After The History Channel’s recent season of “The Hunt For The Zodiac Killer” programmes (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5), I thought it was time to get back to some non-fake-news codebreaking research.

In particular, I want to suggest an approach we might follow to try to solve the Z340 that (hopefully) won’t need a brain the size of a planet to run it. But first I’m going to talk about the Z13 cipher, because I think it tells us a lot about what is hidden inside the Z340 and indeed why the Z340 was written at all…

The Z13 Cipher

The text just above the Zodiac Killer’s Z13 cipher (20th April 1970) clearly and unambiguously refers back to a ‘name’ supposedly in the Z340 cipher (8th November 1969), though as far as I can see the “Dripping Pen” note that arrived with the Z340 didn’t mention a name at all:

An oft-repeated account for this is that the Z13 had been constructed in response to a kind of cryptographic ‘taunt’ that appeared six months previously in the Examiner newspaper on 22nd October 1969, as detailed here. In the Examiner piece, entitled “Cipher Expert Dares Zodiac To ‘Tell’ Name“, the President of the American Cryptogram Association issued a direct challenge to the Zodiac Killer to reveal his name in a cipher.

However, if you put all these pieces together, it seems highly likely to me that it was instead the Z340 cipher that had been constructed as a response to President Marsh’s taunt (it appeared a mere seventeen days later). Hence it seems entirely reasonable to conclude that the Z340 indeed contains a specific name for us to decrypt – though, as always, it seems highly unlikely that this will contain the Zodiac Killer’s actual name.

Cryptanalytically, though, the Z13 couldn’t be further removed from the homophonic world of the (cracked) Z408 (and presumably the Z340), in that it has shape repeats and internal structure aplenty. In fact, if you colour all the Z13’s repeated cipher shapes (again, once using Dave Oranchak’s neat-o-rama Cipher Explorer), this is what you see:

Much as I love “Sarah The Horse” and “Clara Cataract” as elegant literary plaintexts for this, it’s important to note that these are homophonic solutions for something whose many repeats point to its actually being a monoalphabetic substitution cipher. Dave Oranchak’s “Laura Catapult”, and glurk’s “Gary Lyle Large” are fine examples of how it is possible to construct name-like phrases to fit: but these are relatively rare examples in a surprisingly sparse, errm, name-space.

In many ways, whereas the problem with the Z340 is that it has too many shapes, the problem with the Z13 is arguably that it has too few shapes. So there would seem to be something a little odd going on here, cryptanalytically speaking: something feels wrong.

In his 2017 book “Unsolved!”, Craig Bauer praised a possible crack of the Z13 cipher which I hadn’t previously heard of, and credits p.128 of Robert Graysmith’s (2002) “Zodiac Unmasked: The Identity of America’s Most Elusive Serial Killer Revealed” as the source (though Graysmith talks about it as if the suggestion were as old as the [Hollywood] Hills):

Now, even though this doesn’t quite fit the pattern (the N cipher shape shouldn’t be shared between plaintext F and M), I think Bauer was completely right to give this his imprimatur, because it seems exceptionally close. Giving MAD Magazine’s “Alfred E. Neuman” as his name feels like this exactly the kind of thing the Zodiac Killer would do, in that it is taunting, unhelpful, superior, nasty, satirical, self-centred, and narcissistic in all the right ways.

For ALFREDENEUMAN to be the Z13’s plaintext, the only concession you would need to make is that a single letter was misenciphered: and as starting points go for a ciphertext that already feels as though it has too few shapes, this is not half as big a step as almost all other solutions I’ve seen proposed. Even though I completely accept that this isn’t cast-iron proof, I do think it suggests that it is well worth considering as a conditional piece of evidence to work with.

And Now, The Z340 Cipher…

For me, the big (if not ‘huge’) question the above leads to is this: if this ALFREDENEUMAN Z13 decryption is actually correct, might the Zodiac Killer have included exactly the same name in his Z340 cipher? And if so, might we be able to use the name as a known-plaintext crib into the Z340? (AKA a block-paradigm match. 🙂 )

Assuming the Z340 does use some kind of homophonic cipher, there are (340 – 12) possible positions the Z13 crib could be positioned at: however, we should be able to eliminate any position containing a cipher shape repeat within the 13-shape stretch that does not match a repeat in the ALFREDENEUMAN crib, because that would mean that the same homophonic cipher shape would have been used to encipher two different plaintext letters.

