The Great Bottle Hoax

In 1749 several British noblemen, the Duke of Portland and the Earl of Chesterfield, were discussing the gullibility of the public. They decided to test its credulity by designing a test. The Duke bet the Earl that if he advertised that an impossible feat would be performed — a man jumping into a quart bottle — they would still "find fools enough in London to fill a playhouse and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there." The Earl accepted the bet.

The Advertisement

The following advertisement appeared in the London papers during the first week of 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 advertisement generated strong interest throughout London, and on the night of the performance every seat in the theater was sold. Even standing room was crowded.

The hour of the performance arrived, and the crowd eagerly waited, but nothing happened. No entertainment had been provided. There was not even music to calm the crowd as it waited, and eventually as the minutes stretched into an hour, people grew unruly. There were cries for the performance to begin. Men banged on the floor with their canes and feet. Eventually a theater representative appeared on stage, apologizing profusely, and announced that if the performer did not arrive within 15 minutes, all money would be refunded at the door.

This announcement was greeted with groans and hisses. Someone in the pit cried out that if the ladies and gentlemen would pay double price he would crawl into a pint bottle. This generated laughter.

But suddenly a gentleman in one of the boxes threw a lighted candle onto the stage, and immediately general chaos broke out. The frustrated audience began ripping up the theater, tearing up seats and benches. People rushed to leave, abandoning their hats and wigs in the panic. Everything portable in the theater was hauled outside and thrown onto a bonfire. The box-receipts were stolen.

Media Response

The hoax served as the inspiration for much humor in the media. One paper wrote that the conjurer had been ready and willing to appear on the fatal night, but just prior to the performance a gentleman had 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 corked up the bottle, placed 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.

Advertisements spoofed the performance. One advertiser announced he would jump down his own throat, a second offered to change himself into a rattle, a third 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." A fourth advertiser claimed that if spectators would pull their eyes out, he would replace them in their sockets:

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 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."

Identity of the Pranksters

In the days after the theater riot, attempts were made to find out who had been responsible for the prank. Suspicion immediately fell on Samuel Foote, an actor who was one of London's most notorious pranksters. However, Foote insisted he had nothing to do with it.

The owner of the theater, John Potter, was also named as a suspect, but he too declared his innocence, explaining that a man unknown to him had made all the arrangements for renting the theater. Potter also noted that he would have refunded the cost of all the tickets to the audience, if the receipts had not been stolen during the riot.

The true pranksters, the Duke and the Earl, lay low. It was not until years later that their secret leaked out.
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