Shakespeare is a voice merely; who and what he was that sang, that sings, we know not
You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck
out the heart of my mystery...
A very long time ago, and once upon a time, Marian and I set out for the province of Nova Scotia, a little-known
peninsula in far northeastern Canada. Marian is a gentlewoman, the Lady to whom I refer as my first wife when
she burns the biscuits.
Some arrangement was made to relieve me, for a few weeks, from the tedium of the law business; I think my
father agreed to handle a vexatious Motion for a More Definite Statement, a dilatory exercise then pending upon
my not very busy calendar.
Outside of that, in 1952, we were free. I had read some books about Oak Island just off the coast of Nova Scotia
where, it was said, a mighty treasure was buried. We gassed up our threeholer Buick to transport us the 2500
miles to Mahone Bay. Time was short so we drove day and night, relieving each other at the controls of our
powerful eight-cylinder road-eating machine. Treasure and Romance were beckoning us on to a reputed golden
glory-hole yawning on Oak Island.
In Canada the highway was not then of the best. Grinding along the gravel roads in the darkness, and going as
fast as I could, I had no reason to suspect that I had embarked upon such a long trail. As it happens, that summer
journey has not yet ended.
We found the coastal village of Mahone Bay and had dinner at its only tea room. Fishing and digging for treasure
were the local industries so fish was all there was to eat. I had tea instead.
The digging on the Island had been going on since 1795. Most treasures depend for a living upon an old map and
a tradition; it is sure and certain that jewels or gold were once buried but no one knows just where. But the
reverse is true of Oak Island. The particular spot where its treasure was interred has been fixed, within a few
yards, for 192 years. The treasure itself may have been put in its tomb a century or more before that. There is no
scrap of evidence, other than conjecture, to connect it with any person or age. The character of the treasure is
I will quote from a little book I wrote about the island:
"One autumn day in 1795 the soul of some long-dead spirit stirred and perhaps laughed at the tricks that it and
fate were to play on three country boys from the Nova Scotia mainland. The three boys were the crew of a
rowboat on Mahone Bay, fifty miles southwest of Halifax. The restless spirit was, of course, guarding the treasure
it had buried on one of the islands in the bay. There is an island for every day in the year in these waters, and
pure chance was steering the boat toward Oak Island. The spirit's task of guarding was an easy one, for it had
labored long and mightily in its lifetime to place its curse on these and other treasure hunters to follow."
(Hit for text of The Oak Island Enigma)
To paraphrase a part of that story, when the boys landed they followed a trail up a hill. They found a tall, very
old oak tree. About 16 feet above the ground was the stump of a heavy branch that had been sawed off. They
climbed the tree and found that the bark on top of the stump was scarred and cut. Below they could make out a
sunken depression in the ground about 13 feet in diameter. All signs seemed to indicate that someone had dug a
pit beneath the tree and, using the branch as a support for a block and tackle, had lowered something into the
At that time, and for a long time past, Mahone Bay had provided shelter for pirates,or at least for those in the
marque and reprisal business. The trio returned to the mainland and loaded their boat with picks and shovels.
The earth flew thick next day and they found the dirt in the shallow depression much softer than the packed
ground around it. They saw what they believed to be old tool marks on the sides of the pit as the loose earth
crumbled away from it.
At the ten foot level their shovels struck solid wood. After the dirt had been cleared away, they found themselves
standing on a platform of oak planks three inches thick. There was some difficulty in tearing up these planks
because they were not simply laid into the soft dirt in the pit but solidly embedded in its sides. Underneath was
nothing but more earth. A block and tackle was rigged to the old scarred limb to hoist out the soil and the digging
went on to the twenty foot level. Here was another oak platform and more dirt under it. At the thirty foot level,
and a third oak platform, the boys reached the limit of their engineering ability and could do nothing more
without help. The long Nova Scotia winter began and deep snows covered the site. Their elders listened as the
boys described the situation and, next spring, they all went digging together.
The excavation, once begun, has continued to the present. Old oak platforms, apparently working stations, were
found every ten feet down to the 100 foot level. More than two million dollars has been spent and at least six lives
lost in the search. Nothing definitive has been recovered and that is a long disappointing story. It is best and most
accurately told by D'Arcy O'Connor in his 1978 Money Pit [@].
