Down Cedar Avenue in Grove Street Cemetery sits a small, unremarkable gravestone topped with a cross. Its base is inscribed, “In grateful remembrance, this monument is erected by her former pupils.”
Here lies Delia Bacon, who lived from 1811 to 1859. By the time she died, at 48, Delia had held history lectures for women, been embroiled in a controversial romantic scandal and attempted to open Shakespeare’s tomb.
Delia was born into a devout Puritan family as one of six children. Her father, Reverend David Bacon, was a congregational minister from Connecticut who oversaw religious conversions of Native Americans in the Midwest. He went broke when Delia was 6 years old, and the family moved back to Hartford, where her father died immediately. Her older brother, Leonard, graduated from Yale in 1820 where he later taught, in addition to serving as a minister and anti-slavery advocate.
Throughout her adolescence, Delia was plagued with ill health and bad luck, suffering from recurring malaria and almost dying from cholera. Still, she was brilliant. She began teaching at just 15 after being mentored by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and soon after won a short story competition against then-small time writer Edgar Allen Poe.
At the age of 35, Delia met Alexander MacWhorter, who was studying at the Yale Divinity School. He was 23 and fell deeply for Delia. His pursuit of her took him to a spa in Northampton, Massachusetts, where Delia and her friend Catharine Beecher — Harriet’s sister — were partaking in hydropathy. Delia, perhaps as a result of her many illnesses, had been a devoted follower of the water cure, a form of pseudoscientific medical treatment popular in the 19th century that used cold water, ice baths and wet towels to treat any and all illnesses.
Catharine and Harriet, under the impression that Delia and Alexander were a couple, spread the news that the two were engaged. Alexander was enraged and humiliated and rejected Delia, claiming that she had essentially stalked him.
Many have attested that Delia was initially aloof and had essentially been worn down by Alexander’s advances in the decades since, yet the case scandalized her. Her brother took Alexander to trial in 1847 for “slander, falsehood and conduct dishonorable to the Christian ministry,” which divided the jury of 23 ministers who ultimately acquitted Alexander. Catharine, too, attempted to restore Delia’s name, publishing a 300-page manuscript in 1850 titled “Truth Stranger Than Fiction: A Narrative of Recent Transactions, Involving Inquiries in Regard to the Principles of Honor, Truth, and Justice, Which Obtain in a Distinguished American University.”
However, their attempts only further humiliated Delia. She left Connecticut, first for Ohio, then to Boston and finally to England, driven to seclusion and near-hysteria. She briefly rejoined The Bostonian Society with the support of Harvard-affiliated women, where she put forth a literary theory that Shakespeare was not one man, but a group of writers led by Sir Francis Bacon.
The idea of Shakespeare as a fraud obsessed her. Delia, who had become friends with and found support from the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle, left America for England in 1854 to pursue her belief. The trip had been funded by a friend of Emerson, who later called Delia “a genius, but mad.” While her ideas were commonly dismissed, both Emerson and Hawthorne — who secretly funded the publication of Delia’s book — felt that Delia was one of the greatest Shakespearean scholars.
Huddled in a small room in England, Delia, frail, sick, just 5 years away from death, poured over Shakespeare’s plays and wrote away at her own book unveiling their real authorship — a 682-page tome published in 1857. Convinced that the truth of Shakespeare’s identity lay within his tomb, she made requests to open it, ignoring its engraving: “curst be he that moves my bones.” She would visit the altar at night and stare at it, her face illuminated by lamp-light.
Ultimately, the tomb remained unopened. Delia feared that what lay within would disappoint her.
Just a year after her book was published, Delia was committed to an asylum in Hartford by her brother due to fevers, suicidal tendencies and a sudden, burgeoning belief that she was related to Sir Francis Bacon. A year later, she was dead.
Her thesis and writing were later praised by Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Henry James. But others, according to Irving Wallace, remembered her only as a “sex-starved spinster.”
Read more about Delia’s life in an essay by late Yale archivist Judith Ann Schiff.