Uncovering Secret Messages
Among my many interests as a boy was cryptography—the study of codes, ciphers, and other secret writings. I sent and received nighttime Morse code messages by flashlight between neighbors’ houses and mine, made and solved cryptograms, used my forensic chemistry lab to make various invisible inks and developers, and even compiled a treatise on the subject (Nickell n.d.). I was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” and later by Helen Fouché Gaines’s textbook Cryptanalysis (1956), among other writings.
When I grew up, I renewed my interest in secret messages through investigating a number of historical mysteries as well as during ten years of research for my magnum opus, Pen, Ink, and Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective (1990). Thomas Parrish was once kind enough to pen an inscription in a copy of his excellent book, The American Codebreakers (1986), “To Joe Nickell—a cracker of all ciphers.” He gives me too much credit, but here, anyway, are abstracts of some of my interesting cases, from the trivial to the profound.
One little secret message I came across in an antique store had already been revealed. It was on a postcard, penned in tiny script in the little box reserved for the postage stamp. The stamp had been carefully removed, obviously by the recipient, exposing the hidden writing. I was so taken by the find that I searched the remaining large collection of postcards in the store and found a few others—all clearly from the same sender.
The hidden-under-the-stamp messages were simply miniscule love notes. One consisted of rows of little X’s (a popular shorthand for kisses), while another asked, “Do you you still love this bad boy?” The cards, postmarked between 1911 and 1913 were addressed to a young lady at a Virginia girls’ school (Nickell 1990, 177). Charming!
Another postcard, found on a different occasion, bore a curious-looking script. However, it proved to be an innocuous message, easily read by noting the picture side of the card. It depicted a lady before a mirror and was accompanied by the printed couplet, “This message is for you my dear—/Your looking glass will make it clear” (Nickell 1990, 177). (For a discussion of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous mirror handwriting, see my “Deciphering Da Vinci’s Real Codes,” Nickell 2007).
A ‘Ju-Ju’ Message
Sometimes a message is hidden in plain sight. In researching the case of a devil-baby mummy that I encountered in a Toronto curio shop and that later proved bogus, I came across a published photo of a pair of similar creatures, their arms folded in the repose of death. A sign affixed to the creatures’ coffin proclaimed: “These shrunken mummified figures were found in a crude tomblike cave on the island of Haiti in 1740 by a party of French marines. They are supposed to be the remains of a lost tribe of ‘Ju-Ju’ or Devil Men—who, after death, followed a custom of shrinking & mummifying the dead. Are they real? We don’t know, but . . . X-Rays showed skin, horn, & hooves human!” Astonishingly, however, there was no mention of skeletons, suggesting that—like the Toronto devil-baby mummy—the figures were fabricated (Nickell 2011, 148–149).
Painted beneath the sign were these mumbo-jumbo words:
YENOH M’I DLOC!
My cryptanalytical interests were piqued, and I soon divined the meaning. Can you decipher it yourself before reading further?
I discovered that the text was the simplest form of a transposition cipher, one in which the actual letters of the secret message are rearranged in some fashion. In this instance, it is only necessary to read each word backward in turn to reveal a witty commentary on the creatures’ nakedness: “Honey I’m Cold!” Exclamation point indeed.
In 1985 my old friend, Canadian writer and bibliophile George Fetherling, sent me copies of some pages from a small 1948 book titled SENATOR, the text of which was printed in a strange sort of code or cipher (Figure 1). George wanted to know what this intriguing work was all about—and so did I!
I set to work, immersing myself in the mysterious text. Soon, I recognized that at least some of the apparent words were indeed words, only they had been abbreviated—mostly by removing the vowels. (Thus whr=“where,” stn=“station,” etc.). Also, some consonants were dropped, particularly double ones (so that rgt=“right” and al=“all”). In addition, some common words were replaced by symbols (such as “£” for “Lodge” and @ for “and” [not for “at,” which was itself “a,” although “a” could also represent “a” itself.) Finally, some of the abbreviations were just acronyms (hence, MA=“Master at Arms”). In short, the text is a very simple form of code. (A code consists of substitutes not just for letters, as in a simple cipher, but for groups of letters, words, or even entire phrases or concepts.)
