Delia Bacon, The Woman Who Hated Shakespeare

In England in 1854, a thin, sickly, middle-aged woman sits in a tiny room, night after night, writing feverishly, with very little light and no heat. She is on a mission, indeed she has spent the past several years working on a thesis that she hopes will shock the literary world. Instead when her book is published, it is dismissed by critics, and rejected by readers. This is the true story of a woman who lost her mind and her health trying to prove that Shakespeare was not the author of the 37 plays that bear his name. Her name was Delia Bacon.

It somehow seems fitting to write about Delia Bacon on Shakespeare's birthday. After almost five hundred years, we still know little more about him then we did a hundred years ago. The mystery surrounding Shakespeare makes him ripe for those who believe, like Delia Bacon, that a man from a small town with very little education, could write the greatest plays known to man.

From the beginning, it seemed as if Delia Bacon was surrounded by bad luck. She was born on the Ohio frontier, on February 2, 1811 (An Aquarius, the sign of original and unusual thinkers), one of six children to a missionary father of Puritan stock. When she was 6 after her father, the Reverend David Bacon went broke, the family moved to Hartford, CT where he promptly died. All six children were promptly farmed out to friends of the family. Delia was lucky enough to attend a private school run by Catharine Beecher, the sister of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Beecher was one of the foremost teachers in America in the early 19th century. From the beginning, Delia seemed to be marked out for greatness. Catherine Beecher recalled that her 'homeless daughter of the Western missionary was preeminently one who would be pointed out as a genius; and one, too, so exuberant and unregulated as to demand great pruning and restraint." She had one fatal flaw however, a 'morbid sensitivity to criticism' (Banvard's Folly, page 238).

After leaving school, she tried without success, to open her own private school with her older sister. For four years, in New York, Connecticut, and finally New Jersey, she tried and failed to revive the school. There was never sufficient funds and she suffered increasingly from ill-health. She and her sister both came down with malaria, later on Delia was nearly killed by an outbreak of cholera. For the rest of her life, she would struck down for days suffering recurrences of the malaria as well as severe migraine headaches. Still Delia soldiered on. At the age of 20 she wrote and published a book of short stories, called Tales of the Puritans, and at 28 a play, The Bride of Fort Edward, written in blank verse. She also won $100 for her short story "Love's Matyr" from the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, beating out a little known writer from Baltimore named Edgar Allen Poe. The writing career not really taking off, at the same time, she began a modestly successful career lecturing before women's groups on literature.

She also became involved during this time in a disasterous love affair with a younger man, the Reverand Alexander MacWhorter. She was living in a boardinghouse in New Haven when she met MacWhorter, the son of a wealthy family in New Jersey. He was 23 to her 36. There were many witnesses to state that MacWhorter was the one to do the chasing, and Delia, while at first aloof, finally succumbed to the attentions of the much younger man.

Her family was worried about his attentions, and let it be known that they were engaged. When MacWhorter found out, he swiftly changed his tune. In a classic example of He Said/She Said, MacWhorter later claimed that she chased him, sending letters, while Delia claimed that it was MacWhorter who made all the advances. It was a sticky situation because MacWhorter was studying under Nathaniel Taylor at Yale, and Taylor was also close friends with Delia's brother, Leonard Bacon who was also a minister in the Congregationalist Church. Matters came to a head when Delia accused him of making advances, while MacWhorter threatened to make her letters public unless she withdrew the accusation. Taylor was caught in the middle.

Her brother Leonard demanded that MacWhorter, who had applied for a license to preach in the vicinity, be brought before the Congregational Ministerial Association. There was a trail before a jury of 23 ministers. MacWhorter put up a strong defense. He claimed that Delia had ensared his 'unsophisticated affections.' (Wallace, Nymphos and other Maniacs, pg. 281) and that he had never made a declaration of affection. Her brother claimed that MacWhorter had led Delia on, and never had any intention of marrying her. When the jury arrived at their verdict, 11 ministers had found for Delia and 12 for MacWhorter.

Delia became completely disallusioned by men. It was around this time that Delia her investigations into Shakespeare's plays became more pronounced. Ironically, MacWhorter had supported her beliefs about Shakespeare, they had spent hours discussing the authorship of the plays. The more about him she read, and the more she read the plays, the more she became convinced that Shakespeare was a hoax and a fraud. She became fanatical about the whole thing, much to her family's dismay. She had met Samuel Morse in New York while he was teaching art at NYU. It was Morse who told her about Bacon's ciphers that he had used during his diplomatic work. This little fact sparked her idea that the Shakespeare plays were written in a code to hide their political philosophies.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon how you want to look at it, through Elizabeth Peabody, who also happened to be Nathaniel Hawthorne's sister-in-law, she met Ralph Waldo Emerson. She somehow managed to convince Emerson of her theory and it was with his support that she was able to travel to England in 1853 to find definitive proof. Emerson advised her in his first letter to her that, "So radical a revolution should be proclaimed with great compression in the declaration and the real grounds rapidly set forth, a good ground in each chapter, and preliminary generalities quite omitted. For there is immense presumption against us which is to be annihilated by battery as fast as possible." (Collins, page 240).