For example, because Z340 line #4 begins “S99…”, the “99” part could not be any part of the Z13 crib because there are no doubled letters in “ALFREDENEUMAN”: this is also true for the “++” pairs in lines #4, #14, and #18. Similarly, the +..+ repeat on line #9 and the W..W repeat on line #18 both cannot be in the crib, because no plaintext letter is repeated three steps apart in “ALFREDENEUMAN”. If you run this against the most widely used Z340 transcription, there are – according to the vanilla C test I put together (below, which you can actually run for yourself by clicking on [Run]) – exactly 197 valid crib positions. So we can eliminate (340-12-197) = 131 candidate positions. Which is nice. 🙂

What I find interesting is that locking a set of fixed set of letters to an (albeit still hypothetical) crib should enable us to use a homophonic solver on far smaller subsections of the Z340 than we would normally be able to do. I’ve written before about how the top half and the bottom half of the Z340 have quite different (but subtly overlapping) properties: for example, how top-half ‘+’ characters seems to work differently to bottom-half ‘+’ characters. As a result, I think it would make sense to try to solve lines #1 to #9 separately from lines #11 to #19.

But there are other results, that point out how lines #1 to #3 seem to work quite differently from lines #4 to #6, and so on. So the ability to try to solve even smaller blocks of lines may well be a critically useful string for our cryptological bow.

Unfortunately, I’m not (yet) a zkdecrypto-lite power-user, so I don’t know how to automate this kind of search Anyone who would like to collaborate on doing this, please feel free to step forward: or if you want to take the idea and do what you like with it, that’s fine by me too. Can you blame me if I want to see this solved before they start shooting Season #2? 😉

Just One Last Thing…

There is, of course, one other possibility that should be investigated… it’s just that those cold, creepy eyes in the famous Zodiac poster remind me of someone, can’t think who it is, but the name might come to me soon, who was it…?

C: Crib Matching Code

Without any further ado, here’s The History Channel’s “The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer” season #1 finale, wherein Craig Bauer, having immersed himself almost completely in Zodiac Killer arcana, conjures up a new solution of the Z340, whereupon everyone else falls (or seems to fall) in line:

Well… OK, I guess. I suspect what most people would agree on about this ‘solution’ are:
* it’s primarily intuitive, and not really ‘cryptological’ in any useful sense of the word
* it’s either really brilliant or really foolish, and almost certainly nowhere inbetween

Craig’s Crack

Because the starting point for Craig Bauer’s decryption attempt was the idea that some letters might actually encipher themselves (to make the answer hide in plain sight), I’ve added a green background to those letters (or simply transformed letters) where the ciphertext and his decrypted text coincide, e.g. “HER……KI.L….” on the topmost line. You should be able to see 23 green-backgrounded letters.

However, for the sake of balance, I’ve also added a red background to those letters (or simply transformed letters) where the two do not coincide, e.g. “…PLVVP….TB.D” on the topmost line. You should be able to see 61 red-backgrounded letters (I think).

To make the following diagram, I used Dave Oranchak’s funky online Cipher Explorer tool:

It should be immediately obvious that a very high degree of selectivity is going on here: furthermore, seven letters are left out (on lines 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7), while three extra letters are inserted (lines 5 and 8). Finally, there is no consistent mapping of other shapes to plaintext letters as per the claimed decrypt, which is why I think it is safe to say that this is not a ‘cryptological’ decryption in any useful sense of the word.

The notion that a given historical ciphertext uses a handful of actual letters as themselves while the rest are somehow illusory or made up is an illusionary amateur cipher-breaking trope I have seen many dozens of times. In every case, it is a Pyrrhic victory of intense hopefulness over good sense, and achieves nothing bar wasting my time. If anyone can point my attention to anything about this particular decryption that varies from this rather self-defeating and useless template, I’d be fascinated to see it: but so far, this is just about as bad as it gets.

The motif of this antipattern is the codebreaker dreaming themselves an intense imaginary journey into the world of the codemaker, and bringing back as their prize a sampling of their vision, one that is every bit as hard to read as a book in a dream. All they have is the enduring conviction that they have solved it, a conviction that gets strengthened the brainier they are (and hence the more ingenious their post-rationalizing retro-fitting gets).

