Good lead vs bad lead…

Byron Deveson – and if anybody deserves an Inspector-Morse-like middle name of ‘Indefatigable’ it is surely him – recently left a series of comments on Cipher Mysteries about lead, which answered a number of questions that have been bothering me for a while. His most interesting comment began thus:-

I think that the focus should be on ships loading lead concentrates, lead ore, and “ore concentrates” “residues” and “calcines”. And also roasted zinc concentrates.The Port Pirie smelter produced lead ingots and I do not believe that anyone could mishandle these in such a way as to receive the massive dose of lead that SM appears to have received. Lead concentrates, lead ore, ore concentrates, residues and calcine, could possibly be the cause. Or roasted zinc concentrates. Lead concentrates at the time would have generally been a very fine, dusty powder, and the same for some ores and residues. If this fine powder was inhaled it could cause lead poisoning.

All of which means that while Port Pirie seems to be the right place, because of the huge lead smelting works not particularly far from where the dead man was found, so far I very likely have been looking at quite the wrong category of ships. The substantial international trade in lead ingots may be the one garnering all the kudos in the Port Pirie Recorder, but handling those ingots seems unlikely to have yielded terminally precipitous levels in the Somerton Man’s various internal lead compartments.

As so often with these archival research, the fact that this is a bright lamp post doesn’t mean it is necessarily where we should be looking beneath.

But the Port Pirie Recorder does list all the ships in and out of the port, including passenger ships and colliers (specialist coal ships). Without boring you with endless links to Trove, the non-ingot lead activity in the port from 20 October onwards looks like this:-

18 Oct – Ambassador, arrived from Melbourne
25 Oct – Ambassador, departed with 3,000 tons of concentrates

20 Oct – Era, arrived from Tasmania, with 1,047 tons of residues, 200 tons of zinc slabs, and 40 tons of general cargo.
26 Oct – Era, departed with 4,133 tons of calcines and general cargo

18 Nov – Incharran, arrived from Risdon, with 1,000 tons of residues and 58 empty drums
18 Nov – Incharran, left for Risdon with 4,100 tons of calcines, 58 drums of acid, and five tons of general cargo

22 Nov – Aeon, arrived from Port Kembla, arrived with 4,610 tons of coke and 74 tons of general cargo
02 Dec – Aeon, departed for Sydney and Port Kembla, loading lead, copper matte and speiss

29 Nov – Incharran, arrived from Risdon, with 1,000 tons of residues (Howard Smith Ltd.)
02 Dec – Incharran, departed for Port Adelaide, “in ballast”
03 Dec – Incharran, arrived at Port Adelaide
09 Dec – Incharran, departed from Port Adelaide for Risdon

Similarly, if we look at the Burnie Advocate, we can see that the Incharran was unloading calcines at Risdon on 23rd November, loading zinc at Risdon on 24th November, and sailed on the 24th November for Port Pirie with 3,539 tons.

Unsurprisingly, this is why Byron continues:-

I would look at the Incharran before any other ship because of the nature of the cargo (lead residues that are likely to be very powdery) and because the likely primitive loading and handling conditions in Tasmania could easily result in lead poisoning. Incharran seems to have been a specialist ore carrier, and it is possible that the residues from the Risdon refinery were loaded directly into the hold and that would generate clouds of dust both at the time of loading, and unloading.

Indeed, for all the Port Pirie sea traffic, the Incharran looks like just about the only “bad lead” (i.e. non-ingot lead) ship that meets the timeline criteria: so I’d tend to agree that this is where the overall “lead logic” seems to point.

I’d perhaps go slightly further: that if it is the Incharran that is involved and the timeline we have is correct, then it seems to me that the accident may well have happened during the 18th November unloading/loading at Port Pirie, but that the lead-poisoned merchant seaman then returned to Risdon (in Tasmania) on the Incharran before coming back to Port Pirie on the Incharran on the 29th November – the day before he died – and making his way to Port Adelaide, perhaps arriving early in the morning. The rest you all know by now, I hope. icon smile Good lead vs bad lead...

All of which forms a super-plausible narrative that tightly fits the documented ship activity (and for the right class of ship) in Port Pirie: so how do we test this?

The Tasmanian archives (in the NAA and elsewhere) has a record for desertions and discharges during this period: P2562, VOLUME 1. Well worth a look, I’d say. (Note that I found this listed on this page which seems to know a little more about Tasmanian crew records in the NAA than the NAA itself does).

