April Fools Day, with the Library of Congress and with Dr. Swift

For April Fools Day, the Library of Congress has provided materials related to the following hoax to educators who wish to make use of their digital collections of primary sources:

“April Fools Day pranks are usually fairly short term: An entire class simultaneously falls asleep or a teacher assigns a forty-page essay due the next day, and everyone laughs once the trick is revealed. Hoaxes, on the other hand, have a different intent, as they are engineered to deceive over the long term, and often on a large scale. Invite your students to consider the difference as they analyzing primary sources connected to the Great Moon Hoax of 1825.

“In August of 1825, the New York newspaper The Sun published a six-part series about life found on the moon, written by Dr. Andrew Grant, a protégé of Sir John Herschel, a respected astronomer. The series described goat-like creatures with horns and beards frolicking about on green turf. Another installment focused on water birds and animals, including a spherical amphibious creature that rolled along the moon beach. Most thrilling of all was the description of beings that walked upright with dignity and ‘averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper hair, and have wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs, from the top of the shoulders to the calves of the legs.’  When it was discovered that Grant was a fictitious persona created by journalist Richard Adams Locke, the hoax fell apart, but for a time, readers were completely taken in by the reports.”

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The great English writer Jonathan Swift became exasperated by the popularity of astrologers and, with savage cunning, used predictions of future events against one of the most popular astrologers of the day. Here is the account provided in Wikipedia:

“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.’ In 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 Accomplishment, Swift also published an Elegy for Partridge in which, typical of Swift’s satire, he blames not only Partridge, but those who purchase the Almanacs as well:

“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 in Partridge’s 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, published A Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff in which he abandoned any real attempt to maintain the hoax. Bickerstaff disputes Partridge’s letter of proclamation arguing, ‘They were sure no man alive ever to writ such damned stuff as this.’ He went on to reason sarcastically 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.’”

 

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