Total Immersion Delusion

If I were to give this kind of behaviour a “Pattern” name, I’d probably choose “Total Immersion Delusion“. Only someone who feels they have totally immersed themselves in their imagined world of the cipher maker would propose such a thing, and in almost every single case it is – sadly – a delusion that gets conjured up.

Here, you can see the seeds of the dream forming in the first line’s “HER…” and “KI.L” word-fragment patterns: but as the dream progressively fades away, the ability of the dreamer to fit the shape to the overselected letters reduces and reduces, until they’re left with only the sketchiest outlines of hope (a single green letter on lines 4, 5 and 7 demonstrates the degree to which it has triumphed over rationality here).

Sorry, but from what I can see, this Z340 ‘solution’ isn’t even close to being close: nobody’s going to come out of this particular dungheap smelling of roses, no matter how hard you hold your nose. Not huge, not a game-changer, sorry.

You may not be aware that there are, out in the world, many private languages – languages that offer speakers and listeners within a particular group or subculture the ability to talk about things that could if said in public cause one or both to be hated, persecuted, prosecuted, or even killed.


The academic literature sometimes call these antilanguages, a term coined by M.A.K. Halliday in 1976 to describe those secret languages used by (what he also named) “anti-societies”, e.g. prisoners, fairground workers, gay men, lesbians, thieves, Voynich researchers ( 😉 ), etc.

For me, I suspect that pitching them as tools of active resocialization formed within consciously-formed alternatives to the mainstream (as Halliday does) is a little bit overreductive: from my point of view, they are necessary parallel forms of language when the use of mainstream language would be personally problematic.

Polari And Its Sisters

This need for ‘privacy in public’ has led to a large number of cant slangs, such as Polari – this is a very old UK cant slang used by many subcultures (fairground people, Punch & Judy men, gay people, etc). Even though there are two fairly recent books on it (both by Paul Baker), this private language first came to wider public attention (a linguistic paradox if ever I heard one) thanks to the 1960s radio programme “Round the Horne” and its two Polari ‘homy polones’, Julian and Sandy.

Even though Polari seems – in my opinion – to have a closer historical connection to Punch and Judy performers than anything else, it has become best known (thanks to Julian and Sandy, arguably the first “celebrity gay couple”, as one programme put it) as a gay cant slang.

Yet even if it was culturally appropriated in this way, Polari is far from the only gay subculture language. One could quickly point to Bahasa Binan in Indonesia, Gayle and IsiNgqumo in South Africa, and Swardspeak / Bekimon (short for “Baklang Jejemon”) in the Philippines, all countries where verbally displaying as gay can be physically perilous in the extreme.

It’s a fascinating linguistic area, for sure.

Calabar Lesbian Cryptic Languages

Now adding to this existing array of public/private languages is Nigerian researcher Waliya Yohanna Joseph at the University of Calabar. Calabar is a port city, capital of Cross River State on the Nigerian border with Cameroon: incidentally, it’s a part of Nigeria I happen to have an (indirect) connection with.

Waliya’s article (which appears in Anna Odrowaz-Coates & Sribas Goswami (2017) Symbolic violence in social contexts. A post-colonial critique.) is called “Calabar Lesbian Cryptic Languages”, and is downloadable on ResearchGate.

As you would expect, using this cryptic language yields the speakers “emotional and sexual liberation, as well as anthropological security”, because “Lesbians preferred not to be known by the general public in Nigerian society.”

Though the basic form is numbers, there are also enciphered forms. One ciphertext is quoted:

Ba1baya ga3rala, 3 la4va2 5. 5 1ra2 sa4 ba215ta3fa5la. 3 na22da 5 3na maya la3fa2.
Wa3lala 5 la4va2 ta4 ba2 maya fara32nada? 3 para4ma3sa2 ta4 la4va2 5 1nada 5 1la4na2.
Ra2palaya !

The paper goes on to say that “violence against the female child among other things are also very prevalent in Single public schools where Senior students and self-declared school mothers force, entice and cajole the juniors in the hostels to practice lesbianism, abortion and prostitution.” It makes for uncomfortable reading at times.