In 1952 the easiest way to get out to the island was to hire a young chap who had an ancient outboard motorboat.
On the day that we found him, however, the engine was lying in pieces on the dock in the midst of an overhaul.
We borrowed a skiff and rowed out to Oak Island and inspected it most carefully. Savagely we were attacked by
what I call blowflies, the kind that do wheels-up landings on your neck and refuse to take off again. We had our
tour of the island, our lunch and a six-pack on Gilbert Hedden's long dock, an object which has since been blown
away in another Atlantic storm. We spent a few more lazy days wandering around and talking to the Mahone Bay
natives who had surprising Scottish accents. But by then our objective had been accomplished and we were
running low on traveling money.
We put the car on the Yarmouth-to-Boston ferry boat and repaired to our luxury cabin; it had no portholes and,
because it was near the crosshead of the engine, we could hear the steam escaping from the packing. Shades of
Life on the Mississippi .
From Boston we drove to New York City where, in those olden days, parking spaces were available in front of the
Algonquin, the reputed den of famous thespians and radio announcers. When none of them showed up for our
viewing we called Gilbert Hedden who lived in Basking Ridge, N. J. Hedden was the man who had searched for
the Oak Island treasure for several years during the middle nineteen-thirties.
We had corresponded, so he came to Manhattan to see us. We had dinner and a few drinks, which I encouraged
in hopes of persuading him to tell me where the treasure was buried. He had already spent an inheritance digging
for it; he thought it was still there and he would have continued, except that he was then working for the
Hedden, to my young judgment, was a Protean character. He was a graduate civil engineer and had been in the
heavy construction business before he bit down too hard on the early Eighteenth Century earthworks on Oak
Island. He had many other interests, hobbies some might call them, and one was the habit of reading old books.
Along toward midnight I ordered him another Old-Fashioned (and a little something for myself) and gathered the
courage to ask him, straight out, what he thought was buried on Oak Island, 100 feet down under ten oaken
working stations; and where, at the bottom, were two boulder-filled water conduits, each leading out to the
Atlantic Ocean on opposite sides of the island.
These were the drains that had defeated him and all subsequent treasure hunters. Always, when a shaft had
bottomed out at more than 100 feet, the sea rushed in to drown the works. Its course did not run naturally, as
seepage, but powerfully through man-made tunnels that were seemingly designed to defeat any attempt to
uncover the treasure.
Hedden called for a cigar. He took his time lighting it while he looked me over. I guess he decided that I wouldn't
laugh, and he told me he thought that the lost manuscripts of William Shakespeare were down there.
I had never heard that Shakespeare had lost any manuscripts and I thought they were all safely tucked away in
the Library of the British Museum in London, and precisely cataloged.
Hedden then improved my education. No manuscripts of Britain's most famous playwright have ever been
found, he said, nor even any letters. It was Hedden's belief, (in which he was joined by others, as will be
reported) that Shakespeare was an illiterate scoundrel, given too much to the enjoyment of horse-holding,
calf-butchering, wool-dealing and strong spirits, and that he hired out as a play-acting lackey and nom-de-plume
for a Great Lord. The Lord's name, Hedden said, was Francis Bacon.
I didn't laugh, but I didn't easily accept his strange belief. I went home and, just for fun, wrote my little book [@]
about our visit to Nova Scotia and New York City. There was no chance that anyone would publish it, so I bought
an old 6 by 9 inch hand printing press and I set the type and printed it in Caslon Old Style. Included were
drawings on zinc plates and 160 line halftones of some pictures I had taken of Oak Island. Making that book was
no pleasure; I had to become my own editor, compositor and printer's devil. The ink has not worn off my thumbs
yet. I shall never make another, I resolved. Books are too much trouble. Hit here for The Oak Island Enigma.
