The Roger Williams Code
How a team of scholars decrypted a secret language—and discovered the last known work of the American theologian.
Setting his equations aside, Mason-Brown turned to books on early modern shorthand. His reading pointed him to the system set out by John Willis’ 1602 Art of Stenographie. The system was popular in England at the same time a young Williams worked as a stenographer for the noted jurist Edward Coke at the Star Chamber Court.
In the system, symbols stood in for most consonant sounds, and most vowels were left out. The symbols were simple, generally requiring a single pen stroke, making them easier to write than the consonants they stood for. The relative position of the consonant symbols indicated the vowel in between them. For example, placing the symbol for g to the bottom left of the b symbol encoded bag. Move the g symbol to the upper right and you instead had bog.
Guessing that this might be the system Williams used, Mason-Brown tried tweaking his frequency analysis so it applied to consonants only. Thus modified, the analysis allowed him to tentatively match several symbols to English letters.
Next, he turned to the longhand “flags” that dotted the first of three sections into which he had preliminarily divided the code. These were words, mostly place names, that the author had written entirely or partially in longhand English.
If a word was partially written in longhand and partially written in shorthand, he could guess at the entire word and then determine what the symbols in the shorthand portion of the word stood for. For example, Mason-Brown encountered “Meso” written out in longhand followed by a string of symbols. Given the prevalence of ancient place names among the longhand flags, he guessed that the word was Mesopotamia. The string of short-hand symbols standing for potamia gave him a set of precious potential correspondences.
Applying these two tactics in tandem, Mason-Brown was able to build a tentative key. When applying the key to paragraph-length passages yielded intelligible English, he knew his hunch about the Willis system had been correct.
By the start of the spring semester, he had built and confirmed a key of the 28 most common symbols and the letters or sounds to which they corresponded. But this was far less than half the battle. The code was filled with “defectives,” long words given idiosyncratic abbreviations that did not follow the normal rules of the encoding scheme. It was also liberally peppered with pictograms. “Friendship” was rendered with the symbol for F followed by a sketch of a ship. And the handwriting was, as Mason-Brown describes it, “atrocious.”
But the longhand flags offered another possible shortcut. The flags in the first section—geographical terms like “Nov Belgium,” “Mutina,” and “Paphlygonia,”—suggested an expertise beyond Williams’ main fields of interest. The flags in the third section—medical terms including “Hermaphrodite” and “Eunouch” —suggested the same (as well as an unexplained interest in sexual aberration). All looked like keywords. It was possible, the students and scholars hypothesized, that these sections were copied down from reference texts.
With the help of historian Tim Harris, the undergrads matched the first section to Peter Heylyn’s Cosmographie in Four Books: Containing the Chorographie and Historie of the Whole World, and All the Principal Kingdoms, Provinces, Seas and Illes thereof, a sort of 16th-century geographical encyclopedia. With the help of medical historian Hal Cook, they matched the third section to Bartholinus’ Anatomy, a popular 17th-century medical reference. Translating these sections would now be a simple matter of matching the shorthand to the passages from which it was copied.
Meanwhile, in early March, the Rhode Island Historical Society furnished two letters in Williams’ hand that included brief snippets of shorthand. By comparing the idiosyncratic defectives in the samples, Mason-Brown was able to confirm Williams’ authorship of the shorthand in the mystery book, and the academics attached to the project concurred with his conclusion.
By the end of the spring, Mason-Brown had confirmed Williams’ authorship, cracked the code, and translated most of its contents. It was a gratifying, if relatively minor, accomplishment. But the undeciphered shorthand from the middle section of the mystery book still beckoned. It lacked those helpful longhand flags, making it harder to translate, but also offered a glimmer of hope that it contained a different sort of text: original writing by Williams.
Courtesy John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.
This summer, Mason-Brown moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan with the single goal of translating the rest of the code. He would likely have to work through the remaining shorthand word by word. It was a daunting task: 24 pages of uninterrupted shorthand. The only words written out in English were two names, “Eliot” and “Norcott.”