Alternatively, perhaps the NAA’s Tasmanian crewlists P2004 (outwards) and P2005 (inwards) series will have crew lists for the Incharran, flagging a change in crew for us: or perhaps D3064 will have crew lists for the Incharran arriving at Port Pirie. So it could be that the answer will turn out to have been in Adelaide all along: I shall ask my Adelaidean volunteer immediately just in case…

PS: incidentally, just as with poor old H. C. Reynolds, I briefly wondered whether the seaman’s employer’s archives held any personnel files from this time. The Mitchell and Dixson Libraries Manuscripts Collection, State Library of New South Wales, has 35 volumes (across 1.4m of shelving) of Howard Smith Ltd archives, item MLMSS 3565… but nothing relating to employment, alas. Just so you know! icon neutral Good lead vs bad lead...

Following the Australian lead archive trail…

A few posts ago, I proposed that because of the unusual lead trace pattern in the Somerton Man’s hair, and the evidence broadly suggesting that he was a non-Aussie merchant seaman, we should perhaps look at the crew lists for November 1948 for the (very few) ships taking on lead at the smelter wharf at Port Pirie, not so very far away from Adelaide.

Looking at the Port Pirie Recorder from that time, only three (or possibly five) ships fit the bill (of lading): American Producer, City of Delhi, Lanarkshire, and possibly Annam or Ericbank. I asked if anybody would be so good as to go to the NAA archives in Adelaide to have a look at the crew lists in D3064 for November 1948: and a volunteer very kindly came forward (more on that later).

Here’s an update on what we have discovered so far in the pursuit of this Australian lead archive trail.

Firstly, the bad news: that D3064 unfortunately only contains crew lists for ships that enter or leave Australian waters at Port Adelaide or its outports. For ships travelling from Europe to Australia, the first and last port of call would usually instead be Fremantle (right on the western end of Australia), which is where their crews would be declared on arrival and departure. Similarly, for ships travelling from the United States, the first and last port of call would usually be Brisbane (right on the eastern end).

As a result, my determined volunteer has now doggedly ordered some quite different archives (relating to desertions) for this coming week, and I wait with great interest to see what turns up there.

All the same, if we could find out which Australian ports these five ships first entered and last left, we should be able to find their crew lists elsewhere in the NAA’s voluminous archives. So I decided to give this a go, using newspapers in Trove and various records in the NAA.


16 Sep 1948 – arrived at Sydney from Nauru in thick fog
17 Sep 1948 – sailed from Sydney to Port Kembla
10 Nov 1948 – arrived at Port Pirie from Melbourne
12 Nov 1948 – sailed from Port Pirie to Sydney
20 Nov 1948 – sailed from Sydney to Honiara (the capital of the Solomon Islands)

Unfortunately, it’s not clear to me which Sydney NAA archive file to consult for Sep/Nov 1948 crew lists: any suggestions?

Incidentally, while in Port Pirie, two seamen from the Ericbank were each fined £5 with 7/6 costs for taking someone’s bike for a ride, a money-making ploy that recent London mayors have taken on with enthusiasm. icon smile Following the Australian lead archive trail...


01 Oct 1948 – a brief profile in the Adelaide Advertiser:-

One of the first motor ships in the world — she was built in 1913 — the 6,636-ton Danish freighter Annam, is due at Port Adelaide tomorrow morning with paper pulp, canned fish and Baltic timber, from Oslo and New Zealand.

An unusual feature of her construction is that, viewed from forward, the Annam appears to have no funnel. Although placed in the normal position, her funnel looks hardly more than an exhaust pipe for her diesel engines. The Annam has five passengers from New Zealand, all of whom will leave the ship here.

02 Oct 1948 – arrived at Adelaide from Oslo (presumably via New Zealand?)
05 Oct 1948 – unloaded “100,000 super feet” of softwoods
08 Oct 1948 – departed Port Adelaide for Port Pirie, Port Napier, Melbourne.
11 Oct 1948 – arrived in Melbourne
29 Oct 1948 – departed Melbourne “for Scandinavia” (eventually)
01 Nov 1948 – arrived Hobart (Tasmania)
04 Nov 1948 – arrived Launceston (Tasmania), to load “wool, peas and skins for Europe”
07 Nov 1948 – departed Launceston
11 Nov 1948 – arrived Port Pirie
15 Nov 1948 – arrived Port Adelaide
18 Nov 1948 – departed Port Adelaide for Fremantle
24 Nov 1948 – arrived Fremantle from Adelaide
29 Nov 1948 – departed Fremantle for Genoa

Hence the NAA archive files to consult would seem to be D3064 for arrival (held in Adelaide) and PP1/1 (held in Darwin). However, it may also be sensible to look at the Hobart archives for crew lists, because that was where the ship was immediately before it arrived at Port Pirie.