Near my downtown office was an old, broken-down bookstore. In my high school days I had shopped there for
Caesar interlinears, handy translations that were called "ponies,"while I was trying to learn Latin. In it were some
old, broken-down books on the subject of "The Controversy." They were so cheap and so unfashionable and so
filled with nonsense that I bought them all on the spot. Curiosities, someday-to-be-valuable antique specimens of
wrong-thinking they looked like at the time. I glanced through one or two, and stored them in a closet.
Then a long winter began and we searched for diversions in the house. While I was looking in the closet for some
form of amusement, I noticed the rack of old books. One of them had an arresting cover: Is Shakespeare Dead ? ?
? ? , just like that. It was by Mark Twain [@].
I had laughed and even cried over Sam Clemens' books since childhood; Tom and Huck had often been my
playmates and I was still very fond of them. Now, I discovered, that literary rascal had written a book unknown
to me. I put some kindling and few sticks in the fireplace and sat down to read his opinion of Shakespeare. He
would know how to dispose of the frail "proofs" of the anti-Stratfordian scoundrels, those so haughty as to
besmirch the hallowed name of William Shakespeare, Gent.
Twain began his story with a vicious attack upon my own grandmother. Not precisely upon her by name, but
upon her convictions. My grandma, Jennie Pennell, was stubbornly strong-minded; her father, Tom Smith (a
three-year Civil War veteran), was an itinerant printer. He itinerated across northern Iowa and Nebraska and,
because of his occasionally unpopular political opinions and fiery editorials, he was two or three times run out of
the pioneer railhead towns where he had begun to publish weekly newspapers. Jennie followed along and, as a
child, was taught to feed chickens, fodder the horses and set type in the stick.
Somehow my grandma, who mistrusted change in silver coin and examined every piece with a suspicious eye,
drifted away from the Episcopal faith. It was at a time when there were very few religious options that she
discovered Mary Baker Eddy's thesis, Science and Health . After that, she refused to take medicines or even to
nod at doctors as they passed her little house in McCook, Nebraska. She paid dearly for her conversion and
complained of poor health until her death at age 97.
After I read Twain's book, I never had the heart to explain to Jennie that there was some doubt that The Deity had
personally, and at great length, dictated to Mrs. Eddy the book that she sold. Twain, in another work called
Christian Science , made sport of Mrs. Eddy in a shameful, impious manner.
So much for Mark Twain's dubious and disrespectful approach to Recent Revelation. He enjoyed puncturing the
false hypotheses of others he called "claimants"; he did so frequently, and with telling good humor. In addition he
had, to some scholars, a very unpopular view of an English literary Saint. We will return to his disgraceful
opinion of William Shake-speare in a later chapter.
There were some other curious books in my closet. One was authored by Sir Edward Durning-Lawrence, Bart.,
B.A., LL.B., etc. Here was not only a Knight of the realm, but a fellow barrister with a toffish hyphenated name.
His book had the fully capitalized and provocative title of BACON IS SHAKESPEARE [@], and he ended each
chapter with those words.
In it were many illustrations. Enlargements of the engraving of Mr. Shakespeare's likeness, as shown in the 1623
Folio, seemed to indicate that he was wearing a jacket made for a man with two left arms. Another engraving,
published in 1656, pictured the Stratford statue of the author as clutching a sack of wool to his groin. A similar
representation was published in 1709. But a photograph of this bust "as it appears at the present time" (1910)
shows him now to have pen in hand, poised to write something on a pillow. Perhaps he is only cleaning his quill
on a velvet penwiper and making ready some paper in his left hand. Anyway, there is quite a difference between
the current Stratford statue and the one depicted by the artists of a generation or two after the original was carved.
Another illustration in Durning-Lawrence's book is a facsimile of five authentic Shakespeare signatures. These are
very poor examples of calligraphy. One might imagine that the penman had very little practice in the writing
trade. A copy of a Shakespeare letter is shown. It is not a letter that he wrote; there are none of those, or anything
but the signatures in his handwriting.Rather it is a letter to him asking for a small loan. The writer was Richard
Quiney whose son Thomas had married Shakespeare's illiterate daughter Judith; the poor thing was able to sign
the marriage register only with her mark.
Durning-Lawrence published photographs of a legal deposition given by Mr. Shakespeare and makes a fair
argument that, after a law clerk had written an abbreviation of his name on the last page, he too made his mark.
