Mud, Mystery, Murder, Manuscripts and Madness.

I heard this story when I was a lad from my father and grandfather; no mention of it was ever made in school.

The geezer in the muddy boots is Dr. Orville Ward Owen a medical doctor from Detroit, the date is May 1911, the place is close to the low tide mark of the River Wye in the shadow of the walls of Chepstow Castle.

What led the man to this place was never explained to me back then, although what he sought was well known to my relatives, and their view was that he was wasting his time and money. He made several visits, one lasting longer than six months. In all twelve or fourteen shafts were driven into the river bottom, some deeper than twenty feet. All he found were some heavy timbers that were the remains of a Roman landing stage, these were not what he was looking for.





The wooden pilings in the pictures formed excavation shafts, which could only be worked for a few hours at each low tide, the mud and water, had to be continuously pumped from the shafts during work

A steam engine mounted on a pontoon powered the pump and the digging employed about 20 local people.
The locals loved it, steady albeit dirty work and lots of tales for the pub later. I found the pictures recently in a book of old photographs from a collection in the Chepstow town museum, curiosity then led to one of those searches, which spread in ever widening circles.
My first sortie revealed that Owen was largely funded by an organization called (rather appropriately) Riverbank Laboratories, the first privately owned research laboratory in the United States, located in Geneva, close to Chicago. Riverbank was the brainchild of George Fabyan a somewhat eccentric millionaire son-and-heir to a textile and retailing fortune.
Fabyan founded and staffed Riverbank to research some of his pet themes, one was the genetic modification of wheat to make it more drought resistant, (his ultimate goal here was the genetic improvement of humans hmmmm?), another was his belief that high power sound waves could be used to defy gravity, (hmmmmm??) as part of this activity Riverbank made (and still make) some of the finest precision tuning forks ever produced. Clearly the man had ideas that were not mainstream and the kind of money that allowed him to pursue them.
His business partner was Cornelius Bliss who ran the New York City operations of Bliss, Fabyan & Co. he was the long term treasurer of the Republican National Committee and president of the wonderfully non-pc named “American Protective Tariff League” (working to make sure his firm did not have to compete with cheap textile imports). In 1900 Bliss turned down an offer to be McKinley’s Vice Presidential candidate. If not for that decision he would have been the next president (not Theodore Roosevelt) when McKinley was later killed.
Fabyan also had a lifelong interest in cryptography (long a hobby of mine) and his name and the names of several of his employees figure large in the early 20th century crypto world.
Owen was also something of an amateur cryptographer (or fancied himself as such). He had convinced himself, and later had convinced Fabyan and others, that buried within the text of Sir Philip Sydney’s “Arcadia” (which Owen claimed was really written by Francis Bacon, although first published long after his death) was a cipher which revealed the location of a cache of manuscripts containing many of the works attributed to Shakespeare but actually written by Francis Bacon. The cache also contained the head of Shakespeare who had been killed and beheaded by said Francis Bacon. Hence the Murder in the title (all clear so far?)
The cipher involved listing sentences beginning with the letters B,A,C,O,N from alternatively the beginning and the end of the text of Arcadia and the result was a list of sentences which were then joined by a “spiders web” (mentioned in the preamble to the text) the web centered on the words
Other such manipulations yielded “Buried boxes found under famed Roman Road”, “Bed of braced beams under Roman ford” and “At point off Wasphill” and other text claiming to indicate the dimensions of the cache and the fact that it would be buried in “blue clay”. (Incidentally “Wasphill” was completely unknown to even the oldest inhabitants of Chepstow in 1911)
The method of decipherment was later analyzed by two of Fabyan’s gifted employees Elizebeth and William Friedman, found faulty by them, and also found capable of producing many conflicting statements. (No real surprise there)
Meanwhile back at Riverbank another employee; Elizabeth Wells Gallup was intent on analyzing a folio edition of Shakespeare for what she claimed was information encoded by another cipher. This one was a biliteral (yes, it is spelled correctly) code where all alphabetic characters could be represented by a series of A’s and B’s. for example the series AAAAA changing to BBBBB (32 combinations) can represent all 26 letters of the alphabet and by losing a few unimportant letters also have the ability to include the numerals from 1 through 9. This cipher was first described by Francis Bacon, when in his early teens (no surprise there either). Madam Gallup thought the code was embedded in Shakespeare’s text by means of two different typefaces (fonts/sorts/glyphs?) each representing an A or a B. Conspiracies must now abound, Bacon has to create and write the manuscript. He then has to persuade the typesetters to encode the hidden text using the two-font cipher, (in some cases up to 20 years after his death) they of course would tell no one and the whole story then awaits decipherment by Mrs. Gallup, likely – yes? Well anyway, the industrious Mrs. Gallup analyzed thousands of lines of text picking out tiny differences in the fonts used. Some so slight they could not be seen by others (hmmm?) Of course she produced lots of decodes that supported her position that the manuscript was actually the work of Bacon and not that unlettered son-of-a-glover Shakespeare.
Pity Mrs. G. did not extend her search to other contemporary manuscripts, a short survey would have revealed that 17th century typesetters were notorious for mixing many close fonts in their composing trays. Incidentally the two-level trays were called “cases” in the trade and the capitals were all stored in the “upper case”, the rest in the “lower case”. (Just in case you did not know.)
Where the hell was I? The Freidmans, yes, here they are and just to the right is the redoubtable Elizabeth Wells Gallup (she could be a distant relative of Mrs. Osborne by the stance?).

