Thank you, a million times over…

As a quick glance at the top of this page should reveal, Cipher Mysteries has finally hit the million-visit mark, and without being carried there by any random traffic spikes.

And so to every Cipher Mysteries visitor I send a great big thank you, a million times over. :-)

But how best to celebrate this (relatively meaningless but numerically pleasing) milestone? For what it’s worth, my plan is to try to complete some of the bigger cipher-related things I’ve been working on over the last few years and put them out there for you all. After all, the whole point of this blog (in my mind, at least) is more about actual cipher history research than about cipher reportage or out-there theorizing.

Just so you know, the things I plan to finish and put out are:
* a small cipher book I was researching and writing back in 2012 (before I ran out of evidence to work with)
* my “block paradigm” analysis of the Voynich zodiac section
* a surprisingly-well-known-but-entirely-unmapped cipher mystery (which needs proper transcribing etc)
* a top secret cipher project (but that’s another story entirely)

Incidentally, The Cipher Foundation now (finally!) has a bank account, so I also plan to put its first microproject (translating Le Flibustier Mysterieux) in motion over the next few days.

Finally, I also plan to set up a celebratory pub meet one Sunday in the next couple of months, where I shall see if I can persuade an historic London pub to put on a barrel of “Enigma” for us (if Robinson’s even still brew it, because it has disappeared from their website), and perhaps stream the meet live on the Internet, so everyone can take part if they wish. Hope to see you there! :-)

The person not on the S.S.Cimbria…

A quick note following up yesterday’s post about Henry Debosnys and the S.S.Cimbria (that Debosnys claimed to have caught from Le Havre in June 1871).

According to a February 1980 article (in issue #105 of The Chronicle of the US Classic Postal Issues) called The Hamburg American Line – Mail Packets from New York 4 January 1870 to 23 December 1875 – via Plymouth and Cherbourg to Hamburg by Clifford L. Friend and Walter Hubbard, the S.S. Cimbria did not (just as I suspected) call at Le Havre on the crossings arriving at New York on the 21st May 1871 or 2nd July 1871.

Here’s a table containing links to all the information I have for Cimbria arrivals in New York in 1870 and 1871:

- Le Havre -/- New York -
23 Jan 1870 / 04 Feb 1870 - Roll 323, but Cumbria out of Glasgow rather than Cimbria?
05 Mar 1870 / 15 Mar 1870 - Roll 324, pp.253-264
16 Apr 1870 / 26 Apr 1870 - Roll 326, pp.299-315
04 Jun 1870 / 14 Jun 1870 - Roll 330, pp.151-166
........... / 14 Nov 1870
........... / 05 Jan 1871
19 Feb 1871 / 01 Mar 1871 - Roll 339, pp.317-323
01 Apr 1871 / 09 Apr 1871 - Passenger list
........... / 21 May 1871 - Roll 343, pp.118-139
........... / 02 Jul 1871 - Roll 345, pp.141-153
15 Sep 1871 / 25 Sep 1871 - Roll 349, pp.34-49
28 Oct 1871 / 08 Nov 1871 - Passenger list

(Say what you like: people may keep trying to stamp it out, but philately will get you everywhere.)

Hence Debosnys plainly could not have caught the Cimbria at Le Havre in Jun 1871, because the ship didn’t stop there on that Atlantic crossing.

Moreover, even though 1871 saw many people emigrating from France to America, this is not reflected in the passenger lists of the Cimbria, in which I have seen not a single French person in 1871, and but a handful in 1870 (almost all of which were people in their 20s). I cannot help but suspect that the Cimbria did not normally take on passengers at Le Havre. As a result, right now I am deeply skeptical that Debosnys travelled across on the Cimbria in either 1870 or 1871.

Hence I think it far more likely that Debosnys came over on one of the numerous ships from Le Havre during 1871 carrying French emigrants. But trawling through those passenger lists (many of which are quite poor quality in the PDFs of the microfilms) would be quite an epic task, with only a small chance of success.

