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Bacon, Delia Salter (1811–1859)

Bacon, Delia Salter (1811–1859)

American author who advanced the theory that English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. Born Delia Salter Bacon on February 2, 1811, in Tallmadge, Ohio; died on September 2, 1859, in Hartford, Connecticut; daughter of Alice (Parks) Bacon and Reverend David Bacon (a congregationalist missionary); educated at public school, Harriet Parson's School, and Catharine Beecher's School; never married; no children.

Selected works:

Tales of the Puritans (1831); The Bride of Fort Edward (play) (1839); Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded (1857).

As the first person ever to theorize publicly that Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare's plays, educator Delia Salter Bacon staked her life—psychological, physical, and financial—on this premise. If her theory proved true, she would be a literary revolutionary and legend. Anything less made her a footnote in history. The latter was her fate, and the failure drove Bacon literally insane with disappointment. She died in an institution for the mentally ill two years after her theory was published and roundly dismissed by critics and literary scholars.

The Bacons came to America as British colonists, first settling in Dedham, Massachusetts. Through the years, they migrated to Connecticut, where David Bacon was born and met his wife Alice Parks. As missionaries, the couple traveled west into Ohio. In 1811, Delia was born there, the fifth of seven children, but the Bacons ran out of money and returned to Connecticut. Reverend David Bacon struggled to feed his family and cope with his disappointment. Ill and depressed, he died in poverty on August 29, 1817, and Delia was sent to live with her namesake, her mother's old school friend Delia Williams , in Hart ford. Delia's brother Leonard, attending theological school at Yale in New Haven, was her nearest relative.

Delia was allowed to attend public schools in Hartford and kept contact with her own family by way of letters. In 1821, she saw her mother Alice again; shortly thereafter, she was sent to live with her. Religion became an omnipresent force for Delia with Leonard's 1824 ordination in the ministry. In April of 1825, Bacon returned to the Williams family, attending a new school run by Catharine Beecher . One of Delia's classmates was Beecher's sister, Harriet, who would become Bacon's lifelong rival.

In 1826, Delia's schooling was complete, making employment a necessity. Anxious to avoid housework, she recruited her older sister Julia and established a boarding school in Jamaica, New York. For the next four years, Delia and Julia taught young girls, often learning subjects as they were teaching them. Their school proved initially successful until both sisters succumbed to malaria during an epidemic, and Delia nearly died. Ever after, her health would be frail. When the sisters recovered, their debt was so great that they had to sell the furniture and close down the school. In April 1830, they moved to New Haven to live with Leonard and his wife.

In her suitcase, Bacon packed a secret passion—a book of stories she had written during private hours. One year later, with Leonard's help, the highly sentimental Tales of the Puritans was published anonymously, but the author's identity soon leaked out. Proud of her efforts, Delia was hurt when an embarrassed Leonard dismissed the book as foolishness. Though she made little money from it, Tales of the Puritans brought attention to Delia. A compelling speaker and tireless learner, she was soon a welcome house or party guest.

For two years, she traveled and studied. By the time she returned to Leonard's home in 1833, Delia determined to offer "classes" for women which would parallel the men's Yale experience. Leonard's mentor, Nathaniel Taylor, head of the theology department at Yale, helped Delia fill her brother's sitting room with women to whom she taught literature, philosophy, sciences, and history. Through her contacts at the university, Bacon invited professors to speak to her group. The venture was a success, and she enjoyed the opportunity to earn a living and still study. At the recommendation of her brother, she took up the works of Francis Bacon.

In 1935, having proved herself in Connecticut, Delia was drawn to the challenge of New York. Though she taught only one year, she stayed on to write the historical and sentimental play The Bride of Fort Edward, published in July of 1839. She received little financial reward and a harsh critique from her brother. Ill from stress, she withdrew to her sister's home in Canandaigua, New York, for a year. By the fall of 1841, Delia had returned to Leonard and her sitting-room classes.

Though Bacon had suitors, she paid them little mind until she met Alexander MacWhorter, a Yale theologian ten years her junior. With MacWhorter, Delia first shared her suspicion that Francis Bacon had penned Shakespeare's plays. She studied their writings at length. She also had it on good authority from her New York friend Samuel Morse that Francis Bacon developed a secret code and used ciphered messages in his work.

