Evidence for Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang…?

I’ve previously blogged a number of times about Bernardin Nagéon de l’Estang: the short version is that I have yet to see a single piece of external evidence that he genuinely existed. A man with the right name did exist in the right place, but some 25 years too early for the dates: and so the reasonable – but as yet entirely unproven – presumption is that we should be looking for an unrecorded son of this man sharing his father’s name. The man certainly had several sons, not all of which are recorded… but that’s as far as we have been able to get.

The reason anybody cares about him is that he wrote (in French, translated here) that “…at our last battle with a large British frigate on the shores of Hindustan, the captain was wounded and on his deathbed confided to me his secrets and his papers to retrieve considerable treasure buried in the Indian Ocean; and, having first made sure that I was a Freemason, asked me to use it to arm privateers against the English.” Secrets and papers which treasure hunters have been speculating wildly about ever since.

In a post from April 2015 [which I managed to miss until very recently],
Emmanuel Mezino blogged about the evidence he had managed to dig up about Nagéon de l’Estang. From internal evidence, Manu reasons that the event where Nagéon de l’Estang claimed to have gained possession of “secrets” and “papers” from a dying French Freemason sea captain must surely have happened prior to 1789 [though personally I’m not so sure his logic holds]; and so Manu then winds the historical clock back to 1781-1783 when, in a series of five battles between Admiral Hughes’s squadron and Admiral le Bailli de Suffren’s squadron off the coast of Cuddalore, three French sea-captains died. Manu lists these as:

* The Chevalier Eleonore Perier de Salvert (whose life and Freemasonry connections are ably described here), commander of Le Flamand [50 guns];
* Captain Dupas de la Mancelière, Captain of the Ajax [64 guns];
* Capitain Dien, Commander of the fire-ship [probably 0 guns] launched under the orders of Capitain De Langle of Le Sévère [64 guns].

Manu thinks it probable that it was the Chevalier de Salvert whom Bernardin Nagéon de l’Estang was alluding to: and opening up H.C.M. Austen’s trusty “Sea Fights and Corsairs of the Indian Ocean” (which specifically covers this series of sea-battles in Chapter V), we find a report (p.188) of de Salvert’s death noted by William Hickey, who had met de Salvert several times on board his ship in January of that year:

“I was greatly concerned to to hear that in this action [the fifth and final sea battle] my worthy and respected friend the Chevalier de Salvert lost his life, being cut in two by a cannon-ball on the quarter-deck of the Flamand, while gallantly fighting his ship and encouraging her crew to use their utmost exertions to ensure success. I truly grieved at his death, notwithstanding he died fighting against my country, but that was no fault of his, and I firmly believe a better man never lived, such are the dire and lamentable consequences of war, the best men often being the most unfortunate.”

[Taken from “Memoirs of William Hickey”, published by Messrs. Hurst and Blackett, Ltd, but I’d be more interested in reading this in context in the original Vol III (or possibly Vol II?) than the abridged later version “The Prodigal Rake”.]

All the same, there must surely be many more accounts of this highly-respected Chevalier’s death in the archives yet to be found…

Manu goes on in a second post to recount how he found references to a certain Hélène Nagéon de Lestang, who married the creole poet Antoine Bertin at her stepfather’s property in Sainte-Domingue, and links this to the (nearby) 1770 birthplace of (the very real) Jean Marius Justin Nagéon de Lestang.

So that’s as far as Manu got with normal archival research, i.e. not really anywhere substantial. Close, but no cigar.

But then he pulls a gigantic rabbit from his hat, the testimony of Ali Loumi Ben Kace, as given in treasure hunter Patrice Hoffschir’s (2002) Bourbon l’̂île aux tresors:

“One day, in a sea port in Sicily, I drank too much: and woke up at sea on a pirate ship owned by Bernard Nagéon. I spent more than two years on this ship. […] In the Indian Ocean, we fought with two English corvettes, but we had to flee by night along the coast of Bourbon Island, with a broken main mast and sails, and with four holes torn in the hull. We were then stranded on a reef; and after throwing all the ballast overboard, the boat escaped the reef and we landed on the island. But the hull was holed on a rock and we were all forced to land there. Bernard Nagéon became almost crazy. Despite the waves, he ordered everyone to save what was possible. We managed to get a big chest and a barrel of gold ashore with the captain. […] I saw Bernard himself making marks in the lava rock: a heart and a “B9″ shape – everything is hidden there because both holes are now resealed. We left three weeks later on the galley of François Boivin of Saint-Malo, Bernard leaving everything concealed lest Boivin steals it all. […]. ”