At the same time, it has to be said that the author’s position seems to be perhaps a little overfocused on Calabar: the idea that lesbianism is perilous in Africa in general, even more so in Nigeria, and yet more so in Calabar doesn’t really do the paper justice. There also seems to be a moralistic tightrope being patrolled here, when the paper pitches itself as being…

of help especially to parents, teachers, lecturers, matrons, guardians and care givers who may wish to protect their wards from strange sexual orientations such as same sex relationships.

Still, it is a bold and interesting piece of work, shining a light not only on the edges of language and cipher, but also on the sharp differences between the specific mores of Calabar and those generally of “post-colonial” societies – particularly of those people reading the paper.

I learned, via an email from Rene Zandbergen today, that Voynich theorist Stephen Bax died a few days ago. It was only last month that he and Rene jointly formed the Voynich research presence at the Siloe press launch (he is on the left below, next to Rene):

I’m sure there are plenty whom he taught or that worked with him that have fond, positive memories: the obituaries will surely be safe in their hands. My thoughts – and I hope those of other Voynicheros – are with his family.

The new week brings a further episode of the History Channel’s “The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer”, not for the first time promising much but delivering little (Donna Lass car directions, really?) – the best part [37:25] was the interview with Zodiac Historian Misty Johansen (who wasn’t playing to CARMEL’s script). Even though it also partially revealed Craig Bauer’s much-trailed-and-supposedly-earth-shattering decryption of the Z340, that already looks to be more than a bit of a bust (sorry Craig), which I’ll discuss properly once the season finale has aired.

Things must be particularly bad when it takes someone on Reddit to nail it, but according to ‘chickendance638’:

if you made a drinking game where you drank when somebody said “game-changer” or “huge” then one could forget about the incredibly shitty tv show that’s just been viewed.

Though I’m pleased to say that the same commenter then proved sufficiently wise to the dangers of expressing even mild exasperated sarcasm on the Interweb by noting:

Gotta be careful, if it catches on I could be responsible for more deaths than Zodiac himself

Anyhoo, the Zodiac-Killer-associated cipher this week’s episode highlighted was a short ciphertext included in a letter sent to the Times Union in Albany, NY and postmarked August 1st 1973 (which Karga Seven’s handwriting expert duly affirmed was by the Zodiac Killer). So let’s do our collective codebreaking thing on the “Albany Cipher”…

The Albany Cipher

As always with everything Zodiac related, it’s important to say that the Albany Cipher had been discussed and debated by Zodiac researchers for many years before it appeared on the show. The clearest image we currently have to work with is…

…though this image of its cipher scanned from Lyndon Lafferty’s (2012) “The Zodiac Killer Cover-Up: The Silenced Badge” (p.427) may possibly be slightly clearer, but it’s hard to be sure because of the screening…

Incidentally, I emailed the Times Union’s archive people to see if they happen to have a photo of the letter in their files. They kindly replied that:

We do not have the letter and nobody here has any information on its whereabouts, the actual receipt of the letter and what happened to it.

Which is a shame, but it is what it is.

Cracking the Albany Cipher

As was made clear during Hunt Ep.4, the Albany Cipher was originally cracked by the FBI many years ago, though the version they released to the public had the very first part of the plaintext – presumably containing the non-victim’s name – heavily redacted. So far, this was a basically correct account, i.e. the programme makers didn’t yet again claim that the decryption was puked out by CARMEL.

What we have of the plaintext runs: xxxxxxxxxxxxALBANYMEDICALCENTRETHISONLYTHEBEGINNING. Even though it would normally be the case that having this many plaintext letters would force the rest of the ciphertext to be one of only a small number of possibilities, a number of things conspire to make this difficult here. For a start, a number of cipher letter shapes are very similar: moreover, the quality of the reproductions we have are not good enough to definitively tell them apart; while a third difficulty is that people’s names tend to be more variable and hard to pin down than ‘pure’ dictionary words. And so on.

From the letters we have, the cipher alphabet mapping looks something like this:

Using these, some of the letters in the name section seem quite solid: CONxxExxENLY. The closest single word (with a couple of ciphering slips) would be CONSEQUENTLY, but because that’s not a name, it doesn’t make sense in context. If you like Mexican food, you can also try to start it CON QUESA: but this also seems unlikely in context.

