The Doctor Who Designed a Cipher Wheel to Decode Shakespeare

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.

The Ohio State University Archives
The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.


As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."


From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]


More from mental floss studios