Other details: Danish seaman Jorgen Bernhardt Olsen got so annoyed when a policeman refused his offer of a drink in Port Pirie, that he told him “if I had you in my country I would kill you”, then swung him round and ripped his clothing. (He was fined £3 with 7/6 costs).

I also found records for two 19-year-old Danish crewmen (Kurt Jensen Spuur and Kai Leo Møller) who deserted the Annam on 29th November 1948 in Fremantle. The records in the NAA relating to Kurt Jensen Spuur are openly accessible, and show (particularly if you read them backwards from the end) how the ship’s owners were obliged to put up a sizeable bond for any crew members who had absconded since arriving in the country.

Finally, I also found a picture of the Annam, and a brief summary of the Annam’s war record.

American Producer

18 Oct 1948 – arrived at Brisbane from the US, dropping off several passengers [NAA]
20 Oct 1948 – departed Brisbane for Adelaide via Sydney and Melbourne
22 Oct 1948 – arrived at Sydney, dropping off more passengers (one being the magnificently named Hilda Frankenstein) [NAA]
27 Oct 1948 – departed Sydney for Melbourne
29 Oct 1948 – arrived at Melbourne
07 Nov 1948 – departed Melbourne for Port Pirie
10 Nov 1948 – arrived Whyalla from Melbourne
16 Nov 1948 – arrived Port Pirie from Whyalla
18 Nov 1948 – arrived Port Adelaide from Port Pirie
19 Nov 1948 – departed Port Adelaide
23 Nov 1948 – arrived Melbourne
06 Dec 1948 – arrived at Sydney from Melbourne
16 Dec 1948 – departed Sydney for Newcastle
16 Dec 1948 – arrived Newcastle
21 Dec 1948 – departed Newcastle “for Boston and New York, via Sydney and Panama”
22 Dec 1948 – arrived Sydney from Newcastle
29 Dec 1948 – departed Sydney for America

(Incidentally, it arrived in Boston around 30/31 Jan 1949.)

Hence the NAA archive files to consult would seem to be BP120/1 (held in Brisbane) for its arrival in October 1948, and whatever the Sydney crew list archive is for its departure.

City of Delhi

11 Nov 1948 – arrived Fremantle from Beira (the second largest city in Mozambique, as any fule kno).
16 Nov 1948 – arrived Port Pirie “from overseas”
18 Nov 1948 – departed Port Pirie “for United Kingdom”
19 Nov 1948 – arrived Port Adelaide
27 Nov 1948 – departed Port Adelaide for Newcastle
01 Dec 1948 – arrived Newcastle from Adelaide
03 Dec 1948 – “The City of Delhi is loading 20,000 bales of wool at Lee Wharf, Newcastle. The cargo is almost equal to all that part of growers’ wool sold at the last Newcastle sales.
20 Dec 1948 – departed Newcastle for “UK and Continent via Sydney”
21 Dec 1948 – arrived Sydney from Newcastle
06 Jan 1949 – departed Sydney for Fremantle
14 Jan 1949 – arrived Fremantle “for oil bunkers”

I don’t know when it left Fremantle, but it was in Suez by the 8th February 1949.

Hence the NAA archive file to consult is almost certainly PP1/1 (held in Darwin).

Other stuff: Dale Collins reminiscing about his time as a steward on the City of Delhi.


14 Nov 1948 – arrived at Fremantle from Mauritius –
18 Nov 1948 – arrived at Port Pirie –
20 Nov 1948 – departed Port Pirie “for United Kingdom via Eastern states”
22 Nov 1948 – arrived Melbourne “from Mauritius”
26 Nov 1948 – departed Melbourne to Sydney
28 Nov 1948 – arrived Sydney “from South Africa”
08 Dec 1948 – departed Sydney for Melbourne
11 Dec 1948 – arrived Melbourne from Sydney
15 Dec 1948 – departed Melbourne “for Liverpool”
20 Dec 1948 – “The steamer Lanarkshire was expected to arrive in Albany from the Eastern States early this morning to lift 400 tons of refrigerated cargo from the meat works of Thomas Borthwick and Sons. The cargo comprises frozen meat, poultry and offal for the United Kingdom. The Lanarkshire will call at Fremantle en route for Britain.
30 Dec 1948 – departed Fremantle for Liverpool

Hence the NAA archive file to consult is without much doubt PP1/1 (held in Darwin).

