Hiawatha's Cryptographing: A Response to Leary

by Terry Ross

I thank Penn Leary for taking the time to read and criticize my essay on his Baconian ciphers. I especially thank him for not attempting refutation, and thus leaving my arguments for the most part unchallenged. The central point of my essay is that if we judge Leary's methods by the standards that he himself accepts, then his method fails and must be rejected. He does not counter the main parts of my argument: Q.E.D.: Leary's methods are useless as evidence that Bacon wrote Shakespeare's works.

Although Leary did not attempt to refute me, I suppose I ought to respond to a few of his points, however irrelevant they are to my main argument. He objects to my title, because his method for finding Bakish "bacons" is, stricly speaking, not a code but a cipher. Now, while it's true that cryptographers prefer to distinguish between a code and a cipher, it's also true, as Leary says in his book, that 'code' is "sometimes loosely used as a synonym" for 'cipher' (page 145), and Leary himself loosely refers to the "Purple Code" used by the Japanese in World War II, even though Purple was technically a cipher (page 119). I use "code" in the title for euphony and allusiveness, but within the text I refer to his method throughout as a "cipher."

He objects to the occasional levity of my piece. On this point I side with Carlyle, who said, "How much lies in laughter; the cipher-key, wherewith we decipher the whole man!"

Most of his reply consists of boilerplate from his book and web site, rather than refutation. In all honesty, however, I should admit that in one sense I have grossly oversimplified Penn Leary's methods and have made them seem more straightforward than they really are. Because of the difficulty he has finding Bakish "bacons," he is willing to make ad hoc exceptions to his standard rules whenever it is convenient.

For example, in his procrustean attempt to find traces of Bacon in the front-matter of the sonnets, he shifts from a cipher where an "f" in English is a "b" in Bakish to one where "b" in English is "f" in Bakish. For a time he uses the last letters of each capitalized word (plus some numbers), until he gets stuck; then he starts using penultimate letters; then when he gets stuck again he starts using the first letter, and when he gets stuck again, he decides to ignore an inconvenient letter; then when he gets stuck yet again he starts picking out antepenultimate letters (omitting the occasional inconvenient letter). His only principle seems to be "If I'm stuck then Bacon must have just switched ciphers on me"; not once does he ever consider the more reasonable conclusion: "There is no cipher."

In putting my essay together, I played with and played along with Leary's methods, but I also played fair with them. I translated every letter and numeral into his 21-character alphabet (with the specified exceptions of "x" "z" and "0") before searching. All the Bakish "bacons" I found were discovered through Leary's standard methods, with no extra fudging, cheating, or massaging. Leary himself is not so scrupulous. Although it shouldn't be too hard to find some of the over three-million strings of characters that count as a "bacon" in his system, he has the unfortunate habit of making new exceptions to his method whenever his Bakish cipher doesn't quite say what he wants it to. Going strictly by his method, "bote-swaine" translates not into "Fs Biacen," but into "fsbiaccenri." He thinks the "fs" stands for "Francis," the "biaccen" means "Bacon" and the "ri" may be treated as a "null" and therefore ignored (page 218-19). Leary repeatedly drops letters that are inconvenient for the result he hopes to get, calling them "nulls" or "errors."

Here are a few other examples:

Thus, even if Shakespeare has spelled the word "boatswain" rather than "bote-swain," the Bakish result would have been "fsebacenr," and Leary would still have has his "fs bacon." If the extra "e" and the "r" on the end had gotten in his way he could have declared them nulls or errors: after all, aren't there a great many silent e's in English? Don't many English people drop their r's?

His arithmetical calculations are no more reliable than his ciphering methods. He claims that the odds against the first word in the First Folio's being "bote-swaine" (or "boatswain," since the spelling doesn't affect the argument) are astronomical, but he makes several errors in his calculation. For one thing, he assumes that the First Folio is nothing but an enormous random string of characters, as if Hamlet and Measure for Measure were written not by Shakespeare or even Bacon but by the famous infinite number of monkeys sitting at typewriters. For another thing, the first word in the First Folio is not "bote-swaine" or "boatswain" but "To." Leary finds his "first word" not on the first but on the twelfth page that has words, and the "bote-swaine" he makes so much of is not even the first word on that page but the twenty-second. It is, however, the first word of dialogue. So Penn Leary's question really should be "What are the odds that the first word of dialogue in The Tempest is 'boatswain'" (spell it how you will)? I'd say there's about a 100% chance of it, since that's the way Shakespeare began the play. If you want to knock a percentage point off on the remote chance that Shakespeare meant the first word to be something else (say, "Hiawatha") but that some printer slipped up and put in "bote-swain" by mistake, then you could say there's a 99% chance, but nobody has ever suggested that the number of wrong words in the First Folio approaches even 1%.

As for whether Francis Bacon
Wrote the Song of Hiawatha,
Wrote the poem that the experts
Always credit to another,
To the poet Henry Wadsworth
(He whose last name wrecks this meter) --
All I did was take the method
That was used by Mr. Leary;
And I showed that Leary's method,
Leary's Bacon-cipher method,
"Proves" that only Francis Bacon
Could have written Hiawatha.
Yet the author, Francis Bacon,
Was for more than 20 decades
Dead before the publication
Of The Song of Hiawatha.
Thus was Leary's method tested,
And his method failed completely.

Last, Leary objects to my saying that his method reduces Bacon to nothing more than a dog marking his territory. Yet Leary himself compares Bacon to the mythical graffitologer Kilroy, of "Kilroy was here" fame (page 231). Kilroy no more built the walls and buildings he defaced than Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare, and indeed it is Leary, not Bacon, whose Kilroyesque cipher would deface the works of Shakespeare (and Julius Caesar, and Spenser, and Longfellow, and the Republicans on the Senate Whitewater Committee) by scribbling on them "Bacon was here."


See The Code that Failed, my original essay.
See Penn Leary's reply.
See the UNIX and Perl scripts I have used to test Leary's method.
Was Francis Bacon a welterweight? See a list of over 700 words that Leary would have you believe contain Francis Bacon's signature.
Go back to the Shakespeare Authorship home page.