Which, to my ears, sounds utterly peachy and completely made up. But… might it be true? There’s a little more on Hoffschir here, who goes treasure hunting with “une grande dose de spiritualité”. Hmmm…

“The Cipher In Room 214″…

For fans of the Somerton Man, there would seem to be no obvious end to the list of similar puzzling cold cases to snoop around. One I found recently first properly surfaced in October 2005 in an article by Carol Smith in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called “The cipher in room 214” (though in the sense of a non-person ‘cipher’, rather than a cryptographic cipher).

This is the case of the woman who put her name down as ‘Mary Anderson’ when she signed in to Seattle’s Hotel Vintage Park on the 9th October 1996. As Smith wrote:-

She made no phone calls. Ordered nothing from room service. Instead, in some unknown sequence, she put out the “Do Not Disturb” sign, applied pink Estée Lauder lipstick and combed her short auburn hair. She wrote a note on hotel stationery, opened her Bible to the 23rd Psalm and mixed some cyanide into a glass of Metamucil.

Then she drank it.


The note said:

To whom it may concern: I have decided to end my life and no one is responsible for my death. Mary Anderson.

“P.S. I have no relatives. You can use my body as you choose.

Like our acquaintance from a certain South Australian beach, the woman had no identification – no keys, no credit cards, no tags on her luggage, no fingerprint match. The name, New York address and phone number she had given were all false. And every tiny cluette, as with the Somerton Man, subsequently led the investigation nowhere.

To read more, there is a Doe Network entry, and – as you long-numbed Netizens doubtless already expected – a Mary Anderson cold case Facebook page, where recent postings highlight the suggestion that she may have been Mary Corinne Amos.


Though this is a possibility web researchers have long looked at, it all feels quite strange to me. Surely dental records and/or autopsy photographs should be able to rule this out or in very quickly? But this seems never to have happened, there’s no clear reason why not.

By way of comparison: in 2014, thanks to the Doe Network, a different Mary Anderson (Mary Lynn Anderson) was identified after three decades, closing an equally long-standing cold case. But it doesn’t seem obvious to me why Mary Corinne Amos hasn’t yet been forensically tested against the Room 214 ‘Mary Anderson’: so perhaps I’m missing something.

I don’t know: even though the ‘Mary Anderson’ and Somerton Man cold cases share similar problems of ‘taglessness’ (for want of a better word), I find the latter extremely hard to accept as a suicide. And that’s not because of a lack of suicide note (which are normally left in only a minority of instances), but rather because of a lack of… a whole load of different things. His death seems neither pre-planned, nor deliberate, nor misadventurous, nor even opportunistic. In that respect, the two cases seem to me to be worlds apart.

PS: when I tried to find ‘Mary Anderson’ on NamUs, I got absolutely nowhere: the cold case seems to have dropped off NamUs’s database. :-(

“Le Flibustier Mysterieux” microproject…?

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a Swiss book publishing website that was planning to re-release “Le Flibustier Mysterieux” in November this year. However, when I tried to find the website again a few days later, it had disappeared off the face of the Internet, which was a bit odd.

Then again, given that Charles de la Roncière wrote “Le Flibustier Mysterieux” in 1934 and died in 1941 (i.e. more than 70 years ago), his book would now seem to be out of copyright according to all the public domain copyright flowcharts I’ve looked at. So it would seem that there’s no obvious reason not to republish it in any format you like, if you want to.

Yet at the same time, there are no obvious digital copies of “Le Flibustier Mysterieux” available: while pirate treasure researchers jealously guard their 150-euro copies of it as if gold doubloons are stuffed inside their cover. (I’d have paid 100 euros myself to get a copy for my own cipher library, but I’ve always been too late to every copy to pick one up).

Surely someone can photograph or scan this somewhere and we can collectively divide up the pages into blocks and type it in, Project Gutenberg style? Think of it as a dry run for a Cipher Foundation microproject! :-)

Announcing: The Cipher Foundation.