These pictures are from a delightful little book I purchased during my searching called “George Fabyan (The tycoon who broke ciphers, ended wars, manipulated sound, built a levitation machine and organized the modern research center)”. Modest fellow that he was.
Mrs. G. kind of lost her shine a little when she later asserted that Sir Francis was Queen Elizabeth’s illegitimate son and that some 61 books written between 1579 and 1671 including the works of Ben Johnson, Rawley and Rawley’s executor all contained biliteral ciphers demonstrating that they were the work of Sir Francis, all questioned Shakespeare’s authorship and advanced Bacon’s royal birth. But she was in good company, for a while Mark Twain was a believer as was Walt Whitman.
The Friedmans (surname spelled wrong in caption above) played a significant role in World War I. Nearly all American military cryptography was done at Fabyan’s laboratories. In particular they uncovered a plot against the British by Indian nationalists supported by the Germans.
William and Elizebeth Freidman left Riverbank in 1921 to work for the US Army’s Black Chamber, in 1922 he was made director of the Black Chamber’s research department and a few years later became the War Department’s chief cryptanalyst a position he held for 25 years. He has the distinction of being the inventor of the longest classified Patent in US history. In 1933 he invented a cipher machine, the patent was classified and only issued in 2000 (67 years later) as patent number 6,097,812. It’s worth a look, it is in fact a five rotor enigma machine, presumably the folks at GCHG never got to see the application, but who knows.
The Baconian camp went into a bit of a decline after Riverside, not too surprisingly.