He appears to have accomplished an "X" but then he blotted it. Clumsy of him.
There are illustrations of the title-page of a 1624 book, published on the Continent, about cryptography. @]. These
are said to be antique cartoons of Francis Bacon handing the manuscript of one of his plays to Mr. Shake-speare,
who is shown as a loutish bumpkin holding a spear. Another panel of the engraving shows him riding off; the
rowel of his spur is quite prominent. A third panel represents a walled castle with flaming beacons lighting the
turrets. The last panel seems to show Bacon writing a book while William waits patiently for its completion. Most
Durning-Lawrence wrote his book with such solemn conviction and scholarly petulance that he was quickly
laughed out of court by the tenured Dons of Oxford and Cambridge. After all, he was only a barrister and soon
afterward he disappeared into the mists of the already fading "Great Controversy."
Among the rest of the dog-eared volumes in my dusty closet were some that purported to reveal cipher
messages, ancient secrets hidden in Mr. Shakespeare's books. I had stumbled upon the works of Owen [@], Pott
[@], Donnelly [@], Gallup [@] and others.
All that I knew about ciphers was of an object shown to me during U.S.A.A.F. pilot training in 1943. It was what
looked like a brass cylinder about two inches in diameter and ten inches long. It was composed of twenty-six
brass disks about 3/8" thick. Around the circumference were stamped the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, and
the series of letters had been scrambled in a different way on each disk. These disks were made to rotate on a
central rod; they could be disassembled and remounted in a different order.
A message could be enciphered by lining up on one line, or row, the engraved letters; this was accomplished by
rotating each disk until the message was properly spelled out. Afterward the disks were locked in place. The
cipher letters could then be selected at random from any one of the twenty-five remaining rows and later
transmitted by radio. The recipient also had a cylinder with the disks assembled, by prearrangement, in the
same arbitrary order. He could line up the cipher letters, lock the disks and then rotate the whole cylinder. By
inspection of all the rows, the cipher clerk could read on one of them the plain English words of the message.
This M-94, G.I. device was almost an exact copy of the Jefferson Wheel Cypher Machine which was invented by
Thomas Jefferson about 1790. His had thirty-six disks which could be rearranged in a large number of ways.
This simple yet ingeniously clever machine could produce different cipher alphabets in thirty-six factorial ways--
an enormous number having forty-two digits. The method permitted the use of a very secure cipher system--so
secure says David Kahn, an expert in such affairs, that "To this day  the Navy uses it...it often defeated the
best efforts of the Twentieth Century cryptanalysts who tried to break it down."
Apparently Thomas Jefferson, while trying to keep the bankers from foreclosing on his farm, forgot to tell
anyone about it and the description was found among his papers in the Library of Congress in 1922. By an odd
coincidence, a similar device was reinvented about the same time and it was quickly adopted by the U. S. armed
Jefferson's scheme was a cunning improvement upon a cipher method invented over two thousand years ago.
Both are described by David Kahn, the author of The Codebreakers [@]; he is a historian of code and cipher
inventions and he has exhausted his subject in a most scholarly manner. He says that Gaius Julius Caesar (100 B.
C.--44 B.C.) is the first of record to have adopted and used, in warfare, a cipher. Caesar is mostly remembered
for defeating the Gauls, then invading Britain (55 B.C.) and later persuading Cleopatra to come to Rome (46 B.
C.) in spite of her often-soiled reputation.
Caesar's first successful cipher was one merely written in Greek characters. His enemy could not read that
language but Caesar's letter was decipherable by Cicero, his ally. Kahn tells us more about another one:
"Later, Caesar improved on this technique and, in doing so, impressed his name permanently into cryptology as
he did into so many other fields. Suetonius, the gossip columnist of ancient Rome, says that Caesar wrote to
Cicero and other friends in a cipher in which the plaintext letters were replaced by letters standing three places
further down the alphabet, D for a, E for b, etc. Thus, the message Omnia Gallia est divisa in partes tres would
be enciphered (using the modern twenty-six letter alphabet) to RPQLD JDOOLD HVW GLYLVD LQ SDUWHV
WUHV. To this day, any cipher alphabet that consists of the standard sequence, like Caesar's:
Ciphertext: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Plaintext : d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z a b c
is called a Caesar alphabet, even if it begins with a letter other than d" [@].