It might be better to first narrow down the range of years in which he made this journey. Currently, the earliest external record we have of Debosnys in America is from the French Society in Philadelphia in December 1878, where he and his wife Celestine were the recipient of charity until her death in 1882 [Adirondack Enigma, pp.90-91]. Celestine certainly existed, because commenter Misca found this entry on

Name: Celestine Debosnys
Birth Date: abt 1839
Death Date: 5 Mar 1882
Death Place: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Age at Death: 43
Gender: Female
Race: White
Cemetery: Alms House
Marital Status: Married
FHL Film Number: 2057163

“I checked the Alms House cemetery. She is not listed there but this may be an oversight of some sort. Not sure.”

I guess the next step back in time would be finding the date of their marriage. Hmmm…

Henry Debosnys and the Cimbria…?

As Gerry Feltus’ “The Unknown Man” is to the Somerton Man, Cheri Farnsworth’s all-too-brief “The Adirondack Enigma” is (though densely informative) self-avowedly far from the last word on the mystery surrounding Henry Debosnys. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that many doors in her book remain swinging wide open, waiting for determined readers (perhaps with access to different sets of historical resources) to march through them into the darkness beyond, wearing their well-used +10 Night Goggles of Historical Truth.

Which is, of course, exactly what a fair few Cipher Mysteries readers love to do.

For all of us, though, the central challenge with Henry Debosnys is simply this: that while it seems that a portion of what he told reporters (and while in jail he spoke to them a lot, all the while he wasn’t trying to engineer his own escape) was basically true, a second portion was misspelled or misremembered, and a third portion was outright fabricated. (“Self-serving baloney” wouldn’t be a great exaggeration). And so our difficulty is knowing where each portion starts and finishes.

For example, he wrote in a margin that he changed his name to “Henry Deletnack Debosnys” in October 1870 [Adirondack Enigma p.71] (though without any explanation); and he claimed that he travelled from Havre de Grace to New York aboard the Cimbria in June 1871 with his [presumably first] wife Judith (he says she then died in July 1871, whereupon her body was sent back to France).

Debosnys elsewhere writes that his children were (as of 1883) being brought up by a brother in England: so it is not obvious whether the children he claimed to have were with them on the Cimbria.

However, Farnsworth flags that she could find no archival trace at all of Judith Debosnys’ life or indeed death: which I for one find highly suspicious.

And My Current Hypothesis Is…

Personally, I suspect that what is happening here is that we’re being spun a great big line – a complicated, tangled line, for sure, but a line nonetheless.

I must be clear: there seems no obvious reason to conclude that Debosnys, for all his linguistic brio, was anything more than a manipulative, lazy, grotesquely egotistical sociopath, if not actually an outright psychopath. We cannot directly trust any detail of his claimed life that we cannot verify.

So… might it be that Henry Debosnys had already killed his first wife (who was perhaps called Judith, or perhaps not) back in France (perhaps in or around October 1870), and hence the primary purpose of changing his name was to evade justice? This seems the simplest explanation of all, absent any evidence either way.

Was Debosnys On The S.S.Cimbria?

…and if so, what name was he using? It may well be that the only thing we can trust to be moderately accurate is his age (and possibly his nationality): so perhaps we can produce a list of candidates of the right sort of age who all boarded the Cimbria at Havre Le Grace circa June 1871, and then use other cross-referencing means to try to whittle that down to a small handful.

As a result, I think these are certainly questions that we might be able to answer, if (and only if) Debosnys was moderately truthful about arriving on this ship at around this date.


From this (cached) history of the Cimbria, we can see that it crossed the Atlantic to New York 72 times between 1870 and 1882, before sinking in January 1883. (More pictures here.)

During the year 1871, the Cimbria arrived eight times in New York (according to this): here’s a link to a transcribed list of the passengers on board the ship when it landed in NY on 10th April 1871. According to this page, one person died of smallpox and one was hospitalized on the 21st May 1871 arrival, while two were hospitalized on the 2nd July 1871 arrival. So it would initially seem probable we should be looking at the 2nd July 1871 arrival, right?

The Cimbria’s arrival and passenger list is indeed noted on pp.141-153 of Roll 345. But here’s a mystery for you: apart from a few Swiss and a handful of Dutch, it seems that every non-American passenger on this arrival was actually German. So there would seem to be no reason to think this steamer stopped at Havre le Grace on its way over.

