The word bottle-conjuror, meaning “a fraudster or disreputable charlatan”, popped up on HH a few weeks ago. And the story behind it—involving a fake advertisement, a theatre, and a disappointed audience—really needs telling.
On the evening of Monday 16 January 1749, London’s Haymarket Theatre was packed to the rafters after an advertisement that had appeared in a local newspaper a few days earlier had promised something truly remarkable:
At the New Theatre in the Hay-market, on Monday next, the 16th instant, to be seen: a person who performs the several most surprising things following, viz. . . . 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 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.
The trick sounded too good to be true. For the very good reason that it was.
As the time of the performance approached, the magician who had placed the advert not only failed to appear inside the bottle, but failed to appear at the theatre. The crowd grew ever-more restless, and soon a member of the theatre’s staff was compelled to take to the stage to explain that if the conjuror remained missing then the performance would have to be cancelled. The audience, it’s fair to say, weren’t amused. A violent riot broke out, and before long the Haymarket Theatre was all but gutted.
The bottle-conjuror’s hoax soon became the talk of the town. Precisely who had perpetrated it was a mystery, but suspicion soon fell on a notorious high-society prankster named John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu. If legend is to be believed, Montagu had arranged a bet amongst his friends that he could fill a theatre within a week—and concocted the “bottle illusion” as a means of capturing the public’s attention.
Whether Montagu was responsible for the hoax or not is unclear, but either way the term bottle-conjuror had soon fallen into use in eighteenth century slang as a byword for a liar, a prankster, or someone who promises something that is ultimately undeliverable.