Roger Williams and Samuel Gorton wrote in shorthand

Roger Williams statue by Franklin Simmons.
Roger Williams statue by Franklin Simmons.

In 1891, Provi-dence resident Thomas Griffin noticed a book at the Warwick Town Hall which intrigued him. The leather-bound book con-tained about 60 pages and was filled with unidentifiable sym-bols. As an expert on stenogra-phy, Griffin decided to study the book at length.

Stenography concerns the use of shorthand, a symbolic system of writing which increases the speed at which one is able to commit information to paper. First known to exist in 4 BC, in Greece, different types of short-hand are used all over the world.

Griffin felt the shorthand used in the book was very similar to that devised by John Willis, a clergyman and stenographer in England during the 1600s. In 1602, Willis had published “The Art of Stenography”, a practical system of taking notes via sym-bols. His own inspiration had been the work of Timothie Bright.

Bright was a physician and clergyman born in England in 1551. In 1588, he had published “Charachterie” a book of which only eight copies are currently known to exist.

In studying the book, the work of Willis and the writing of some famous Rhode Island figures, Griffin came to the conclusion that the shorthand in the book had been written by Samuel Gorton who founded Warwick and whose son was one of the town’s first clerks.

Aware that Gorton had taken notes on court proceedings, many which dealt with religious controversies, Griffin theorized those proceedings were probably what the notes concerned, although he had no idea whatsoever what specific information any of it conveyed.

It made a great deal of sense to Griffin, who was president of the Rhode Island Stenographer’s Association, that educated men such as Samuel Gorton and Roger Williams would use shorthand. It was known that Roger Williams had made notes inside a Bible belonging to John Eliot, a Puritan minister who devoted his life to introducing Christianity to the Native Amer-icans, regarding discussions of religion. In these writings, sym-bols were used in place of words. Yet, despite his theories and interest, Griffin was never able to crack the shorthand code in the aged book at the Warwick Town Hall.

In 2012, a small leather-bound book containing about 240 pag-es and titled “As Essay Towards the Reconciling of Differences Among Christians” was pulled off a shelf at the Brown Univer-sity Library. The margins of the aged book were filled with mys-terious symbols which were noted to have been penned by Roger Williams. Math major Lucas Mason-Brown studied the shorthand and eventually cracked the code, determining that 28 different symbols stood for English letters and sounds. The shorthand concerned differ-ent essays Williams had studied and his opposition to baptizing Native American children.

Today, 339 years after the death of our state’s founder, we are still waiting to hear all he had to say. Somewhere, there are undoubtedly more ancient books unopened for centuries, more symbol-filled margins, more history to blow the dust off of. 

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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