The summer of 1789 heralded the arrival of momentous events in world history, from the Revolution in France to the swearing in of the first President of the United States. But of more immediate concern to the residents of the oddly-named London thoroughfare of Poultry, was the identity of the miscreant who had kept them awake night after night by knocking on doors and running away. After being rudely awoken on several occasions by the sound of someone frantically ringing his doorbell in the small hours, Thomas Ribright of 40 Poultry, hit upon a novel idea to catch the nocturnal prankster. Ribright was an optician and renowned manufacturer of scientific instruments. He was also was also a keen amateur scientist and had recently completed a number of experiments on the conductive properties of different metals when exposed to a strong electrical current. Before retiring to bed one evening he sprinkled a large quantity of tin filings over his front doorstep and connected a length of copper wire to handle of his doorbell. The other end of the wire was hooked up to a Leyden Jar, a sort of primitive battery, which Ribright had primed with a large charge of static electricity. With his trap set, he duly took himself to bed and went to sleep.
Sometime later, he was awoken by the sound of a loud scream at his front door. Running downstairs, he threw the door open and saw the figure of Peter Wheeler, a neighbour, slumped in the doorway clutching his hand in agony. Wheeler was a well-known figure in the Poultry; a successful grocer and tea-dealer who had been nicknamed ‘Count Fig’ by his neighbours on account of both his wealth and the affected airs and graces he had adopted since coming into money. Wheeler had subsequently quarrelled with several of his neighbours, including Ribright, and decided to get his own back by sallying forth at nights to knock them from their beds. The little grocer eventually managed to stumble to his feet and, assuming that he had been the victim of some lethal assault, yelled “What! You shoot people eh?! Damn ye!” before staggering off in the direction of his home. The noise alerted a number of passersby, including some night watchmen, but on learning the reasons for Wheeler’s predicament, they too decided to enjoy a laugh at the hapless Count Fig’s expense.
The story quickly spread across London and was reported in The Times 29th June 1789. It is presumably from this account that a number of caricaturists took their inspiration, as prints relying the incident soon began to appear in the window’s of the city’s printshops. Animal magnetism on an improv’d method or Count Fig in a trance, published by W. Price of Tower Hill on 2nd July 1789 is the only one of these prints to carry a publication line and date. It shows Wheeler being blasted away from Ribright’s door, much to the amusement of two watchmen and a drab who happen to be passing by. The image is accompanied by the following limerick:
…The Count attack’d the Inchanted Wire
Unconscious of the latant Fire,
Which hurld him prostrate on the Stones
Screaming aloud my bones – my Bones
The Watch approachd & bear the Wight
Home on their Shoulders all be Sh[i]te
Two other prints, almost certainly the work of by the same artist and publisher, were also produced anonymously around this time. The first of these was The downfall, of Peter Ficus, commonly called Count Fig, the little grocer, which also shows Fig in the moments after being electrocuted. The second, Peter Fig the little grocer, commonly call’d Count Fig, has been more carefully engraved and was presumably produced at a slightly later date in order to capitalise on the on-going interest in the subject. It shows Wheeler striking a rather ridiculous pose in his shop and contains a rhyme which compares his features to those of a baboon.
The public’s interest sparked a rash of increasingly fanciful accounts of the incident which Ribright himself eventually felt compelled to correct. On the 8th July 1789 a letter appeared in The Times, stating the facts of the matter as relayed here and affirming that the author was willing to swear an affidavit to that effect if needs be.