Unusually, this very fast (18 knots!) merchant ship had an entire profile written on it telling how it once outran a group of 17 U-Boats during WW2, as well as including profiles of some of its crew. Another article notes how it was an Empire ship, Britain’s wartime answer to America’s Liberty ships.

Nigel West, Arnold Deutsch, and the SS Donbass…

Might the Somerton Man have been Arnold Deutsch all along? It’s a fascinating possibility, though one for which we currently have far less evidence to work with than I would like. (Though Derek Abbott thinks Deutsch was 4″ too short and had the wrong size hands.)

Hence a few days ago, I decided to try to hunt down Deutsch’s fingerprints: after all, we have reasonable photographic copies of the Somerton Man’s fingerprints (though not the original fingerprint card(s), Derek Abbott believes, while Gordon Cramer doubts whether they’re even genuine).

Who else could I ask about this but well-known spy writer Nigel West (Rupert Allason)? To my very great delight, he quickly responded:-

Having seen Deutsch’s NKVD file in Moscow, I am reasonably sure there is not a record of his fingerprints in Russia. Nor is it likely that his Aliens Registration card with (what was then) Special Branch survives.

Of course, the NKVD file on Deutsch was precisely what I was hoping would contain his fingerprints, so this was a bit of a disappointment. But it is what it is. West’s email continued:-

However, as Deutsch drowned in the Atlantic on 7 November 1942 when the SS Donbass was sunk by a U-boat, it seems a little unlikely that his body would wash up in Australia.

You may already know that Nigel West included this account of Deutsch’s death in several of his books, such as The Historical Dictionary of Sexspionage (p.69) and The Crown Jewels: The British Secrets at the Heart of the Russian Archives (p.113), which asserted that “[m]ortally injured, Deutsch died while heroically trying to save the lives of others“.

I also have here Ben Macintyre’s “A Spy Among Friends”, Rufina Philby’s “The Private Life of Kim Philby”, and John Costello and Oleg Tsarev’s “Deadly Illusions – The First Book from the KGB archives”. The last of these recites the same basic story, and refers to DEUTSCH File No. 32826 (as mentioned in Vol. I and Vol. II of RISA), though it is not immediately clear which parts of their account are from the file and which are not.

Of course, we now know that the SS Donbass was sunk by the German destroyer Z-27 (not by a U-Boat) in the Barents Sea (not the Atlantic), and there is no mention of Deutsch anywhere in the lists of the dead. So I think we can reasonably doubt that we have been handed down the whole story.

A sensible question is whether the SS Donbass indeed had any passengers at all. I found a very good page (in Russian) with numerous different accounts of the Donbass’s sinking. One of these accounts (Weiner BA, Soviet maritime transport in the Great Patriotic War. – Moscow: Military Publishing, 1989) asserts that 49 people died that day, whereas the memorial only lists 33 dead: however, this same account claims that the Donbass’s guns managed to land a hit on the destroyer, which seems (from the destroyer’s own logs) to be more Soviet mythology than wartime fact.

Far more persuasive to me is the complete lack of any mention of passengers – or indeed of any practical heroics from anyone who wasn’t a ranking officer on the ship (e.g. Morozov) – in any of the accounts. The final account on the site seems to have been largely taken from Captain Zielke’s account in the SMERSH files: here too passengers are conspicuously absent.

Really, I find myself struggling to link Deutsch with anything here. Have I missed anything important?

Lead in the Somerton Man’s hair…

Here’s a good question: what can we infer from the varying levels of lead in the Somerton Man’s hair?

To try to answer this, I went looking for some proper science on how the human body handles lead: the root of the modern literature tree seems to be Kinetic analysis of lead metabolism in healthy humans by M B Rabinowitz, G W Wetherill, and J D Kopple, from the August 1976 issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation (what, it isn’t in your Favourites already? I’m genuinely surprised).

This introduced a “three compartment” model, i.e. that lead ingested is held in (1) the blood, (2) soft tissues, and (3) bones and teeth; and that the ways (and the rates) that the body stores lead in (and removes lead from) those compartments are quite different.

Their kinetic analysis indicated that:
* the primary (blood stream) compartment holds up to 1.9mg of lead, and has a mean life of 36±5 days;
* the secondary (soft tissue) compartment holds up to 0.6mg of lead, and has a mean life of 30 to 55 days;
* the tertiary (skeletal) compartment holds up to 200mg (!) of lead, and has a mean life of ~10000 days (!).

lead metabolism model Lead in the Somerton Mans hair...