For a long time, I’ve been struggling to make genuine progress with many of the unsolved historical ciphers that I’m so interested in. Many of them suffer from what most would agree is an evidence shortfall, a lack that invariably leads both to a poor level of discourse and to a proliferation of wonky theories (which are arguably both sides of the same badly devalued coin).

For most ciphertexts, there is more and/or better primary evidence yet to be had: though (inevitably) researching, collecting, preparing, and publishing this in a useful way takes organization, time, and money. Of course, even though everyone would benefit from this kind of activity, nobody wants to actually do it themselves: it’s just too big a pain in the neck.

But rather than complain about this, I’ve instead decided to tackle the larger challenge myself: and to do this, have recently started a UK-based charitable foundation called The Cipher Foundation (though it is currently unregistered).

Its (as yet unfinished) website is meant to be a repository for relevant primary or secondary information about individual unsolved historical ciphers: and hence to form, in each case, far more of a practical resource than, say, Wikipedia. At the same time, the Foundation’s website is definitely not meant as a repository for cipher theories, or even people seeking validation for their cipher theories: rather, it is a means for collecting evidence able to raise the level of informed awareness about each of these mystery ciphertexts, and then for giving direct, unfettered access to it.

But how could the Cipher Foundation achieve such a lofty goal? After several months’ thought, I’ve decided that it should mainly function as a platform for discussing, designing, funding, commissioning, supporting, and publishing “microprojects”. These are small, evidence-based research tasks that aim to answer basic questions about unsolved historical ciphers that would probably never happen otherwise.

For example, there are a large number of specific microprojects that could be funded to improve our knowledge about basic aspects of the Voynich Manuscript, such as:-
* DNA analysis of bifolios;
* Microscopic imaging of individual marginalia letters;
* Raman imaging of specific layered features (e.g. f116v and numerous others);
* Making images and transcriptions of many 15th century herbals available to researchers;
…and so forth. And similarly for other unsolved ciphers, too.

Which of these microprojects should the Cipher Foundation be scoping, designing, funding, and commissioning? Right now, I don’t know – but in the long run, I suspect possibly all of them.

All in all, I want to be clear from the start that the intention is not that these microprojects should ‘solve’ historical ciphers, but rather that they should help ‘resolve’ specific uncertainties surrounding them, and thereby (hopefully) give historical codebreakers the best chance of solving them.

Nothing is set in stone as yet, and this is Day One of what will doubtless be many. Note that this site (Cipher Mysteries) will continue very much as it is, though its specific remit will doubtless shift slightly more towards qualified speculation as The Cipher Foundation’s website takes shape.

So… what do you think?

Who will be the Champollion of Voynichese?

I’ve recently had a number of emails from Don Hoffman of Tallahassee, describing various ways in which he thinks Voynichese can be decomposed into simpler subunits: broadly speaking, his scheme is similar to Jorge Stolfi’s well-known crust-mantle-core model, but with a very much larger base group.

Numerically, Don’s model works well: but – in my opinion – it doesn’t yet help us move towards what I would consider any of the basic milestones we would need to pass before we can crack the puzzle of Voynichese.

If anyone wants to be the Voynich Champollion, here is my list of the milestones you’ll need to tackle in your research programme, with various sample challenges. I don’t mind admitting that I haven’t yet succeeded at any of these: make no mistake, they are all hugely difficult.

(In the context of Don Hoffman’s models, my opinion is that he – like many others before him, so it is in no way a criticism – has effectively skipped over the first three milestones, and gone straight for the modelling milestone. But we all need to get vastly more confident about the first three milestones before we can start doing modelling in an effective way.)

Milestone #1: Reading

Personally, I’m not convinced that we’re even reading Voynichese accurately off the page yet.

For example:
* Page-initial letters have quite a different instance frequency distribution from anything else, particularly in the Herbal pages. Why should that be?
* Line-initial letters have, again, a different instance frequency distribution as compared to text within lines. Is it therefore safe to assume that these are the same kind of text as each other?
* In 2006, I proposed that EVA ‘aiin’ characters may well represent Arabic digits, by steganographically enciphering the values using different shapes of the scribal flourish on the tail of the (‘v’-shaped) EVA ‘n’. This basic hypothesis needs to be tested microscopically and with careful imaging techniques, but my proposals to the Beinecke some years ago to do this were turned down.
* Philip Neal has pointed to evidence that certain stylized text sequences may be quite different from the rest of the text. There are both ‘vertical Neal keys’ (down the start column of many pages) and ‘horizontal Neal keys’, which often appear about 2/3rds of the way across the top line of a page or paragraph, and often ‘bracketed’ by a pair of single-leg gallows (‘p’ or ‘f’).
* In 2006, I proposed that Neal keys might form part of a tricky in-page transposition cipher (as described briefly by Alberti in 1467), where the gallows characters might form references to within key-like sequences. But this hypothesis has not been tested any further.

