Rafa³ T. Prinke, rafalp@amu.edu.pl (30 December 2002)

Biographical information on E. L. Voynich and W. M. Voynich

This summary is based on the sources listed below, mostly on [1]. There is a lot more to be checked, especially Voynich archives housed in Grolier Club, NY and several biographical works in Russian. When there are conflicting dates, I give both. All corrections and additions are most welcome.

[1] Anne Fremantle, "The Russian Best-seller", History Today, Vol. 25 Issue 9 (September 1975), p. 629-637

Quite detailed information but unfortunately without references. Factual data on ELV and WMV seem to be mostly derived from Russian publications, especially an unnamed article or book by E. Taratuta (she was the chief Soviet "Voynichologist", author of many books and editor of ELV's collected works). Another major source was: Robin Bruce Lockhart, The Ace of Spies, London 1967, a biography of Sidney Reilly.

[2] Otto von Schleinitz, "Die Bibliophilen. W. M. Voynich", Zeitschrift für Bücherfreunde, 10 (1906/7), p. 481-487

A short article presenting the WMV's collection of early books (incunabula, first editions, books unknown to bibliographers) which was offered for sale in 1902. Contains one paragraph of biographical information, apparanetly obtained from WMV himself, as von Schleinitz was living in London and thanked WMV for help in writing the article.

[3] E. Millicent Sowerby, Rare People & Rare Books, London 1967 [2nd ed. Williamsburg, Va. 1987]

The author worked for WMV in London before WWI and her book contains a chapter on him, apparently with little biographical information [supplied by Dana Scott].

[4] Various Internet Web pages of varying reliability. Most informative on ELV are numerous pages in Russian and Ukrainian.

possibly interesting but unseen

[5] Evgeniya Aleksandrovna Taratuta, Ethel Lilian Voynich, Moscow 1960, 288 p. [in Russian]

[6] T. A. Shumakova, Ethel Lilian Voynich. Bio-bibliograficheskiy ukazatel, Moscow 1958, 44 p. [in Russian]


Wilfryd Micha³ Habdank-Woynicz or Wojnicz, later anglicized to: Wilfred or Wilfrid Michael Voynich [the "Habdank" part is the name of a Polish heraldic clan, misspelt by Fremantle [1] as "Babdank"], * 31.10.1865 [von Schleinitz says 1863 but others say 1865 and Fremantle [1] gives the exact date, probably from Russian sources], Kaunas (Kowno), Lithuania; + 1930 or 1931 [I cannot find the exact date; the year is usually given as 1930 but Rene Zandbergen has 1931 on his Web site; Fremantle [1] says that in 1930 "he was told he had only three months to live"], New York City; son of a Polish petty official.

He studied at the universities in Warsaw and St. Petersberg [2, 3], and graduated from Moscow University in chemistry, also becoming a licensed pharmacist [1]. He was active in Narodnaya Volia [Fremantle says he made friends with Stepniak in that organisation, but in the preceding paragraph and later she says they had not met before his arrival in London]. In 1885 he returned to Warsaw and joined the Polish organisation Proletarjat which had made a pact with Narodnaya Volia a year earlier. He was a stranger and spoke fluent Russian, so could gain favour of a renegade Pole, Lieut.-Col. Bielanowski of the gendarmerie, from whom he elicited the passwords for the planned escape of Piotr Bardowski (1846-1886) and Stanis³aw Kunicki (1861-1886), both former members of Narodnaya Volia and both sentenced to death, from the Citadel. Because of a traitor the scheme did not work, Bardowski and Kunicki were hanged on 28 January 1886, and Woynicz and others were arrested. On Easter Sunday 1887 he was looking through the window of his cell facing the gallows square and was attracted by a young, golden-haired girl in a black dress, not expecting she would be his wife.