He led her to a wealthy friend, Charles Butler who offered to pay her way for a year in England to do research. Emerson's support also encouraged Putnam's magazine to give her a series of assignments reporting upon her research. Delia was delighted. She told Emerson: 'Confirmations of my theory, which I did not expect to find on this side of the water, have turned up since my last communication to you...Be assured, dear sir, there is no possibility of a doubt as to the main points of my theory." (Wallace, pge. 272)

Emerson also gave her letters of introduction to his good friend, historian Thomas Carlyle, author of The French Revolution, as well as several others who would pave the way for her in England.

Delia wasn't the first person to believe that Shakespeare wasn't the author of the plays, a friend of David Garrick named Herbert Lawrence wrote a book in 1771 called The Life and Adventures of Common Sense, A Historical Allegory in which he put forth the notion that Shakespeare had plagiarized his plays from something called the Commonplace Book. In 1811, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet and opium addict, delivered a series of lectures on Shakespeare and Milton in which he questioned Shakespeare's authorship, as did Benjamin Disraeli years later. And then in 1848, a man named Joseph C. Hart wrote a book called the Romance of Yachting in which he talked about a trip he took where he spent time reading Shakespeare and came to the conclusion that the Bard of Avon was a hoax. But these were voices crying out in the wilderness. No one had come up with any solid proof that anyone had written the plays, or a concrete theory until Delia Bacon.

Delia's revolutionary theory was that it was Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser and Francis Bacon, as part of a secret Elizabeth society (whose members also included Sir Philip Sidney, Lord Buckhurst, the Earl of Oxford, and Lord Paget. Dan Brown has nothing on this woman) who wrote the plays credited to "that wretched player" Shakespeare. Their purpose, Delia claimed, was to promote radical political philosophies for which they felt that they couldn't afford to assume the responsibility. She argued that William Shakespeare was no more than a 'vulgar, illiterate...deerpoacher' and 'Lord Leicester's stableboy.' She later wrote to Hawthorne "There was no man dead or alive, that really on the whole gave me so much cause of offense with his contradictions. He appeared to be such a standing disgrace to genius and learning, that I had not the heart o ask anybody to study anything." But it was Sir Francis Bacon that Delia was particularly keen on as the chief writer of the plays.

Unfortunately, Delia did not undertake any hard research on the subject at any of the major London museums and libraries, even though Thomas Carlyle suggested that she consult original Shakespearean resources. But Delia never took him up on his offer. The letter to the British Museum lay unopened in a drawer. She did however make a pilgrimage to Sir Francis Bacon's grave. She had the idea of convincing someone to open his grave to see if she could find original papers backing up her theory. When that didn't work, Delia decided that all the evidence she needed was in the plays themselves.

She spent two years in isolation working on her book, reading and re-reading the plays, in particular King Lear, Macbeth and Coriolanus (I'm not quite sure why these 3 plays in particular) hunting for clues left by Francis Bacon. By this time, she had run out of money, living in an unheated room, often not knowing where her next meal was coming from. Her article in Putnam's appeared in January 1856, almost 3 years after her arrival in London. As far as she was concerned, the lack of a historical record of the life of Shakespeare was proof enough for her.

"The two or three historical points we have, or seem to have, at length, succeeded in rescuing from the oblivion to which this man's own time consigned him... and constitute, when put together, precisely that historic trail which an old, defunct, indifferent, fourth-rate play-actor naturally leaves behind him."

Putnam's Magazine dropped her after the one issue, concerned about her lack of research and her increasing monomania, not to mention the negative feedback that they had received from readers. Delia was wounded, 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 Nathaniel Hawthorne. She poured out her heart to him, her theories, her hopes and problems. Hawthorne was used to getting letters from Americans who needed help getting out of jail, who ended up on hard times, but he recognized her name from Elizabeth Peabody's letters. He immediately took over and paid her debts and read her essays.

