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Eastern Europe

Wilfrid Voynich

by Jackie Speel, 30 January 2010. Updated 9 October 2014

Wilfrid Voynich is perhaps best remembered for his association with the strange - and still undeciphered - document which now bears his name. However his life, even from the limited information readily available, is far more curious than might be expected.

Early years

He was born Michał Habdank-Wojnicz on 31 October (Halloween) 1865, into a Polish-Lithuanian noble family in what was then the Russian Empire. While his parents' names are known (from his naturalisation form) there are few details readily available on other family members. He went to Cracow University, acquiring several degrees - to the level of doctorate - and an extensive knowledge of European languages, being able to write to publication level in a number of them.

The Russian empire in which he grew up was not in a restful state. Revolutionaries, anarchists, nationalists and others contributed to a degree of unrest in the Russian Empire in the latter part of the nineteenth century There was much repression, and several assassination attempts on the Czars Alexander II and Alexander III - ultimately successful in the former, with one attempt on the latter involving Lenin's elder brother.

Wojnicz became a Polish revolutionary nationalist, using the name Wilfryd. Following an attempt to free some fellow conspirators from a Warsaw prison, he was arrested (as only his mother came to the prison, his father may have died by this point). As a result of his imprisonment he contracted TB and acquired a permanent stoop. On Easter Sunday 1887 he looked out of the prison window and saw a young woman dressed in black walking in the street outside. He was then sent to Siberia from which he escaped in 1890, at the third attempt, using a fake passport. (He kept the passport with him: during the course of a discussion on a train journey in Switzerland a number of years later he showed it on request to his travelling companion who had expressed interest in seeing it. His companion then explained that he was the current chief of the Russian police.)

It took him six months to leave Russian territory, apparently going via Mongolia and, joining a caravan, which went to Peking (now Beijing) in China. Then he made his way by means not indicated in presently available records, to Hamburg (in what was then the German empire). From there, having sold his overcoat and glasses to raise money, he bought a ticket to London with a small amount of food, almost being shipwrecked off the coast of Scandinavia on the journey. The story has it that he had the address, in Russian, of a fellow revolutionary, Sergius Stepniak, and it took some time to find someone who understood the language and was able to take him to his destination in the east end of London. Rather surprisingly he found that the woman he had spotted in Warsaw was an associate of Stepniak: she was a fellow revolutionary, Ethel Lilian Boole, daughter of the mathematician George Boole and Mary Everest, feminist and niece of Sir George Everest. Among her acquaintances were Friedrich Engels and George Bernard Shaw.

Petticoat Lane, London
The east end of London in the 1880s and 1890s was a hotbed of would-be revolutionaries, honest working class folk, grime and squalor and, of course, the Jack the Ripper murders

In 1892 Wojnicz started a relationship with Ethel Lilian, eventually marrying her in 1902 - which may be connected to his (successful) application for British citizenship. The surname was anglicised to Voynich and Michal adopted the given name Wilfrid. The couple continued their revolutionary activities and associations with Stepniak, the Russian anarchist Prince Kropotkin and others of a similar intent. Wilfrid - as Ivan Kel'chevskii - and Stepniak established the Society of Friends for a Free Russia. In August 1895 Stepniak attended Friedrich Engel's funeral - and died a few months later, being killed in a railway level-crossing accident in west London Among those who attended his funeral service were the Italian revolutionary Errico Malatesta, William Morris and Eleanor Marx Aveling daughter of Karl Marx.

Partially as a result of Stepniak's death, and the need for money, the Voynichs changed direction. Ethel Lilian became a successful novelist, and translator, probably best known for The Gadfly. There are claims that she made use of her association with the man best known as Sidney Reilly (with whom she travelled to Rome in 1895) for the plot of The Gadfly, but it appears that he borrowed more from the story than he provided.

Wilfrid became an antiquarian book dealer: apparently selecting this career on the recommendation of the librarian at the British Library, Robert Garnett, with whom he had talked much previously about books. (Garnett was to be one of the persons who signed the documentation connected to Voynich's naturalisation papers - the others included a member of the British Museum and, rather surprisingly, someone from the Indian administration and another from the prison administration). The choice proved successful, and Wilfrid prospered, with bookshops in London (1898) and New York (1914), and many travels in Europe and the US to make acquisitions of incunabula and later works. There are some indications that his profession was also used to smuggle revolutionary materials into and out of the Russian empire. (Inter alia Lenin wrote for one of the publications with which Voynich was associated - while they had acquaintances in common there is no evidence that they ever actually met, even when Lenin was in London.)