In May 1887 [according to [2] it was in 1885 but this contradicts the chronology of the above events] he was sent to Eastern Siberia and in Irkutsk met the Karauloff family, who gave him Stepniak's address in London and asked to greet "Lily Boole" if he gets there. In 1890 he managed to escape and reached Hamburg, where he sold his waistcoat and glasses in order to buy a third class ticket for a small fruit boat to London, a herring and a piece of bread. After a stormy voyage he eventually reached London docks - "dirty, hungry and penniless" [1]. He spoke no English so was walking along Commercial Street and showing the piece of paper with Stepniak's address to passers-by until he met a Jewish student who spoke Russian and took him to Stepniak's house. There he recognized Ethel Lilian Boole as the girl he had seen in Warsaw - and she recognized him. A year later [1891 or 1892] they got married.


Ethel Lilian Voynich nee Boole, * 11.05.1864, Cork, Ireland; + 28.07.1960 New York City; the youngest of five daughters of George Boole, mathematician and philosopher, and Mary Everest, pedagogist, mathematician and spiritist.

She was seven months old when her father died, leaving her mother penniless with five small girls. Mary Everest Boole got a job as a librarian in Queen's College, where her maternal uncle Dr John Ryall was the professor of classical Greek and vice-principal. Due to their economic situation, when Ethel Lilian was eight [1872], she was sent to live with her paternal uncle Charles Boole, manager of a Lincolnshire coal-mine, whom she later described as "very religious and a sadist" beating his children. After two years [1874] and a nervous breakdown, she was allowed to return home. When she was eighteen [1882] she received a legacy which enabled her to study at the Hochschule der Musik in Berlin for three years [1882-1885]. It was there that she started reading political books, including Machivelli's Prince and Stepniak's Underground Russia, which impressed her very much.

On her return to London, she decided she would go to Russia and asked her friend Charlotte Wilson (1854-1944), a leading British anarchist and a member of the Fabian executive, to find someone who would teach her Russian. She suggested either her lover Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), the philosopher and ideologist of international anarchism, expelled from many countries before he finally settled near London in 1886 and founded the Freedom fortnightly which is still published [2002!], or Sergyei "Stepniak" Kravchinsky (1852-1895), who killed General Mezenzov, the chief of Russian secret police in 1878, fought in the revolutions in Italy and Herzegovina (sentenced to death there), and found refuge in London. Ethel Lilian chose Stepniak and they, together with his wife and her sister Lucy (who was also taught by him) became close friends. Stepniak called her "Boolochka" - which does not mean "little doll" as Fremantle says [1] but "little roll" and is an obvious pun on her family name. Stepniak also became a major influence on her literary work and often wrote introductions for her published books and translations. She was also enchanted by Kropotkin and later said that he and Enrico Malatesta were "the only two real saints" she had ever known.

Two years later [1887] Ethel Lilian went to Russia. On her way to St. Petersburg she stayed in Warsaw where on Easter Sunday she was looking at the Warsaw Citadel, not expecting that her future husband is a prisoner inside. While in Russia, she stayed with the sister of Stepniak's wife - Preskovia, wife of Vasili Karauloff, who was imprisoned in the Schlizeburg fortress - and earned her living teaching English. In the summer they went to the province of Pskov to give free medical help to peasants (Preskovia was a doctor). During the next summer [1888] she spent teaching English to the children of Tsar's chamerlain near Voronezh and in another manor house where she went to see the total eclipse of the sun on August 19.

On 14 May 1889 she took part in the funeral of the writer M. Saltykov-Schedrin and ten days later [May 24] left St. Petersburg, after seeing the Karauloff family setting off for Siberia, where Vasili was now exiled. Ethel Lilian returned to London, "smuggling a manuscript out for Stepniak" [1].

Back in London she and Stepniak founded the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom, was its council member, and helped editing Free Russia monthly. She met many leading revolutionaries and socialists, including Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx's daughter Eleonor, George Bernard Shaw (who later produced a dramatised version of The Gadfly), William Morris, Oscar Wilde, as well as Russian exiles including G. V. Plekhanov, N. M. Minski and P. A. L. Luniev, many of whom became her personal friends.

