Judge: Bacon Wrote Shakespeare's Plays

Richard Stanley Tuthill, the judge who presided over the first Luetgert murder trial, made news again in 1916, but in a very different kind of court case.

Tuthill drew the world's attention to his courtroom by ruling that Francis Bacon was the true author of the plays commonly attributed to William Shakespeare.

On April 22, 1916, the Chicago Tribune reported: "William Shakespeare, familiarly known as 'Bill' to his fellow roustabouts at the Globe theater, London, was adjudged a literary bankrupt yesterday by Judge Richard S. Tuthill in the Circuit court of Cook county."

Why was a judge in Chicago ruling on this long-running literary mystery?

The decision came in a civil lawsuit between Colonel William N. Selig (pictured), a motion-picture producer, and Colonel George Fabyan, an eccentric millionaire who lived in the far west suburb of Geneva.

Selig's Chicago film company, Selig Tribune, was preparing to exhibit silent movies based on the Bard's plays. Meanwhile, Fabyan was publishing his theory that Bacon was the real author of the plays.

Fabyan, a member of the dry-goods commission merchant firm Bliss, Fabyan and Company, had reportedly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a cryptological effort to decode Shakespeare's plays.

Was either of these men truly a colonel? Selig had added the title to his name when he was traveling as a magic conjurer in the 1890s. Fabyan had received the honorary title of "Colonel" for serving on the Illinois governor's military staff.

Selig "was shocked to learn that Fabyan was about to attack the fair name of Shakespeare and thereby injure his motion picture rights, and it was through this thoroughly modern difference between two colonels that Bacon is finally awarded his decree," the Tribune reported.

Selig's star witness in the case was the Right Reverend Samuel Fellows, Chicago's Episcopal bishop, while Fabyan responded with several literary scholars who subscribed to the Bacon theory.

One of these witnesses, Elizabeth Wells Gallup, explained how she had deciphered the "cryptogram" hidden in Shakespeare's writing to prove that Bacon was the author. Tuthill declared Gallup to be a "scholarly woman and an educator of high standing."

Fabyan had hired Gallup and arranged housing for her on his 300-acre estate in Geneva, known as Riverbank, about four years before the court case. Gallup's theories about the Bacon "cipher" were not entirely new — similar ideas had been published in the 1800s — but she added a novel angle to the story, claiming to have discovered crytographic evidence that Bacon was the son of Queen Elizabeth I and the true heir to the English throne.

On the surface, Tuthill's ruling appeared to be a blow for Selig. The movie magnate had earlier obtained a restraining order to prevent Fabyan from publishing his book, and Tuthill's ruling in favor of Fabyan meant that Selig owed his rival $5,000 in damages because of the publication delay.

However, the Tribune noted that the entire legal spectacle appeared to benefit Selig by generating publicity for his movies, including a six-reeler titled "The Life of Shakespeare" that was opening three days later.

Upon hearing about Tuthill's ruling, Selig representative Jack Wheeler laughed, saying, "Isn't that sad? That will be about 9 million columns of publicity, won't it?"

In a press release, Selig said he was considered appealing the decision. "Notwithstanding this adverse opinion, I remain of the firm opinion that Shakespeare is 'Shakespeare' and the sole author of the works of Shakespeare," he said.

After issuing his decision, Tuthill spoke with a reporter at his home in Evanston.

"I am convinced, as I believe anyone will be, that the man William Shakespeare could not have been the author of the works credited to him."

"Are you of the opinion that such a man as Shakespeare existed?"

"O, there is no doubt of that. But Shakespeare was not a man of education — rather an ignorant man, I should say. Theaters were of low caste in those days, and education was considered exceedingly menial."

"Is there a belief that Bacon and Shakespeare were friendly?"

"I think they were. You see, it being thought men and low to be educated, Bacon was fearful of the effect upon his reputation if it became known he was a bookworm.

"But he was a friend of Shakespeare, the theater manager, and he longed to try his hand at play writing a thing — he could not consider in his own name. Hence he used Shakespeare's name as a cloak. Plays by Shakespeare would excite no comment, because he was a low person, so considered. But plays by Bacon would have ruined him...

"Bacon was well received in Paris because of his education and refinements. He wrote many poems and miscellaneous verse. Inasmuch as he had used the name of Shakespeare he wished to protect his work. For this reason he perfected a cipher code which, in future centuries, would enable those who sought the truth to prove he was the author of the plays and verse."

Several scholars commented to the press after Tuthill's ruling. Nobody had any praise for the judge's venture into literary puzzles.

"All that I have to say is that such a view is nonsense," said Edith Foster Flint of the University of Chicago.

"If Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays, then someone must certainly be kind enough to inform us who wrote Bacon's works," said Albert H. Tolman of the University of Chicago. Positive it is that the two separate works are not by the same man."

"Ciphers can be worked up and down, criss cross and vice versa," said Robert Grant Martin of Northwestern University. "They'll show anything."

Chicago Tribune, April 22, 1916.

Fabyan's quest to decipher the true meaning of Shakespeare's plays continued after the 1916 court case. He also attempted to build a levitation device that he read about in Bacon's works, but couldn't get it to work.

Fabyan's cryptography project had some unexpected results. A married couple working for Fabyan as code-breakers, William and Elizebeth Friedman, helped the United States military decipher German and Mexican codes during World War I, and Fabyan's Riverbank estate was used as an Army training center for cryptographers.

Fabyan also established the Riverbank Acoustical Laboratories in 1918. The laboratory is still at the site today.  Fabyan died in 1936, his quest to decipher Shakespeare's plays regarded as a failure.

After the death of his wife, Nelle, the Forest Preserve District of Kane County purchased 235 acres of their estate, which includes a model farm, large greenhouses, a windmill, a Japanese garden, stone fountains, grottoes, statues and concrete and metal cages for the various wild animals the Fabyans had brought to Riverbank. The Fabyan Forest Preserve is now open to public, including a villa designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is maintained as a museum containing part of Fabyan’s collections. (Follow this link for more information.)

Selig was famous for more than just the Shakespeare controversy. He claimed to have made the first narrative film shot in Los Angeles, 1908 's The Count of Monte Cristo, and he established what may have been the first permanent studio in the Los Angeles area in 1909. He had other claims to fame as well: His studio was credited with being the first U.S. company to shoot a two-reel film, Damon and Pythias (1908), and the first true serial, The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913-1914). Western star Tom Mix got his start with Selig.

Selig shut down his Selig Polyscope Company in 1918 but continued to produce motion pictures into the 1930s. The final pictures credited to Selig were The Drag-Net (1936) and Convicts at Large (1938). Selig was one of four men who received Special Academy Awards in 1947 for being pioneers in the development of motion pictures. (Follow this link for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Web page on Selig.)

© 2003 by Robert Loerzel.

Pictures: Tuthill, Chicago Daily News, Sept. 14, 1897; Selig,

Chicago Tribune
, April 22, 1916.
New York Times, April 22, 1916.
Associated Press article, June 13, 2001.