In 1929 an American doctor with the intriguing name of Smiley Banton was visiting Sigmund Freud in Austria for a session of psychoanalysis (perhaps because of his parents choice of given name?) when Freud asked him, out of the blue, whether he thought “that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” Banton who had been an actor before becoming a medical doctor and had memorized and acted in several of Shakespeare’s plays, responded that he could see no reason to doubt it, this enraged Freud who left the room and when returned pressed a book upon Banton and urged him to read it. The book was “Shakespeare – Identified in Edward de Vere the 17th Earl of Oxford.” Banton was so troubled by this event that he was unable to read the book and considered discontinuing his sessions with Freud.
Dr. Freud’s book had been written a few years earlier by an Englishman, the somewhat aptly named J. T. Looney. He was the leader of the “Church of Humanity” based in Newcastle-on-Tyne whose members, amongst other things, sang hymns in praise of Shakespeare and other ‘religious teachers of mankind’ and celebrated the month of Shakespeare, which fell appropriately between the months of Gutenberg and Descartes. After years of this stuff Looney suddenly went over to the other side and wrote his book declaring Shakespeare an impostor and forwarding many of the soon to be repeated arguments for Oxford. He somehow still managed to remain the head of the Newcastle Church of Humanity and the “Oxfordians” were born. Despite Smiley, Freud and Looney they have been going strong ever since. In the nineties they seem to have attracted the attention and the support of the Beeb as well as assorted other theatrical luvvies. They have nothing at all to do with Chepstow Castle so are strictly a sideline in this account, but have long since overtaken the Baconians in both popularity and bizarre claims, nuff said.
Where are we? Well what about it? Did the man write the stuff or was it some other bloke (or blokess)?
Me, I’m with Will, in my humble view what most of the detractors miss is the man’s genius. Ben Jonson (“Dictionary Jonson”, a man cleverer than most) said it well: “I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any.”
That last phrase reminded me strongly of something I once read and it took me a while to find it, lurking on my bookshelves was a slim volume called “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”. It’s a book of short works by another hero of mine Richard P. Feynman (Physicist, Nobel prize winner, Manhattan project worker etc.) a man once described by Mathematician Marc Kac (a very clever man indeed) as follows:
“There are two kinds of geniuses, the “ordinary “ and the “magicians”. An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better than we are. There is no mystery as to how their minds work. Once we understand what they have done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are and the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark. They seldom, if ever, have students because they cannot be emulated and it would be terribly frustrating for a brilliant young mind to cope with the mysterious ways in which the magicians mind works. Richard Feynman is a magician.”
Remind you of anyone? Someone from Stratford maybe?
And here’s the piece I was searching the bookshelves for, penned by another very clever man, English Physicist, Freeman Dyson.

Foreword to “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”:
This Side Idolatry
By Freeman Dyson

“I did love the man this side idolatry as much as any” wrote Ben Jonson. “The man” was Jonson’s friend and mentor William Shakespeare. Jonson and Shakespeare were both successful playwrights. Jonson was learned and scholarly, Shakespeare slapdash and a genius. There was no jealousy between them. Shakespeare was nine years older, already filling the London stage with masterpieces before Jonson began to write. Shakespeare was, as Jonson said “honest and of an open and free nature,” and gave his young friend practical help as well as encouragement. The most important help that Shakespeare gave was to act one of the leading roles in Jonson’s first play, “Every Man in His Humour,” when it was performed in 1598. The play was a resounding success and launched Jonson’s professional career. Jonson was then aged 25, Shakespeare 34. After 1598, Johnson continued to write poems and plays, and many of his plays were performed by Shakespeare’s company. Jonson became famous in his own right as a poet and scholar, and at the end of his life he was honored with burial in Westminster Abbey. But he never forgot his debt to his old friend. When Shakespeare died, Jonson wrote a poem, “To the memory of My Beloved Master, William Shakespeare”containing these lines:

“He was not of an age, but for all time”
“And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek
From thence to honour thee, I would not seek
For name, but call forth thundering Aeschylus
Euripides and Sophocles,……..
To live again, to hear thy buskin tread.”
”Nature herself was proud of his designs,
And joyed to wear the dressing of his lines,….
Yet I must give Nature all: Thy art,
My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.
For though the poet’s matter nature be,
His art does give the fashion; and, that he
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,….
For a good poet’s made, as well as born.”