One night late in 1890 a Jewish student brought to Stepniak's house a Pole, whom he met walking along Commercial Road in East End and holding out a piece of paper with Stepniak's address on it. He spoke no English but explained in Russian that he was a political prisoner who escaped from Siberia. He asked Ethel Lilian if she had been in Warsaw on Easter Sunday 1887 - and said he saw her from the Citadel. A year later [1891 or 1892] they were married.


The Voynichs were the closest collaborators of Stepniak, Wilfred using the pseudonym Ivan Klecevsky. They printed and sent to Russia revolutionary literature, as well as translations of Marx and Engels. Ethel Lilian worked mostly on translations of Russian classics and modern authors into English, the first published collection being Stories from Garshin (1893), followed by collected pamphlets on nihilism by Stepniak in 1894.

In 1894 Ethel Lilian Voynich went on a mission to Lvov, to make new contacts for smuggling illegal literature into Russia. There she made friends with Ukrainian writers and revolutionists (including Ivan Franko and Mihail Pavlyk) and learned the Ukrainian language in order to translate Taras Shevchenko's poetry and folk songs. Later she apparently also learned Polish as she translated Chopin's letters published in 1931.

On her return to London in 1895 she met another Russian exile who called himself Sidney Reilly (1874-1925), originally Georgi (then Sigmund) Rosenblum, born in Russian Poland as an illegitimate son of a Polish wife of a Tsarist colonel and a Jewish doctor (Rosenblum) from Vienna. He emigrated to South America and then was brought to London by one major Fothergill. Later he was recruited by MI6 and became one of the most famous British agents, spying on Germany and Russia, where he was sent to assassinate Lenin in 1918. On his last mission he was caught and executed in Russia in 1925. A year earlier he was involved in forging the Zinoviev letter and getting it published in the Daily Mail, which brought the defeat of the Labour Party in the 1924 General Election.

Mrs. Voynich and her lover went to Italy, telling her husband she was working in the archives there. They visited Elba, Rome and Florence, where they spent the whole summer. Reilly told her about his early life and became the model for her most important novel The Gadfly which was published in the summer of 1897 in the USA (June) and England (September), and later became the top best-seller and compulsory reading in Soviet Russia.

In December 1895 Stepniak was killed by a train and the Voynichs withdrew from active participation in revolutionary movements.

In 1898 Wilfred Voynich was in Italy, where he met Erla Rodakiewicz [in her 1945 letter to Strong she says he was one of her closest friends]. In the same year he published the first of his London catalogues - and by 1902 there were nine of them, with 1117 consecutively numbered pages, including many facsimiles (some in colour), maps (some in colour), foldouts, and numerous illustrations. The sixth catalogue included an index by Francis C. Weale to the first six parts. Part one was reprinted again in 1900. Part eight was subtitled "This List Consists Solely of Unknown and Lost Books" - it must be the collection described by von Schleinitz [2]. Interestingly, this flood of catalogues stopped in 1902 and it seems he did not issue any further ones.

So Wilfred Voynich became a bookdealer and in 1902 was described as "well known", with his bookshop at Soho Square No. 1, London, where he offered for sale his collection of extremely rare books - incunabula, first editions and items unknown to bibliographers [2]. He remained in contact with George Bernard Show, who wrote to him in December 1907: "Most books are as dead as mutton eighteen months after they are born" [1].

This transformation of a Polish revolutionary who did not speak English and arrived in London in such a miserable condition in 1890, then worked for the anarchist and nihilist organisation at least until 1896, into an internationally recognized dealer of rare books in 1898 is hard to explain but no additional information on this period is available. Was his 1898 visit in Italy a breakthrough? Where did he get the money to make such incredible investments (hundreds of rare books, expensive catalogues, bookshop at Soho Square)?

In the spring of 1914 Wilfred Voynich with his secretary Anne Nill moved to New York. His wife stayed in England and joined them only in 1920.

The New York City Business Directory for 1930 lists him under Booksellers as: Voynich, Wilfred M. 33 W. 42d. He died in 1930 or 1931, while his wife lived until 1960 together with Anne Nill, who died later the same year [1] or in 1961 [Kraus bought the VMS on 12 July 1961 when she apparently was still alive?].


The mystery of Voynich MS purchase