Woman Who Thought Shakespeare Was a Fraud
Delia Bacon was an American author and playwright who is best know today for her theory that William Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by a group of British men, including Francis Bacon (no relation), Sir Walter Raleigh and others.
Delia Salter Bacon was born on February 2, 1811 on what was then the frontier in Tallmadge, Ohio, the daughter of a minister, who left New Haven for the wilds of Ohio in pursuit of a vision. In 1817 her father went bankrupt and the family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, and her father died soon after. All six children were promptly farmed out to friends of the family. Delia was lucky enough to attend a private school run by Catherine Beecher, the sister of author Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Delia’s formal education ended when she was fourteen, but the requirements of a teacher were lax in those days, and she taught in schools in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. She tried for several years to open her own private school with her older sister in various eastern states, but lack of funds and ill health kept her from succeeding.
Delia and her sister both came down with malaria, and later on Delia was nearly killed by an outbreak of cholera. For the rest of her life, she would often be bedridden for days suffering recurrences of the malaria as well as migraine headaches.
At 20, in 1831, Delia Bacon published her first book, Tales of the Puritans, which consisted of three short stories about colonial life. In 1832 she won $100 for her short story “Love’s Matyr” in a contest sponsored by the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, beating out a little known writer from Baltimore named Edgar Allan Poe.
In 1836 she moved to New York City, where she met Shakespearean actress Ellen Tree. Bacon persuaded Tree to take the lead role in a play Bacon was writing entitled The Bride of Fort Edward, based on her award-winning story, “Love’s Martyr.” The play was reviewed favorably by Edgar Allan Poe, but it was a commercial flop.
In 1847, while living in a boardinghouse in New Haven, Delia Bacon became involved in a scandalous love affair with a minister, the Reverend Alexander MacWhorter, the son of a wealthy family from New Jersey. Many witnesses stated that MacWhorter pursued Delia, but that she finally succumbed to the attentions of the much younger man. While Bacon was an attractive women, MacWhorter was 23; she was 36.
Bacon’s family was concerned about her reputaion, and let it be known that the two were engaged. When MacWhorter found out, he then claimed that Delia had chased him, sending him love letters. When Delia accused him of making the advances, MacWhorter threatened to make her letters public unless she withdrew the accusation.
Delia’s brother Leonard Bacon, also a minister, formally accused MacWhorter of attempting to evade an engagement with Delia by defaming her. Leonard was backed by the town clergy, MacWhorter by the faculty Yale University, where he was a student. Leonard demanded that MacWhorter, who had applied for a license to preach in the vicinity, be brought before the Congregational Ministerial Association.
The evidence supported Leonard’s claim, but at the church proceedings that followed MacWhorter claimed that Delia had ensared him in her sophisticated trap and that he had never made a declaration of affection. The jury arrived at their verdict was 11 ministers for Delia and 12 for MacWhorter, deciding that though the young man had slandered Delia, her indiscreet behavior had probably invited it.
Delia became completely disallusioned by men, and decided to leave New Haven for Boston, where she was warmly received, especially by the women. She supported herself there by giving group lessons in history and literature to women in their homes. About a year after her arrival, she began to deliver her historical lessons as public lectures; a year later she moved to New York and repeated the lectures on the stage.
The Shakespeare Controversy
In Delia Bacon withdrew from public life and began to research her theory concerning the authorship of the works of William Shakespeare – namely that they were written by a group of men, not the Bard from Avon. The more she read about him and his works, the more she became convinced that Shakespeare was a fraud.
She became a fanatic about it, much to the dismay of her family. She was not, however, the first person to believe that Shakespeare was not the author of the plays. The mystery surrounding the bard’s life makes him ripe for those who believe, like Delia Bacon, that a man of his background with very little education could write the greatest plays known to man.
Herbert Lawrence wrote a book in 1771 called The Life and Adventures of Common Sense in which he put forth the notion that Shakespeare had plagiarized his plays. In 1811, Samuel Taylor Coleridge delivered a series of lectures in which he questioned Shakespeare’s authorship.
But no one had come up with any solid proof that anyone had written the plays, or a concrete theory until Delia Bacon. Her revolutionary idea was that it was Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser and Sir Francis Bacon, as part of a secret society who wrote the plays credited to Shakespeare in order to promote radical political philosophies which they could not express publicly. She believed that the main author of the plays was Francis Bacon.
Through Elizabeth Peabody Delia Bacon met Ralph Waldo Emerson, and somehow managed to convince him of her theory. Emerson’s wealthy friend Charles Butler offered to pay her way for a year in England to do research. Emerson also encouraged Putnam’s Magazine to give her a series of assignments reporting upon her research. Delia was delighted.
Unfortunately, Delia did little original research at any of the London museums and libraries she was advised to visit; even Thomas Carlyle suggested that she consult original Shakespearean sources. She decided that all the evidence she needed was in the plays themselves. She spent years in isolation working on her book, reading and re-reading the plays, hunting for clues left by Francis Bacon.
By this time, she had run out of money and was living in an unheated room, often not knowing where her next meal was coming from. Emerson assisted her in publishing her first essay on the Shakespeare question in the January 1856 issue of Putnam’s, almost 3 years after she had arrived in London. Her skeptical view of Shakespearean authorship earned her the enduring contempt of many.