What have Jonson and Shakespeare to do with Richard Feynman? Simply this. I can say as Jonson said “I did love this man this side idolatry as much as any.” Fate gave me the tremendous luck to have Feynman as a mentor. I was the learned and scholarly student who came from England to Cornell University in 1947 and was immediately entranced by the slapdash genius of Feynman. With the arrogance of youth, I decided I could play Jonson to Feynman’s Shakespeare. I had not expected to meet Shakespeare on American soil but I had no difficulty in recognizing him when I saw him.
Before I met Feynman, I had published a number of mathematical papers, full of clever tricks but totally lacking in importance. When I met Feynman, I knew at once that I had entered another world. He was not interested in publishing pretty papers. He was struggling, more intensely than I had ever seen anyone struggle, to understand the workings of nature by rebuilding physics from the bottom up. I was lucky to meet him near the end of his eight-year struggle. The new physics that he imagined as a student of John Wheeler seven years earlier was finally coalescing into a coherent vision of nature that vision that he called “the space-time approach”.” The vision was in 1947still unfinished, full of loose ends and inconsistencies, but I saw at once that it had to be right. I seized every opportunity to listen to Feynman talk, to learn to swim in the deluge of his ideas. He loved to talk, and he welcomed me as a listener. So we became friends for life.
For a year I watched as Feynman perfected his way of describing nature with pictures and diagrams, until he had tied down the loose ends and removed the inconsistencies. Then he began to calculate numbers using his diagrams as a guide. With astonishing speed he was able to calculate physical quantities that could be compared directly with experiment. The experiments agreed with his numbers. In the summer of 1948 we could see Jonson’s words coming true: “Nature herself was proud of his designs, and joyed to wear the dressing of his lines.”
During the same year when I was walking and talking with Feynman, I was also studying the work of the physicists Schwinger and Tomonaga, who were following more conventional paths and arriving at similar results. Schwinger and Tomonaga had independently succeeded, using more laborious and complicated methods, in calculating the same quantities that Feynman could derive directly from his diagrams. Schwinger and Tomonaga did not rebuild physics. They took physics as they found it, and only introduced new mathematical methods to extract numbers from the physics. When it became clear that the results of their calculations agreed with Feynman, I knew that had been given a unique opportunity to bring the three theories together. I wrote a paper with the title “The Radiation Theories of Tomonag, Schwinger and Feynman” explaining why the theories looked different but were fundamentally the same. My paper was published in the Physical Review in 1949, and launched my professional career as decisively as “Every man in His Humour” had launched Jonson’s. I was then like jonson, 25 years old. Feynman was 31, three years younger than Shakespeare had been in 1598. I was careful to treat my three protagonists with equal dignity and respect, but I knew in my heart that Feynman was the greatest of the three and that the main purpose of my paper was to make his revolutionary ideas accessible to physicists around the world. Feynman actively encouraged me to publish his idea, and never once complained that I was stealing his thunder. He was the chief actor in my play.
One of the treasured possessions that I brought from England to America was “The Essential Shakespeare” by J. Dover Wilson, a short biography of Shakespeare containing most of the quotations from Jonson that I have reproduced here. Wilson’s book is neither a work of fiction nor a work of history, but something in between. It is based on the first-hand testimony of Jonson and others, but Wilson used his imagination together with scanty historical documents to bring Shakespeare to life. In particular, the earliest evidence that Shakespeare acted in Jonson’s play comes from a document dated 1709, more than a hundred years after the event. We know that Shakespeare was famous as an actor as well as a writer, and I see no reason to doubt the traditional story as Wilson tells it.
Luckily, the documents that provide evidence of Feynman’s life and thoughts are not so scanty. The present volume is a collection of such documents, giving us the authentic voice of Feynman recorded in his lectures and occasional writings. These documents are informal, addressed to general audiences rather than to his scientific colleagues. In them we see Feynman as he was, always playing with ideas but always serious about the things that mattered to him. The things that mattered were honesty, independence, willingness to admit ignorance. He detested hierarchy and enjoyed the friendship of people in all walks of life. He was, like Shakespeare, an actor with a talent for comedy.
Besides his transcendent passion for science, Feynman had also a robust appetite for jokes and ordinary human pleasures. A week after I got to know him, I wrote a letter to my parents in England describing him as “Half genius and half buffoon.” Between his heroic struggles to understand the laws of nature, he loved to relax with friends, to play his bongo drums, to entertain everybody with tricks and stories. In this too he resembled Shakespeare. Out of Wilson’s book I take the testimony of Jonson: “When he hath set himself to writing, he would join night to day; press upon himself without release, not minding it till he fainted: and when he left off, remove himself into all sports and looseness again; that it was almost a despair draw him to his book: but once got to it , he grew stronger and more earnest by the ease.”
That was Shakespeare and that was also the Feynman I knew and loved, this side idolatry.

Freeman J. Dyson
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, New Jersey

Author: Low Wattage

Expat Welshman, educated (somewhat) in UK, left before it became fashionable to do so. Now a U.S. Citizen, and recent widower, playing with retirement and house remodeling, living in Delaware and rural Maryland (weekends).

12 thoughts on “Mud, Mystery, Murder, Manuscripts and Madness.”