In beginning to decode the text, and reading phrases and whole clauses (“My station is at the right and front of the Cc [Chancelor?]),” I saw that it concerned a lodge, various officers, and elements of ritual and mystery. I suspected it was the product of some secret order such as the Freemasons, soon realizing that “KOP” in the text clearly referred to a similar fraternal and benevolent society, the Knights of Pythias. This was founded in 1864 in Washington, DC. (“Knights” 1960; Kennedy 1904). Various terms in the text are consistent with Pythian use. (Although the book lacked publishing information, and a standard bibliographic search was fruitless, for this publication CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga was later able to use online sources to confirm the KOP origin.)
The book’s title page bears a brief message of a different type. It reads:
NOITINOMDA: Sliated laiceps
rof koob eulb tlusnoc ot
dehsinomda si hturt retfa
rekees dna tneduts esolc
Can you decipher it? Quickly cover the following explanation and try your hand.
You should have little trouble, since you have already been introduced to simple transposition ciphers like this. However, instead of reading each word backward in turn, you begin with the word in all capitals (which is, of course, “admonition”), then go to the end and read the whole sentence backward. Case closed.
So far, we have looked at codes and transposition ciphers. However, the majority of the secret messages I have come across in my work as a historical investigator are what are known as simple substitution ciphers. Popularly mislabeled “codes,” these are created by replacing the letters of the original text, which is known as the “plaintext,” with substitutes—such as other letters, symbols, or the like—resulting in what is termed the “ciphertext.”
I have encountered—and deciphered—many such ciphertexts, written on postcards and greeting cards, in old sentiment albums, and elsewhere (Nickell 1990, 176–77). Solving a simple substitution cipher is usually pretty straightforward. (See Nickell 1990, 177; Gaines 1956, 69–87; also, the previously mentioned Poe and Conan Doyle stories describe the rudiments of decipherment.)
Here is one message from an old autograph album:
L5CY 1992 P42 9476h M3ddl2 64w9 B457b49 C4 K2965cky
If you are an experienced cryptanalyst you might want to stop here and give your skills a try.
As it happened, however, the message was accompanied by a partial “key”:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 a e i o u t r s n
In brief, numbers are substituted for certain frequently used letters (vowels, and four of the most–used consonants), while the remaining letters are unchanged. Now you will have no trouble deciphering the message.
If you solved this without the key, you probably noted that the last word was offset, and so it might be the name of a state (on the assumption that such a text in an autograph album might represent a name and address). That word, omitting the numbers, was “K——cky,” and that could only be one state. Similarly “M-ddl-” looks like the word Middle, so the cryptanalyst could begin to construct a key without having been provided one. This message reads: “Lucy Anne Poe, North Middle Town, Bourbon Co., Kentucky.”
Most such texts are similarly mundane, although they are still fun to solve and help one sharpen his or her cryptanalytical skills. However, some are of a more serious nature. Sometimes a code or cipher even promises to lead to a fabulous treasure, as in the next case.
Oak Island’s ‘Cipher Stone’
What is considered by some to be among “the great mysteries of the world” (Crooker 1978, 7), derives from a mysterious shaft on Oak Island, Nova Scotia. It was allegedly discovered in 1795 when three young men came upon a shallow depression over which, hanging from a tree limb, was an old tackle block. The trio believed some treasure lay below but they were never able to recover it. Neither has anyone since, although many have tried, only to be thwarted by water flooding the “Money Pit” (as it came to be known) by means of “pirate tunnels” and other problems. Still, zealots are convinced there is a treasure to be claimed, possibly the French crown jewel or Shakespeare’s manuscripts, even perhaps the legendary Holy Grail (Nickell 2001).
