The Condenser

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Great Berners Street Hoax

From The Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities (William S. Walsh, 1893), an account of a well-turned practical joke. Make sure to click through for the full item.

Image at left, of an unrelated agitation, courtesy of this site.

Theodore Hook was a famous practical joker, and once, at least, he perpetrated a jest that disturbed all London and amused all England. This was the famous Berners Street hoax. Berners Street in 1810 was a quiet street, inhabited by well-to-do families, and even people of social importance, as the Bishops of Carlisle and of Chester, Earl Stanhope, etc. On the morning of November 26, soon after breakfast, a wagon-load of coals drew up before the door of Mrs. Tottingham, a widow lady living at No. 54. A van-load of furniture followed, then a hearse with a coffin, and a train of mourning coaches. Two fashionable physicians, a dentist, and an accoucheur drove up as near as they could to the door, wondering why so many lumbering vehicles blocked the way. Six men brought a great chamber-organ; a brewer sent several barrels of ale; a grocer sent a cart-load of potatoes. Coachmakers, clock-makers, carpet-manufacturers, confectioners, wig-makers, mantuamakers, opticians, and curiosity-dealers followed with samples of their wares.

From all quarters trooped in coachmen, footmen, cooks, housemaids, and nursery-maids, in quest of situations. To crown all, dignitaries came in their carriages,—the Commander-in-Chief, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chief Justice, a Cabinet minister, a governor of the Bank of England, and the Lord Mayor. The latter—one among many who speedily recognized that all had been the victims of some gigantic hoax—drove to Marlborough Street police-office, and stated that he had received a letter from a lady in Berners Street, to the effect that she had been summoned to attend at the Mansion House, that she was at death's door, that she wished to make a deposition upon oath, and that she would deem it a great favor if his lordship would call upon her. The other dignitaries had been appealed to in a similar way. Police-officers were despatched to maintain order in Berners Street. They found it choked up with vehicles, jammed and interlocked one with another. The drivers were infuriated. The disappointed tradesmen were clamoring for vengeance. Some of the vans and goods were overturned and broken; a few barrels of ale had fallen a prey to the large crowd that was maliciously enjoying the fun. All day and far into the night this state of things continued, meanwhile, the old lady and the inmates of adjoining houses were in abject terror. Every one soon saw that a hoax had been perpetrated, but Hook's connection with it was not discovered till long afterwards. He had noticed the quietness of the neighborhood, and had laid a wager with a brother-wag, a certain Henry Higginson, who afterwards became a clergyman, that he would make Uerners Street the talk of all London. A door-plate had furnished him with Mrs. Tottingham's name, and he had spent three days in writing the letters which brought the crowd to her door. At the appointed time he and Mr. Higginson had posted themselves in a lodging just opposite, which he had rented for the purpose of enjoying the scene. He deemed it expedient, however, to go off quickly into the country and there remain incog, for a time. Had he been publicly known as the author of the outrageous hoax, he might have fared badly.

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