Challenge: when we try to decipher Voynichese, are we even trying to decipher the right thing? When there are so many different things that each suggest that the text as a whole is not an homogenous entity, why do so many people persist in treating it as if it is a single, simple language?

Milestone #2: Parsing

The second roadblock is that we can’t yet even parse Voynichese. Because of the ambiguities and weird letters, Voynich Manuscript researchers use a stroke-based transcription called ‘EVA’: this lets us transcribe the text and talk about it, even if we disagree (or are uncertain) about how these should be parsed.

For example:
* Is ‘ch’ a unique letter or is it a ‘c’ letter followed by an ‘h’ letter?
* Is ‘ii’ a pair of ‘i’ characters or a separate character?
* Is ‘ee’ a pair of ‘e’ characters or a separate character?
* Are ‘cth’ / ‘ckh’ / ‘cfh’ / ‘cph’ actually a t/k/f/p gallows character followed or preceded by ‘ch’, or four entirely separate composite letters?

Challenge: what kind of statistical tests would help us compare multiple different candidate parsing schemata, to help us decide which ones are more likely?

Milestone #3: Tokenization

The third roadblock is that there seems strong visual evidence that characters are not the same as tokens: which is to say that some individual letters in the plaintext may map to multiple letters in the Voynichese ciphertext.

For example:
* Is ‘qo’ a token?
* Is ‘dy’ a token?
* Is ‘o’ + gallows a different kind of token to just plain gallows?
* Is ‘y’ + gallows a different kind of token to just plain gallows?

Challenge: what kind of statistical tests would help us compare multiple different candidate tokenization schemata, to help us decide which ones are most likely?

(Note that Milestones #2 and #3 overlap sharply, making the process of getting past them quadratically more difficult, in my opinion.)

Milestone #4: Modelling

Even if we get to the stage that we are able to read, parse and tokenize Voynichese with some degree of certainty, we still face many grave difficulties, not least of which is that we have at least two ‘dialects’ to solve at the same time – Currier A, Currier B, and ‘Labelese’ (for want of a better term). For each of these languages/dialects, we need to model the language functioning and use the results to understand their internal structures.

For example:
* What do the contact tables between adjacent tokens suggest?
* Can we produce Markov models for each of these ‘languages’?
* Is ‘qo’ a free-standing unit (i.e. that is only steganographically prefixed to words), or is it genuinely an integrated part of words?

Challenge: what is the mapping between Currier A, Currier B, and Labelese? Can we somehow normalize the three such that they all conform to a single unified scheme? Or are there basic differences between them such that this is impossible?

Barry Traish’s backronymic poem…

Back in March 2014 (do you remember 2014? It all seems a bit of a blur), long-time Somerton Man researcher Barry Traish posted the results of his search for word sequences in Project Gutenberg that matched the (very probably) acrostic contents of the Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat note.

He looked for sequences whose word length was in the range eight to ten: and found 41 matches in the corpus’s 45,000 out-of-copyright texts. And here they are:

