A Reply to "The Code that Failed"

By Penn Leary

Terry Ross's story, "The Code that Failed," is a deceptively plausible criticism of my cryptanalytic practice.

Those unfamiliar with cryptology and its terms are handicapped in evaluating a particular system. The title to Mr. Ross's story itself is flawed; my computer program is designed to read a cipher, not a code. A cipher, in an elementary form, is a method of substituting or rearranging letters of the alphabet so that the message cannot be easily read. A code might read, "12, 11, 178." This means to find the 12th word on the 11th line of page 178 of a particular book, and the parties communicating by this system must have the same edition of the book.

Mr. Ross's dissertation is based on my book, "The Cryptographic Shakespeare," published in 1987. The book was later greatly enlarged, to include 113 new examples of Francis Bacon's name, and published in 1990 as "The Second Cryptographic Shakespeare (copies still available). He found the 1987 book in a library and bases his argument on that.

Basic to his contention is that the forms of Bacon's name found in my examples are merely accidental. He finds in Longfellow's poem the name "Hiawatha" and discovers that this string of letters, reversed, reads as EMBECENM. "Becen" is a form of Bacon's name, homophone as it is, and then asks whether I believe that Bacon wrote Longfellow's works.

With his computer search program he finds other examples in "Tarzan of the Apes," "Moby Dick," and the "Federalist Papers." By this procedure he makes great sport of my labors; ridicule is an effective forensic weapon.

So I am going to make up a little fable. During the cold war the National Security Agency bugged the Soviet Embassy and copied all their messages. One morning a startling bulletin was intercepted. "BOMB WASH" was all it said.

A junior cipher clerk heard about this and was doubtful. He fired up the NSA's cipher program on his own computer and ran it against the text of that day's Washington Post, Rush Limbaugh's newsletter and Clinton's inaugural address. Everywhere he found BOMB and WASH and sometimes BOMBWASH. Were all these sources in on the plot?

Of course that was ridiculous and he took his findings to the Director of the NSA, a political appointee. The director was impressed with this proof. The decipherment of the Soviet Embassy message was merely a coincidence, he decided, and orders went out to the Armed Forces to stand down. The result of this was that WASH was BOMBed anyway. Thus ends my fable.

The lesson is that any decipherment system, using only the 26 (or 24 or 21) letters of the English alphabet, can, with persistence, find readable words even in "Tarzan of the Apes." The hits are merely accidental. The trouble with the decision to ignore the message was that the Director ignored the source. The Soviet Embassy is a place to be suspicious of; Tarzan is not.

Here is an example of a suspicious source that I offered Mr. Ross recently without receiving any substantial response:


          May I discuss one example and leave aside all
          others: "Bote-swaine" is the first word of
          dialogue in the first publication of the first
          play in the 1623 First Folio. This translates to
          FS BAICEN. FS is Bacon's _signature_ abbreviation
          of his first name. BAICEN is a cognate of Bacon, a
          homophone. In a letter, he once spelt his
          brother's name as "Bakon."

          The odds against these ten letters, "Bote-swaine,"
          appearing together are 24^10, that is, the 24
          letters of the Elizabethan alphabet to the power
          of 10. This is a very large number, over 50
          trillion to one. Such odds were good enough for
          the Friedmans, the masters of cryptanalysis. And
          the word is found at the very beginning of a book
          of 900,000 words.
I think that this word, "Bote-swaine," is a very suspicious source, being the very first word of dialogue in Shakespeare's big book. In passing, I must note another of Mr. Ross's comments. He says that Shakespeare uses both "Bote-swaine" and "Boatswain," and they both contain strings that count as "Bacon." Not so. "Boatswain" translates as FSE BAICEN, not FS BAICEN. Bacon's own handwritten abbreviation for his first name is FS. And "Boatswain" is not the first word of dialogue in the Folio.

Now I will illustrate another suspicious source. Mr. Ross selects the word "counterfeit" and then misspells it six ways, saying that any of them will produce a form of Bacon's name. None of these ways are used in the 1623 Folio, but he complains of my "loose rules" which invalidate this cipher.

So we will look at some examples of "counterfeit" from my 1990 book.

In "As you like it" (iv, 3, 166), the word "counterfeit" is repeated six times in seventeen lines for no good reason except stress:


        Oli. Be of good cheere youth: you a man? You lacke a mans heart.
        Ros.  I doe so, I confesse it: Ah, sirra, a body would thinke  this
        was well counterfeited, I pray you tell your brother how well I
        counterfeited: heigh-ho.
        Oli.  This was not counterfeit, there is too great testimony  in
        your complexion that it was a passion of earnest.
        Ros. Counterfeit, I assure you.
        Oli. Well then, take a good heart, and counterfeit to be a man.
        Ros. So I doe: but yfaith, I should have beene a woman by right.
        Cel.  Come,  you looke paler and paler: pray you  draw  homewards:
        good sir, goe with us.
        Oli. That will I: for I must beare answere backe. How you excuse my
        brother,Rosalind.
        Ros. I shall deuise something: but I pray you commend my  counter-
        feiting to him: will you goe?
                                                    Exeunt.
Ciphertext is:

