(Books #6: August 4, 1999
Only rarely have I heard my mother admit that a daily newspaper cryptoquiz was too difficult for her to solve.
"Well, that one's too much for me!"
"You couldn't solve it?" I ask over the top of the TV page.
"No! It was a little too short. Not long enough to pick out enough patterns."
There usually follows a discussion of her attempts, her dead ends, the many options that she saw in the puzzle.
"You try it, Son. You'd really enjoy it."
But the cryptoquiz and I will probably never be close friends. My mind runs toward the Jumble–organizing chaos into meaning. I would never imagine I'd do well deciphering even the simplest of those codes.
But many people are good at codebreaking. In Mom's circle of friends there will always be a solution by someone. I can imagine a scene in an office in a dank, smoky cellar. Mom and all her friends are wearing green visors and systematically drinking coffee, eating cookies, and breaking enemy codes and secret messages to alert our leaders of impending disasters.
I don't believe the newspaper puzzle page editors realize the impact their cryptoquizzes have on a huge audience of senior ladies who doggedly pursue and vanquish these secret writings.
I've been intrigued with secret writing since I was in grade
school. Those were network radio days, and that meant heroic stories
of action and danger and offers of secret decoder rings, decoder belt
buckles (which glowed in the dark) and enough other junior spy
equipment to keep life very interesting for the young.
"Master Tommy Hinckley
653 Egan Street
My "contact," the mailman, had come and gone. The real adventure was about to begin.
Remember writing messages in lemon juice, which, when dried, was invisible but turned brown when heated (it still works)? Remember "Pig Latin," a goofy kid's language like a code? Remember Virginia Dare and The Lost Colony–the only key to their mysterious disappearance the word "croatan" cut into the trunk of a tree? All these stories and many more have kept me interested in codes and secret writing throughout my life.
There is one story, though, that is the ultimate secret writing story. It's a story of madness, isolation, buried pirate treasure, and secret writing. It's all wrapped in a package very expertly by a master of fiction. It's one of a very few stories that gets more exciting with age and that I always wish were much, much longer...
The Gold BugEdgar Allen Poe
Poe's tale of treasure and mystery, though written in very
mannered 19th Century English, begins very quickly. The author, a
gentlemen of some means, pays an overdue visit to his misanthropic
friend, William Legrand, at his shack on Sullivan's Island on the
South Carolina coast.
Even though the island is usually deserted, Legrand has moved here from New Orleans with his man Jupiter, a manumitted negro slave. He's a learned man, but he doesn't seem to have much interest in reading, preferring to spend his days hunting and fishing and collecting insects from the island and nearby marshes.
On the day of the author's visit, Legrand and Jupiter have found an unknown species of scarab, which Jupiter insists on calling "the goole bug."
Legrand describes the beetle to his friend by drawing a picture of it on a scrap of rough paper he pulls from his pocket. But the author sees Legrand's drawing as significantly different from Legrand's description of the bug. To him it more nearly resembles a skull–to Legrand, no such thing. He grabs the drawing from his friend and looks again at what he has drawn. His reaction is violent. Is he sick? Is the seclusion driving him mad?
A month later, in the afternoon, Jupiter appears at the author's apartment bearing an urgent, somewhat frantic letter asking him to come back to the island and assist with an important project. As he steps into the little sailboat with Jupiter he notices a new scythe and shovel in the stern.
They arrive at Legrand's shack about four. He's planned an expedition for that very night which, he says, will end his strange distraction once and for all. The object of the night's work is to be a treasure hunt on the mainland nearby. Jupiter is certain Legrand has been bitten by "the goole bug." He's heard of the danger of that all his life.
In spite of the author's attempt to change Legrand's mind, the expedition is on; in a few hours, just at sunset, they find themselves at the foot of a huge tulip tree in the center of an oak grove in very rough country. The secret to the treasure is up the tree, where Legrand sends Jupiter.
After several hours of unsuccessful digging at a spot marked by Legrand, he is terribly disappointed. The three gather their tools and prepare to return to the island. Suddenly Legrand, in an angry fit, questions Jupiter about a measurement he made while he was in the tree. The old negro has made an error! Legrand's rage instantly turns to joy.
They move the mark for the digging spot to a place only a few yards from the first and begin digging again. As they dig their dog suddenly seems to go mad. He howls wildly, leaps into the hole, and begins to claw furiously at the ground. In a few moments he's uncovered a skeleton wearing a moldy woolen coat with metal buttons. In a few more minutes of digging, the trio uncovers the top of an iron-bound wooden chest, too heavy for them to lift.
Hours later, back at Legrand's shack the treasure is counted. The end of a successful treasure hunt! But Poe has more for us–the story of Legrand's clues to the treasure and his hunt for its landmarks.
The Gold Bug is the definitive treasure tale. To make it even better Poe includes the detailed story of the secret code and Legrand's solution. It's no coincidence that Poe is one of the few Americans who's written anything serious about cryptography; his essays on secret writing remain to show us his genius.
I wanted to learn more about using and breaking codes, so I bought several books on the subject. Cryptanalysis is another of those few serious works on cryptography written by an American. Ms. Gaines's book is a very thorough analysis of known cipher patterns, deciphering them, and enciphering them. Her examples are varied and very detailed, and her book is filled with tables and illustrations. She spends a lot of time on code presented in groups, an important code transmission method.
But the book is a little deep for me; I have only a very general
interest in cryptography. What is valuable in her book is her
bibliography and her collection of useful appendices. She has
included tables of letter frequency in various languages, and an
excellent discussion of solving ciphers of unknown types.
Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing
Gardner's book is a less erudite, more general study of codes
and ciphers. It is a very practical book for a beginner like me. He
discusses lots of types of ciphers with problem exercises to solve
(answers included!) Gardner also includes a chapter on secret
writing–basically invisible inks of many kinds. This is a fun subject
which I'd have enjoyed immensely as a youngster.
Gardner has included another very odd chapter on sending secret messages in various physical ways–knotted strings, paper strips, writing on playing cards and on creases on folded paper. There are lots of strange, but workable surprise methods of passing coded messages.
As an example of one of Gardner's discussions I was able to devise a very simple way to make cryptoquizzes for my mother and her friends to solve. I call it the day code. First write the letters of the alphabet in a straight line:
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n...etc.On the line beneath the first begin with today's name, written with no repeating letters. Finish the line with the rest of the alphabet, being sure not to repeat any letters already used:
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n...etc. s a t u r d y b c e f g h i...etc.The result is a simple table that can be used to encipher and decipher this substitution code. For example, "bad dad" can become "asu usu" or "hbf fbf." Even I could do it.
The simple codes in Gardner's book can be used as games or for
simple messages for fun. Obviously, a skilled codebreaker would have
little trouble breaking them. Mom and her group were, of course,
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