Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

You can’t mail your bomb and have it too: How a common proverb helped catch the Unabomber

Have you ever wondered about what exactly it means to “have your cake and eat it too?” Without giving it much thought, I always thought it had something to do with Marie Antoinette, to whom another well-known cake related saying is (incorrectly) attributed.

Unabomber Ted Kaczynski

Unabomber Ted Kaczynski

I was way wrong, of course. The first known instance of the phrase in print dates back to 1546, when a delightfully old-timey version appeared in the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. A more recognizable version popped up in 1611: “A man cannot eat his cake and haue it stil.”

So the phrase, it turns out, isn’t “have your cake and eat it too” but rather, “eat your cake and have it too.” This makes sense, because while you can eat a cake that you have, you can’t have a cake that you’ve eaten.

What does this have to do with crime, you ask? Well, one person that does know the correct way to say this proverb is Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, who mailed out a series of homemade bombs that killed three and injured 23 others. In section 185 of his dense and lengthy manifesto, Kaczynski wrote: “As for the negative consequences of eliminating industrial society — well, you can’t eat your cake and have it too. To gain one thing you have to sacrifice another.” A letter written by Kaczynski was found in the home of his mother, who taught Ted and his brother David the correct form of the proverb. That letter, too, used to correct eat/have order. Poring over the manifesto and Kaczynski’s writings with David’s help, FBI agents helped identify the Unabomber based on this and other unusual turns of phrase.

Ted Kaczynski: The Unabomber

The Unabomber’s Manifesto

Criminal diaries: Caught on paper

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