Appraisals -men

Art Museum notice: Museum curators and library staff are not able to appraise, authenticate, or positively identify works of art.

Member of the Public: ‘  .. suspected that ..


“During World War I [Wilfrid] Voynich came to the attention of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation…as a possible enemy agent”

The U.S. Bureau of Information File On Wilfrid Voynich (pdf) p.1.

One of the more curious moments in the history of the Voynich manuscript is recorded in the document specified above.  On the 25th. September 1919, a member of the Bureau called in person on Wilfrid Voynich at his showrooms in the Aeolian Hall building in New York.

Now, records suggest that the Aeolian Hall was, at that time, an eighteen-story building at 29 West Forty-second Street, one which contained an 1100-seat ‘Aeolian hall’ and which was also home to the New York Symphony orchestra. (Five years later the Aeolian company was to occupy the old Rockefeller building on Fifth avenue)

Street numbers might have been altered since, but a letter from Voynich to a Mr. Booth in 1917 bears the address ” ‘Aeolian Hall’ 33 West Forty-Second Street” –  the number of a building which is still, as it has been since 1898,  the Hoppin-Koens  engine company fire-station.

west 43rd 003

photo courtesy of the Daytonia in Manhattan blog

A small puzzle, but an interesting one.

In any case, the “spy hunter’ found him in what he too calls the “Aeolian building” and Wilfrid took the opportunity to try and interest him in the manuscript which Voynich was already describing as (to quote verbatim the BOI agent’s report) “The Great Cypher Codex of Roger Bacon of the XIIIth century.”

Voynich didn’t hesitate to name its price: $100,000 dollars ~ which, incidentally would have bought the entire building in which they both now stood, though it was then in the most fashionable district of Manhattan.

Apart from one clear, sensible and dismissive letter in the B.O.I file, added by a man who deserved his job as an officer of Intelligence, the file is a record of various intrusions, over two years, into the lives of persons who knew, had known, or did any business whatever with Wilfrid Voynich.

We hear in this way of John Manly, of Charles Sessler (whose records, btw are preserved in the Pennsylvania Historical Society which describes them as “correspondence, both domestic and foreign, inventories, cash and credit receipts and sales, ledgers, and other records”(pdf.)

There’s a treasure-hunt, if you like.

Another American bookman of Philadelphia, “Dr. Rosenbach of 1320 Walnut Street” gained a mention.  Rosenbach was related to the owner of the famous  ‘Pollock Bookshop’ (also in Philadelphia).  The wiki article (yes, there is one) says that his own company was simply named “The Rosenbach Company, [and Rosebach himself] went on to help assemble the extensive collections of the Huntington Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library. ..”

– That’s the same Folger Shakespeare Library where the Voynich manuscript was allowed out on its first excursion since being sent to live in Yale – just btw.

But back to our “spy hunt”.  Now, Voynich had evidently decided that the manuscript which his gut feeling attributed to Roger Bacon was written in a cipher so clever that the American government of his own time, or at least the military, might be interested in purchasing the manuscript. Voynich apparently believed that he held in his hands (potentially) the ultimate in ciphers for military use.

Now, the agent didn’t quite hear that patriotic message in Wilfrid’s words.  Quite the opposite: you can almost hear the hairs on his neck rising as he listened, and his words in the report just seem to tumble out in panic:

” He said he was sending a copy to Professor Manly of the University of Chicago but at that time a Captain in the U.S. army located at the Washington Law College whose duties comprehended training U.S. army officers to cypher work in France”.

[oh no! .. eeek! scream!]

Well, they were difficult times.

But all this fuss about evaluating the man, and the man himself determined that his own personal hunch about Bacon-as-author must ultimately be proven after the fact, while chaps in Fedora hats with unimpressed faces are lurking about and interviewing his acquaintances and musing on whether they might find out more if they searched his home, or perhaps used a little more force…

Hardly the atmosphere of calm suited to inviting scholarly and dispassionate assessment of a codex on rough vellum.

So there, you see, at one level ‘Voynich studies’ had already started to be de-railed (or perhaps better, re-railed) within five years.  Too much hysteria, too much unreasonable certainty all around, and Voynich (in his way) not much better than the rest.

Clearly, he would countenance no provenance save one describing the manuscript as wholly the work of one original author; naming the imagined ‘author’ as someone both European (or at least, English) and Christian; and a person of such prominence as to have left a mark in the historical record.  Plus, of course, Voynich would believe nothing but that the reason the text’s writing and pictures were both unintelligible to a western reader was that both were in some clever way thoroughly ‘enciphered’.

That set of notions re-directed the course of study from what would normally occur in provenancing any manuscript.  Wilfrid’s personal range was “all stops from Ilchester and Oxford…”

While the B.O.I chaps were mostly appraising Wilfrid’s motives as running between mercenary and subversive…

In such an atmosphere, how many eminent codicologists and palaeographers, or specialists in comparative art studies, would be willing (do you think) to have any association with the thing, or with its owner in whom the BOI were now so very obviously, far too interested?


Postscript.  In that ghastly file is one historically intriguing note:

One of the agents reports having interviewed two representatives of Wilfrid’s bank, the Bank of British North America. The two representatives are named as  Messrs. W.T. Oliver and P.T. Harrison. They informed the agent that Voynich was “introduced to them in 1914 by Levetus and Company of 194 Bishops Gate, London, in which they spoke of him as a valued client”. (Dec.11th., 1917).

Which makes you think, at first, that Levetus and Co. were also a bank, since this introduction will have been presented – as  usual – as a letter.

However, the only Levetus and Co. I have found online –  someone at the British Library might be luckier – seems to be a legal or commercial agent centred in Birmingham, acting chiefly in regard to patented machines or engines being traded with India, or possibly with any of the remaining colonies of the English.

One mention of the company online occurs in a legal dispute that was pursued in the court of Calcutta over rights to a particular brand-name.* The other is a record of their recommending  a client resident in India, (the ‘Flying Corsican’ Mr.Giacomo D’Angelis) for having made the first aircraft and the first air flight in India, the machine built “entirely from his own designs”**

*Calcutta High Court. Sen And Pundit vs E.S. Oakes on 18 June, 1919

** from ‘Aviation in India – A Peep Into Its Early History – An Update’ (blogpost, undated) By Group Captain Kapil Bhargava (Retd)

More information about Levetus and Company would certainly be interesting.

.. the awkward fact that is there are no ordinary men: each individual, from his fingerprints to his breathing patterns, is different from every other individual –  Alexander McKee, Wreck of the Medusa.



  1. Postscript (March 18th., 2015). Perhaps co-incidentally, Voynich had a more direct connection to Corsica.

    In a Eulogy by his friend, James Westfall Thompson, it is mentioned that “through his life Mr. Voynich displayed an almost sixth sense of divination for the discovery of manuscript and book treasures. An excursion to Corsica, which until then had not been penetrated by the book-hunter, resulted in the acquisition of a remarkable collection of over 600 incunabula, most of which were purchased by the trustees of the British Museum. This achievement founded Mr. Voynich’s reputation. In the ensuing years he wandered far and wide in search of manuscripts and books. His ability to speak every European language, his genial personality, enabled him to go everywhere and everywhere to make friends.”.

    The same incident was evidently known also to Garland, Anne Nill’s long time friend.


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