In 1903, the name of Mother Shipton was still familiar enough to be used in an Oldsmobile ad. Twenty-two years had passed since her predictions had been exposed as a fraud— particularly her prophecy that the world would end in 1881.
The original Mother Shipton was a freelance oracle of the 16th century, who became famous when a book of her prophecies appeared 80 years after her death. In 1873, she got famous all over again when a new book of her prophecies appeared, now written in rhyming couplets.
Skeptics thought these newly discovered prophecies fit the 1800s a little too well. There were obvious references to locomotives (“Carriages without horses shall go/ And accidents fill the world with woe”), steamships (“Iron in the water shall float/ As easily as a wooden boat”), the telegraph (“Around the world thoughts shall fly/ In the twinkling of an eye”), and the California gold rush (“Gold shall be found and shown/ In a land that’s now not known.”)
Of course, we shouldn’t think less of a prophecy just because it tells us what has already happened. All the best prophecies work this way. It’s how Nostradamus became such a reliable forecaster. But Nostradmus was a professional; he wrote his predictions in a poetic style that could fit several events. Mother Shipton was an amateur who made an unmistakable declaration: “The world to an end shall come/ In eighteen hundred and eighty one.”
It was just too clear to be credible. Her new book was greeted with blistering criticism and sarcasm. The publisher soon admitted he’d admitted writing the entire book himself. Despite his public admission, the prediction gained currency, particularly as the year 1881 began. In February, the Post observed,
There are lots of people who will tell you that they put no faith in Mother Shipton’s prophecy that the world will come to an end this year, and yet will jump and have a scared look in their eyes when they suddenly hear the noise caused by the dumping of a load of coal.
Over its 60 years of publishing, the Post had often reported end-of-the-world prophecies. The editors were not impressed with this latest prognostication.
Mother Shipton and her prophecies are still in authority in parts of Canada. In one county several farmers have neglected putting in their crops because of their firm belief that the world will come to an end this year. [July 2]
A newspaper agent, being told by an old lady that it was no use to subscribe for the papers now, as Mother Shipton said the world was coming to an end this year, said, “But won’t you want to read an account of the whole affair as soon as it is over. ‘That I will,” answered the old lady; and she subscribed. [July 30]
Another visionary authority unites with Mother Shipton in pronouncing that the end of the world will take place in this year of grace, 1881. In the fourteenth century, Aretino, an Italian author, fixed in his writings the exact date of the end of the world. According to this distinguished authority, the destruction of the earth and its inhabitants will occupy fifteen days. The cataclysm will begin by an uprising of the water. The human race, before perishing, will lose the power of speech. All will be dead before the final day—the 15th of November. These old authors, it would seem, were terrible jokers. [June 23]
Terrible jokers, indeed. Aretino was a notorious satirist and pornographer of 16th century Rome who reportedly laughed himself to death.
A young lady, recently married, read Mother Shipton’s prophecy for the first time the other day. “Just my luck!” she exclaimed, throwing down the paper, “here I am newly married, and now the world’s coming to an end.” [November 30]
All too soon, the year was over and, from all we can tell, the world didn’t end. But where Mother Shipton’s forecast of doom had fallen, several others stepped forward to takes its place.
Mother Shipton’s prophecy having failed to bring about the end of the world at the appointed time, another very old prediction is now brought forward. It is expressed in a French stanza, and clearly proves the end of the world in 1886.
Devout Moslems confidently predict the end of the world on November 8 , the close of the Mohammedan thirteenth century. A proclamation has been issued from Mecca warning all true believers to prepare for the coming day [when] the sun shall rise in the West, the day of mercy and forgiveness shall cease, and that of judgment and retribution begin.
We now know that the world will end next year, thanks to the 2100-year-old Mayan calendar. Unfortunately, this prediction relies on the Western calendar, which has been continually revised over the past two millenia. Such fine points will make no difference, however, since the world will end on December 31, when our own calendars will run out of pages.