Delia Bacon hated William Shakespeare so passionately she lost her mind and her health trying to prove he didn’t write those plays. She dismissed him as a vulgar, illiterate deer poacher and ‘Lord Leicester’s stable boy.’ She preferred to believe Francis Bacon authored the plays – and that she was related to Bacon (she wasn’t).
Delia Bacon must have had brains and charisma, for she enlisted Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Carlyle and Nathaniel Hawthorne in her tragicomic campaign to debunk Shakespeare’s authorship. She crossed the Atlantic to conduct her research, hell-bent on opening Shakespeare’s tomb to find the proof she just knew Bacon had hidden.
Though people viewed her as a crank and a madwoman, today literary critics praise her scholarship and originality.
Delia Bacon was born on Feb. 2, 1811 in a log cabin in Tallmadge, Ohio. Her father, a Congregationalist minister from New Haven, was trying to bring Puritanism to the Ohio frontier. He died when Delia was six, and the family returned to New England.
Their mother farmed out the Bacon children to friends, and Delia attended Catherine Beecher’s school in Hartford. Beecher called her the 'homeless daughter of the Western missionary,’ who 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.’
Her education ended at 14. She tried to start her own school. Despite suffering from malaria and migraine headaches, she won $100 for a short story from the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, beating out Edgar Allan Poe. She read widely and became a respected professional lecturer, traveling around the East Coast teaching history and literature for women.
At 36 she lived in a boardinghouse in New Haven, where she had a disastrous love affair with Alexander MacWhorter, a 23-year-old theology graduate at Yale. Delia’s brother Leonard, also a minister, got involved. He announced Delia was engaged to MacWhorter, who quickly backed off. Leonard then demanded MacWhorter stand trial before a panel of 23 ministers. MacWhorter claimed Delia pursued him; Delia claimed he led her on. Witnesses said MacWhorter had first chased Delia. Then came the verdict: 12 for MacWhorter, 11 for Delia.
The scandal went national, mortifying Delia Bacon.
She then threw herself into her campaign to discredit Shakespeare. She called him ‘a standing disgrace to genius and learning.’ She tried to persuade Ralph Waldo Emerson, who she met through Elizabeth Peabody. Emerson introduced her to a wealthy friend who paid for her to spend a year in England researching her theory.
Emerson also encouraged Putnam’s Monthly to give her assignments. He gave her a letter of introduction to his friend, the English historian Thomas Carlyle.
Carlyle shrieked when Delia Bacon told him her theory about Shakespeare.
Help From Hawthorne
Delia Bacon didn’t do any hard research in English libraries or museums. She just knew the proof of her theory was in the plays themselves. She believed that Bacon, Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser wrote Shakespeare's dramas. And she grew obsessed with the idea of opening Bacon’s tomb for proof.
For two years she worked alone in an unheated room on her book about Shakespeare. Her first article for Putnam’s Monthly appeared toward the end of her third year in London. The readers’ negative reaction and her lack of research prompted Putnam’s to drop her.
She needed money. Desperate, she reached out to the U.S. consul in Liverpool, Nathaniel Hawthorne – Emerson’s friend and Peabody’s brother-in-law. Hawthorne paid her debts, read her work and helped her find a publisher. He even wrote the forward for the book, called The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded.
But Hawthorne infuriated her by writing in the forward that he didn't believe her.
While waiting for the book's publication, she tried to get into Shakespeare’s tomb to find the proof she knew Bacon had hidden there. Night after night she came into the church with a lantern and stared at the altar. The vicar considered letting her into the tomb. She fell ill and gave up. Her brother Leonard thought she had lapsed into insanity and begged her to come home.
When she finally had the 682-page book published, no one read it -- except critics, who trashed it. Delia became suicidal, delusional and feverish. She was committed to an asylum in England, then sent home. She died in an asylum in Hartford on Sept. 2, 1859, at age 48.
In his book Contested Will, Who Wrote Shakespeare, James Shapiro praised Delia Bacon for anticipating modern criticism. He also credited her for first recognizing that Shakespeare foretold England’s political upheavals. Had she just stopped there, he wrote, people would not have dismissed her as a crank and a madwoman.
This story about Delia Bacon was updated in 2019.