From William S. Walsh’s Handy-book of Literary Curiosities, a 1909 compendium of “bibelots and curios” from the world of letters. The critic Barbara M. Benedict has written that the Bottle Conjurer “promised to bring literature to life; to reverse power relations; to incarnate onanism; to make monstrosity—the transgression of physical boundaries—humorous. Instead, he made the audience fools of their own desire … The explosive result revealed the danger of unmonitored curiosity.”
Perhaps the most gigantic hoax ever perpetrated was that known to history as the Great Bottle Hoax.
Early in the year 1749, a distinguished company of Englishmen were discussing the question of human gullibility. Among them were the Duke of Portland and the Earl of Chesterfield. “I will wager,” said the duke, “that let a man advertise the most impossible thing in the world, he will find fools enough in London to fill a play house and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there.”
“Surely,” returned the earl, “if a man should say that he would jump into a quart bottle, nobody would believe that.”
At first the duke was staggered. But having made the wager he held to it. The jest pleased the rest of the company. They put their heads together and evolved the following advertisement, which appeared in the London papers of the first week in January:
At the New Theatre in the Haymarket, on Monday next, the 16th instant, to be seen, a person who performs the several most surprising things following, viz. first, he takes a common walking-cane from any of the spectators, and thereon plays the music of every instrument now in use, and likewise sings to surprising perfection. Secondly, he presents you with a common wine bottle, which any of the spectators may first examine; this bottle is placed on a table in the middle of the stage, and he (without any equivocation) goes into it in sight of all the spectators, and sings in it; during his stay in the bottle any person may handle it, and see plainly that it does not exceed a common tavern bottle.
Those on the stage or in the boxes may come in masked habits (if agreeable to them); and the performer (if desired) will inform them who they are […]
These performances have been seen by most of the crowned Heads of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and never appeared public anywhere but one: but will wait on any at their Houses, and perform as above for five Pounds each time. A proper guard is appointed to prevent disorder.
The public rose to the bait like a huge gudgeon. The duke’s wildest expectations were more than realized. For days all London was talking of the man who was going to jump into a quart bottle. On the appointed night the theatre was crowded to suffocation. Every box, every seal in the pit and in the gallery, was taken. Standing-room was at a premium. The appointed hour came, and still there was no sign of the expected performance; not even a fiddle had been provided lo keep the audience in good humor. Evidence of impatience had already been manifested. Now the vast audience burst into groans, catcalls, and other cries, emphasized by the pounding of canes and stamping of feet. At last a person appeared on the stage. With bows and scrapes and profuse apologies he protested that if the performer did not appear within a quarter of an hour the money would be refunded at the doors. There were more groans and hisses. A wag in the pit shouted that if the ladies and gentlemen would give double price he would crawl into a pint bottle. This sally restored good humor for the nonce. But scarcely had the quarter of an hour elapsed, when a gentleman in one of the boxes seized a lighted candle and threw it on the stage. It was the signal for a general outbreak. The mob rose en masse, tore up the seats and benches, and proceeded to demolish everything within reach. Ladies shrieked, their escorts fought for an exit through the infuriated crowd. Such were the hurry and scramble that wigs, hats, cloaks, and dresses were left behind and lost. Meanwhile, the building had been almost gutted. Everything portable was carried into the street and made into a mighty bonfire, over which the curtain, torn from its hangings and hoisted upon a pole, was waved by way of a flag. The box-receipts were made away with.
[…] All attempts failed to discover the origin of the hoax, and not until many years after did the secret leak out.
Meanwhile the wits of the town would not lei the matter drop. They issued pamphlets ridiculing the gullibility of the public; they printed humorous explanations of the conjurer’s failure to appear; they taxed their brains in the effort to produce advertisements of performances as outrageously impossible as the now famous bottle trick.
It was asserted by one paper that the conjurer had been ready and willing to appear on the fatal night, but just prior to the performance a gentleman begged him for a private view. The conjurer consented to crawl into a bottle for five pounds. The moment he had done so the gentleman played on the unhappy conjurer the same trick which the fisherman in the “Arabian Nights” found so efficacious with the genie. He quietly corked up the bottle, whipped it in his pocket, and made off. “Thus the poor man being bit himself, in being confined in the Bottle and in a Gentleman’s Pocket, could not be in another Place; for he never advertised he would go into two Bottles at one and the same time. He is still in the Gentleman’s custody, who uncorks him now and then to feed him; but his long confinement has so damped his Spirits that instead of singing and dancing he is perpetually crying and cursing his ill Fate. But though the Town have been disappointed of seeing him go into the Bottle, in a few days they will have the pleasure of seeing him come out of the Bottle; of which timely notice will be given in the daily Papers.”
Here is an advertisement that appeared […]
THE MOST WONDERFUL AND SURPRISING DOCTOR BENIMBE ZAMMANPOANGO, Oculist and Body Surgeon to Emperor Monoemungi, who will perform on Sunday next at the Little T— in the Haymarket the following surprising Operations,—viz.: 1st. He desires any one of the Spectators only to pull out his own Eyes, which as soon as he done, the Doctor will show them to any Lady or Gentleman then present to convince them there is no Cheat, and then replace them in the Sockets as perfect and entire as ever. 2dly. He desires any officer or other to rip up his own Belly, which when he has done, he (without any Equivocation) takes out his Bowels, washes them, and returns them to their place, without the Person’s suffering the least hurt. 3dly. He opens the head of a J— of P—, takes out his Brains, and exchanges them for those of a Calf, the Brains of a Beau for those of an Ass, and the Hear of a Bully for that of a Sheep; which Operations will render the Persons more sociable and rational Creatures than they ever were in their Lives …
Another advertiser announced that he would jump down his own throat, another offered to change himself into a rattle, another to shoot himself with two pistols, “the first shot to be directed through his abdomen to which will be added another through his brain, the whole to conclude with staggering convulsions, grinning, etc., in a manner never before publicly attempted.” And so on, and so on. Money seems to have been as plentiful as wit in those days, and those who had money were glad to throw it away to see their wit in print. The newspapers were probably the only gainers by the hoax. At last the excitement, having continued far beyond the traditional nine days, burned itself out, and the public mind, as it ever must, turned to other things.