They finally met in June of 1856. Hawthorne praised the parts of the book she had sent him and asked her when she would address the historical documentation. Delia confidently tapped a volume of Bacon's letters. Bacon finally published, thanks to Hawthorne, the fruits of her labor in The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded. He even generously wrote a foreward for the book, even though he didn't believe in her theories for a minute. Delia was furious that Hawthorne had written in the foreward that he didn't believe her theories. His disbelief in the theory was an attack on her as far as she was concerned, they were one in the same. She cut him off without a word and never spoke to him again. However Hawthorne proved to be a true friend to Delia. He paid out of his own pocket to the publisher for the losses of her book, and wrote an essay called "Recollections of a Gifted Woman," in the January 1863 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

While she waited for publication, she became obsessed with the idea of trying to open Shakespeare's tomb because she was certain Francis Bacon had hidden proof of the plays' authorship in the grave. This despite the warning engraved on the slab:

Good frend for Iesvs sake forbeare,
To digg the dvst encloased heare!
Blest be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And curst be he yt moves my bones.

Still, Delia would come into the church at night with a lantern, and just stare at the altar. The vicar became so concerned that he actually for a moment considered letting her into the grave. Fortunately for everyone, Delia became ill and gave up her request. Possibly she had doubts at what she might find. 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.

Finally the day came when the 682 page book was published. In the book, she alleged that Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays because he was ignorant and unschooled, that he lacked the knowledge of the law, sports, court that appeared in the plays, that lines in the plays paralleled those written by Spenser, Oxford and Bacon. The book was savaged by critics, and read by no one, although later on, Mark Twain claimed to be impressed by it, and Walt Whitman, Henry James and others came to believe in her theories. But it was too late for Delia, her mental state worsened, she slipped in and out of fevers (presumably her malaria returning and untreated), she became suicidal and actually began to believe that she was related to Sir Francis Bacon (they were not) and she was ultimately committed to an asylum, first by the mayor of Stratford-on-Avon and after her return to the United States by her brother. She died a year later in 1859.

Hawthorne noted after her death that "no author ever hoped so confidently as she; none ever failed more utterly."

Nowadays, the idea that Shakespeare was not the author of the plays is not a new theory. There are societies devoted to the Earl of Oxford as the author, Sir Francis Bacon, even a theory that the playwright Christopher Marlowe wrote them (the fact that he was murdered before most of the plays were written does not deter fans of this theory). But it was Delia Bacon who can claim to be the grandmother of the theorists. Although she wasn't the first to believe that the plays were written by others, she was the first to really put her theories to the test. Unfortunately the effort took her sanity, and she never lived to see the great debate that still rages on.

Sources include:


Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the World - Paul Collins

The Nympho and other Maniacs - Irving Wallace

Prodigal Puritan: A life of Delia Bacon - Vivian Constance Hopkins

Delia Bacon's book The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded can be found here thanks to Project Gutenberg. (Let me know if you can get through it!)


Bearded Lady said…
Sheesh...And I thought high school kids hated Shakespeare. Sounds like Delia really had an ax to grind with the bard. I had never heard of her. I wonder if her failures with men fueled this drive to prove Shakespeare a hoax. It seems like a very negative subject to research your whole life.

Very interesting post! Someone should write a Dan Brown style of novel on the subject.
Bearded Lady, I do think that Delia took out her anger against McWhorter out on Shakespeare. From everything I read, she was maniacal in her fanaticism that Shakespeare was a hoax. It was irrational in the extreme. I also think her recurrent bouts with malaria and the migraines probably contributed to her madness. She loved the plays themselves, but could never wrap her mind around someone who didn't have an Oxbridge education writing the plays.
Sherry said…
Oh what a wonderful post. I wait with anticipation for each new one you do, and link to my site so my readers can benefit from your dedicated improvement of women's history. thanks so much for another great biography.
Thanks, Sherry. Delia Bacon is probably one of the most interesting characters that I've come across since I've started the blog. On the one hand, I feel incredibly sorry for her, and on the other hand, I just want to tell her to snap out of it. Its a shame that her story isn't more well-known. I hope that people come away thinking that she was more than just a crackpot!
Eliza Knight said…
This was fabulous! It's amazing that there is still so much speculation and nobody knows. What do you think?

When I was doing some research on Elizabeth I, I found several books with theories saying that Shakespeare was her son...interesting, but I am doubtful.
Eliza, that's hysterical that people think that Shakespeare was her son. What did they think, that she farmed him out to Stratford? Is Leicester supposed to be the father?

I personally believe that Shakespeare wrote the plays that bear his name. Ben Jonson knew Shakespeare and helped to put together the First Folio. Its entirely possible for Shakespeare to have self-educated himself for the things that he might not have known. And let's face it, he cribbed most of his plots from other sources because he was a working playwright who had to produce. I can't imagine Bacon and Edmund Spenser doing that, or having the time.

But I give her credit for helping to revive the debate.

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