The Cipher Wheel, Bacon and Digging Up A River March 25, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback
There is perhaps no worse sign of enthusiasm than a talented man or woman finding ciphers hidden in celebrated texts. The Bible, Shakespeare, Milton… All have been examined with such passion that only the unimaginative could fail to notice that peculiar patterns emerge when you take the second final word from each penultimate sentence. Beach recently ran across a novel (to him) version of this that deserves a wider audience: Orville Ward Owen (obit 1924) and his games with Bacon in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Beach got several of the relevant references from Chris from Haunted Ohio Books for which many thanks.
Let’s start with the cipher itself. ‘To attempt to give any-clear idea of how it was discovered would entail weeks of close study.’ This is almost always the way with these ciphers that are so complex that only a real genius can get at them: the whole process then becomes self confirming and OWO took five volumes to explain it to a patient public. With Orville the cipher was so complicated, in fact, that he needed to construct a machine, the cipher wheel, pictured, to get at the marrow of Bacon’s code, the key for which was in Philip Sydney’s Arcadia (before you ask that was actually written by Bacon too). And what did he learn? He discovered that Bacon/Sydney/Shakespeare (all one and the same and the son of Elizabeth I) had buried evidence under the river Wye at the Roman Ford at Chepstow in Wales in 1632. The cipher unfortunately does not tell us how Bacon got the river to stop running so he could bury his treasures. Orville though had to call in costly machines at about £85 a week in 1911 when that could have bought you a house by most English and Welsh rivers and some land to boot.
There is a lovely New York Times article (14 May 1911) that describes the attempt to excavate a wooden structure at the base of the river, covered with mysterious blue clay. Of course, the journalist in question had to get in before the operation had finished because then – Beach adds cruelly – there would have been no story to print, just some further delirium about how they’d got the wrong river. There were some local doubters of course. We refer not to the Duke of Beaufort who had rights on the Wye and who even contributed money to Orville’s extraordinary attempts to dig up a river. Rather, there was a ‘local historian’ who claimed:
he was perfectly certain that Dr Owen was doomed to disappointment and he expressed surprise that those at the head of affairs could not see that the structure on which Dr Owen pins so much faith was the remains of a land stage, another being on the other side precisely opposite.
OWO was naturally scathing at the very idea and continued on heroically. We’ve not found any exact description of what the good man said when the mysterious wooden platform turned out to be just a land stage. But we do know that in previous years he had dug under the walls of Chepstow Castle. Perhaps then he just turned to the local church or put dynamite under some notable peak? Or perhaps not. Orville died penniless in 1924 advising other Bacon enthusiasts not to waste their powder on such nonsense. But, of course, no one was listening… The latest cipher to be discovered in Shakespeare came to light in 2008.
31 Mar 2013: Stephen D writes in: I don’t know if you’ve come across Ronald Knox’s “Essays in Satire”, which contains a proof, supported by the best cryptographic methods, that the real author of “In Memoriam” was Queen Victoria? Also a proof that the second part of the Pilgrim’s Progress was written by a woman, that Boswell never met Johnson, and that a large part of the Sherlock Holmes canon is spurious.’ Thanks Stephen!!
28 April 2014: Chris from Haunted Ohio Books has written with a couple of fragments. The first is relevant to the afterlife of Owen (an airship!!!) and the second is just some fun. ‘It seems that Dr. Orville W. Owen is still making mud pies in the bed of the River Wye and that he has found some more things that he was not looking for. It will be remembered that he began the search for the Shakespearean manuscripts that were actually written by that gay deceiver, Francis Bacon. He found no manuscripts, but he did find an ancient Roman bridge that was quite an acquisition. Then he transferred his quest to dry land and discovered, not manuscripts, but some curious old crypts. Now after long and weary waiting we hear once more from Dr. Owen. He is still at it and as busy as ever delving away in the mud, and now he says that he has found “descriptions”‘ of an airship, but that he will make nothing public until he has found something complete. Our expectations are rising. Nothing will now satisfy us short of a treatise by Bacon on radium, the X-Ray, and the Sherman act. But perhaps we ought to take Dr. Owen more seriously. He has actually found some remarkable things, and he has evidently been able to persuade his wealthy patrons that he will find something more still. The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 13 January 1912. Thoughtless people might not suppose that the question as to the authorship of the plays commonly ascribed to William Shakespeare would easily come within the jurisdiction of Dakota jurisprudence ; but it did so only recently, and the Bard of Avon came off distinctly second best. A book-agent, who had secured a certain territory wherein he alone should have the right to sell Ignatius Donnelly’s book on the Bacon cryptogram, sold the two bulky volumes to a farmer upon the understanding that they completely unmasked Shakespeare’s imposture and proved beyond a doubt that Bacon wrote all his plays. The farmer devoted much time to a study of the cryptogram, but found himself unconvinced by it, and so, when the agent came round for payment, refused to take the book or pay for it. Thereupon, the chief agent for the book in Dakota sued the farmer, who, in defense, pleaded misrepresentation as to the value of the cryptogram. The judge decided that, the sale having been made upon the agent’s declaration that the cryptogram showed certain things, it devolved upon the farmer to prove that it did not show these things. This the farmer was unable to do, and judgment accordingly went against him. The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 6 April 1891. Thanks Chris!