Roger Williams Code is Cracked!

 IMAGE: This image provided by Brown University shows the preface page of the "Mystery Book" from the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, R.I.

Paul Harvey

This is pretty darn cool: a code used by Roger Williams in one of his late writings has been cracked by a mathematic major at Brown University. The story is here. Thanks to Professor Kathryn Gin Lum for bringing to my attention. TI'm sure this will get covered elsewhere and more extensively, so I'll post updates on this later. A little excerpt:

Historians call the now-readable writings the most significant addition to Williams scholarship in a generation or more. Williams is Rhode Island's founder and best known as the first figure to argue for the principle of the separation of church and state that would later be enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
His coded writings are in the form of notes in the margins of a book at the university's John Carter Brown Library. The nearly 250-page volume, "An Essay Towards the Reconciling of Differences Among Christians," was donated in the 1800s and included a handwritten note identifying Williams as the notes' author — though even that was uncertain at first.
A group including former library director Edward Widmer, Williams scholar and Rhode Island College history professor emeritus J. Stanley Lemons and others at Brown started trying to unravel the so-called "Mystery Book" a few years ago. But the most intense work began earlier this year after the university opened up the challenge to undergraduates, several of whom launched an independent project.
"No one had ever looked at it systematically like this in generations," said Widmer. "I think people probably looked at it and shrugged."


Oh, lovely! But it seems the team does not know that Brown University has in its libraries a second, larger book with more of the same code in its margins and on its fly-leaves, which was written up as an enigma some 30 years ago. It's interesting to contemplate how very impermanent historical discoveries can be even though they may have been published in some obscure source.
linfordfisher said…
Thanks for the post, Paul. It's been amazing to see these undergrads at work. Look for a more complete co-authored essay (with transcriptions, etc) in the near future.
JMS said…
I recall from Jon Barry's book that as Sir Edward Coke's clerk Williams learned shorthand. But there were also some brief references by Barry to the young Williams conveying sensitive/secret messages amongst various religious dissidents in England. Perhaps that could be the source of this code.