Kidd, Poe, ‘Imogine’, and Charles Garrett…

If you know a bit about the history of cryptography, then you’ll probably know that the first well-known modern story about ciphers was Edgar Allan Poe’s (1843) “The Gold-Bug“. Poe explicitly built his narrative around the legend of Captain Kidd’s treasure, so in many ways it forms a kind of literary bridge between the worlds of buried treasure and ciphers. Of course, he was writing some 80 years before the Kidd-Palmer treasure maps and La Buse cryptograms surfaced (and long before “Treasure Island”, which appeared in 1881), so his story is unaffected by any of these.

Just so you know, the (simple substitution) cipher he devised looks a lot like this:-

53‡‡†305))6*;4826)4‡.)4‡);806*;48†8
¶60))85;1‡(;:‡*8†83(88)5*†;46(;88*96
*?;8)*‡(;485);5*†2:*‡(;4956*2(5*—4)8
¶8*;4069285);)6†8)4‡‡;1(‡9;48081;8:8‡
1;48†85;4)485†528806*81(‡9;48;(88;4
(‡?34;48)4‡;161;:188;‡?;

Previously (in 1840), Poe had challenged readers of “Alexander’s Weekly Messenger” to send in simple substitution ciphers for him to crack in print, and so had for some time been aware of a widespread public interest in cryptography. “The Gold-Bug”, then, was written to capitalize on this interest: and won a $100 prize. Later, many readers were inspired by “The Gold Bug” to develop an interest in codebreaking, most notably a young William Friedman of whom you may have heard…

However, when reading about “The Gold-Bug” the other day, my eye was drawn to one aspect to the whole affair that I found intriguing. At the time, newspaper editor John Du Solle made the suggestion (though one he quickly retracted) that Poe may have drawn inspiration from the 1839 “Imogine; or the Pirate’s Treasure“, written by 13-year-old girl George Ann Humphreys Sherburne.

It’s true that the two tales do share key elements: but as is so often the case, those ideas were without doubt very much ‘in the air’ at the time. Rather, the two stories seem related in the same way that Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” drew ideas from numerous earlier books, but had an entirely new style of presenting them that made it feel fresh and appealing. Basically, in both cases I’m quite sure that Poe or Stevenson weren’t (literary) pirates, but simply well-read writers with a zingy contemporary geometry to add shape and style to the narrative building blocks that they found around them.

But ever since Du Solle’s speedily retracted comparison, it seemed to me that hardly anybody had actually bothered to read Sherburne’s story (mainly because almost everyone mis-spells its protagonist’s name, *sigh*). I did, though: and I found something a little unexpected…

imogine cover Kidd, Poe, Imogine, and Charles Garrett...

Having trawled past all the girlish swooning chapters and then the unexpected (but unconvincing) chapter with a death, in Chapter VIII the reader finally gets to the climax of the piece where (to almost nobody’s great surprise) the pirate treasure is finally found along with a skeleton…

“Yes”, said Imogine, “and just as you came up, I was about turning over that piece of old iron near the bones.”

“Ah! I see it,” replied her father, “and it looks to me like the top of a ship’s iron pot;” and turning it over with his cane, saw under it white sea sand, [in] which, on stirring about, gold and silver pieces were seen sparkling, which caused an exclamation from all.

“What a great discovery is this!” said Mr Belmont, turning and looking with surprise at Imogine and Cornelia;

[...]

After placing the skeleton in a box, and interring it, they removed the treasure, and in doing so, discovered another similar pot to the first under it, but more valuable, which was all moved safely to the house.”

What’s so unusual about this? Well… according to near-legendary metal-detectorist Charles Garrett, it has often been the case that a large treasure cache is buried immediately below a small treasure cache. Garrett post-rationalizes / explains this as a kind of ‘trap’ for treasure hunters, i.e. for them to be satisfied with robbing out the (small) topmost treasure, while leaving the (big) treasure underneath intact for the original owner. (Though personally, I suspect it’s just as likely that they couldn’t be bothered to dig a bigger hole.)

