A Mark Twain Letter


Dictated by him from his home in Stormfield, CT on January 11, 1909.

From away back towards the very beginning of the Shakespear-Bacon controversy I have been on the Bacon side, and have wanted to see our majestic Shakespear unhorsed. My reasons for this attitude may have been good, they may have been bad, but such as they were, they strongly influenced me. It always seemed unaccountable to me that a man could be so prominent in Elizabeth's little London as historians and biographers claim that Shakespear was, and yet leave behind him hardly an incident for people to remember him by; leave behind him nothing much but trivialities; leave behind him little or nothing but the happenings of an utterly commonplace life, happenings that could happen to the butcher and the grocer, the candlestickmaker and the undertaker, and there an end--deep, solemn, sepulchral silence. It always seemed to me that not even a distinguished horse could die and leave such biographical poverty behind him. His biographers did their best, I have to concede it, they took his attendance at the grammar-school; they took his holding of horses at sixpenny tips; they took his playacting on the other side of the river; they took his picturesque deer stealing; they took his diligent and profitable Stratford wool-staplings, they took his previous relations with his subsequent wife; they took his will---that monumental will! with its solemnly comic second-best bed incident; they took his couple of reverently preserved and solely existent signatures in which he revealed the fact that he didn't know how to spell his own name; they took this poor half-handful of inconsequential odds and ends and spun it out, and economized it, and inflated it to bursting, and made a biography with a capital B out of it. It seemed incomprehensibly odd to me, that a man situated as Shakspear apparently was, could live to be fifty-two years old and never a thing happen to him.

When Ignatius Donnelly's book came out, eighteen or twenty years ago, I not only published it, but read it. It was an ingenious piece of work and it interested me. The world made all sorts of fun of it, but it seemed to me that there were things in it which the thoughtful could hardly afford to laugh at. They have passed out of my mind now, or have grown vague with time and wear, but I still remember one of those smart details of Donnelly's. According to my recollection he remarked that it is quite natural for writers, when painting pictures with their pens, to use scenery that they are familiar with in place of using scenery that they only know about by hear-say. In this connection he called attention to the striking fact that Shakespear does not use Stratford surroundings and Stratford names when he wants to localize an event, but uses scenes familiar to Lord Bacon instead; hardly even mentioning Stratford, but mentioning St. Albans three and twenty times!

Ignatius Donnelly believed he had found Bacon's name acrostified or acrosticised--I don't know which is right--cryptically concealed all through the Shakespear plays. I think his acrostics were not altogether convincing; I believe a person had to work his imagination rather hard sometimes if he wanted to believe in the acrostics. Donnelly's book fell pretty flat, and from that day to this the notion that Bacon wrote Shakespear has been dying a slow death. Now-a days one hardly ever sees even a passing reference to it, and when such references have occurred they have uniformly been accompanied by a gentle sneer.

Well, two or three weeks from now a bombshell will fall upon us which may possibly woundily astonish the human race! For there is secretly and privately a book in press in Boston, by an English clergyman, which may unhorse Shakespear permanently and put him in the saddle. Once more the acrostic will be in the ascendant, and it may be that people will think twice before they laugh at it. That wonder of wonders, Helen Keller, has been here on a three day's visit with her devoted teachers and protectors Mr. and Mrs. John Macy, and Macy has told me about the clergyman's book and bound me to secrecy. I am divulging the secret to my autobiography for distant future revealment, but shall keep the matter to myself in conversation. The clergyman has found Bacon's name concealed in acrostics in more than 100 places in the plays and sonnets. I have examined a couple of the examples and I feel that just these two examples all by themselves are almost sufficient to Shakespear and enthrone Bacon. One of the examples is the Epilogue to the Tempest. In this acrostic Bacon's name is concealed in its Latin form Francisco Bacono. You take the last word of the Epilogue (free) and move your finger to the left to the beginning of the third line and so on and so on, going left then right then left until you find a word which begins with R. You will find it in the fifth line from the bottom; your finger will then will be moving to the left; it will encounter an A at the beginning of the sixth line and will thence move to the right; it will move to the left through the seventh line and to the right again along the eighth line and will encounter an N in that line, Nine lines above, it will find C and I; two lines above that it will find S. In this acrostic no letters are used that occur within a word or at the right hand and of it; continue the process and you find the C and properly placed; only letters that begin words and letters that stand by themselves are used.

Bacono begins with the word "be" at the end of the next to last line, and proceeds right and left as before, picking up initial letters as it goes along until it reaches the first line of the Epilogue and that line furnishes the close of the name Bacono. Through the last page of King Lear is scattered the acrostic "Verulam" spelt backwards. It begins with the last word of the last line in which is a stage direction (Exeunt with a dead march). That line furnishes the L; you travel upward nine lines before you come to a word beginning with U; four lines higher up you find a word beginning with R; 21 lines above that you find a word beginning with E, and you do not find it any earlier; you find the V in the line immediately above that and the acrostic stands completed. One may examine these two examples until he is tired, hoping that these two names got distributed in this orderly and systematic way without a hitch anywhere, by accident and he will have only his interesting labor for his pains. If he had only one example he might, by clever and possibly specious reasoning, convince himself that the thing was an accident; and he will probably end by conceding that nineteen-twentieths of the probabilities are that both are results of design and neither of them a miracle. For he will know that nothing short of a miracle could produce a couple of such elaborate and extraordinary accidents as these.

Mr. Macy says that there are between 100 and 150 examples in the plays and sonnets that are the match of these two. This being so, the likelihood that Shakespear riddled his works with Bacon's name and Bacon's titles and forgot to acrosticise his own anywhere is exceedingly remote--much remoter than any distance measurable on this planet, indeed remoter than that new planet of Professor Pickering's which is so far outside Neptune's orbit that it makes Neptune seem sort of close to us and sociably situated.

These acrostics have been dug out of the earliest and least doctored editions of Shakespear. Sometimes in the much edited editions of our day changes in the text break up the acrostic. The general reader will not have access to the folio of 1623 and it's brethren, therefore photographic facsimiles will be made from those early editions and placed before the reader of the clergyman's book, so that he can trace out the acrostics for himself. I am to have proof-sheets as fast as they issue form the galley's, and I'm to behave myself and keep still. I shall live in a heaven of excited anticipation for a while now. I have allowed myself for so many many years the offensive privilege of laughing at people who believed in Shakespear that I shall perish with shame if the clergyman's book fails to unseat that grossly commercial wool-stapler. However, we shall see. I shan't order my monument yet.


Thanks to the Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley.

Article about Twain's Archive in San Francisco Chronicle February 7, 2002

"The difference between a cat and a lie
is that a cat has only nine lives."
-- Mark Twain

Two chapters from



Albert Bigelow Paine,
(New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912), 1478-1483.

Chapter 276- Shakespeare-Bacon Talk

Chapter 277- Is Shakespeare Dead



See the complete text of Is Shakespeare Dead?