OABABDWT of a brighter and better day, when the
DWTBIMPA dynasty. When these became inevitable, M. Perier attached
TPMLIABO that point. My life is a bad one
LIABOAIA lad is a brave one, and I am
LIABOAIA literal inflicting a blow on an individual, and
LIABOAIA looked into a book of any importance, as
IABOAIAQ is a beautiful one, and I am quite
IABOAIAQ is as badly off as I am,” quivered
CITTMTSA care I took to make their stay at
CITTMTSA care is taken to make the strokes as
CITTMTSA castes. In the Tanjore Manual, the Shanans are
CITTMTSA Church in this town, Mr. Thomas Smallwood, an
CITTMTSA contemplating in turn the marshes, the sea, and
CITTMTSA conveying it to their master. The Sultan asked
ITTMTSAM I thought to myself that such a man
ITTMTSAM In talking to men–to such a man
ITTMTSAM in the textile, metal, transport, shipping, and machine
ITTMTSAM is that the men that stand around Me
ITTMTSAM it together, that Miss Thorpe should accompany Miss
ITTMTSAM itching to take me to see a man
TTMTSAMS tend to make them soft and mushy. Strawberries
TTMTSAMS than twenty miles…. There soon after midnight…. Steal
TTMTSAMS that transported me: To see a mind so
TTMTSAMS to the metropolis, to seize, at Maunsell’s shop
TTMTSAMS treat the matter too seriously, and merely said
TTMTSAMS Tshaka the Mighty, the swift and merciful stroke
TTMTSAMST* the tetragonal minerals tapiolite (= skogbolite) and mossite, so that
TMTSAMST that makes the sun and moon seem to
TMTSAMST to make their saloon a market, so that
MTSAMSTCA* me to stay; and, merely stopping to cast a
MTSAMSTG motioned the stenographer and Miss Snow to go
TSAMSTCA the sideboard; ask my sister to come and
TSAMSTCA the soldiers any more.” So the child and
TSAMSTCA the stronger, and more slimy) the Cores and
TSAMSTCA their ‘speech,’and ‘made strange their counsel.’ All
TSAMSTCA to seeke a more safe, then commodious abode
TSAMSTCAB* the scene. After mutual salutations the commissioners asked: “By
TSAMSTGA the same. All men seek to get as
TSAMSTGA the sincere among My servants to gain admittance
TSAMSTGA then summoned all my strength to gaze and
SAMSTGAB Street and Main Street, the grassy area between

Curiously, though, “66% are entirely on the last line”, which in fact highlights the difficulty you get when you try to find words that fit the other lines, particularly the first two lines. Moreover, none of the matches he found were to poems.

Why might this be? Even though Barry tried repeating the process with different letters in those cases where the letter shapes were ambiguous (e.g. M/W, etc), the results were essentially the same. Personally, I wonder whether this indicates something different: that perhaps a number of the guesses the unnamed policeman in SAPOL made for the first line were wrong… and hence that we don’t stand a chance. We really, *really* need a better scan of this page. *sigh* :-(

But Barry’s pièce de resistance was the bacronymic poem that he composed back from the Rubaiyat initials. I think this is arguably the best attempt yet (I particularly like “and by and by” for ABAB :-) ), see what you think:

“My road goes on, and by and by divides,
Now two branches, into morning, past a new evening that provides,
My love is a barren oblivion, and itself alone quite certain,
It’s time to move the soul among magic stars, then gently asleep besides.”

Splendid, well done Barry! :-)

La Buse and Edgar Allan Poe…

The first ‘La Buse’ cryptogram was first described (and indeed ably decrypted) by Charles de la Roncière in his 1934 book “Le Flibustier Mysterieux”. Though only 17 lines long, the decryption was – though correct without any real doubt – as mysterious as the pirate of the book’s title.

Annoyingly, de la Roncière didn’t give sources for any of his evidence, almost all of which seemed to be tied up with French treasure hunters; much of his secondary narrative (e.g. about Le Butin) has yet to have a single external document verifying it; and his whole narrative is wrapped up with a fair few unsubstantiated myths and legends which seem to have appeared in his book for the first time anywhere.

Why did this sober and exceptionally well-respected historian get himself tangled up with this mess? What was going on back then? Seventy years on, there’s still no good answer for any such questions: the only people who think this could be real are treasure hunters (who want all treasure to be real, basically) and skeptical code-breakers (such as myself, who suspect the cryptogram might be genuine, even if the proposed link with La Buse itself is almost certainly spurious).

And then you have the second ‘La Buse’ cryptogram, the first image of which was first put on the Internet (I believe) by Yannick Benaben about a decade ago, as part of a La Buse-themed fiction he was writing. Though this has its cadre of true believers (such Emmanuel Mezino, whose book about it lurches violently between the twin cipher poles of clear-headed accuracy and woefully empty speculation), my own conclusion is that it is, if anything, even more confused than the first cryptogram.

This second cryptogram has an extra five lines of encrypted text appended to (broadly) the same 17-line cryptogram, using (broadly) the same pigpen cipher key: but whereas the decrypted cleartext of the first 17 lines makes essentially no sense at all, the extra lines shine through clear as a bell.