A B O D Y V O V L D T H I N K E T H I S V A S V E L
L C O V N T E R F E I T E D I P R A Y Y O V T E L L
Y O V R B R O T H E R H O V V E L L I C O V N T E R
F E I T E D H E I G H H O T H I S V A S N O T C O V
N T E R F E I T T H E R E I S T O O G R E A T T E S
T I M O N Y I N Y O V R C O M P L E I O N T H A T I
T V A S A P A S S I O N O F E A R N E S T C O V N T
E R F E I T I A S S V R E Y O V V E L L T H E N T A
K E A G O O D H E A R T A N D C O V N T E R F E I T
T O B E A M A N S O I D O E B V T Y F A I T H I S H
O V L D H A V E B E E N A V O M A N B Y R I G H T
Plaintext, 4 is:

E F S H D C S C P H B M N R O I B M N A C E A C I P
P G S C R*B I Y K I N*B I H N T Y E D D S C B I P P
D S C Y F Y S B M I Y M S C C I P P N G S C R*B I Y
K I N*B I H M I N L M M S B M N A C E A R S B G S C
R*B I Y K I N*B B M I Y I N A B S S L Y I E B B I A
B N Q S R D N R D S C Y G S Q T P I N S R B M E B N
B C E A E T E A A N S R S K I E Y R I A B G S C R*B
I Y K I N*B N E A A C Y I D S C C I P P B M I R B E
O I E L S S H M I E Y B E R H G S C R*B I Y K I N*B
B S F I E Q E R A S N H S I F C B D K E N B M N A M
S C P H M E*C I F I I R*E C S Q E R F D Y N L M B
Here we see the name five times, followed by the word "CIFIIR." The emphasis is awesome. Even more accent is placed on the definitive ciphertext word "counterfeit" in "The First Part of King Henry the Fourth" (v, 4, 115), where it may be found nine times in twelve lines.

         Falst. Imbowell'd? If thou imbowell mee to day, Ile giue you leaue
         to powder me, and eat me too to morrow. 'Twas time to counterfet,
         or that hotte Termagant Scot, has paid me scot and lot too.
         Counterfeit? I am no counterfeit; to dye, is to be a counterfeit,
         for hee is but the counterfeit of a man, who hath not the life of
         a man: But to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liueth, is to
         be no counterfeit, but the  true and perfect image of life
         indeede. The better part of Valour, is Discretion; in the which
         better part, I have saued my life. I am affraide of  this  Gun
         Powder Percy though he be dead. How if hee should counterfeit too,
         and rise? I am afraid hee would prove the better counterfeit:
         therefore Ile make  him sure: yea, and Ile sweare I kill'd him.
         Why may not hee rise as well as I: Nothing confutes me but eyes,
         and nobodie  sees me. . .
For every "counterfeit" in this passage, we may read "BIYKIN", and nine times. Our eyes have confuted the supposed author; now we may perceive who is truly holding the pen. And "nobodie sees" him.

So that its significance may not be overlooked, here is the Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionary definition of this word:


         Counterfeit: 1.(a) SPURIOUS, not genuine or authentic; esp.: not
         composed by the author indicated.
Hereafter we may leave the counterfeit labels on some old books to trustful schoolmasters.

The reader may wonder why Bacon permitted so many variants of his name in plaintext. There were no telephone books in that age; the majority could not read or write. Names were spelled, when called to be written down, as they sounded.

His contemporary, John Lyly as he is now known, in four successive editions of "Euphues" and other works, spelled his name as Lyllie, Lily, Lylly, Lilly, Lilie and Lylie, and never Lyly.

Those who may mock such spellings must consider that the authenticated Shakespeare signatures spell the Bard's name in six different ways, a matter the Shakespearean philologists have chosen to disregard. According to Charles Hamilton, a manuscript expert who says he can read the untidy scrawls (In Search of Shakespeare, Harcourt Brace, 1985), these are the spellings: Shackper, Shakspear, Shakspea, Shackspere, Shakspere, Shakspeare but never as Shake-speare.

The man was baptized as Shaksper, gave bond for marriage as Shagspere, was married as Shaxper and buried as Shakspeare.

David Kahn (The Codebreakers) quotes Giovanni Battista Porta who published, in 1563, a famous cryptographic book, "De Furtivis Literarum Notis:"

"He urged the use of synonyms in plaintexts, noting that "It will also make for difficulty in the interpretation if we avoid the repetition of the same word." Like the Argentis, he suggested deliberate misspellings of plaintext words: "For it is better for a scribe to be thought ignorant than to pay the penalty for the detection of plans," he wrote."

But there is a much better reason for the misspelling of Bacon's name, as it appears in this solution and in many others to be described.

