Today, the British Two-Pound Sterling Coin remembers the excitement of January 16, 1749, when bored or gullible men and women wanted to see a man jump into a quart bottle.
From the Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities by William S. Walsh, published in 1892:
But 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, is to be seen a Person who performs the several most surprising things following, — viz., 1st. He takes a common walking Cane from any of the Spectators and thereupon plays the music of every Instrument now in use, and likewise sings to surprising perfection. 2dly. 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 the 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. Stage, 7s. 6d. Boxes, 5s. Pit, 3s. Gallery, 2s. Tickets to be had at the Theatre. To begin a half an hour after six o’clock. The performance continues about two hours and a half.
Note. — If any Gentlemen or Ladies (after the above Performance), either single or in company, in or out of mask, is desirous of seeing a representation of any deceased Person, such as Husband or Wife, Sister or Brother, or any intimate Friend of either sex, upon making a gratuity to the Performer, shall be gratified by seeing and conversing with them for some minutes, as if alive; likewise, if desired, he will tell you your most secret thoughts in your Past life, and give you a full view of persons who have injured you, whether dead or alive. For those Gentlemen and Ladies who are desirous of seeing this last part, there is a private Room provided.
These performances have been seen by most of the crowned Heads of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and never appeared public anywhere but once; 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 seat 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 to 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. Now, in those days Foote was the wickedest wag in the town. Of course he was suspected of having originated the hoax.
He indignantly disclaimed the responsibility. He had even, he averred, warned Mr. John Potter, the proprietor of the play-house, that he thought a fraud on the public was intended. Then the public rage turned upon Potter. But it was evident that Potter, too, was innocent.
A strange man had made all the arrangements for letting the theatre on behalf of the conjurer. On the night of the performance, Potter had allowed no one to handle the receipts save his own servants, and he would have returned them, as announced from the stage, only the house was sacked and the receipts stolen.
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 let 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 on January 27, 1749:
DON JOHN DE NASAQUITINE, sworn Brother and Companion to the Man that was to have jumped into the Bottle at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket on Monday the 16th past, hereby invites all such as were then disappointed to repair to the Theatre aforesaid on Monday the 30th, and that shall be exhibited unto them which never has heretofore nor ever will be hereafter seen. All such as shall swear upon the Book of Wisdom that they paid for seeing the Bottle Man will be admitted gratis; the rest at Gotham prices.
Here is another:
THE MOST WONDERFUL AND SURPRISING DOCTOR BENIMBE ZAM- MANPOANGO, 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 has 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 Heart 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. And to convince the Town that no imposition is intended, he desires no Money until the Performance is over. Boxes, 5 guin. Pit, 3. Gallery, 2.
N.B. — The famous Oculist will be there, and honest S F H will come if he can. Ladies may come masked, so may Fribbles. The Faculty and Clergy gratis. The Orator would be here, but is engaged.”
A third advertiser announced that he would jump down his own throat, a fourth offered to change himself into a rattle, a fifth 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.
The British Two-Pound Sterling Coin shows with an image of a Harlequin figure attempting to go into a bottle, circa 1749.