Putnam’s dropped her after the one issue, concerned about her obvious lack of research and the negative feedback that they had received from readers. Delia was hurt, but she needed the $55 that they sent her in order to live. She finally wrote to the American consul in Liverpool who just happened to be American author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
She poured out her heart to him, her theories, her hopes and problems. Hawthorne often received letters from Americans who needed help and he immediately took over and paid her debts. The two finally met in June of 1856. Hawthorne praised parts of the book she had sent him, but asked her when she would address the historical documentation of her theory about Shakespeare. Delia confidently tapped a volume of Bacon’s letters.
Hawthorne’s article “Recollections of a Gifted Woman,” published in The Atlantic in 1863, clearly describes her condition at that time. This is an excerpt:
The only time I ever saw Miss Bacon was in London, where she had lodgings in Spring Street, Sussex Gardens, at the house of a grocer, a portly, middle-aged, civil, and friendly man, who, as well as his wife, appeared to feel a personal kindness towards their lodger… As is apt to be the case with solitary students, Miss Bacon probably read late and rose late; for I… had been reading… a good while before she appeared.
I had expected (the more shame for me, having no other ground of such expectation than that she was a literary woman) to see a very homely, uncouth, elderly personage, and was quite agreeably disappointed by her aspect. She was rather uncommonly tall, and had a striking and expressive face, dark hair, dark eyes, which shone with an inward light as soon as she began to speak, and by and by a color came into her cheeks and made her look almost young…
Though wholly estranged from society, there was little or no restraint or embarrassment in her manner: lonely people are generally glad to give utterance to their pent-up ideas, and often bubble over with them as freely as children with their new-found syllables. I cannot tell how it came about, but we immediately found ourselves taking a friendly and familiar tone together, and began to talk as if we had known one another a very long while….
She was very communicative about her theory, and would have been much more so had I desired it; but, being conscious within myself of a sturdy unbelief, I deemed it fair and honest rather to repress than draw her out upon the subject. Unquestionably, she was a monomaniac; these overmastering ideas about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, and the deep political philosophy concealed beneath the surface of them, had completely thrown her off her balance; but at the same time they had wonderfully developed her intellect, and made her what she could not otherwise have become.
It was a very singular phenomenon: a system of philosophy growing up in thus woman’s mind without her volition, — contrary, in fact, to the determined resistance of her volition, — and substituting itself in the place of everything that originally grew there. To have based such a system on fancy, and unconsciously elaborated it for herself, was almost as wonderful as really to have found it in the plays. But, in a certain sense, she did actually find it
Shakespeare has surface beneath surface, to an immeasurable depth, adapted to the plummet-line of every reader; his works present many phases of truth, each with scope large enough to fill a contemplative mind. Whatever you seek in him you will surely discover, provided you seek truth. There is no exhausting the various interpretation of his symbols… I had half a mind to suggest to Miss Bacon this explanation of her theory, but forbore, because (as I could readily perceive) she… would at once have motioned me from the room.
She frankly confessed that she could no longer bear the society of those who did not at least lend a certain sympathy to her views, if not fully share in them; and meeting little sympathy or none, she had now entirely secluded herself from the world…. She never walked out; she suffered much from ill-health; and yet, she assured me, she was perfectly happy.
I could well conceive it; for Miss Bacon imagined herself to have received (what is certainly the greatest boon ever assigned to mortals) a high mission in the world, with adequate powers for its accomplishment; and lest even these should prove insufficient, she had faith that special interpositions of Providence were forwarding her human efforts. This idea was continually coming to the surface, during our interview.
In 1857, with Hawthorne’s help, Delia’s 682-page book The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded was finally published. Hawthorne generously wrote a foreward for the book, in which he stated that he did not believe her theory. Delia was furious; she saw that as a personal attack on her. She cut him off without a word and never spoke to him again.
In her book Delia alleged that Shakespeare could not have written the plays because he was ignorant and unschooled. The book was harshly criticized and a commercial failure. Later on, Mark Twain claimed to be impressed by it, and Walt Whitman, Henry James and others came to believe her theories, but it was too late.
By then Delia had become obsessed with the idea of trying to open Shakespeare’s tomb, even moving to Stratford-on-Avon. She was certain that Francis Bacon had hidden proof of the plays’ authorship in the grave. Her brother begged her to come home, writing to Hawthorne that he believed that she had been verging on the edge of insanity for at least six years but Delia refused to leave England.
Delia’s mental state worsened, she often suffered from constant fevers and poor health, and became suicidal. She was ultimately committed to an asylum, first by the mayor of Stratford-on-Avon, then by her brother after she returned to the United States in 1858.
Delia Bacon died on September 2, 1859 in Hartford, Connecticut, and was interred in Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven.
Professor James Shapiro wrote in Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010):
Had she limited her argument to these points instead of conjoining it to an argument about how Shakespeare couldn’t have written them, there is little doubt that, instead of being dismissed as a crank and a madwoman, she would be hailed today as the… first to argue that the plays anticipated the political upheavals England experienced in the mid-seventeenth century. But Delia Bacon couldn’t… concede that the republican ideas she located in the plays circulated widely at the time and were as available to William Shakespeare as they were to Walter Ralegh or Francis Bacon.
Today there are societies devoted to the Shakespeare question, but Delia Bacon was the first to put her theories to the test. Unfortunately the effort took her sanity, and she did not live to see the great debate that her book touched off.