Of particular interest to us is the observation (from the model the three authors develop) that lead only gets into the hair from the second compartment.

All the same, some internet sites tend to cite the only-slightly-more-recent report “Toxic Trace Metals in Human and Mammalian Hair and Nails”, EPA-600 4.79-049, August 1979, US Environmental Protection Agency, Research and Development as encouraging the use of hair analysis: while other sites seem to suggest that lead hair analysis can be wildly variable without useful baselines to work with, and so using lead hair analysis is essentially “futile”.

I suspect that to build up a more balanced picture, it would make more sense to read other more biochemistry-based accounts, such as this tutorial (which runs to several pages). Here, the authors note (among many different things) that one key sign of acute lead poisoning is a blue-black “lead line” in the gingival tissues (the gums), which seems not to have been present in the Somerton Man (unless you know better?)

What, then, of the Somerton Man’s hair #1? We have a nice graph of his Pb206 isotope timeline, that Derek Abbott believes covers roughly the two week period prior to the SM’s death…

Pb206 isotope timeline Lead in the Somerton Mans hair...

…but what does it mean?

To my eyes, it seems likely from the rapid drop in the (time-reversed) graph that the Somerton Man had experienced a high short-term exposure to lead before the start of the graph (say, a little more than two weeks before his death): the steady-state value from the left (i.e. later) half of the graph would seem to indicate an equilibrium with environmental lead. The SM’s acute exposure level (as measured in the hair, remember, and so subject to different rules to the primary compartment) would therefore seem to have been at least five times his environmental lead levels, and possibly much higher.

However, I suspect that the timeline for this hair is just too short to really be sure what is going on: it’s cut off (literally) just when things started to get interesting. But if Derek Abbott’s students can successfully match this up to hair #2’s timeline, then we might well be in business. It would also be very good to know the ratio of the various lead isotopes (Byron Deveson for one will be waiting attentively for this to be documented). Interesting times!

Port Pirie lead shipments and the Somerton Man…

It is a sad truth that almost all we know about the Somerton Man case was known to the police by the end of 1949. However, a shining exception to this 65-year-old evidential stasis is the set of spectrometry measurements taken by some of Derek Abbott’s students in 2013. Cunningly, their subject matter was a short hair embedded in the plaster cast of the dead man (the one in the SAPOL museum): progressively burning this hair with a laser gave them spectrometric readings of the physical chemistry going on in the Somerton Man’s body very late in his life.

On the positive side, it turned out that the hair included a root, so its timeline is almost certain to cover the interesting days right up to his death. However, it is only a very short hair, so it only really gives us hints about what was happening in roughly his final fortnight.

Intriguingly, I found out this week that a new cohort of Derek Abbott’s students has recently repeated this experiment, but with a substantially longer hair. Unfortunately this second hair did not include a root, which makes calibrating the results more difficult: and the results and analysis have not yet been released.

What of the first set of results? Of all the different isotopes the students detected and graphed, one stands out very strongly: lead. (Note that the graph is time-reversed, with the root end at the left and the older end at the right.)

Pb206 isotope timeline Port Pirie lead shipments and the Somerton Man...

In a post a few months back, Gordon Cramer suggested that this lead might suggest a connection with the nearby Port Pirie, where there was a huge lead smelting works. Though he then went on to assert that the connection to the Somerton Man probably wasn’t to do with the lead as such, but was surely some kind of spy-related thing to do with uranium processing (which was also close to Port Pirie, and was just starting up in 1947/1948). But as always, Gordon is free to go off in any direction he chooses.

As for me, I’m far more concerned with the lead itself, and what its possible relationship with Port Pirie might be. Derek Abbott rightly cautions that we don’t really know what was considered a normal level of environmental lead in Adelaide in 1948 (and so we should be careful about what inferences we draw from the lead graph): but I often think that a small detail can tell its own story, and this unexpected lead trace might well be such an instance.

I’ve said before that I suspect that the Somerton Man was an overseas merchant seaman, quite probably a Third Officer with responsibility for lading and stencilling details on crates and boxes as they were stacked in a ship’s hold. At the same time, the primary way that lead left Port Pirie was by the ton, stacked into ships’ holds: as we shall see in a different post in a few days’ time, ships once loaded with lead then often travelled the 139 miles south to Port Adelaide where additional bales of wool and leather were taken on: and then finally the ship left South Australian waters for its final destination (wherever in the world that happened to be).

