and possessed the magical utensils of both. He erased the verses of his predecessor from the sign post, and substituted in their stead this distich, by which he is said to have got more than Dryden did by all his works,

    "Within this place
    Lives doctor Case;"

    and was doubtless very well paid for composing that which he affixed to his pill boxes,

    "Here's fourteen pills for thirteen pence;
    Enough in any man's own con-sci-ence."

    He published, in 1697, one of the most profound astrological pieces the world ever saw, called, "The Angelical Guide, showing men and women their chance in this elementary life," in four books. The diagrams in this work would probably have puzzled Euclid, though he had studied astrology. From the mention made of him by Swift, he appears to have been living in 1708. When Tutchin published his Observations, the doctor used frequently to advertise himself at the end of that paper, beginning in this formal manner: "Your old physician Dr. Case desires you not to forget him," &c. In some of his bills, he told the publick,

    "At the Golden Ball and Lilly's Head,
    John Case lives, though Safford's dead.

  2. Mary Kirleus, widow of John Kirleus, son of Dr. Thomas Kirleus, a collegiate physician of London, and sworn physician in ordinary to king Charles II, was a constant advertiser in the Observator, and "dealt with all persons according to their abilities."
  3. Would, is here improperly used; it ought to be, 'and I should be glad,' &c.
  4. The words in this sentence are ill arranged; it would be better thus 'But whether he has not been the cause, as well as the predictor, of this poor man's death, may very reasonably be disputed.'