Similarly, Roll 343 covers Cimbria’s 21st May 1871 arrival on pp.118-139: and (again) apart from some Russians, some Dutch, some Belgians and a Mexican, every non-American passenger was German: not a single French person either. Did this stop at Havre le Grace? It wouldn’t seem so.

All in all, it seems probable to me that if Debosnys did arrive on the Cimbria from Havre le Grace, it wasn’t in May, June, or July 1871. The Cimbria definitely did call at Havre Le Grace on other crossings (e.g. 25th October 1871), but apparently not these ones.

Can someone who is tolerably good at reading 19th century American handwriting please have a look at these two passenger lists and see if I’m missing something really obvious?

My prediction would be that Debosnys arrived in New York after October 1870 but before 1872: and that there is a reasonable chance (though far from certain) he travelled on the Cimbria. But until I see anything verified by proper archival evidence, I’m really not sure what to believe about this man: and I strongly recommend that anyone else trying to make sense of this tale should do much the same.

17th Century Cipher Mystery Meme…

The “Devil’s Handwriting” cipher first appeared in 1539, reproduced in a book by Teseo Ambrogio Albonesi: and, of course, nobody has yet managed to read even a word of it.

But for a short time in the mid-17th Century, oddly enough, it became hugely famous when a copy of Albonesi’s book held by Queen’s College was proudly shown to the newly-Restored Charles II (along with the Queen and the Duke and Duchess of York) on a visit to Oxford on Michaelmas Day 1663. It was the talk of court; and the matter of a small bribe to persuade someone to bring the book out on display became a necessary evil for tourists working their way around Oxford’s wondrous historical sights.

The Devil’s Handwriting then found use a kind of cipher mystery meme: that is, in much the same way that netizens now occasionally use the Voynich Manuscript as a handy metaphoric brick to virtually lob at things they deem incomprehensible, a 1674 poem by Thomas Flatman uses the Devil’s Handwriting to disparage the allegedly impenetrable poetry of Sam Austin of Wadham College:

“We with our fingers may your Verses scan,
But all our Noddles understand them can
No more, than read that dungfork, pothook hand
That in Queen’s Colledge Library does stand.”

[And in fact in 1743, Johann Christian Götze (describing Albonesi’s book) used almost exactly the same phrase to describe the shape of the Devil’s Handwriting’s letters: Mist-Gabeln. Nice.]

Another Oxonian poem (this time from 1746) celebrates rather than execrates the cryptogram:

A dark, oracular, mysterious scrawl:
Uncouth, occult, unknown to ancient Greece,
The Persian Magi, or the wise Chinese.
Nor runic this, nor Coptic does appear;
No, ’tis the diabolic character.

All in all, I think it fair to say that, circa 1665, while the Voynich Manuscript was still on its way to Athanasius Kircher’s to begin a multi-century sleep in Jesuit trunks, the most famous cipher mystery in the world was actually… the Devil’s Handwriting. Just so you know.

PS: I’ve added a page to the Cipher Foundation website containing all the above references to the Devils’ Handwriting.

Thoughts on the Debosnys Ciphers…

In Essex County, New York in 1882, a mysterious man called Henry D. Debosnys was convicted of (and executed for) killing his newly-married wife, a widow by the name of Elizabeth Wells. He claimed to have been born near Lisbon in 1836, but refused to identify himself further, saying that to do so would bring shame upon his family.

From his time in jail, Debosnys left behind some drawings and sketches; some poetry in French (though fairly egotistical and shallow, it has to be said); and some cryptograms, at least one of which also seems to be a poem:-



However, nobody has so far decrypted so much as a word of any of these. I’ve put a complete set of scans on the Cipher Foundation website, and will post transcriptions there in a while, when I’ve worked out a good way of transcribing them (because doing so isn’t quite as easy as you might think).

I first found out about this cipher mystery from Klaus Schmeh’s presentation at the recent (2015) NSA cryptology history conference (as recorded by Rich SantaColoma), which focused on those historical affairs that involve both an unsolved cipher and an unsolved (or at least somewhat unexplained) crime.

Incidentally, there’s a 127-page book on the whole Debosnys affair – Adirondack Enigma: The Depraved Intellect and Mysterious Life of North Country Wife Killer Henry Debosnys by Cheri L. Farnsworth (2010) – which I have (of course) ordered and will discuss further when it lands on my doorstep.

