Cracking the Code: Early Results

In this series we track the progress of the group of Brown undergraduates working to decipher, translate, and contextualize the “Roger Williams Mystery Book” at the JCB.

The four Brown students working to decode the mysterious shorthand cipher written in the margins of the JCB’s “An Essay Towards the Reconciling of Differences among Christians” have made concrete progress in the first weeks of their project. According to Lucas Mason-Brown, a junior mathematics concentrator, the group has identified the about 30 symbols that make up most of the shorthand and have compiled a dictionary of about 100 frequently occurring words. They have also tentatively identified three distinct texts written in the shorthand: a geographical dictionary, a glossary of medical terms, and, sandwiched in between, about 20 pages of original notes.

The shorthand is thought to be written in the hand of Rhode Island founder and radical seventeenth-century theologian, Roger Williams.

Mason-Brown, who spent much of winter break researching colonial-era shorthand writing systems, has identified the shorthand as a “marked abjad” — meaning that the symbols themselves stand mostly for consonant sounds and their positioning relative to each other indicates the vowel sounds in between. Arrange the “d” and “g” symbols in one way and you’ll get “dog”; arrange them in another way and you’ll get “dig.”

Despite their progress, future scholars will likely have plenty left to study after the semester-long project concludes. “Cracking the code is much less than half the battle,” says Mason-Brown, who estimates that translating the more than 200 pages of coded text would take 20 years. “A reasonable goal for us is a few paragraphs.”

This is in part because, along with the standard shorthand, the author has liberally sprinkled his own idiosyncratic symbols. Williams’ “friendship,” for example, involves a pictogram of a ship (see image above). And even when translated, the text is highly abbreviated.

On top of those obstacles, Mason-Brown says Williams (or pseudo-Williams) has presented one more. “His handwriting’s atrocious.”

Benjamin Schreckinger, Brown University 2012