Which is why, back in 2013, Zodiac crypto-meister Dave Oranchak floated the idea that the name might possibly be CONNIExHENLY. (This is of course the same name that CARMEL supposedly suggested in 2017, *sigh*.)

But cryptologically, I’m not so sure that Dave was on the money here: given that there seems no obvious reason to think that the message contains homophones, we should surely not begin by accepting ‘N’ as the fourth plaintext letter, and, rather, should instead directly reject it. However, because most of the plaintext alphabet has already been allocated, the unique shape at position four must surely be an otherwise unused plaintext letter.

Moreover, there are patterns within the mapping layout: for example, I’ve marked up R/S/T with the same proxy cipher shape in the table because (frankly) I can’t tell them apart in the ciphertext, so they look to be part of the same shape family. Hence I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the same pattern was also used for adjacent letters Q or U. And finally, the closest visual match to the unknown fourth shape of the ciphertext is the shape used for Y: so I would be unsurprised if this letter stood in for an adjacent letter e.g. X or Z.

Put all this together: and if this is a name, my own best guess is that the first six letters are in fact “CONZUE” (short for “CONZUELA”). I’m sure Spaniards will be happy to tell me which part of Spain or South America “Conzuela” is typical of (or whatever).

Fans of Family Guy will (of course) know the name Consuela well:

Yes, it’s the famous “I clean toilet” sketch. 🙂

What would Consuela say about the Albany Cipher – does she think it was made by the Zodiac Killer? Only one possible answer: “No, no“. Well… either that, or “More Lemon Pledge“, you choose (and you pay). 😉

If you think what the world really needs right now is yet another Voynich theory, preferably one that’s been stewing in some guy’s head for more than a decade and that could well emerge in book form during the next twelve months, then please feel free to advance to the edge of your seat, because this is without any real doubt absolutely the right post for you.

(Everyone else can just get ready to shake their head while exhaling slowly and sadly, as per normal.)

And no, it’s not muralist and war artist Nicholas Gibbs’ wonky Latinistic theory I’m talking about here, and it’s not even Gerard Cheshire’s polyglottal mess, though I have little doubt that we will hear more Sturm Und Drang from these two self-proclaimed Voynich giants before too long.

Really, if the number of nutty Voynich Manuscript theory/manifestoes currently being promised is a measure of an idea’s currency, then right now the Voynich Manuscript’s stock – NASDAQ:VOYM, perhaps? – would seem to be trading at an all-time high.

Jim Handlin

So, does anyone here not too far from Woodstock want to spend eight dollars to hear about Jim Handlin’s decryption of the Voynich Manuscript (his talk is called “The Voynich Manuscript Dechipered [sic], Part 2“, because it followed an introductory talk by Handlin in the same venue the preceding month)? Then you might consider heading over to Mountain View Studio, 20 Mountain View Ave, Woodstock, NY 12498 on 9th December 2017 between 5pm and 6:30pm.

The event blurb tells us:

Emerging from a 12-year engagement within cryptic language uses in western civilization, Handlin’s solution — if verifiable — is a mind-blowing revelation at a nexus of Jewish and Coptic mysticism and alchemy. […]

But Handlin’s crack of the Voynich Manuscript came about (it says here) almost as a secondary thing:

In 2004, Handlin discovered an ancient code used to hide and protect a system of thought he believes goes back to the creation of the alphabet. He has spent the last twelve years working with that system, which he calls the Rotas Code, applying it to decipher antiquarian texts that have defied translation. Recently he has used the Rotas Code to translate the Word Squares in the Abramelin Manuscript (1459 CE) and has made significant progress in translating the contemporaneous Voynich Manuscript.

You probably already know whether or not you’re even remotely interested in what Handlin has to say, so I’ll end the post there. But just so you know, I’ll post separately about the Book of Abramelin, because that’s a genuinely interesting topic for another day (though not a cipher).

OK, I’m going to start this post by embedding S01E03 of the History Channel’s “The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer”, because this is what started me on the road to the solution to the Donna Lass cipher:

About half the episode is taken up with trying to make links between the Zodiac Killer and Donna Lass’s disappearance in 1970, a connection for which there seem to be two primary pieces of evidence – a poster (with a cryptogram) and a postcard. However, as we’ll see, it turns out that there are serious problems here which the series makers chose to fast-forward their audience past.

Who Was Donna Lass?

