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How Shocking Are Your Thoughts? Writers Who Wrote In Secret Code

Paranoid or Prudent?

bookshelf opening to secret passage for writers who write in secret code

The writer's brain and hidden thoughts

My brain is an expanding virtual file folder of ephemera. Titles, phrases, and errant words tucked away and tumbling over each other. Snippets of songs echoing in waves. Weird, looping associations tying distant concepts together. History, technology, poetry, and geography overlapping at odd angles. Tidbits of trivia scattered like crumbs over everything. Layers of meaning, time, and distance piled up in messy stacks. A constant buzzing in my brain sending urgent electrical impulses: "Do this...," "Write this..." and " and "Hurry up!"

Is my brain different than everyone else's? Do all writers and artists feel this undying activity in their brains?

But as crowded and chaotic as my brain is, my thoughts are not dangerous or subversive. My tangled ideas - sometimes wacky, sometimes wonderful - don't need to be kept secret. Writing in code never even occurred to me. Good thing, since I don't have the patience or the focus to figure out a code and then stick to it for years.

The idea of obscuring my ideas is contrary to my purpose as a writer. I want people to easily understand my thinking, not make it hard for them to understand!

So I am amazed at the authors who, for years, diligently wrote in secret code. Depending on how dangerous your thoughts are, how paranoid you are, or how protective of your ideas you are, hiding them in cipher like other famous writers may be a good option!

Beatrix Potter: So much more than "The Tale of Peter Rabbit"

When you hear the name Beatrix Potter, you probably think of children's stories like The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Maybe you think of captivating, naturalistic watercolor illustrations that grace the pages of her kids' books.

Possibly, you know that Potter had a career in mycology, studying fungus and creating hundreds of drawings for the Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew.

If you're a genuine Beatrix Potter aficionado, you might remember that Potter loved nature, became an expert sheep breeder, and was engaged to her publisher who died of leukemia a month after their engagement.

But did you know that Beatrix Potter kept a secret, coded diary?

What kind of dangerous thoughts could a fourteen-year-old girl have that would make her want to write in code and continue doing so for eighteen years? We might not even know about the diary in cipher had it not been for a letter that an aging, ailing Potter wrote to her cousin. In the letter, she admitted that as a child she had dreamed of being a writer:

"When I was young I already had the itch to write, without having any material to write about,” she explained to Clark. “I used to write long-winded descriptions, hymns (!) and records of conversations in a kind of cipher shorthand which I am now unable to read even with a magnifying glass.

Beatrix Potter died in 1943. A few years after her death, her cousin, Stephanie Duke, was going through Potter's home and found lots of notebooks and loose pages all written in code. Duke gathered them up and took them to a man named Leslie Linder, a collector of everything "Potter."

Writing in secret code and then breaking the code

Deciphering someone else's cipher is not an easy task. It took Linder six years. By chance, he noticed the Roman numeral XVI toward the bottom of one page, along with the number 1793. He connected those numbers to a historical event, the death of Louie XVI, connected it to the word "execution," and subsequently broke Potter's code language.

Potter recorded - in code - thoughts on articles she'd read, jokes she'd heard, and observations of the people around her.

None of those observations seem worthy of hiding, but scholars believe that Potter may have worried that her mother would read it. By writing in cipher, Potter could take part in the world around her without judgment or fear - and without an intrusive mother knowing her every thought.

William Byrd's dirty deeds

William Byrd, II was a colonial American who served in the Virginia Governor's Council and the House of Burgesses. He was born in Virginia in 1674 but went back to England with his mother when he was two. Educated in London, Byrd traveled back and forth between the United States and England throughout his lifetime. He was elected to a seat in the House of Burgesses representing Virginia, but he withdrew from that and set up a law practice, where politics often clashed with his ambitions. Eventually, he came back to America when he inherited his father's plantation and was expected to manage it.

The inheritance of his father's land made him wealthy in name, but a marriage that didn't deliver the promised dowry and the acceptance of his wife's family debts posed financial problems for him all his life.

William Byrd recorded his daily activities, what he ate, what he was reading, what he and his wife fought about, and what he thought about other people. He journaled about his legal dealings and his sexual antics. Byrd was definitely no "Puritan." He enjoyed sex and indulged in multiple dalliances with his servants and even his sister-in-law which he wrote about in his journal.

No wonder he wrote in code! Some of his activities were shocking. He definitely wouldn't want others to know about them.