As gossip about Delia and the young minister surfaced, Delia tried to break off the relationship; but MacWhorter pleaded for her company and affection, and they continued courting. In the fall of 1846, suffering from exhaustion, Delia withdrew to a spa where she met up with her erstwhile teacher, Catharine Beecher, and her former schoolmate, Harriet Beecher Stowe , who was now a published writer. The encounter renewed Bacon's rivalry but also her friendship with the sisters. MacWhorter made a surprise visit to the spa, and Bacon confided to the sisters that he had proposed.

Both Beecher and MacWhorter preceded Delia back to Connecticut. When Bacon arrived, scandal was brewing. Beecher had announced MacWhorter's proposal, but he denied it. Deeply hurt, Delia wrote to MacWhorter. He then announced that she had proposed to him, been denied, and now was vengeful. When suggestions of impropriety began to damage Delia's reputation, Leonard called for an investigation by a religious council. Leonard's onetime mentor Nathaniel Taylor took MacWhorter's side in the argument, and Delia Bacon's personal anguish turned into a political dispute between Leonard and Taylor, theological rivals battling for control of New Haven. It took a year for the hearing, which ruled that Alexander MacWhorter behaved questionably. Delia's assertion of his proposal could not be proved, and, her reputation tattered, she went into seclusion.

Afterward, Bacon traveled as the guest of Myra Clark Gaines and her husband, General Edmund Gaines, traversing the Eastern states from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Saginaw, Michigan. Back in New Haven a year later, Bacon was still an object of curiosity. Hoping to teach a class in Boston, she contacted Catharine Beecher, only to discover—to her horror—that Beecher was writing an account of the MacWhorter incident. Because she had announced Bacon's engagement without her consent, Beecher felt compelled to assist Bacon in clearing her name. Mediocre at best, Truth Stranger Than Fiction appeared in June 1850.

The book haunted Bacon when she arrived in Boston in October to begin her classes. In a casual encounter with a young woman in a bookstore, Bacon admitted the book was about her. The young woman, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody , turned out to be Nathaniel Hawthorne's sister-inlaw. Through her connections, Peabody encouraged Boston's elite to attend Bacon's first lecture. Delia turned in a winning performance which gained her a full classroom for six months. In the summer of 1851, she withdrew to work on her Baconian theory until illness, once more, deterred her.

In Boston that winter, Bacon sought support for what was now an obsession, but her ideas were most often met with shock and dismissal. Ralph Waldo Emerson, however, became a patron. Bacon reminded many New Englanders of another intellectual, Margaret Fuller , who had died tragically in 1850. Her physical and intellectual resemblance to Fuller won friends where resistance seemed likely. In June of 1851, rival Stowe's most popular work, Uncle Tom's Cabin, began to appear in serial form (the book's character of Miss Ophelia was based on Delia).

Pressured to publish her theory lest anyone else attempt it, Bacon felt compelled to go to England. There, she thought she would find solid proof of the plays' authorship. With Emerson's support, she went to New York City. Unable to earn her passage to England, she turned to Charles Butler, a New York lawyer, who provided for her trip. Without advising Leonard, Bacon set sail on May 14, 1853. When she arrived in England, advance letters from Emerson had already found her friends. Soon, Bacon was so immersed in research that she rarely saw anyone and declined all invitations.

Bacon decided that publication of her work in America and England simultaneously would be best. Acting as her agent in the states, Emerson had little success. To his dismay, her theory remained unsubstantiated by any evidence. Shakespeare's manuscripts, the ultimate proof, she believed to be buried with him; Francis Bacon had said so himself, she maintained, in a ciphered message from his works. In August of 1855, publisher Phillips, Sampson offered a $200 advance and ten percent of the royalties for her book. Feeling the offer to be inadequate, Bacon hedged; instead, she accepted an offer from Putnam's Magazine to serialize her theory. The first piece, "William Shakespeare and His Plays: An Inquiry Concerning Them," appeared in January of 1856. Greeted with scorn, the theory nevertheless inspired some interest. But when Putnam's discovered that the second article offered no conclusive proof—as was promised in chapter one—they rescinded their offer.