But meanwhile, there’s plenty to be said about Debosnys’s ciphers themselves…

Initials in the Ciphers

Given that Debosnys claimed to have previously been married twice, the presence of a pair of holding hands next to the initials “L.M.F.” is suggestive of something to do with a relationship:-


There are also some initials embedded in one of the cryptograms, with a number of dots below each letters.


Given that the man’s name was Henry D. Debosnys, these H[4] D[8] D[7] L[6] M[6] F[5] patterns of dots suggest (if I have been able to count the dots correctly from the scan) that they code for H[enry] D[xxxxxxxx] D[ebosnys] L[xxxxxx] M[xxxxxx] F[xxxxx]. And my guess is that this will be true of sub-glyph dots elsewhere in the cryptograms. I would be interested to know what his middle name was, given that this pattern of dots seems to indicate its length.

Doubled Letters

From the cryptograms I have seen (and, needless to say, there may be more that I haven’t), there are only three glyph shapes that obviously appear in pairs:


Of these three, the doubled dotted-X pair (six or so instances) appears much more frequently than the other pairs (one each): which makes me suspect it is a genuine letter. If I had to guess, though, I’d predict that this “XX” glyph pair stands in for the French “double-v” (i.e. the letter “W”), because of the absence of many other doubled glyphs in the text. Doubtless you’ll have your own opinion, though.

By the way, does anyone have the doubled-letter instance statistics for French?

Snakes (but no Ladders)

The mention of snakes (as ornamental design features) in the Copiale Cipher certainly had some kind of echo (perhaps inadvertantly, perhaps not) in the second La Buse cryptogram. And, curiously, six snakes appear integrated into the text of Debosnys’s cryptograms:-


Even though I don’t yet know what is going on with these ciphers, I personally would be somewhat surprised if they turn out to have anything obviously to do with Freemasonry. But that’s just my opinion, make of it what you will (a crane, perhaps, or possibly a boat, depending on how good you are at origami).

Clustered Glyphs

These sit right at the heart of the problem we face when we try to transcribe Debosnys’s ciphers. So many of the glyphs we see are formed from a consistent set of subshapes that it looks very much to me as though many of these component pieces will turn out to be vowels, common letters or perhaps even spaces.

I’ve put a few of these clusters together here:


So, what would be the best way of transcribing these clusters? It’s far from obvious to me: I suspect that as soon as you know how to transcribe them, you’ll also know how to read the whole text.

And The First Decrypted Word Will Be…

For me, there’s little doubt that the first decrypted word will be either ‘je’, ‘me’ or ‘moi’, and that it will be in the poem-like section of the cryptogram. This is simply because Debosnys’s French poem uses the words ‘je’, ‘me’ or ‘moi’ on pretty much every line, so it seems highly likely to me that his encrypted poem will turn out to have much the same (egotistical) profile.

But please feel free to form your own cipher theories. :-)

Translating “Le Flibustier Mysterieux”…

As I mentioned not long ago, while spending an enjoyable afternoon last Saturday mooching round the London Library in an even-though-I’m-feeling-a-bit-lost-that’s-basically-OK kind of way, I found sufficient time to scan in the whole of Charles de la Roncière’s (1934) “Le Flibustier Mysterieux” and take home on a memory stick.

And now I’ve read it, I have to say it’s… really quite different from what I expected. The keel (if you like) of the book is de la Roncière’s quest to attribute the 17-line cryptogram to an Indian Ocean French pirate. He takes the approach of examining lots of pirate / treasure stories from broadly the right time and place, and seeing if he can use them to gain a glimpse of the mysterious man hiding behind the cryptogram’s curtain.

His book was clearly, I think, written for a popular audience: and even though he occasionally tries to affect academic detachment and skepticism of his sources, the raw evidence he’s moulding the whole thing from is simply too slight. Being brutally honest, I came to the book expecting a soupçon of the rigour and maritime erudition that he brought to his (literally) heavyweight six-volume “Histoire de la Marine Française” (from 1898 to 1932!): but found not so much as a single footnote. Perhaps he had footnoted himself out over those long decades.

