On 16 January 1749, at the New Theater in Haymarket, an anonymous person known as the “Bottle Conjuror” or “Bottle Conjurer” was set to perform a variety of amazing feats at six-thirty in the evening. He advertised that while wearing a mask he would be able to identify anyone who came to him and that he could draw the likeness of any dead person requested by any audience member. He also promised to take a common walking stick from someone in the audience and play “the music of every instrument … [while singing in perfect harmony].”
But the conjuror’s final feat was to be the most startling and amazing. According to the Bottle Conjuror, he guaranteed that while on stage and in full view of the audience, he would stuff himself, from head to toe, into a common quart bottle. After doing so the bottle was to be passed to audience members so that they could examine and reassure themselves he was contained within it. Moreover, supposedly, this amazing and miraculous feat had already been witnessed by many of the “crowned heads of Asia, Africa, and Europe.”
On the appointed day, at the appointed time, a large crowd appeared. Among those who came to view this unusual feat was the Duke of Cumberland, brother to King George III. The stage was set and everyone was ready. A single table stood on stage covered with a green baize. On the table sat a common quart bottle that the conjuror was to use for his feat. There was no music, and the audience sat quietly in dimmed lights until almost seven o’clock.
About that time, the stage lights came up, and, the crowd, now tired of waiting, began to hiss. Soon impatient audience members let loose with cat calls and that was followed by other unintelligible expressions of dissatisfaction. Suddenly a man appeared on stage and tried to pacify the agitated crowd. He promised their money would be returned if the Bottle Conjuror did not appear. However, the crowd was by this time incensed, and no one would listen. Then someone threw a lit candle on stage (some people claimed it was the Duke of Cumberland), which encouraged more uproar and resulted in the audience rioting.
At this point, the peaceful spectators and most of the women left. Those who refused to leave began to gut the theatre: They tore up benches, pulled down the curtains, and ripped out all the woodwork and carried it to the front of the theatre where they set fire to it. During these riotous proceedings an alarm was spread and foot guard were notified. By the time the foot guards arrived, the rioters had fled and there was no one to charge for the theatre’s destruction.
For some time afterwards there was no satisfactory answer as to who the Bottle Conjuror was or why he did not appear on stage. Some people began to believe the whole thing was a hoax, and there were rumors that the theatre manager, Samuel Foote, was the hoaxer. However, Foote adamantly denied he had anything to do with the Bottle Conjuror, and, furthermore, he said he warned the theatre manager that something didn’t seem right and that he should not allow the Bottle Conjuror’s performance.
After some time, the perpetrator of the hoax was identified. His name was John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu. According to reports, the idea for the hoax began one night when the Duke was in the company of other noblemen. The Duke claimed that if he advertised “to do the most impossible thing in the world, he would find fools enough in London to fill a playhouse who would think him earnest.” The nobleman did not believe him, and, after some discussion, a wager was agreed upon between the noblemen and the Duke. Luckily for the Duke, he was right. He won the bet, but, thereafter, reporters and pamphleteers wrote about the “folly and credulity of the age … and for many years afterwards ‘the bottle conjurer’ was a standing joke on English gullibility.”
- “A Very Old Hoax,” in York Herald, 15 February, 1875
- “The Bottle Conjurer,” in Fife Herald, 28 January 1862
- “The Bottle Conjurer,” in Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 20 June 1865