Bacon stopped seeking help from America. Instead, she wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne who was then American consul in Liverpool. Describing her work and her need for money, she warned Hawthorne that if he denied her plea and she were unable to pursue her theory, the president of the United States would lose the honor of the discovery and hold Hawthorne responsible. "I am determined it shall not be my fault if this thing is lost to us." Hawthorne, who knew of Bacon but was surprised by her tone, agreed to read her work. As their friendship developed, she wrote: "I have given up this world entirely, and if I had my choice, I don't know as I should ever see anyone again while I live. … I used to be some body … whereas now I am nothing but this work, and don't wish to be. I would rather be this than anything else."

Hawthorne became, if not a believer, at least an agent for her in England. In June 1856, Emerson wrote that several of her chapters, while crossing the Atlantic, were lost. Bacon considered them the most pivotal to her book, and she did not have copies. In despair, she went to Stratford, Shakespeare's birthplace, to begin the task once more. Unbeknownst to her, Hawthorne wrote to Leonard and asked him to reconsider support of his sister. Leonard responded with a letter to Delia, accusing her of being "delusional" and "misguided." Bacon was devastated. Feeling forced to provide some tangible evidence, she made her way one September night to Trinity Church and Shakespeare's grave. Resolved to rob the grave of the manuscripts, she was not strong enough to lift the covering stones; instead, she spent the night sitting in the dark church contemplating the possibility that no evidence existed. In a formal plea to the church vicar, she was granted the right to examine the grave. But Delia did not show up. She had lost faith.

What she may have suffered before her intellect gave way, we had better not try to imagine. No author had ever hoped so confidently as she; none ever failed more utterly.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne

At this time, an agent, Francis Bennoch, acting at Hawthorne's direction, found a placement for the book. An alternate author had produced a pamphlet espousing a Baconian theory, and Hawthorne was concerned. certain she would kill herself if another published the theory first, Hawthorne secretly arranged with a publisher to pay all printing costs and write a preface. A printing of 1,000 was agreed upon, and Hawthorne contracted for 500 of them to bear Ticknor and Fields' imprint for U.S. sale. The next six months were spent on proofs and a title. Hawthorne wrote an uninspired preface; Bacon pronounced it awful and rewrote it. Before printing in April 1857, the original publisher withdrew and another publisher was arranged. The whole affair cost Hawthorne $1,100 and Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded was finally printed.

Bacon, who suddenly had nothing to do, fell ill. For two months no reviews were forthcoming, then the silence was broken in June when her book was fiercely denounced. Delia's tenuous hold on sanity snapped. She began to falsely claim Francis Bacon as a distant relative. American astronomer Maria Mitchell visited Bacon, entirely unaware of her situation, and found her so disturbed that she wrote to Leonard and asked him to retrieve her. In November, David Rice, doctor and mayor of Stratford, had Delia Bacon committed to the nearby sanitarium Henley-in-Arden. The Bacons, unable to fund Delia's return, could only exchange letters with Rice, who had grown close to Delia.

Delia Bacon was finally rescued when Leonard's son George passed through England on his way home from China. Unaware of his aunt's state, he stopped in Stratford and discovered her plight. George sold all his belongings and treasures from the Orient, and the pair returned to America on April 13, 1858. She had been away almost five years.

By July, Bacon was committed to the Hartford Retreat, an asylum. More lucid in her last days than she had been for years, she died on September 2, 1859, and was buried in the family plot at Grove Street cemetery in New Haven. While her theory was taken up by others, it has never been proven.


Bacon, Theodore. Delia Bacon: A Biographical Sketch. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1888.

Blain, Virginia, Pat Clements, and Isobel Grundy, eds. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Hart, James D. Oxford Guide to American Literature. NY: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Hopkins, Vivian C. Prodigal Puritan: A Life of Delia Bacon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959.

Kunitz, Stanley and Howard Haycraft. American Authors, 1600–1900. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1938.

Crista Martin , freelance writer, Boston, Massachusetts

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