The Port Pirie Recorder from this period included a shipping news column (“Pirie Shipping News”), detailing arrivals, loadings and departures at the port. If we collate all this together solely for lead shipments in November 1948, this is what we find:

Arr Dep
8 – 10 Clan Maclean (2500 tons) – for United Kingdom via Port Adelaide (Gibbs, Bright & Co)
10 – 12 Ericbank (2250 tons) – for United Kingdom (Howard Smith Ltd)
11 – 13 Annam (1200 tons) – for Marseilles via Port Adelaide (Gibbs, Bright & Co)
15 – 17 American Producer (1200 tons) – for New York via Port Adelaide (Dalgety & Co. Ltd)
16 – 18 City of Delhi (2500 tons) – for United Kingdom (Elder, Smith & Co. Ltd)
18 – 20 Lanarkshire (1000 tons) – for United Kingdom (Gibbs, Bright & Co)
25 – 30 Corio (2800 tons) – for Sydney (Howard Smith Ltd)

So, what might the lead timeline be telling us? I think that if the Somerton Man was a Third Officer lading and marking up crates of lead, with a substantial spike roughly two weeks before his death in the night of 30th November 1948, then there would seem to be a good chance we can narrow down the number of boats he was working on to three or perhaps five: American Producer, City of Delhi, Lanarkshire, and possibly Annam or Ericbank.

Frustratingly, NAA: D458 Volume I (the ledger of “seamen engaged, discharged, deserted or died at Port Pirie”) only runs to 31st March 1948, which is a bit of a shame. However, there is a very substantial body (15.48 linear metres!) of archives for crew data in Adelaide in NAA record D3064:-

This series comprises lists of ships crews who visited Port Adelaide and outports.

The series basically comprises Form M + S 11(attachment) and supporting documentation. Currently documents are arranged in chronological order in calendar year blocks.

Information contained in these documents includes names, dates and places of birth, nationalities, some information regarding desertions, restricted crew members on board, crew changes, last and next port of call for ship, animal and birds on board.

So if I’m right about the story the lead timeline seems to be telling us, then anyone who wants to be the first to see the Somerton Man’s name for themselves should go to the SA archives at great speed and have a look at the D3064 (November 1948) crew lists for these ships (they’re not available online), particularly where there’s any difference between the crew that arrived and the crew that left.

Any takers? icon smile Port Pirie lead shipments and the Somerton Man...

“Such Sphinxes As These…”

The Voynich Manuscript meets “Tuvan throat singing layered on top of Swiss yodelling“? How could anyone resist the 9-minute-long vocal octet “Such sphinxes as these obey no one but their master” by Steven Gorbos, and performed by ‘Roomful of Teeth’. Listen, marvel and enjoy! icon smile Such Sphinxes As These...

Incidentally, the page notes that “The Beinecke Library at Yale, where the manuscript has been part of the collection since the 1960s, gets regular requests from individuals wishing to ingest pieces of the manuscript (or, in some cases, just lick), inspired by a belief in its healing properties.” Now, not a lot of people know that (I for one certainly didn’t).

PS: people sometimes ask me if I make some of this stuff up. The mundane truth is that nobody could make it up, not even me – it’s way too scary.

PPS: I should make it clear that I myself have not licked (and have no plans to lick) the Voynich Manuscript, not even the strawberry-and-Oreo-flavoured pages in the middle of the herbal section.

A white tie? That could get you killed…

One thing that has long bothered me about the contents of the Somerton Man’s suitcase is the white tie (the one with the “T Keane” name on it). As the always-entertaining Pete Bowes asks in a recent tomsbytwo blog post,

What manner of man carries a white tie in his luggage?

tools tie A white tie? That could get you killed...

To which I’d add: what manner of man wears a white tie at all? And indeed, up until just now I had no sensible answer at all to either question (unless you count American white-tie gangster chic as a possibility). However, I just found a curious line from history, that suggests how wearing a white tie might very possibly get you killed in post-WW2 Australia…

It turns out that one of the most famous (long) white tie-wearers of the 20th century was French lawyer and fascist politician Pierre Laval (the 101st French President), one of only three men executed by the post-WW2 French High Court for political war crimes.

Pierre Laval a Meurisse 1931 250x300 A white tie? That could get you killed...