On balance, though, perhaps that’s not so much of a issue for “Le Flibustier Mysterieux”, because it isn’t honestly that kind of a beast: rather, it’s both entertaining and an (on the whole) easy read.

All the same, I think it suffers from one big underlying problem, un éléphant dans la chambre: that History – and in particular historiography – has changed so much in 80 years that we would need the whole thing annotated and positioned within the context of what we now know in order to make proper sense of what he’s saying. Otherwise his book would be no more than a Parisian curio, a 115-page historical footnote (if you like).

Cipher Foundation Microproject #1

As I mentioned before, what I originally had in mind here was asking people to volunteer to transcribe two or three pages each from scans: but having now myself sat down and typed in sixty-five (small-ish) pages in one day, it became quickly clear that it would take far less time and effort to do it myself than to set up and coordinate a way of collaborating broadly to make that happen.

Hence what I want to aim for instead here is something a bit bigger, more thoughtful, and (I hope) more genuinely revealing; and something that overall better fits The Cipher Foundation’s charitable purpose (to “improve awareness of historical codes and ciphers”).

So rather than just transcribe it, what I’m now planning to do is commission an annotated translation of it. In short, The Cipher Foundation’s first historical cipher microproject will be: Translating “Le Flibustier Mysterieux”.

Inevitably, I haven’t worked out all the details yet (do you think Indiegogo would be the best crowdfunding platform? Or perhaps somewhere else entirely?) and it’ll take more than a few days to get the bank account, PayPal account, and the friendly-looking [Click Here To Donate] button all working etc. But it’s a plan, and – I hope you’ll agree – not an entirely bad plan either.

And if I do pretty much the opposite of everything Derek Abbott did with his attempt at crowdfunding, it should work out fine. :-p

Does that make sense to you?

A day at London Library…

I’ve just had a day at the London Library, thanks to a £15 Day Pass scheme they offer (though note you have to bring various forms of current ID with you, and to let them know in advance – you can’t just turn up).

The main reason I went there was to have a look at the only copy of Charles de la Roncière’s 1934 “Le Flibustier Mysterieux” that WorldCat knows of in the UK (much more on that another day), but in the meantime there’s a lot more to be said about London Library.

For a start, I have to say it’s maddeningly frustrating to the point of near impossibility to find your way around the place. Whereas full members get given a heavyweight induction (I suspect so that people don’t have the embarrassment of stumbling over a new member’s corpse, lying long-dead in a far unlit corner of History Level 6), day pass visitors get dumped in the deep end. Clearly, nobody cares if they live or die: so I’m just glad I got out alive. :-)

As an aside, if you do want to find your way around London Library, my three top tips are:
(a) Because the building is in two halves (History/Science in one and Art/Language/Fiction in the other), the easiest / most reliable way to get from one to the other is all the way down to the reception area and back up again. Boring, but effective.
(b) Don’t be afraid to turn lights on yourself (most seem to be off, but you turn them on via pull-cords that are usually at the far end of the row of books you’re standing beside). Failing that, trace the wiring trunking above your head and you’ll find the cord about 50% of the time.
(c) If, like me, you want to look at the contents of “Philology, Cryptography” on the Mezzanine floor on the Arts half, ask someone to help you find it – I eventually stumbled upon it through sheer persistence (it’s shockingly similar to Platform 9¾ in Harry Potter), but that was definitely a poor choice on my part.

Speaking of “Philology, Cryptography”, the Library’s indexing scheme is just about as idiosyncratic as the Warburg Institute’s famously obtuse layout. The safest approach is to search the online catalogue to find at least one book you know is going to be there (say, David Kahn’s “The Codebreakers”, of which it actually has two copies), and work back to the book’s physical location from there. Once you’re in the stacks themselves, you’ll see all the other weird and wonderful books they have there, which is what using London Library is actually all about. (You can also do that virtually from the catalogue, though it’s not half as much fun).

