The Berners Street Hoax

Everybody loves a practical joke now and then, but one of the most celebrated practical jokes ever was the famous Berners Street Hoax, perpetrated in 1809. It all started when 21-year-old Theodore Hook bet his friend — noted architect and writer Samuel Beazley — that he could transform any house in London into the most talked-about address in only a week. They agreed and chose the house at 54 Berners Street in London, the home of a wealthy widow named Mrs. Tottenham. Hook sent out thousands of letters purporting to be Mrs. Tottenham, requesting deliveries, visitors and assistance. First, a chimney sweep showed up, with another 12 sweeps showing up shortly after. Before long, coal delivery workers began to show up, and a cart-load of furniture arrived. Following these were cake makers, dentists, grocers, doctors, lawyers, gardeners, shoemakers and even wig makers. Over a dozen pianos were delivered to Mrs. Tottenham’s door, as was a coffin. The road outside her house was quickly jammed, with traffic backed up almost two blocks away. Meanwhile, Hook and Beazley watched the madness from the hotel room they rented across the street from the house. The crowds dissipated late in the evening, but everyone in London talked about it for months afterward. In the meantime, Beazley handed over the money he lost on the bet with Hook.