My cryptographic conclusion was this these extra lines were surely an extra layer, added at a later date (and by a completely different owner), i.e. that these are “super-marginalia”, added in for reasons unknown… though I tentatively predicted that it was to try to link the underlying 17-line cryptogram more definitively with the piratically successful (but ultimately hanged) Olivier Levasseur.

All of which was no more than an appetiser.

Because this was where online commenter CptEvil came in.

The Gold Bug

CptEvil noted that if you compare the start of the last five lines of the second La Buse cryptogram…

un bon verre dans l’hostel de le veque dant(S)
le siege du diable r(Q)uarar(N)te siz(X) degrès
f(S)iz(X) minutes deuz(X) fois
pour celui qui le decouvrira
juillet mil sept cent (T)rente

(…in English…)

a good drink in the bishop’s hostel in
the devil’s seat
forty six degrees
six minutes two times
for the person who will discover it
july 1730

…with the cryptogram used by Edgar Allan Poe in his famous short story “The Gold Bug”, you discover something rather extraordinary:-

A good glass in the bishop’s hostel in the devil’s seat
— twenty-one degrees and thirteen minutes
— northeast and by north
— main branch seventh limb east side
— shoot from the left eye of the death’s-head
— a bee line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out.

(Note that this was also suggested elsewhere on the web back in March 2015 by online commenter “indi”.)

Are these two cryptograms connected? Why, yes, they most surely are. But how? That’s far more difficult to answer than you might think, even though we probably only have three main scenarios to consider:-

(1) Did Poe Make Both Cryptograms?

Even though there are plenty of people who assert that Poe made the Beale Papers, I’ve yet to see any evidence beyond mere handwavery that this is so. And the same would seem to be true here… but yet the two cryptograms are connected.

(2) Was “The Gold Bug” The Second Cryptogram’s Source?

Interestingly, Baudelaire’s famous (1856) French translation of The Gold Bug (as CptEvil noted in a follow-up comment) uses “la chaise” to translate “seat”, whereas “le siege” only appears in a 1933 translation. Which would tend to suggest that if the second cryptogram was in some way a copy of Poe’s cryptogram (which, after all, was embedded in a pirate fantasy about discovering Captain Kidd’s treasure), it was probably made after 1933.

(PS: how did Alphonse Borghers translate this in 1845?)

CptEvil also points out that there is a distinct similarity between the treasure chest depicted in the second cryptogram…


…and a fantasy treasure chest famously depicted by Victorian illustrator Howard Pyle:


(This was also pointed out by online commenter “marc” later in March 2015.)

Note in particular the “XO” motif on the lid of the chest and the structural similarity of the square chest just to the left of the main chest: all of which would seem to be a giveaway, particularly as Howard Pyle seems to have made up almost everything he drew to do with pirates. (Indeed, most of Johnny Depp’s “Jack Sparrow” on-board piratical style seems to have been plucked directly from the Howard Pyle play-book, more than a century later).

And yet… just as we can’t (yet) rule out Poe having seen this second cryptogram, we can’t rule out Pyle having seen it either. And we also can’t (without a huge investment in time in tracking down the iconography of treasure chests) rules out the possibilities (a) that Pyle copied it from the second cryptogram, or (b) that Pyle and the second cryptogram’s author were both strongly influenced by the same image, perhaps found in an old pirate book.

Moreover, inserting a line from “The Gold Bug” would seem like quite a ridiculous thing to do if the overall intention was to make the cryptogram seem to date from 1730, given that Poe wrote his short story more than a century after Olivier Levasseur died. This fails the test of good sense, surely?

(3) Was The Second Cryptogram “The Gold Bug”‘s Source?

Between December 1839 and May 1840, Edgar Allan Poe wrote a series of articles in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, in many of which he decrypted readers’ cryptograms. You can also trace aspects of these exchanges in Poe’s letters.

Rather more substantial is Poe’s A Few Words On Secret Writing from Graham’s Magazine in July 1841, though I should add that William Friedman didn’t think much of Poe’s non-systematic attempts at decryption (see p.41ff of this 1937 Signal Corps magazine).

From his correspondence, we know that by 1842 Poe had lost interest in decrypting the approximately one hundred reader’s cryptograms that even then still continued to crash on his beach, and in some of which “Foreign languages were employed”: and yet in 1843, his “The Gold Bug” played directly to that same audience on the same mysterious vein, with wild success. Poe also refers to a book in French on cryptography by Jean-Francois Niceron (though Niceron lived a century before La Buse): so it is entirely possible that Poe had contact with a French cryptographer of his era.

