The Bottle Conjuror

If you checked the newspaper on January 16, 1749, the choices were these:

Orazio at the Haymarket. The world’s worst opera. It was worse than that Italian family wandering around that you had to pay to sing somewhere else.

Macbeth at the Covent Garden. Tomorrow and tomorrow. Timeless stuff. Still, getting a bit shopworn, wasn’t it? All those tedious trees moving about.

Coriolanus at the Drury Lane – by a Mr. Thomas? – they must have lost their minds –

But then the eye fell on this:


London General Advertiser, p. 2


At the New Theatre Haymarket, a person who 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 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. 

He would do some mind-reading too and play the flute. But clearly this bottle business was the meat of the matter, an astonishment never yet seen or heard of.

Thus as 7 p.m. approached, the coaches of the beau monde sprang into view, hammering through the streets into Haymarket Square as lesser folk streamed around them. Their target was a portico hung with lanterns, the only projection in a slab of buildings that side of the square. And why, you may already be asking, would hundreds of people be competing for tickets to see the manifestly impossible? The easy answer is that human folly is as infinite as the wisdom of God, but there was more to it than that. Just a generation earlier a nine-year-old girl had been hanged as a witch in Cambridgeshire. Rev. Woolston was in jail for claiming Christ was doing magic tricks, the Bishop of Colchester believed in fairies, and for decades the Royal Society had been reporting scientific marvels, not all of them true. This gumbo of science, religion and superstition was all very confusing, and if it still seemed inconceivable that this so-called Bottle Conjuror could actually….

Well anyway, it was one night only.

In they flocked, the gentlemen tricorn-hatted and bewigged with swords at their sides, a current fashion accessory that sprayed death and injury all over town. They were also an inconvenience to people now crowding through the door, though less than the majestic side hoops a few of the ladies had insisted upon, shoving them along under all that silk, a defense at least against the shocking proximity to the lower orders.

Inside the curtain was already up. Onstage there was only a table in the center with an empty wine bottle on top of it. The benches and boxes and balconies filled in that atmosphere of unmoored hope that theatregoers know so well.

The harlequin angle (pictured in the newspaper ads) fed the anticipation. Like masquerades, to which the town was addicted, this pantomime prankster born in commedia was a fad that refused to die. The success of Harlequin Dr. Faustus back in 1724 had spawned Harlequin Quicksilver, Harlequin Invisible, Harlequin Shipwrecked, Harlequin in China and on and on, the best full of dazzling special effects. Why, Harlequin the Cheat was scheduled this very week at the Covent Garden….

With so many candles placed about in buckets, sconces and chandeliers, the air in the theatre grew close, and when showtime came and went, and the minutes ticked by, and the stage remained as still as the grave, the crowd began to stir. There wasn’t even a fiddle player provided to pass the time. A stick began to pound, joined by others. There were shouts, more pounding, the clamor swelling to the ceiling, until weirdly, slowly, all sound fell away, and in that uncanny silence the audience realized they’d been hoaxed.

They didn’t want to believe it, of course, so the noise resumed louder than ever as if they could bottle a man through sheer force of will until at last a head poked out from the wings. Samuel Foote, the theatre manager – soon to triumph as Lady Pentweazel at the Drury Lane – crept like a sole surviving rabbit a few steps onto the stage. He wasn’t responsible for tonight’s event. He hadn’t booked it. The theatre owner, Mr. Potter, had done that, his skepticism overborne by a wad of cash from a mysterious stranger. To the audience though this man waving his arms and pleading for calm was the face of fraud, and when he offered to give them their money back, they only got madder. Someone snatched a candle and threw it at the stage. Foote fled. And then all hell broke loose.

William, Duke of Cumberland, led the charge. At least he tried to. The king’s younger son, the duke was famed around town for two things: one, suppressing the Scottish rebellion in ’45, when he was said to have relished killing the wounded and innocent more than the victory itself, and two, his bulk, a cargo of flesh so exceptional that his simply getting out of a chair could be an object of curiosity. To see “Billy the Butcher” then come to his feet in a relative twinkling was a bigger surprise than his battle cry as he yanked his sword from his scabbard. The only question seemed to be who was going to die.

Next moment the sword was gone from his hand, and he turned to see the thief with his prize – multi-engraved, solid-gold-hilted, crimson cord dangling – humping away through the crowd.

Now hundreds were fighting to leave, not easy since the will of the crowd was split: those frantic to go were at war with others thirsting for revenge. Hats, wigs, cloaks, purses vanished in the struggle as the first escapees reached the street, only to confront another crowd attracted by the noise. Realizing there was probably loot strewn about inside, some of them tried to force their way in, creating a sort of counter-crush and another wave of blows and screaming.

Inside meanwhile, the most deeply dissatisfied customers were tearing the place apart. Some smashed the benches and beat the fixtures off the walls while others shoved backstage, ravaging the costumes and scenery stored there, plundering the cloakroom or trying to steal the box office money from those who had stolen it first. Others sprang up the stairs to attack the tiers of boxes. One young nobleman, who hadn’t left his, snatched something and punished the flooring till he broke through and plummeted into the pit sustaining minor injuries. After laying waste to the balconies too, the mob flung, kicked and dragged the ruins out into the street.

The mountain of mangled wood and cloth made a very impressive fire, especially when the looted scenery and props were slung in too, landing in bursts of sparks. One man with a special sense of occasion hacked off a piece of the theatre curtain, tied it to a pole, and raised it above the blaze as a flag. Trying to exorcise their humiliation, others cavorted around the bonfire like medieval demons, and the pickpockets went to work.

Eventually some foot guards from the palace trotted up, but they didn’t get involved. Supplied with ale, they stood with their tankards in the keen winter night savoring the riot and the pulse of the blaze.

What about the police? Where were they?

What police?

What do you mean, what police?


Song of the Day: Tracy Chapman, “Baby Can I Hold You”








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