Lucky for him, it took over 300 years for someone to decipher his diaries. Three centuries worth of time took away the sting of shame from the decoding of his journal. While he lived, his reputation was unbesmirched. Today, Byrd's formerly secret, now-decoded journals are often published in literary anthologies.

Immigrant, Joseph Pulitzer, gets into newspapers

Everybody's heard of the Pulitzer Prizes, but most people don't know all that much about Joseph Pulitzer, the man who founded one of America's most prestigious literary prizes.

Joseph Pulitzer was born in Hungary in 1847. When he was seventeen, he wanted to enlist in military service, but no one would take him because he had weak eyesight. While Pulitzer was in Germany, he met a bounty recruiter from the United States looking for men to serve as substitutes for wealthy draftees in the Union Army. (During the Civil War, it was an accepted practice that men with money could pay a substitute to take their place.)

Pulitzer liked the idea, but he didn't want the bounty agent to collect the money. When the ship bound for Boston got close to land, Pulitzer jumped ship, swam to shore, and signed up with the Lincoln Calvary in which many of the men were German. Since Pulitzer was fluent in German and French, he fit in well with the Lincoln Calvary. He got to keep the bounty, served for a year, and then, barely 18 years old, worked his way to St. Louis.

In St. Louis, Pulitzer did odd jobs and spent all his spare time studying English and law. He often watched two German men playing chess in the library. One day they engaged him in a conversation.

The two men were the owners of a German newspaper, and they offered him a job. Pulitzer spent four years as a journalist for the paper before they offered him a controlling interest, beginning a career that would forever change journalism. The rest, as they say, is history.

A new kind of journalism

Joseph Pulitzer was smart and driven. Six years after he got his first newspaper, he ended up gaining ownership of The St. Louis Post Dispatch. There, we worked long hours and learned everything about the paper. He began publishing lots of investigative reports with his primary focus on governmental corruption. He fought gambling rackets and exposed wealthy people who dodged tax payments.

The common people appreciated these topics, and the circulation of the paper grew, making it popular and profitable.

The long hours and grueling work took a toll on Pulitzer's health, and his eyesight began to fail. While his doctor urged a vacation, Pulitzer ignored the advice and instead negotiated a deal to purchase the failing New York World newspaper.

Once again, Joseph Pulitzer used investigative reporting that exposed corruption - both public and private - as a primary focus of the paper. He made extensive use of illustrations making the paper more visually appealing, and he sometimes even staged news stunts, tactics which boosted the circulation of the New York World newspaper to be the biggest in the country.

Pulitzer's fight against corruption had vast appeal then, and is still a powerful strategy now. As Seymour Topping noted,

"Pulitzer would have been pleased to know that in the conduct of the Pulitzer Prize system which he later established, more awards in journalism would go to exposure of corruption than to any other subject."

The need for secrecy

Why would a successful newspaper mogul begin writing in secret code?

It turns out that Pulitzer had enemies. Other jealous newspaper owners started throwing anti-Semitic accusations out, trying to turn the Jewish Patrons of the New York World away. The Sun's editor, Charles Anderson Dana, publisher of The Sun, frustrated by the success of The World,  launched vicious personal attacks on Pulitzer as

"the Jew who had denied his race and religion."

By the age of 43, attacked because of his religion and his success, Pulitzer chose to stop going to the office of the New York World. He was nearly blind and depressed. From that point on, he managed the business from the comforts of his yacht, his home, or his retreat in Bar Harbor, Maine. Pulitzer was one of the first, truly powerful, remote workers!

To be able to effectively communicate confidentially long-distance with his staff and keep his business private, Pulitzer developed a code book. More than twenty thousand terms were recorded. Each term represented a person, a publication, or a thing. This enabled Pulitzer to keep his staff informed about topics, sources, and targets without his enemies finding out.

The only surviving copy of Pulitzer's secret code is housed at Columbia University Library in New York.

a page of Pulitzer's secret code book, letter P
Page of code book. Photo: Columbia University Library

Have you considered writing in cipher?

If you're going to a writer's conference and are worried that someone will steal your plot...

If you have nosy siblings or an unrelenting mother who digs around in your documents...

If you're writing a novel based on your clandestine activities outside your marriage...

If you are keeping a record of burglaries, embezzlement, or fraud schemes you've perpetrated...

Then you might want to consider writing in secret code.

For me, I'll stick to the old-fashioned way of writing in readable words, hoping that my meaning is never obscured!



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