The big question, then, is this: how would a 13-year-old girl writing in 1839 know to describe such an arrangement… except if she had been party to the ins and outs of an actual treasure dig? I’m not suggesting that recovered pirate treasure is the true secret of the Astor family fortune (mainly because that particular joke’s already been done to death)… but maybe there’s a touch more truth in Sherburne’s story than might at first be thought.

Perhaps the real giveaway in the whole thing is the curious tag-line on “Imogine”‘s cover: “This is all as true as it is strange“. What do you think?

PS: another mystery to ponder is who “George Ann Humphreys Sherburne” was? Apart from her presumed birth in 1825, there appears to be no other information on her anywhere at all. Unless you happen to know better, of course… please leave a comment if you do! icon smile Kidd, Poe, Imogine, and Charles Garrett...

9 Comments

  1. avatar bdid1dr September 27, 2013 3:28 pm

    Nick, unless their website has been driven off the WWW by LDS haters, the Mormon “Family Search” engine will probably give you a lot of genealogical information on Imogine. The more common way of spelling is Imogene. RootsWeb is another good site.
    Kidd and Poe — I thought I had read all of their works. Good going! ;-)

  2. avatar SirHubert September 27, 2013 7:12 pm

    How very strange that there seems to be absolutely no biographical information anywhere. I suppose that ‘George Ann Humphreys Sherburne’ was probably a nom de plume, but I’m surprised that nobody seems to have taken any interest in an early nineteenth century female American author.

    I have one extremely long shot for you: Eleanor Mary Sherburn (you’ll have to look her up – I can’t post the links here) was born in 1824, came from a family with long-standing marine connections (her father and grandfather were both master mariners), and her husband died in Washington DC, where Imogine was published.
    Tenuous even by Voynich standards, I know, but at least we don’t have any stray Jesuits…

  3. avatar TuckerResearch September 27, 2013 10:47 pm

    Nick: I found an 1844 story titled “The Anonymous Letter” in a few US newspapers by “Miss George Ann H. Sherburne, Authoress of ‘The Demon’s Cave,’ ‘The Heiress,’ etc.” (I can send a PDF if you’d like.) In 1845 the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper, the first publisher of “The Anonymous Letter,” awarded her a $50 prize and stated she was “of Philadelphia.” The little story is a love drama, nothing about ciphers in it. Other than that, I can find very little. There are five families living in Pennsylvania named Sherburne in the 1840 census, and about thirty in 1850. But I can’t find George Ann in them. By 1850, she might have been married (or, more morbidly, dead).

  4. avatar nickpelling September 28, 2013 3:58 pm

    TuckerResearch: if you could email me a PDF (it’s behind GenalogyBank.com’s pay wall, from the Philadelphia “Public Ledger” of Tuesday August 27 1844) to write up here, I’d really appreciate it, thanks – there really is so little out there on this mysterious young lady.

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  5. avatar t Anderson September 29, 2013 6:00 am

    To have been well educated she must have at least had semi well to do parents who could either afford her education, or educate her themselves. The publisher is also obscure, but the printer was successful. My point being their records may survive, or a more intensive search may determine more about the publisher.

    I don’t really know that we can say for sure that it was published under a pen name either, though it is very long for such.

  6. avatar Tricia September 29, 2013 3:54 pm

    George Humphreys + Ann Sherburn .?

  7. avatar Diane September 30, 2013 11:33 am

    Is there a technical term in cryptography for words reducted to acronyms but then combined with numbers?

    It’s not just abbreviated. I don’t think it can be called a simple substitution (can it?)

    as in
    42oN;23oE

    For want of the correct term I’m calling it an acronymic text.

  8. avatar Tricia October 1, 2013 10:16 pm

    Where’s Thomas Spande?

  9. avatar bdid1dr October 13, 2013 12:08 am

    Tricia: Somebody “Stephen Bax” lured ThomSpande away a couple of weeks ago.
    In re the nom de plume (or not so plume): What if she may have been a Sher”wood” who chose to “burn” the wood into a “plume” of smoke (smoke-screen?) Nick, if you think I’m a hopelss punster, you have yet to meet my beloved husband! :-)

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