So, for example, to write Caesar's signature in this manner, it would read, "fdhvdu".
Gilbert Hedden had told me about The Francis Bacon Society which dwelt in London (Canonbury Tower,
Islington, London N1 2NQ) and I soon afterward subscribed to their more or less annual literary journal. It had
been published since 1886 and in it were fascinating little narratives of the events of Elizabethan times, most of
them unknown to me. The Baconians of course believed that Francis Bacon, using with permission the name of
the actor William Shakespeare, wrote the poems and plays attributed to the latter. Because of their strident
profession of this strange doctrine, the members were formerly much despised and cruelly vilified wherever
they went, which is a pity.
The Baconians also were interested in ciphers. One of the toys of the Elizabethan nobility was the anagram. That
was a method of rearranging the letters of a word or sentence so as to produce a new word or words. "Paid me
every cent" can be rearranged to say "Received payment"; my wife's name "Marian" is an anagram of "airman"
or "marina," a fact which she concealed from me for many years.
Toward the end of "The Taming of the Shrew," this passage is found:
"Petr . . .
But twentie times so much upon my Wife.
Luc . A hundred then.
Hor . Content."
Some Baconians say that this arrangement was made by the author to spell "Bacon"; that is, by selecting the
initial, acrostic letters of the first two lines and the "Con" of the last line. The scheme has also been applied again
in "Alls Well that Ends Well," Act 5:
Both suffer under this complaint we bring
And both shall cease, without your remedie
Come hether Count do you know these Women?"
Thus, stretching the method a little further, it is said that the letters B,A,n,C,o, selected from some of the letters
of the initial words of each line, spell Bacon. The letters do, of course, appear but such tricks have been
criticized, especially where it is subjectively necessary to rearrange them to get the desired result. Anagrams are
amusing, but usually the objectivity and the intent to encipher a word or name cannot be shown. Anagram
solutions are an indefinite cipher method. They might be used as an "inside joke" between friends or within
some small group, or in a book published by someone whom those friends knew to make a practice of joking in
this way. But alas. There is no way of proving any such thing. The "system" obviously could not be used for
I had a small lathe in my cellar and I decided to make my own Jefferson disk cipher machine. I got some brass
and I cut off about thirty disks and center-drilled them. Then I stamped the twenty-four letters of the
Elizabethan alphabet (no J or U) in the usual order around the circumference of each of them. Mounted on a rod,
they could be rotated. After lining up the proper letters, taken from some suspicious-looking text, the disks
could be locked in place; then the remaining twenty-three lines of letters could quickly be inspected for a Caesar
cipher message--hopefully of consecutive letters, significant letters, word-making letters.
I found a second-hand facsimile of the 1623 Folio of Shakespeare's plays and also a few reproductions of the
earlier Quartos and of the Sonnets . It was no use to begin working with the modern editions in which all sorts
of liberties have been taken, such as "correcting" the spelling.
So I played with my cipher machine, sometimes for whole days but more often for an hour or so. I didn't know
what to try--the capital letters looked interesting. There seemed to be no standards to Elizabethan spelling or
typesetting. Place and proper names were capitalized conventionally but, unusually and more often than
necessary, so also were nouns and sometimes even verbs and adjectives. If one could capitalize almost any
desired word, I thought, that might be a way to inject a cipher message into an innocent-looking text.
But I wasn't getting anywhere. Sometimes a three-letter or even a four-letter word would turn up, just standing
there alone, but that wasn't much help. Once I even found that word.
One day I picked up my copy of the Sonnets again. The title-page was standard Elizabethan; there was nothing
there to catch the eye of an untutored cryptographer like myself. This is all it said (see photo illustration).
Neuer before Imprinted.
By G. Eld for T.T. and are
to be solde by Iohn Wright , dwelling
at Christ Church gate.
