Magazine article The Spectator

'Prisoners, Lovers and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to Al-Qa'eda', by Kristie Macrakis - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Prisoners, Lovers and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to Al-Qa'eda', by Kristie Macrakis - Review

Article excerpt

Prisoners, Lovers and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to al-Qa'eda Kristie Macrakis

Yale University Press, pp.377, £18.99, ISBN: 9780300179255

John Gerard, a Jesuit priest immured in the Tower of London in 1597, and tortured by being hung from manacles until he temporarily lost the use of his arms, was a resourceful as well as courageous fellow.

Dependent on the kindness of his jailer, a warder named Bonner, for such intimacies as washing, dressing and shaving, Gerard also persuaded the turnkey to bring him a bag of oranges. Regaining the use of his hands, he employed the fruit for two purposes: to fashion crosses and rosaries from the discarded peel, and to make invisible ink from the juice.

Using this secret script, and writing with a toothpick, Gerard made contact with Catholic co-religionists outside the Tower's walls, and arranged for them to 'spring' him and another imprisoned Catholic, John Arden, in one of the Tower's most spectacularly successful escapes. Warder Bonner, converted by the force of Gerard's personality, joined his former charges on the run.

This benign use of secret writing is just one of scores of similarly entertaining stories told by the American academic Kristie Macrakis in her beguilingly informative and sweeping survey of hidden communication from the classical world to today's al-Qa'eda terrorists, who use un-Islamic porn to conceal their murderous messages in microdots.

The libidinous Roman poet Ovid was long thought to have made the earliest surviving written reference to invisible ink in his manual The Art of Love . He recommended young lovers to use 'new milk' made visible with a sprinkling of coal dust, as a sure method of keeping secret amours safe from prying eyes.

Macrakis, citing Herodotus, shows that secret writing was particularly favoured by the Medes and Persians. A revolt by Greeks living under Persian rule in Miletus on the Ionian coast, for example, was triggered by an illiterate slave sent to the town with a message that the time was ripe for a rising tattooed on his skull and hidden by his growing hair. As Macrakis dryly remarks,

In addition to the weeks needed for the slave's hair to grow, the trip on foot to the coast must have taken at least three months, but what the plan lacked in urgency it made up in effectiveness: the revolt was a success. …

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