“Poor Richard’s Almanac” was a yearly publication that was purportedly written by a hen-pecked, poverty stricken scholar named Richard Saunders. It was a best seller in the Colonies during the years of 1733-1758, selling about 10,000 copies per year. It was relied upon for a mixture of weather forecasting which also assisted in crop planting; and for household hints, puzzles and the wisdom of everyday proverbs.
Perhaps this Almanac would not have been so successful if it hadn’t incorporated some methods of libel against the competition. Richard Saunders came up with his plan in its first year of printing.
In an Almanac publication, one prophecy that was written, related to the prediction of the death of a rival almanac owner. Saunders predicted that rival Titan Leeds would die on October 12, 1733 “at the very instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury”.
When that predicted time arrived, Titan Leeds failed to die. In fact, he lived to chastise “Poor Richard’s Almanac” and its author, Richard Saunders with a “No I’m Not”!
Saunders stood by the prediction and continued the lie by claiming that Leeds had died and had now been replaced by an impostor who was shamelessly now printing under the name of Leeds.
When Leeds did die five years after the prediction, do you think that the Almanac finally printed a retraction about its competition? No retraction. Instead Saunders wrote that the man fraudulently claiming to be Leeds had also died. The article did go on to congratulate him for dying.
A few final notes on that story. First, history records that Richard Saunders was in fact Benjamin Franklin, the true author of “Poor Richard’s Almanac”. Second, hard to tell if Franklin was originally serious about this until it became wildly successful. Perhaps, he was looking to a prior almanac writer for his inspiration.
Jonathan Swift was famous for writing “Gulliver’s Travel’s”, but he was also known for writing under the pseudonym of Issac Bickerstaff. In 1708, Bickerstaff (Swift) began publishing an Almanac titled “Predictions for the Year 1708”.
This Almanac lay the groundwork for a printed April Fool’s Day prank. One of the events predicted was that “by a raging fever” famous astrologer John Partridge would die at exactly 11p.m. on March 29 of that year. Partridge also happened to write for a different almanac.
Almost immediately, Partridge issued a reply that the prediction was a fraud and that “His whole Design was nothing but Deceit. The end of March will plainly show the Cheat”, he declared.
On March 31st, a pamphlet titled “The Accomplishments of the First of Mr Bickerstaff’s Predictions” was circulated throughout London to announce that the prediction had come true; but that the timing had been off by four hours, with Partridge having died at 7:05 p.m. instead of the predicted 11 p.m.. Given the slow speed of news in those days, Partridge’s supposed death only became generally known throughout London on April 1st, April Fool’s Day.
An enraged Partridge published an almanac article, proclaiming that Bickerstaff was a fraud and that he still was alive. Bickerstaff responded that no man could have written such rubbish under Partridge’s credited authorship and that the real Partridge was obviously not alive. Plus, Bickerstaff wrote, Partridge’s own wife had earlier claimed about her husband that he had “neither life nor soul”.
The comments from a wife were probably never expected to be seen in print. All told though, the hoax did serve to discredit Partridge as an astrologer and eventually caused him to stop printing the almanac that was competing with Bickerstaff. (Swift)
The lesson that Franklin apparently learned was that if it worked once, why not use it again. Remember, Franklin (in the Almanac) was credited with “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”. I’m not sure how that applies to lying about an opponent. Come to think of it, these stories kinda remind me of politics today.
And now, pic o’ day brings us a little Christmas spirit.