Reportedly, sometime in the early nineteenth century (different dates are given), a treasure-hunting consortium dug up a flat stone that bore a cryptic message. This “cipher stone” takes its place with other such reports—of “strange markings” carved on the old tree (Finnan 1997, 28) and even of “a tier of smooth stones . . . with figures and letters cut on them” (quoted in Crooker 1978, 24). No photo exists of any of these, and the cipher stone—assuming it actually existed—has been missing since about 1919. However, its text has allegedly been preserved, although in various forms and differing decipherments. Zoologist-turned-epigrapher Barry Fell thought the inscription was ancient Coptic, its message urging people to remember God lest they perish (Finnan 1997, 148–49).
In fact, the cipher text as we now have it has been correctly deciphered—and redeciphered and verified. It is written in a simple-substitution cipher (reproduced in Crooker 1993, 23). I have reconstructed what the cipher stone might have looked like, providing my drawing as an inset to my Oak Island “treasure map” (Figure 2), based on several sources and my own visit to the island in 1999. My independent decipherment, which tallies with those of several modern investigators (Crooker 1993, 19–24), reads, “FORTY FEET BELOW TWO MILLION POUNDS ARE BURIED.” Although he is convinced there was an original inscribed stone, “mentioned in all the early accounts of the Onslow Company’s expedition,” William S. Crooker states (1993, 24): “Obviously the inscription as we know it today is a hoax—a modern invention deliberately made simple to lure potential investors. It is highly unlikely that the originators of the Money Pit left a coded message giving the amount and depth of buried treasure.”
I agree. My own longtime investigation of the Oak Island mystery, however, indicated that the “Money Pit” and “pirate tunnels” were simply natural formations. Moreover, much of the Oak Island saga—especially certain reported actions and alleged discoveries—tally with the “Secret Vault” allegory of Freemasonry. Indeed, the search for the Oak Island treasure “vault” has been carried out largely by prominent Nova Scotia Freemasons, and it appears that the whole affair is an insiders’ one linked to high-level Masonic rituals (Nickell 2001, 219–34).
The foregoing by no means exhaust my examples. The interested reader might wish to consider the mysterious inscription of the Yarmouth Stone in Nova Scotia, which I was permitted to examine in 1999 (Nickell 2001, 190–193), or the infamously unsolved Beale ciphers that tell of a treasure lost since 1817 (Nickell with Fischer 1992, 53–67), among others. More cases no doubt await.
Crooker, William S. 1978. The Oak Island Quest. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelet.
———. 1993. Oak Island Gold. Halifax, N.S.: Nimbus.
Finnan, Mark. 1997. Oak Island Secrets, rev. ed. Halifax, N.S.: Formac.
Gaines, Helen Fouché. 1956. Cryptanalysis: A Study of Ciphers and Their Solution. New York: Dover.
Kennedy, William D. 1904. Pythian History. Chicago: Pythian Hist. Publ. Co.
Knights of Pythias. 1960. Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 18:804.
Masonic Heirloom Edition Holy Bible. 1964. Wichita, Kansas: Heirloom Bible Publishers.
Nickell, Joe. 1990. Pen, Ink, and Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
———. 2001. Real-Life X-Files. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
———. 2007. Deciphering Da Vinci’s real codes. Skeptical Inquirer 31(3) (May/June): 23–25.
———. N.d. Secret Messages. Unpublished typescript; see “Cryptographer,” online at www.joenickell.com/Cryptographer/cryptographer1.html.
Nickell, Joe, with John F. Fischer. 1992. Mysterious Realms: Probing Paranormal, Historical, and Forensic Enigmas. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
Parrish, Thomas. 1986. The American Codebreakers: The U.S. Role in Ultra. Paperback ed. Chelsea, MI: Scarborough House, 1991.