The Doctor Who Designed a Cipher Wheel to Decode Shakespeare

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

In the years immediately after his death in 1616, Shakespeare was merely remembered as a good, though not necessarily brilliant, writer. But as literary styles and tastes changed, Shakespeare’s work began to be appreciated more and more, so that by the mid-19th century, appetite and acclaim for his writing had reached near fanatical levels. By the late Victorian era, Shakespeare was being hailed as a literary genius, the author of perhaps the greatest works of English literature that had ever been written—but the sheer quality of his work soon began to stir up discontent.

We know relatively little of Shakespeare’s life, and only the barest bones about his background and upbringing. But what little we do know paints a fairly humble picture—and it’s precisely that that some Victorian scholars and writers just couldn’t square up with the quality of Shakespeare’s writing.

In 1848, the American author Joseph C. Hart wrote an essay in his travel memoir The Romance of Yachting in which he expressly questioned, for the first time, the true authorship of Shakespeare’s work. Hart was traveling in Europe when he began to ponder an apparent error in the plot to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: Act 3, scene 3 of the play opens in “Bohemia, a desert country near the sea,” despite the fact that Bohemia—a region of central Europe roughly equivalent to the modern-day Czech Republic—is entirely landlocked. To Hart, such a basic geographical error didn’t sit well with the impossibly high standard of Shakespeare’s writing, which led him to suggest that Shakespeare—dismissed as a “mere factotum of a theatre,” “a copyist for the prompter,” and a “vulgar and unlettered man”—was not the author of the works attributed to him. Shakespeare’s contribution, he suggested, was probably limited to providing the plays’ dirty jokes.

Following the publication of Hart’s memoir, other 19th century writers soon started to break cover and began to question the authorship of Shakespeare’s work themselves. In 1857, writer Delia Bacon published The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, a work—more than a decade in the making—now credited with providing the earliest fully-formed theory that Shakespeare was not the author of his work. Bacon theorized that the works were the result of a collaboration between a number of high-society Elizabethan writers and figures, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser and, most notably of all, Sir Francis Bacon. They, she believed, had left encrypted messages and descriptions of an entirely new philosophical system hidden deep in the wording of Shakespeare’s plays, which they could not be seen to advocate publicly.

Although they didn’t agree with her theory, Bacon’s friendships with several high-profile literary figures of the day (including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson) helped her notion of a secret cabal of writers gain ground in 19th-century literary circles. By the turn of the century, dozens of books and essays had been written on the subject, societies had been established to promote the so-called “anti-Stratfordian” theory, and several high profile figures—such as Walt Whitman and, later, Sigmund Freud—had signed on to the idea.

For every advocate of the anti-Stratfordian viewpoint, however, there was a pro-Stratfordian only too happy to point out the holes in their arguments. (Even Joseph Hart’s original quibble over Bohemia being landlocked was easily explained by the fact that Shakespeare had based The Winter’s Tale on Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, an earlier work by Robert Greene that made the same mistake.) Still, the authorship question rumbled on—until finally, in the late 1880s, it attracted the attention of Dr. Orville Ward Owen.


Owen was a hugely successful physician based in Detroit who had a habit of reading and memorizing passages of Shakespeare as a way of clearing his mind between patients. Eventually he became so well-versed in Shakespeare’s works that he found he had committed the entire 1623 First Folio to memory, and as a party trick could pinpoint the exact play, act, and scene from which any line given to him was taken. The only lines he struggled with were those that cropped up with almost identical wording in more than one play, and it was precisely these curious repetitions—combined with all the other anachronisms, geographical missteps, and erroneous details that had fueled the authorship debate so far—that led Owen to believe certain passages in Shakespeare’s works must have been implanted deliberately. He concluded that they were the coded passages that would reveal Bacon’s secret message, and he dedicated his life to deciphering them.

Having followed a series of clues littered throughout Shakespeare’s work (“Beginning in the middle, starting thence away …”), Owen worked out a word-based cipher that he then applied to other works outside of the Shakespeare canon—including Arcadia, a 16th-century prose piece by the English poet Sir Philip Sidney (which, he later claimed, Sir Francis Bacon must also have written). All that work left him with the following decrypted passage:

The easiest way to carry on the work is to Take your knife and cut all our books asunder, And set the leaves on a great firm wheel Which rolls and rolls...

It may be a decoded message explaining the best method to decode the code in which it was originally encoded, but Owen nevertheless took his cue from this passage and began construction of an extraordinary contraption to help expedite his research: the cipher wheel.

Around two huge cylindrical spools, each 3-foot by 4-foot, Owen wound an enormous length of canvas fabric, onto which he pasted pages of Shakespeare’s Complete Works plus extracts from his contemporaries’ works. By aligning the pages in a specific order and then turning the spool, vast swathes of text could be analyzed at once. Owen would sit between the two spools, calling out passages of interest to an assistant, who would then collate the extracts for later analysis. Eventually, he managed to decipher a now well-known conspiracy theory: Bacon was not only the true William Shakespeare, but the forgotten son of Queen Elizabeth I and her secret lover Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Shunned from his rightful claim to the throne, Bacon had laid out his scandalous life story into numerous encoded works of literature, the majority of which he attributed to other writers of the day. Owen published his extraordinary theory—and his equally extraordinary methodology—in a vast five-volume treatise, Sir Francis Bacon’s Cipher Story (1893-1895). But he did not stop there.

Continuing his analysis of the jumbled text on his cipher wheel, Owen concluded that Bacon had also written two more long-lost plays—namely The Tragical Historie of Our Late Brother Robert, Earl of Essex and The Historical Tragedy of Mary, Queen of Scots—which Owen claimed to have successfully extracted. But the real prize would be finding the manuscripts and personal belongings that would prove Bacon’s birthright and authorship, which Owen believed were somewhere close to the river Wye on the border of England and Wales. His quest for the truth was about to take him across the Atlantic.


Owen arrived in Britain in 1909. A preliminary search in caves behind Chepstow Castle on the banks of the Wye in southwest Wales was turned up nothing, but he returned a year later to carry out an even more extensive examination. Based on further decoded lines from Bacon’s text (“boxes like eels in the mud,” “make a triangle of 123 feet due north and 33 paces,” “I filled up the shallow water …”), Owen financed an excavation of the riverbed of the Wye itself, believing there was a secret vault containing 66 lead-lined boxes somewhere beneath the mud along its course. Two dozen men were employed, several hundredweight of material was excavated, and Owen’s research caused a media frenzy.

A previously unknown Roman bridge was discovered, as was a medieval cistern. But as for proof of Bacon’s royal bloodline and his authorship of Shakespeare’s work? After great expense, Owen unearthed nothing.

In the years that followed, he continued his research with the cipher wheel, but his confidence began to falter and his health began to fail rapidly. Although he continued to provide new textual evidence for other Baconian advocates—who carried out their own explorations around Chepstow in the late 1910s and early 1920s—none found anything ironclad to support their theory. Finally, Owen was quoted as saying:

“When I discovered the word cipher, I had the largest practice of any physician in Detroit. I could have been the greatest surgeon there … but I thought that the world would be eager to hear what I had found. Instead, what did they give me? I have had my name dragged in the mud, had more calumny heaped upon my character than many people can imagine, lost my fortune, ruined my health, and today am a bedridden, almost penniless, invalid.”

He died shortly after, on March 31, 1924, at the age 70. The Baconian and anti-Stratfordian viewpoint has continued to be argued over ever since—although not quite as inventively as with Owen’s cipher wheel.