Upside Down and Backwards

Sometimes it’s not what you write: it’s how you write it. Here are some famous people who wrote or drew in peculiar ways.

Robert Ripley

A famous globetrotter in his day, cartoonist ROBERT RIPLEY scoured the world for snake charmers, two-headed calves and other outlandish items for his “Believe It Or Not!” newspaper feature. (The feature later moved to radio and then television, where it endures today.) Ripley had a personal quirk which would have qualified for his own column: he always drew his “Believe It Or Not!” cartoons upside-down. (The cartoons were upside-down, not Ripley himself.) Ripley was an odd duck in other ways: the biography from his San Francisco museum also notes that Ripley “collected cars, but never learned to drive” and was so fascinated with Asian culture that for a time he signed his cartoons “Rip Li.”

Leonardo da Vinci

LEONARDO da VINCI was a one-man “believe it or not” extravaganza: he sculpted, engineered, studied the human body, the sky and the earth (he was a crack geologist), and in his spare time he managed to dash off the Mona Lisa andThe Last Supper, two of the world’s most famous paintings. Leonardo kept copious notes to himself in a distinctly odd and secretive style: he wrote backwards, from right to left on the page. The style is often called “mirror script”: when held to a mirror, Leonardo’s pages can be read in a normal left-to-right fashion.

(Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci in red chalk, circa 1510.)

Samuel Pepys

Also known for his tricky script was SAMUEL PEPYS. A naval administrator and prominent member of English society, Pepys kept up a tremendously detailed personal diary from 1660-69, with colorful notes on himself, his friends and the world around him. Pepys wrote the diaries in a convoluted shorthand — possibly for speed, possibly to hide details from his wife (since Pepys cheerfully noted his dalliances with other women). Pepys’ scribbles are often called a “secret code,” but in fact he was using Shelton’s shorthand, an obscure stenographic system first published by Thomas Shelton in 1635. It wasn’t until the 1820s that scholars located Pepys’ diaries, deciphered the writing and realized the goldmine of information they represented.

(Image of Samuel Pepys shorthand from the first edition of the Rev. John Smith’s 1825 edition of Pepys’s diary, via Wikimedia Commons.)

James Garfield

President JAMES GARFIELD may be best-known for being assassinated, but he also had a remarkable personal talent: he could write in two classical languages at once. According to a 1998 article by Tracy Lee Simmons in the National Review, “James Garfield took his early education at a modest school in Ohio where he drank heady draughts of Homer, Herodotus, Livy, Tacitus, and Virgil; it was said that, years later, the ambidextrous Garfield, on hearing a sentence in English, could translate it onto paper, one hand into Greek, the other into Latin.” It seems to have been something of a parlor trick, but one grounded in scholarship: Garfield taught Latin and Greek at Hiram College in Ohio before beginning his political career.

(Photo of James Garfield in his uniform as a Union general, taken by Mathew Brady sometime between 1855-65. Photo from the Brady-Handy Collection at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Digital ID: LC-BH82- 3824 B)

Next: Doctors Who Write

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