Wilfrid became a noted medieval scholar and wrote bibliographical works in many languages, including 'books of which his was the only known printed example' and 'books not in the possession of the British Library'. (Some of his books and acquisitions were to end up in the British Library: he is unusual among booksellers in having a British Library shelfmark to his credit.) It is not clear where he acquired the initial financing for his activities (though he might well have done a certain amount of business on credit, commission and by exchange).

Wilfrid was a regular visitor to the Continent, in particular to Italy (during which he became friends with Achille Ratti, at that point a librarian, who would eventually become Pope Pius XI). He was able to buy large quantities of old books and manuscripts, from religious houses and other places, on one occasion persuading the religious in question to take what he considered to be modern tat in exchange for some wonderful old texts. In 1912 he visited the Villa Mondragone, Frascati, at the request of the Jesuits there - who wished to sell some of their books in order to raise funds (this being done, apparently, without the knowledge of their superiors).


Among the books he acquired as a result of this transaction was a peculiar volume, of some age and obviously written in code, which was to provide him with a more than contemporary notability. (There are some arguments that the volume did not originate in the stated location - inter alia he said that he had acquired it from 'a castle' - and used the Villa as misdirection.) Voynich decided, on various grounds, that it had been written by Roger Bacon (this is now considered not to be the case): he spent the next few years attempting to 'crack the code' with the aid of a range of specialists, to no effect.

Eventually he linked up with Dr William Romaine Newbold, of the University of Pennsylvania, who developed a system for interpreting the manuscript - which, he claimed, involved a six-fold cipher. However, others, including John Manley, of the University of Chicago, refuted the arguments put forward - there were too many ambiguities in the process, and, it was afterwards proved, the 'marks' interpreted by Newbold were in many cases, merely the product of the ink drying on the vellum, and he was discredited. Various attempts were made subsequently to crack the code - including the cryptographers at Bletchley Park when not otherwise engaged. (It should be noted that the Enigma machines in their earlier formats made use of three sets of encrypting discs, rising to five.)

The rest of Voynich's life seems to have been fairly unmemorable, though reasonably successful. In 1916 he was involved in the return of a book, which he had acquired in good faith, being one of the volumes appropriated from Lincoln Cathedral Library several years earlier by John Edward Tinkler. Tinkler was a noted antiquarian book dealer with a dubious private life and even more dubious associates. He had 'form' for similar offences in other contexts - and was sentenced in 1912 for thefts from Lincoln and Peterborough Cathedral libraries. Generously Voynich returned the book, despite its cost.

He went to the United States in 1914 (on the Lusitania) settling permanently there and crossing the Atlantic at various points thereafter, maintaining his London shop as well as establishing an American base - he also had shops elsewhere. Ethel Lilian was to join him in the US after the war. Wilfrid died in New York in 1930, having been ill for some time. Ethel Lilian Voynich died in 1960, leaving the manuscript to her long-term friend and companion Miss Anna Nill, who had become acquainted with the couple when she worked for Wilfrid in his bookshop. Miss Nill sold it to an antiquarian book dealer, who, after failing to sell it, donated it to Yale University.

Many theories have been put forward for the Voynich manuscript - like the Anti-Kythira machine it is a 'thing without a historical context' - of varying degrees of plausibility and otherwise. The document is clearly of some age, and unlikely to have been fabricated by Voynich himself as has been argued (and would a modern 'reconstructor of ancient texts' create only one such document rather than several?). It can also be argued that, whatever its purpose and intent, given that the document was 'all of a piece' and would have taken some time to construct, a fairly simple system of text/script generation would have to be used.


Main Sources

There are many websites devoted to the document itself - and, as is often the case, information tends to be repeated between them - but very little information in English on Wilfrid Voynich himself.

Some material can be found in newspapers of the time, and a scattering of original documents in various places (to be found via Access to Archives). His application for naturalisation can be found in The National Archives, Kew. The British Museum contains some details of his British Library card (the library was then situated at the Museum) - a signature and renewal dates.

The addresses of his bookshops in the Soho area (his address in 1 Soho Square was later occupied by Paul McCartney), Regent Street, and Piccadilly, can be traced through Post Office yearbooks, and some details of his and Ethel's journeys to and from the US can be found on the Ancestry website.

Other Sources

Bernhardt, Lewis - The Gadfly in Russia, The Princeton University Chronicle Vol XXVIII Autumn 1966 No 1, p 1-19




Text copyright © Jackie Speel. An original feature for the History Files.