Friday, April 1, 2011

For April Fool's Day: A Stupendous Regency Prank by Theodore Hook, 1809

Friday, April 1, 2011
Susan reporting:

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.

16 comments:

LaDonna said...

This really does sound like a modern prank. Sounds like Hook created his own day-long flash mob. That he did it without cell phones made him pretty inventive, though probably really annoying to everyone who got punk'd.

Anonymous said...

I hate these sort of so called "jokes". I find nothing funny about them. All those people lost hours and money and Mrs. T was probably driven to hysterics and taking to her bed.This was sadistic harassment.

Anonymous said...

One more example of how spoiled young Regency "gentlemen" got away with things that ordinary people would have been arrested for. Shame on him!

Lyn S said...

Wow. I thought sending unwanted pizzas was a new prank. Shows you that everything new is old. History rules.

Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe said...

He thought of everything, from birth with the accouchers to death with the coffin.Poor Mrs. T and everyone else who was tricked.

Jane O said...

I believe it was James Thurber and Robert Benchley who perpetrated this one:

Dressed as workmen, they went to the door of an Upper East Side brownstone and knocked. When the maid answered, they said, "We've come for the couch."
She let them in, and led them to the living room. They picked up the couch and left.
They then went across the street and knocked on the door. When the maid answered, they said, "We've come with the couch."
She let them in and led them to the living room. They deposited the couch and left.

I've always wondered if the couch ever got back home.

Regencyresearcher said...

What an egotistical , self-centred, jerk.

Regencyresearcher said...

BTW, you have outdone yourselves with this April Fool offering. Great research and great work.

Anonymous said...

LOL! Guess they can't all have been sweet and sensitive John Keats.

Time Traveling in Costume said...

Love it! What a great prank, and thank you for sharing it!

Leslie Carroll said...

Wherever did you get such a great anecdote? Or are you playing an April Fools prank on us history geeks?

I'm surprised he didn't end up with his own verb after this affair, as in "You've been Hooked!"

Poor old lady. I'd love to know more about her actually. I've already started to wonder whether she was the obnoxious grande dame (a la Lady Catherine de Burgh) or some sweet and trusting sprite who handed out sweetmeats and sugarplums to the children at Christmas.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Nice to see that it's pretty split between readers who think young Theodore needs a stint in detention, and those who think he's simply No Better than He Ought to Be. I have to admit I kept looking at his portrait with the goofy hair, and thinking how Beaver Cleaver's real name was Theodore....

Anyway: no, I didn't invent Mr. Hook or his prank, and this was only ONE of the ones he committed! For anyone interested, his 19th c. bio, The Life and Remains of Theodore Edward Hook, is available as a free google book:

http://bit.ly/i6vWxQ

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Leslie, interesting that you imagined the poor victim of the prank, Mrs. Tottenham, as an older woman. I'd pictured her as being quite young, perhaps even a contemporary of Mr. Hook's. Perhaps he'd flirted with her and she'd rebuffed him; perhaps he'd simply admired her from afar, and she, being a Married Lady, had ignored him. Or something.

Just goes to prove that when history has lost the facts, we fiction writers will happily jump into the fray to supply all the possibilities. *g*

Meg said...

Wow. I'm seriously impressed! Ted is my kind of man ;)

Suzanne said...

How funny! What a great story!

Teresa Thomas Bohannon said...

Thanks for the entertainment....

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