A NaNoWriMo Eggs-periment

Sometime in the mid-1500s as the Spanish Inquisition held a firm grip on Naples, Renaissance man and notable genius of cryptography Giovanni Battista della Porta discovered a useful little trick. Several of his clever friends had been imprisoned for presumably not being quite Catholic enough and della Porta needed to get messages to them.

egg head
16th century egg head Giovanni Battista della Porta. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Everything that entered through the prison walls was carefully checked, with the exception of food deliveries. So, della Porta allegedly used a combination of vinegar and alum to write messages onto eggs. The special ink disappeared when the eggs were boiled, but the letters transferred through the semi-permeable shell and imprinted themselves on the membrane of the egg.

All della Porta’s nerdy heretic friends had to do was to carefully peel the egg, read the message, and eat the evidence. Not bad, and definitely more subtle than writing “Hoppy Easter” in white crayon before dyeing, which is how I usually convey secret egg messages.

Now I’ve found plenty of references to this little eggs-periment (see what I did there?), but what I haven’t been able to discover is what the messages might have been, or how della Porta’s friends knew to look for them, though I suppose if you peel and egg and discover words on the white, you probably go ahead and read them.

egg
I am probably not the person you want sneaking you hidden messages in prison.

Were these escape plans? Tricks for correctly answering inquisitors’ questions to secure release? Clever microfiction featuring a dashing 16th century polymath who breaks his friends out of prison? Egg salad recipes? Alas, the world will likely never know, because egg messages rarely last very long.

But there are lots of words that go unread in the world, and not just the brilliant ones languishing between the covers of small potatoes authors you’ve never heard of. Just this past month thousands of writers joined in on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and produced millions upon millions of words, many of which are brilliant, and a lot of them will never be read.

Because this was a sprint, and for many it was probably a slog. Some writers made it to the finish line of their goal (or will in the next thirty-eight hours) and many did not. I’m happy to be among those who completed the challenge, but what I can tell you is that you will never see most of the words I wrote.

laptop
Confession: One of my biggest fears is that I’ll die with an unrevised novel on my hard drive and it will get published. Fortunately, I’m pretty sure my family knows better. Also I’m not famous enough for anyone to care what I have left unpublished. So, you know, thank goodness for that. photo credit: wuestenigel Close Up of Woman’s Hand on the Laptop at the Office via photopin (license)

They might as well be written in invisible ink on an egg white. Of course, they are here in my computer, all 50,000+ of them, waiting for me to trim and polish and hard boil. Only after I’ve done that will I allow anyone else to start peeling back the shell and reading them.

It’ll be a while. I’m excited about the book I just spent a huge number of hours drafting, but it’ll be many times that number of hours before I manage to turn it into something I’m proud to share. For now I’ll set is aside and let the hastily scribbled words soak into the eggshell while I change direction for a bit and write something completely different. Maybe I’ll see if I can put together some microfiction. I have a great idea for a story featuring a dashing 16th century polymath who breaks his friends out of prison using only a bowl of egg salad.

Crime Doesn’t Pay. Neither Does Poetry.

July 26, 1875 wasn’t a great day for John Shine. The man who would later become a US Marshal and a California state senator, at the time, worked as a stagecoach driver for Wells Fargo. That day, only a few miles outside of Calaveras County, he encountered a man standing in his path. He wore a flour sack over his head and he held a shotgun leveled at Shine’s chest.

In a commanding voice, the flour sack asked politely for Shine to throw down the locked strong box, and happily reminded his accomplices hiding behind the boulders with nothing but their deadly shotgun barrels showing, to shoot the driver should he refuse to comply. Shine didn’t need to be asked twice. He threw down the box.

black-bart
The fictional Black Bart was an “unruly and wild villain” with a thick black beard and messy black curls. The real Black Bart was your kindly old gentleman neighbor.[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The gentlemanly outlaw allowed the stagecoach to move on down the trail. Only later, when Shine returned to the scene, did he realize that the flour sack’s accomplices were nothing more than well positioned sticks.

This was most likely the first stagecoach robbery committed by the outlaw who would come to be known as Black Bart. Named (by himself) after a dime novel villain, Black Bart would go on to pull close to twenty-five robberies of Wells Fargo stagecoaches, netting himself a total of around $18,000. The sum was a small drop in the big bucket of about $415,000 Wells Fargo lost to stagecoach robberies over a fifteen year period.

But Black Bart set himself apart. He always worked by himself, never rode a horse, and refused to behave in an ungentlemanly manner. Not once did he fire a shot or steal so much as a dime from a passenger.

And on at least two occasions, he even wrote poetry:

To wait the coming morrow,

Perhaps success, perhaps defeat

And everlasting sorrow

Yet come what will, I’ll try it once,

My conditions can’t be worse

But if there’s money in that box,

It’s munny in my purse.

And there was this one:

I’ve labored long and hard for bread,

For honor and for riches

But on my corns too long you’ve tread,

You fine-haired sons-of…

Well, you get the idea.

The robber signed both poems as “Black Bart, the P o 8.” Get it? Because he’s a po-eight! I assume that’s the idea anyway. He was also pretty great with a license plate. And that, it turns out is a good thing because in November of 1883, Black Bart’s reign of crime came to an end.

During what became his final robbery, Black Bart took fire and a bullet grazed his hand. He managed to escape, stemming the bleeding with a handkerchief that bore a laundry mark. Then, somewhere along the way, he dropped the handkerchief.

diligence_wells_fargo
The 19th century version of the armored car. By PRA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Because Wells Fargo detectives are evidently well versed in every crime drama ever, they conducted an extensive search and traced the handkerchief to a laundry in San Francisco where they learned that it belonged to Charles Bowles, a mild-mannered, gray-haired gentleman who lived a quiet, but elegant life in a boarding house nearby. Mr. Bowles was sentenced to six years in prison for his string of robberies.

The moral of the story, obviously, is that the only way to make money writing poetry is to also rob a stagecoach, and even then, only if you don’t get caught. And that, my friends, is why you should stick to writing novels. It just so happens it’s National Novel Writing Month. So you better get started. These days, a good stagecoach robbery is a hard thing to pull off.