(Pierre Laval a Meurisse 1931” by Agence de presse Meurisse‏Bibliothèque nationale de France. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

The book “Nazi Dreamtime: Australian Enthusiasts for Hitler’s Germany” by David Bird mentions (pp. 214-216) that well-known Australian Professor Kelver Hayward Hartley (1909-1998) for a while wore a white shirt and white tie in some kind of emulation of Pierre Laval, openly signalling his Nazi-aligned anti-democratic views: and so in 1939 he inevitably came to the attention of the NSW Special Branch. Though Sergeant Simons and Constable Jones wrote a report damning his politics, they concluded that he was essentially harmless, and so he survived WW2 unscathed.

So… might the white tie in the Somerton Man’s suitcase actually be a sign of his far-right political allegiance? Right now, I can’t conceive why anyone in 1948 would consciously want to place themselves under Laval’s long shadow, unless they were themselves a fascist.

Unless anyone knows better… icon smile A white tie? That could get you killed...

Blitz Cipher, partial transcription…

As promised, here are my work-in-progress transcriptions for the newly-released pages #7 and #8 of the Blitz Ciphers. I’ve had to add a few new symbols to the transcription alphabet, so there are now about sixty or so: doubtless some will prove to be duplicates, but I’d rather slightly expand the alphabet when transcribing than make a wrong assumption that can’t easily be undone.

And what do they tell us? Well, I’ve already tried a series of statistical tests on them, though without anything jumping out so far. Even though they have a trailing-off instance count distribution with E at the top of the heap and D not far behind it, the rest seems fairly arbitrary.

Unlike Dave Oranchak, I haven’t spent years thinking about how to crack unbroken homophonic ciphers, so I don’t really know if this is expected behaviour. Some of the symbols could well be nulls, but I don’t (yet) have a good tool for predicting homophonic nulls: but maybe that’s just too old-fashioned a thing to hope for.

Here are some analysis links to Dave Oranchak’s Webtoy: page #7 analysis and page #8 analysis. Note that these only worked for me in Firefox (not IE), but other browsers may also work.

Overall: as of right now, I’d say the Blitz Ciphers looks a bit loose and patternless: in particular, the contact tables don’t quite ‘feel’ right.

Yet unlike Rich SantaColoma commenting on Klaus Schmeh’s page from a few days ago, I’m not yet ready to call this as an outright fake. Rather, what I’m saying is that the Blitz Ciphers seem to combine the instance frequency counts of monoalphabetic ciphers with the disorder of polyalphabetic ciphers and the inscrutability of homophonic ciphers. Two out of the three I could probably still feel comfortable with simultaneously (and work with), but having all three in play at the same time leaves me a bit… suspicious.

Basically, the jury’s out on this one, and they’re asking for pizza.

Page #7 (rotated 180 degrees from the image as released):

15491625601 57c6aec33d o 217x300 Blitz Cipher, partial transcription...


Page #8

15494781095 c5394506f1 o 215x300 Blitz Cipher, partial transcription...


Note that my expanded transcription alphabet looks like this (click for larger image):-

revised blitz alphabet495 300x196 Blitz Cipher, partial transcription...

The Beale Ciphers, a Third Way…

Earlier this year, I was interviewed for an episode in a new series of Myth Hunters (in the US, “Raiders of the Lost Past” in the UK). The documentary makers focused on a particular well-known group of Beale Treasure Hunters from some decades back: but for me, talking on camera brought a whole load of conflicting research strands to the front of my mind.

Specifically, people usually talk about the Beale Ciphers in a very polarized they’re-either-real-or-they’re-fake kind of way. But this doesn’t do the subject justice at all: in fact, to me the evidence suggests the Beale Papers are both real and fake at the same time. Which is a juicily paradoxical place to begin…

Firstly, the cryptology. I now believe that Jim Gillogly was just plain wrong when he concluded that what we now call the “Gillogly strings” are evidence of hoaxery. Rather, I have no doubt at all that they offer strong evidence of some kind of keystrings “poking through” the B1 ciphertext: nothing else makes any kind of practical sense to me. So on the one hand, I would say that I find the evidence that ciphertexts B1 and B3 do use some kind of genuine cipher system (because B3’s stats look extremely similar to B1’s stats) based on the DoI to be extremely convincing.

Yet secondly, the deciphered text of B2 doesn’t seem to tally with the account given in the text of the pamphlet. The writer writes: “To systematize a plan for my work I arranged the papers in the order of their length, and numbered them”. However, the deciphered text reads:-

I have deposited in the county of Bedford […] the following articles, belonging jointly to the parties whose names are given in number “3,” herewith […]

Paper number “1” describes the exact locality of the vault so that no difficulty will be had in finding it.