Other nice things:
* If you bring along a USB stick, you can scan stuff on a funky-looking scanner for free (though it only let me store stuff as PDFs, and the adjustment roller on the left side was broken). But don’t forget to tap the on-screen SAVE button each time (easy to forget).
* If you don’t have a USB stick with you, Reception sells 2GB sticks in a range of colours for a very reasonable £2 each.
* If you’re scanning an oldish book, my advice would be to ask at the desk for a “snake” – a string containing a series of small leaded weights – to hold your book down nicely. Also: click the green horizontal bar to start a scan by squeezing it from above and below at the same time, or else your book may get disturbed.
* London Library has subscriptions to JSTOR, ProQuest and various other services; and even though the search PC itself is inaccessible, the trick is that the monitor has USB sockets on the side that you can plug your USB stick into (i.e. and save PDFs to, to read them at home).
* There’s a members lounge on the top floor of the Arts side… but I ran out of time before sampling its delights and rarified heights.

For me, probably the London Library’s nicest resources of all are its newspaper and journal archives. How extraordinarily splendid to have The Times, The Gentleman’s Magazine, and indeed Le Journal Des Savants all in one place, along with hundreds of others.

But… given that it’s a private library you have to subscribe to, would I really want to pay several hundred pounds a year for the privilege? Well… no. While it does have an excellent and properly eclectic collection of (over a million) books, I think being a member is far more about paying for serendipity: bumping into Stephen Poole’s “Unspeak”, or The BBC Guide to Radio Pronunciation for 1934 to 1937, etc etc etc. If you are a specialist researcher, it’s not so far across town to the British Library and its 170+ million items, a number which makes my jaw ache with droppingness every time I try to even think about it.

At the same time, if I wanted to go through a particular journal or book that the London Library had that wasn’t otherwise digitized, I’d happily pay £15 for a day pass for sure (as was the case here). It’s a nice experience, too (if you don’t mind feeling lost for half the day).

For any bibliophile (or indeed bibliophage) who finds themselves in London for a few days, I’d suggest that a day pass to London Library (it’s not too far from the Ritz Hotel, by Green Park) would probably be £15 very well spent. Cheaper than the London Eye! 😉

The Anthon Transcript evidence…

As part of the long slow process of fleshing out the Cipher Foundation’s website, I’ve added a new page there laying out the core evidence relating to the Anthon Transcript, a cipher-like document that sits right at the heart of the foundation history / mythology of the Mormon Church.

The short (non-TLDR;) version is that even though it has long been claimed that the Anthon Transcript (shown to Professor Charles Anthon in 1828) and the Caractors fragment are one and the same, a photograph that was unearthed in Clay County Museum in Missouri in 2012 seems to disprove this whole notion. Hmmm.

All the same, people continue to build high-rise cipher theories on top of this unsupportive sandy loam. Most recently, Jerry Grover announced his own fairly epic (251 pages of argument) Caractors translation, the renders the first four lines as:

In the nineteenthth regnal year of Mosiah I, the Nephites traveled over the mountains to the foreign speaking people of Mulek. These twenty thousand ‘children of Mosiah’ traveled downriver on the east side of the River Sidon [Grijalva] for eighty days and reached Zarahemla. And then it came to pass that after ten years thus began the period of the Seven Tribes. After the space of twenty-one more years had passed, Zeniff, with sixty of his people, departed. Fifty-three more years then passed; then the Limhiites obtained twenty-four plates from the west in the Land of Desolation, returning upriver on the River of Lamanite Possessions [Usumacinta]. After their return upriver, seven years later, the Limhiites traveled west, bringing the pure gold Jaredite plates to Mosiah (II), which he translated. Previous to the arrival of the Limhiites, Benjamin was made King in the second month of the four hundred and thirty-sixth year after Lehi left Jerusalem. At the age of eighty-three, King Benjamin ascended to eternity, which was four hundred seventy nine years after Lehi left Jerusalem. King Benjamin’s death occurred one and one third years before the arrival of the Limhites. Four years before the arrival of the Limhites, the period of the Seven Tribes ended in conjunction with the Jubilee Year.

Personally, I’d assess the probability that this is correct is roughly the same as a truck load of lobsters falling out of a clear blue sky into my garden: in that I can conceive that it is (just about) possible and (broadly) consistent with the laws of physics etc.

More generally, I’d offer this as a stark warning to idiot Voynich linguists such as Stephen Bax, as the kind of ultimate destination their foolish non-theorizing would lead to.

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. :-(

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