Nothing at all seemed suspect in those lines. I turned the page to the famous Dedication:
What were all those periods doing there, stuck in for no befitting reason, after every word? Were they just
someone's attempt at decoration, a feeble example of the compositor's art? And why were there four
unnecessary spaces between the lines? Why I couldn't guess, except that they had attracted my attention. Could
that have been the reason?
I got out my brass machine and tried randomly everything I could think of. First letters of each line, last letters,
first and last, then the fourth letter of each word, the second letter in each word (the words "FORTH" and "TO"
might be clues), and so on. No decryption of anything interesting resulted. Then I tried the last letter of each
word , the letter standing behind each period. These are as follows:
O E E R F E G S R W H L E D T E D Y R G T H E G R N G H T T
The Jefferson disk cipher cylinder can be read either backward or forward, depending upon whether a letter has
been subtracted or added from its original position in the alphabet. In the twenty-four letter Elizabethan
alphabet, in which J and U are omitted, a ciphertext "A" displaced four places might either be "e," going
forward, or "s" going backward.
Here is the readout on the Jefferson disks when substituting for a presumed ciphertext letter another letter
which is the fourth one before that; the plaintext appears on the fourth numbered line:
O E E R F E G S R W H L E D T E D Y R G T H E G R N G H T T
N D D Q E D F R Q V G K D C S D C X Q F S G D F Q M F G S S 1
M C C P D C E Q P T F I C B R C B W P E R F C E P L E F R R 2
L B B O C B D P O S E H B A Q B A V O D Q E B D O K D E Q Q 3
K A A N B A C O N R D G A Z P A Z T N C P D A C N I C D P P 4
"KAANBACON"? KAAN was not much help, but then there it was, BACON! Rather an unusual arrangement of
letters to be decrypted from a weirdly typeset Dedication. How could I appraise this odd coincidence?
About twelve years later I learned how, from David Kahn's (!) book The Codebreakers [@]. Here is how he
"Imagine an urn containing one each of the 26 letters of the alphabet. The chance of drawing any specified letter,
say r , is 1 in 26 or 1/26. Now imagine another, identical urn. What are the odds on drawing a pair of r 's, one
after another, in a two- draw situation? The likelihood of drawing the second r is 1/26 of the chance of drawing
the first, which is 1/26. So the chance of drawing two r 's in a single event, or "simultaneously," one from each
urn, is 1/26 x 1/26. Similarly, the probability of drawing two a 's is 1/26 x 1/26, of two b 's, 1/26 x 1/26, and so
on . . ."
So the odds against drawing a particular two letters in a particular order, such as BA, are 26 x 26 , or rather 24 x
24 in the 24 letter Elizabethan alphabet, and thus 676 to 1. Using three more identical urns, the odds against 3
letters accidentally occurring in order, such as BAC, are 24 x 24 x 24 or 13,824 to 1. For BACO we multiply by 24
again and get 331,776. For BACON the odds against must rise to 7,962,624 to 1. Yet such probabilities apply only
for one, five letter, random group standing alone and not for a thirty letter random group in which these five
might anywhere, though still consecutively, be found. It may be that a part of this thirty letter group looks
suspicious but, as scientists with respect for mathematics, we must turn our backs and reduce the odds for this
appearance of "BACON" to some much lower level. After all, those five letters have never yet been written in
fire across the heavens above Stratford.
I was not then convinced that this was more than a coincidence and I could find no more useful ciphertext letters
in the Dedication. I leafed through other pages in other facsimiles of Shakespeare's works with no better fortune.
Slowly, I turned away from my new hobby.
But Caesar's methods may be worth explaining again. They are those of an elementary substitution cipher. We
simply write down the sixteenth century alphabet, (omitting J and U) and then write another alphabet under it,
beginning with some letter other than a :
Ciphertext: A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V W X Y Z
Plaintext : w x y z a b c d e f g h i k l m n o p w r s t v
The second alphabet has now been shifted four letters to the right. If, for example, you put "FEGSR" into the
first line, "bacon" comes out of the second. Not too difficult, even for me.
And, as the years passed, I never forgot that alternative reading. It sort of haunted me--maybe it wasn't just an
accident. Someday, I thought, when there is time. . .
With time came computers.