So who numbered the pages? The original encipherer (say, Thomas Beale?) as the ciphertext implies, or the writer of the pamphlet as the pamphlet text implies? The answer is simple: if the cipher is real, then the pages were numbered by the original author — but if the cipher is fake, it was the pamphlet writer who numbered them. There’s no middle ground to be had.

Logically, then, my conclusion is that if the cryptology demonstrates – as I think it does – that the Beale Ciphers B1 and B3 are genuine ciphers, then I think it is extremely likely that the pamphlet text is just a confection, a frippery. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that this implies that all the letters included in it are fake as well.

In which case, it seems that we have a new Third Way to proceed along: that while the ciphers (and possibly the name Thomas Beale) appear to be based on some kind of actual cryptography, everything else is probably something else entirely. Right now, my opinion is that the pamphlet is very probably some kind of retrospective whitewash (or do I mean ‘hogwash’?) wrapped around a genuine cipher.

Currently, the secret history of the Beale Papers looks to me like this: that while Robert Morriss probably was given a box at his hotel in 1822 by someone (Thomas Beale, why not?) to look after, when in 1845 Morriss forced the box open, it was simply to take what was inside for himself – there were no letters, no grizzlies, no stampede, none of it. But all Morriss actually found was some sheets of paper with numbers on and (I suspect) a Declaration of Independence: mystified, he eventually passed this on to a third party, who came to realise the relevance of the DoI to the sheets of dictionary cipher, and thus was able to crack the B2 ciphertext (though not the other two).

But as for the letters and the pamphlet… to my eyes, they’re nothing more than a fabrication, perhaps to justify Morriss’s breaking the locks, or perhaps to help Ward sell his pamphlets: possibly even both. But regardless, I don’t believe that anything much we find in the pamphlet (the ciphers aside) will help us move towards decrypting those ciphers. The secret is genuinely in the ciphers, sure, but I trust the rest of it not one jot.

Make of that what you will! icon smile The Beale Ciphers, a Third Way...

Voynich international art exhibition roaming across Europe in 2014-2015…

Coming soon to a town near you (if you’re in Europe), the Voynich 2014-2015 international art exhibition project. Put together by Ron Weijers and 10dence art collective from Schiedam in the Netherlands, the exhibition features works of art by twenty-five different artists, all connected by a single shared point of inspiration – the mysterious (and, dare I say it, oft-appropriated) Voynich Manuscript.

10dence gallery Voynich 2014 web 210x300 Voynich international art exhibition roaming across Europe in 2014 2015...

Will these plucky artists “revive debate and dialogue on the Voynich manuscript in their own specific manner”? Personally, I sincerely doubt it: to most artistic eyes, the (to-all-intents-and-purposes-utterly-asemic) Voynich Manuscript has proved as much a blank sheet of paper as, well, a blank sheet of paper. So you may just as well put together an exhibition inspired by non-green vegetables, superceded home appliances, or misplaced envy. Whatever floats your artistic boat.

All the same, I hope their foray into Voynichness stimulates them all, and perhaps even inspires some of them into exploring the razor-thin line between meaningfulness and meaninglessness which the Voynich treads in such a unique way. To me, art needs a little bit of that danger: whereas the greatest creative peril of taking on the Voynich normally lies in trying to mimic its oddly artistic liminality but falling well short. Good luck with that one, Euro art people!

Oh, and the exhibition starts in Schiedam this November (2014), and is planned to move on to other galleries during 2015.

The artists so far announced are:-
* Thorsten Dittrich – Germany
* Katerina Dramatinou – Greece
* Willem van Drunen – Netherlands
* Alex Kiefmeijer – Netherlands
* Louis Looijschelder – Netherlands
* Gerard Extra – Netherlands
* Helmut Findeiß – Germany
* Vered Gersztenkorn – Israel
* Liesbeth van Ginneken – Belgium
* Chung-Hsi Han -Netherlands
* Serhiy Savchenko – Ukraine
* Nikolaj Dielemans – Netherlands
* Karim El Seroui – Austria
* Reinhard Stammer – Germany
* Ron Weijers – Netherlands
* Mats Andersson – Sweden
* Efrat Zehavi – Netherlands
* Beppo Zuccheri – Italy
* Arturo Pacheco Lugo – Mexico
* Rudi Benétik – Austria
* Zuzana Kaliňaková – Slovakia
* Herman Gvardjančič – Slovenia
* Željko Mucko – Croatia
* Klementina Golija – Slovenia
* Ulrich Plieschnig – Austria

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