18th Century Studies

The mysterious death of John Harding, Swift’s printer

My thesis on Swift and his Dublin printers of the 1720’s was published online at Monash University in 2015. This thesis is a broad discussion of Swift’s working relationships with his Dublin printers through the 1720’s. It is entitled I am no inconsiderable Shop-Keeper in this Town: Swift and his Dublin Printers of the 1720’s: Edward Waters, John Harding and Sarah Harding, and is accessible here.

Since the publication of my thesis, I have discovered further matters related to Swift’s treatment of his Dublin printers of the 1720’s. These concern, in particular, the circumstances of the death of his printer John Harding in April 1725 and Swift’s neglect of Harding’s widow, Sarah, through the years that followed.

John Harding, the printer of the seditious Letters written by Swift under the pseudonym ‘M.B. Drapier’ during the controversy of Wood’s halfpence, died in April 1725, five months after a three-week imprisonment the previous year. It has always been assumed that the cause of his death was jail fever, which is an assumption that consigns Harding’s death to the realm of ‘accident’ and which leaves Swift’s reputation unquestioned. Harding, however, had been due to appear in the Court of King’s Bench where he would have been interrogated as to the true identity of ‘M.B. Drapier’, and if one mention of the words ‘Jonathan Swift’ or ‘Dean of St. Patrick’s’ was forced from him, Swift himself would have been brought before the court to face a charge of sedition or possibly treason. Harding’s court appearance never eventuated. Instead, he emerged from prison in a deteriorated physical condition and died five months later.

The truth of what happened to Harding is instinctively clear. The fact that he was murdered in order to protect Swift is, pardon the colloquialism, as plain as the nose on your face. There is even separate evidence indicating that the brutal deed may have been carried out with tacit knowledge on Swift’s part. Such is the nature of Swift scholarship, however, which will not allow the slightest smudge to appear on the reputation of the great writer, that even the first proposition is forthrightly rejected, as I have discovered through my own experience.

My book on the subject is in progress but much of my work is already freely available at the links below.

Full-length paper: ‘An inquiry into the death of Swift’s printer, John Harding: Part 1: evidence through to August 1725’. Can be freely downloaded as a pdf here.

Presentation on video: ‘The death of Swift’s printer John Harding – new evidence that implicates Swift’, Melbourne Irish Studies Seminar Series Online, 17 November 2020. Video accessible here, with an introduction by Professor Dianne Hall.

Short paper: ‘Evidence that Swift’s Drapier’s Letters were prepared by Sarah Harding, not John Harding, March 2021. Accessible here.

Presentation on video: ‘Elegy on the death of John Harding’ – evidence of Swift’s authorship’, in XVII David Nichol Smith Seminar in Eighteenth-Century Studies: ‘Dark Enlightenments’, online event, 13 November – 11 December 2020. Zoom presentation accessible here.