It seems entirely possible, then, that Poe might have been directly inspired by an encounter with the second cryptogram (or something exceedingly like it), to the point that he shaped his story around it. For are they not both pitched as pirate treasure narratives, with an exceedingly obscure key?

(Note that David Kahn, who likes The Gold Bug despite the fact that it is “full of absurdities and errors”, suggests in “The Codebreakers” that Poe may well have borrowed the basic Captain-Kidd-treasure-hunting plot from Robert M. Bird’s novel “Sheppard Lee”, a book Poe had previously reviewed – apparently, all you need to do is dream how to get to the treasure the same way three nights in a row, etc etc.)

But the single observation that most makes me suspect that Poe had seen the second “La Buse” cryptogram is simply that the plaintext revealed by his protagonist’s decryption makes no sense, even as a novelistic device. His cryptologic hero Legrand eventually makes sense of “Bishop’s Hostel” as “Bessop’s Castle”, which didn’t really make any sense to me when I first read the story many decades ago, and – frankly – still doesn’t ring even remotely true today.

So could it be that Poe actually constructed the story backwards from the phrase “A good glass in the bishop’s hostel in the devil’s seat”? If so, what does the phrase actually mean?

The most (in)famous Devil’s Seat of recent years is the “Fauteuil du Diable” (“Devil’s Armchair”) at Rennes-les-Bains, which somehow got entwined with the whole ludicrous “Priory of Sion” fantasy. But The Gold Bug would seem to have preceded that by many decades, so we can perhaps move swiftly past it. :-)

It has been suggested that this in fact refers to the formerly-volcanic piton (mountain) on Réunion Island: though possible, this seems to be wading knee-deep in the inky waters of speculation. But beyond that, I’m kind of out of ideas.

All the same, the notion that “The Devil’s Seat” at “forty six degrees six minutes two times” (presumbly longitude measured east from Paris?) refers to a formerly-volcanic piton seems more probable to me than the notion that Poe plucked the phrase “A good glass in the bishop’s hostel in the devil’s seat” from the ether entirely a propos of nothing, even if he did dream it three nights in a row. But even so, I’d prefer to have even a soupcon of solid evidence either way, this is still all a bit too messy for my liking. :-)

Tom Keane of Sinn Fein?

Historical research can carry you to all kinds of places, such as this 1917 article in the Barrier Miner, reporting on a march in County Clare:-

They marched like guardsmen to the music of their drums and fifes. In their wake came Tom Keane, the Ennis “Boy Martyr” of 16, who has won everlasting fame by reason of his imprisonment, in Galway County Gaol for the crime of drilling Sinn Feiners; the tale in Ennis is that it took “seventeen R.I.C. men to carry him to gaol and half a regiment of the Munsters to keep him there”. He was in command today of 40 children, who marched to the scene of demonstration with rare military precision behind a banner bearing the words, “Remember Dublin.”

The same Tom Keane appears in several Sinn Fein witness statements covering the years 1913 to 1921 held by the Bureau of Military History, e.g. here, here, and here. The first of the three describes how a group of Sinn Fein members, captured after shooting a police office in 1920, went on hunger strike in prison.

After four days, Thomas Keane, who was very young and delicate, was in a bad way […] The Prison Governor, Mr. Faulkner, was a nice man and was more or less in sympathy with us. He visited our cells several times night and day, especially Keane’s whose health was very much worrying the prison doctor. On the seventh day of the strike, all the men on hunger strike were released.

Presumably this was the same Tom Keane who appears in the National Archives at Kew WO 35/102/39. Always interesting to see the same event reported from both sides of the same fence:-

“Prosecution of Thomas Keane; endangering safety of a police constable; 1919; Fruoor [should actually be “Furroor”], County Clare; released on grounds of health.” (Closed For 29 years).

However, was this also the same Thomas Keane who is mentioned in the National Archives WO 35/151B/25: “Death of Thomas Keane; 4th June, 1921; Limerick.”? (Also “Closed For 29 years.”) I suspect it probably was: and so it was there that the “Boy Martyr”‘s young life seems to have ended. :-(

The Somerton Man, Virginia and North Carolina…?