The Italians, in the 15th Century, discovered that their wartime ciphers were being broken by the "probable word" method. For some good reason, a guess might be made by the enemy that a letter was addressed to someone in Venice, or contained references to Venice. Then a search could be made in the ciphertext for repetitions of identical six letter groups. When found, these reliable six letter cipher conversions were used to extend the unknown alphabet.

Cipher clerks have always been lectured on cryptographic security. Whenever a place name or personal name appeared more than once in a message it had to be misspelled, and in as many ways as possible. Failure to follow this rule would have disastrous results, as one Lt. Jaeger once found out.

Another example is given by Kahn in "The Codebreakers." During WWI a German Signal officer by the name of Jaeger set out to stiffen code discipline. However his own name was not in the codebook and had to be spelled out in every transmitted order. "This was frequently. Its peculiar formation the repetition of the high frequency "e," for example permitted G.2 A.6 to identify it readily, and this in turn led to important clues concerning the superenciphering Geheimklappe. . . . Jaeger was beloved by his adversaries because he kept them up to date with code changes, and it was with genuine regret that they saw his name disappear from the German traffic." Thus any word (a suspected "crib") routinely recurring in cipher messages is an apt key to a solution.

Bacon was not so careless as to spell his name always in the same way, as in the hundreds of examples I have located. "Idem Sonantes," as my old Black's Law Dictionary says; if names sound alike they are the same, even if spelt differently.

Mr. Ross conveniently skips over Francis Bacon's "biliterarie" cipher which he invented in 1587. He enciphered each letter of the alphabet with a five letter group consisting of As and Bs. The letter A equaled AAAAA, B equaled AAAAB, and so on. The incredible thing is that this encipherment matches precisely the first 24 terms of the Binary Scale in which 0=00000, 1=00001, etc. This was the form that Leibniz adopted in 1671 for a calculating machine. The Binary Scale matches the elementary encipherment of the alphabet in the computer that Mr. Ross is using.

Bacon, in his writings, expanded on the theory and practice of cryptology. The reader can find the cogent text of his explanation in the "Advancement of Learning" in a new Internet site. His brother Anthony received advanced training in cryptography before his employment as a spy on the European continent.

Mr. Ross also fails to mention my cryptanalysis of the title page and Dedication to Shakespeare's Sonnets. This was found to include a plaintext of 54 consecutive letters identifying Bacon as the author. This was accomplished by using acrostics rather than text or joining words in text. The Friedmans, in "The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined," wrote that "for a monoalphabetic cipher, about 25 letters are necessary before the cryptanalyst can be sure that his is the only possible solution."

Bacon used signals. One of his signals was the word "cipher." This appears 14 times in the complete Works and 13 times a version of that word or of a Bacon homophone may be found in the plaintext or an acrostic nearby. I will illustrate with only one example:

This is in "The History of Sir John Oldcastle" (1664 Folio, p. 46, col. 1, line 37). Title-paged to William Shakespeare in a 1619 quarto, "it was certainly not by him," say the knowing critics. One says it was written by Munday, Drayton, Wilson and Hathaway; another claims it was composed by Kyd, but rewritten by Peele, Greene and Marlowe. The critics' confusion may now be ended. Here are some lines:

And sit within the Throne, but for a Cipher.
Time was, good Subjects would not make known their grief,
And pray amendment, not enforce the same,
Unlesse their King were tyrant, which I hope

Following "Cipher," we may read the next six capital letters in the familiar acrostic fashion of the times:

Ciphertext is:

T S A U K I

Plaintext, +4 is:

B A E C O N

In the previous, 1600, edition of this play, the word "Subjects" was not capitalized. The plaintext result is then B E C O N, and this is how one of Bacon's relations once spelled his name.

Mr. Ross chides me for often using the words "ciphertext" and "plaintext" and declares that "All the plays and poems are treated as if they are without meaning or significance." Stratfordians, of course, have dragged their meaning and significance through thousands of critical essays in which, far too often, they infer, they suppose, they assume, they are justified in believing, they deduce, they presume. And these experts in literary criticism very often contradict each other, as Schoenbaum has admitted in "Shakespeare's Lives." Conjecture and speculation have become the essence of such critiques.

Mark Twain's remarks on this subject may be found on the Internet: here and also here.

Francis Bacon is remembered as a man who reformed the study of science. Aristotelian logic had encouraged the Elizabethan scientists to reach their conclusions by deduction from unproven presumptions and inferences. Bacon demanded of them that they proceed from experimentation, observation and induction.

He has been called the Father of Modern Science. Nevertheless, Mr. Ross, in his concluding sentence, reproaches him bitterly with "Francis Bacon himself is little better than a dog marking its territory."

Penn Leary, July 20, 1996 (pennl@aol.com)


See The Code that Failed, Terry Ross's original essay on Penn Leary's methods.
See Hiawatha's Cryptographing, his response to Leary's reply.
See the UNIX and Perl scripts used to test Leary's method.
Was Francis Bacon a welterweight? See a list of over 700 English words that, according to Leary's cipher, contain Bacon's signature.
Go back to the Shakespeare Authorship home page.