  1. Why did these various people wish to prove that Shakespeare did not write the work attributed to him?
    Why did it matter?
    What profit was there in it for any of them?
    Presumably as a set of cryptographers of standing they had reputations to lose?
    Surely they just made themselves laughing stocks of all and sundry.

    What is it about Shakespeare that so many seem to want to prove he never wrote his plays? Never understood the motive.

    Not quite sure it is valid to link a bunch of nutters with serious physicists excepting the ‘lunacy of genius’ theory, but an interesting association of ideas.
    Cheers, a very interesting read that can happily exist in the Uncatego-risible genre rather than the terminally boring!

    And no, I have nothing in common with the mad old demonic bag pictured!
    What is this?
    Persecute the ‘eccentrics’ month?
    I guess the mad old bag sang Christmas carols too!
    Word fucking perfect!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I’ll have you know it has taken me half a century of dedicated hard practise to become quite as eccentric as I am. Of course the Pacific NW is ideal territory to generate suitable PC trough snivelling reactions. Such endeavours require much effort and malicious forethought.

  2. CO: I suspect it is the pathological need to destroy people far greater than they. After all, if they cannot reach the heights of genius and success on their own merit they can always attempt to destroy someone who has. It becomes easier when the target of the attack has been dead for centuries and cannot defend her-or-himself. I’m very familiar with the mentality. Living in California obliges one to forgo any empathy for one’s fellow man and steel oneself for merciless backstabbing and treachery. It becomes more than a necessity, it becomes a sport and a bloody enjoyable one at that! Innuendo, back-biting, unsheathed daggers hidden behind the back while smiling broadly are art forms when one knows how to do it!

    That said, I am much in agreement with you on the persecution of eccentrics. We must practise our fine art ceaselessly. While not nearly as refined in my style as you, I am without doubt an eccentric who wastes precious little time in establishing that fact wherever I choose to settle. I’ve developed quite a reputation for my ability to withstand chilly weather and fondness for kangaroos. In fact, many have ceased calling me by my Christian name and refer to my as “Kangaroo”, Kangas” or some other variant thereof.

  3. Oh God Christopher that is seriously weird.
    The boy had the same nickname at boarding school.
    His initials were R.O.O.
    Called Roo at home, went to school and promptly got called kanga for life!
    I darkly suspect that the vast majority of the charioteers are eccentric in varying degrees.
    The normal fled years ago.
    Good, generally tedious in the extreme!

    The boy was actually Rex Oliver O…… rather a nice name but so very few used it including us as so was his father and his grandfather. So there was Big R, Rexy and Roo. He was actually Rex III, far too American to use!!!

  4. CO, the thing is, Christina, that the word ‘eccentric’ is the word of choice selected by people who regard themselves as ‘balanced’, which being interpreted is ‘boring’, ‘conventional’ and ‘judgemental’. As you may have guessed, Backside’s behaviour often attracts the epithet – largely because he refuses to kowtow to the social norms of pointless assembly, obsessive chatter and the demands of mammon. So let’s be proud of our label.

  5. Congratulations, LW. A marvellous read. I do hate these cryptographers who look down on those who cannot “see” the hidden messages, but I love other forms of eccentricity.

  6. J, it is not so much a matter of being proud of eccentricity as utterly dismissive of the tedious. Generally better seen off with the haute basilisk stare of the utterly dismissive, carefully sneered at the correct angle down one nostril.
    I had the advantage of inheriting that from my mother, or perhaps one just catches it?
    So did my sister, must be genetic!

  7. Mrs CO: Not casting nasturtiums on you eccentricity, the belligerent stance of Mrs Gallup somehow reminded me.

    No Idea why people are so against the man, the bit of reading I did unearthed almost 4500 books on the subject of authorship most of them arguing against Will.

  8. Christopher: You are probably in the right of it, Most doubters dress up their arguments by questioning his lack of formal education and humble beginnings. Simply by publishing such treaties reveals much about the authors and little new about the man.

  9. Sheona: Thank you. This one has been brewing for quite some time, it really did start out as a little piece about some local happenings , amazing what one can find on the internet.

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