Though his recent attempt at crowdfunding via Indiegogo fell well short of the mark he aimed for, Derek Abbott is back in the news again (well, Channel 9’s 9News, anyway).

Today, he’s revealed that his wife (Rachel Egan) has consented for her DNA to be put in a kind of DNA search engine: and that this has revealed potential matches with eight families in Virginia and six families in North Carolina, all of whom he has now contacted.

The particular family tree also has a connection to Thomas Jefferson, which was a nice media bonus: though that link wasn’t enough to get American crowdfunders to pony up for a ride on his seaside donkey when he partially revealed it earlier in the year. Oh well.

And there is always the possibility – I hate to mention it, but because it’s the blight of DNA paternity testing, I thought I really have to – that Rachel Egan’s grandfather was someone else entirely. Hence it could easily play out that, “Who Do You Think You Are?” final-reel style, she and Derek A will trace her grandfather but find him to be someone who definitely didn’t die on/near Somerton beach in 1948.

But, as Tamam Shudologists will be quick to point out, we have evidence of American stitching in his coat and some Juicy Fruit chewing gum in a pocket (though I’d point out he can’t have had much fun chewing gum with hardly any teeth): so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he was indeed an American.

Something to chew on, anyway. 😉

“My life is all but over…”

It’s all very well concluding (as Aussie über-codebreaker Captain Eric Nave seems to have done back in 1949, later followed by Jim Gillogly and many others) that the curious message on the Rubaiyat is acrostic rather than enciphered: but does that help us crack it at all?

Ragged Right / Rubaiyat

Because the lines are strongly ragged-right justified, others have suggested that the letters taken as a whole may well encrypt an acrostic poem: and given also that the cryptogram was itself written on the back of a soft-back book of poetry, I personally have long struggled to come up with anything that seems even half as plausible.

Note that I’m really not saying here that the Rubaiyat cryptogram is necessarily a love poem: the poems in the Rubaiyat cover many different emotions, thoughts and feelings (perhaps most famously drunkenness, regret and mortality), so there is still plenty of room for manoeuvre.

However, I think that the presence of the crossed out line #2 (“MLIAOI“) and the extremely similar (but far from identical) line #4 (“MLIABO AIAQC”) is an extremely strong indication that what we are looking at is not a transcription of something that previously existed (say, of a telegram or of a speech) but is instead a record of composition by the author him- or her-self.

That is, I think the writer was probably making up a poem in their head and was quite possibly writing down the first letters of the words in that poem as an aide-memoire to themselves. He/she started to write down line #2 but then realized it was out of order, crossed it out, and wrote down the real next line (line #3), followed by what we now see as line #4.

The first big question, then, is about what the precise relationship between line #2 and line #4 is. Clearly they are not identical: yet they seem to share many of the same words, and very likely the same rhythm and meter. Hence it seems likely that “AOI” is somehow interchangeable with “ABAOI”: though unlikely to be the same, I think it is likely that they work the same within the overall poetic framework.

I am now strongly convinced that only one of the many, many claimed solutions for these lines proposed over the last 60 years that I have seen comes close to approaching the right combination of features that match this template of likely features:

* My Life Is Almost Over, I…
* My Life Is All But Over, And I Am [Quietly Content?]

Note that the scansion and meter are both far from exact here: but as melancholy Strine poetry goes, it’s far from terrible.

What About The Rest?

Line #5 seems (to my eye) to end with an underlined ‘R’: if this is indeed an acrostic letter (and not, say, the second half of the ‘AR’ Morse Prosign for “All Received”), then I do wonder if it is short for ‘Repent’, a fairly decent (and Rubaiyat-themed) rhyme for ‘Content’.

At the same time, if line #1 and line #3 end with D and P respectively, might it be that they rhyme? What D-word and P-word pair not only rhymes but also has roughly the right stress pattern that could be of any use in Strine poetry?

My guess is that if someone were to write a programme to generate potential D-/P- rhyme pairs, there would be only be something like 20 or 30 high ranking candidates (for example, I suspect we could safely rule out ‘Damn’/’Pram’, ‘Deep’/’Peep’ and so forth). Whether that would be enough to infer the rest of those two lines from their last words is marginal at best, if not questionable. All the same, finding good rhymes to go there might well be a good start: so why not try? :-)

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