Thursday, April 3, 2014

Return Engagement: A Stupendous Regency Prank by Theodore Hook, 1809

Thursday, April 3, 2014
Isabella reporting:

We might have missed April Fools' Day earlier this week, but we haven't forgotten it! Here's one of our favorite posts from the past about a prank that's justifiably famous. Some historians now question whether it actually took place at all, or was simply another form of hoax foisted on the press by the perpetrators; either way, it still makes for an outrageous story.

April Fools' Day deserves a rascal, and today we're offering this disarming young fellow, left, as a Regency rascal extraordinaire. Theodore Edward Hook (1788-1841) was to become a writer, playwright, & financial finagler. But in 1809, he was a twenty-one-year-old known for his outrageous wit, mischief, and audacity, newly freed from school and ready to concoct the prank that made him famous.

For grievances now long forgotten, he decided a Mrs. Tottenham deserved to be his victim. With two friends as accomplices, he spent six weeks sending out hundreds of fake invitations to famous folk (among those who innocently appeared were the Lord Mayor of London, the Duke of Gloucester, and the chairman of the East India Company) and orders for goods and services to scores of tradesmen. Then, on the appointed day, he and his friends sat in a room across the street from the unfortunate Mrs. Tottenham's house and watched the mayhem they'd created in this quiet residential neighborhood. Here's how it was reported in a London newspaper at the time:

A HOAX.- This very malignant species of wit was yesterday most successfully practised at the house of Mrs. T––, a lady of fortune, at No. 54, Berners-street, which was beset by about three dozen tradespeople at one time, with their various commodities, and from the confusion altogether, such crowds had collected as to render the street impassable. Waggons laden with coals from the Paddington wharves, upholsterers' goods in cart-loads, organs, pianofortes, linen, jewellery, and every other description of furniture, were lodged as near as possible to the door of No. 54, with anxious tradespeople and a laughing mob. About this time, the Lord Mayor arrived in his carriage, but his lordship's stay was short, and he was driven to Marlborough-street police-office. At the office, his lordship informed the sitting magistrate that he had received a note purporting to come from Mrs. T––, which stated that she had been summoned to appear before him, but that she was confined to her room by sickness, and requested his lordship would do her the favor to call on her. Berners-street was, by this time, in the greatest confusion, by the multiplicity of tradespeople, who were returning with their goods, and spectators laughing at them. The officers at Marlborough-street office were immediately ordered out to keep order, but it was impossible. The first thing witnessed by the officers was six stout men bearing an organ, surrounded by wine-porters with permits, barbers with wigs, mantua-makers with band-boxes, opticians with the various articles of their trade, and such was the pressure of tradespeople who had been duped, that at four-o'clock all was still confusion...The street was not cleared at a late hour, as servants wanting places began to assemble at five o'clock...besides a coffin which was brought to Mrs. T––'s house, made to measure...there were accoucheurs, tooth-drawers, miniature painters, and artists of every description.

While this elaborate prank angered most of the unwitting participants, it amused a great many others, and was widely written about and discussed. Hundreds of people had been involved, and a "quarter of the town disturbed." Although Hook was suspected, nothing could be proved against him, and he gleefully escaped any punishment. Nowadays we're sure it would have landed him his own show on MTV.

Above: Theodore Hook, artist unknown, c. 1808. From The Life & Remains of Theodore Edward Hook.


Anonymous said...

I am on the side of the angered. I haven't changed my mins since I first rread about this but had managed to put it out of my mind. I hate practical jokes which are seldom practical or true jokes.
If the work was calledx a bit of spite or revenge or how to humiliate XYZ it would more clearly show my opinion of it.

DSG said...

Hook certainly seems to have been the kind of heartless wit that was often admired, from a safe distance, at that time. If I were Mrs. Tottenham, I might have bided my time and tried to return the favor at some point. Looking at his life, however, I doubt she could have done much to him that was worse than what he did to himself.

Heckety said...

How truly unbelieveable- not particularly amusing, but quite incredible in its scope. I sure am glad he's not still around....

Isobel Carr said...

Love it. Like ordering dozens of pizzas to be delivered to someone you hate.

Karen Anne said...

I'm on the side of angered as well. Not only a problem for the one victim, but costing many other people time and money as well. I'd like to see a nice jail sentence for this along the lines of disturbing the peace, and the perpetrator being financially responsible for the costs to the tradespeople and anyone else damaged by this, like the residents who might not have been able to get to their jobs, appointments, doctors' offices.

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