According to her FindAGrave website entry:

Donna was the daughter of James and Frances (Kukar) Lass. During high school, her activities included F.H.A. and singing in mixed chorus. During her senior interview, she stated that her plans were “to go college or be a nurse.” She was one the fifty-two members of the graduating class of 1962 at Beresford High School in Beresford, South Dakota.

Donna was listed as a survivor in the 1973 obituary of her father; but, she was listed as deceased in the 1982 obituary of her mother.

It’s hard not to conclude that hope for her survival died with her mother.

There are some reasonably good pictures of her on the Internet:

What happened to her? According to the official missing person’s page that discusses her:

Donna Lass was last seen in South Lake Tahoe, she left her residence without her vehicle or personal belongings. Lass worked as a nurse at the “Sahara Hotel-Casino”. Her last entry in the nurse’s log book was at 1:50 a.m., and although her car was found parked at her apartment complex in nearby Stateline, she wasn’t seen after leaving the Sahara.

The next day, an unknown male called her landlord and employer, stating Lass wouldn’t be returning due to a family emergency. The call was a hoax, and there has been no trace of Lass ever since

Of course, none of this sounds remotely like the Zodiac Killer’s modus operandi: so you’d have thought there really ought to be some good evidence out there linking the two, given the longevity of these claims.

The Donna Lass Cipher

The cipher first appeared on a reward-for-information poster, with each cipher shape underlined by hand. It’s unclear to me whether the underlining was originally designed in to the poster, or whether it was added by hand to the poster in the only genuine copy of the poster we have.

In episode S01E03 of “The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer”, the editing makes it seems as though everyone spends some time following a – frankly somewhat pathetic – interpretative anagram of the above cipher, that magically turns the cryptogram into driving instructions to get to some woods that just happen to have a TV-friendly creepy historical backstory (the Donner Pass cannibalism story, yada yada yada). In my opinion, this is right up there with people who draw pencil lines between similar letters and then try to convince you that it is not the cryptogram itself but rather those pencil lines that are the ‘real’ treasure map. *sigh*

Moreover, it was immediately clear to me (as I’m sure it was to everyone in the codebreaking team) that this particular reading wasn’t even close to being close: and, moreover, that the patterns of shapes were more or less exactly as you would expect a simple substitution cipher to present (for instance, the presence of doubled letters pointed directly away from any thought of Zodiac Killer-style homophones).

So once I’d got to the end of the programme, I found a copy of the cipher online and wrote it down on a piece of paper. Within ten seconds, I realized that the last set of shapes could only sensibly be DONNALASS: and that gave me enough letters to get to STALKING, and within a few minutes I also figured out that the larger phrase was I AM STALKING.

The next morning, when I ran a test to find words that fitted the pattern of the first six letters, only two words fitted – BEHAVE and BEWARE. Eliminating BEHAVE gave a nearly-complete decryption:


I then immediately felt a bit of a fool that I hadn’t immediately noticed that this was exactly the same as the start of the last sentence of the Riverside “Confession” letter: “BEWARE . . . I AM STALKING YOUR GIRLS NOW” (there’s a copy here):

After a little more thought, I became convinced that the first of the two outline triangle shapes at the start of the second line should probably have been an upside-down outline triangle, and that the original plaintext for the Donna Lass cipher was (without any real doubt):


Put all this together, and you’d have to say this looks like a cryptographic slam-dunk to link the crime to the Zodiac Killer’s “The Confession” letter (even if – in my opinion – he probably only tried to take ‘credit’ for Cheri Jo Bates’ murder, i.e. he didn’t do it himself). You can even see how the cipher shapes were laid out in a 5 x 5 grid by the encipherer, because the triangle shapes are all five letters apart, as are all the backwards letters.

However, it turns out that even though this is definitely the correct plaintext for this cryptogram, there are a number of issues

The Donna Lass Poster

The full poster looks like this:

For a start, it turns out that I was reinventing the wheel here (as far as solving this cipher goes). A number of other people had worked out the exact same plaintext a decade or more earlier than me – the earliest mention I found was May 2007: but given that it was so straightforward, it would be unsurprising if yet others had solved it long before then.

Problematically, commenter Seagull pointed out that:

The reward poster for Donna Lass, that Tahoe27 linked, can’t be from the ’70’s because the Area Code for the phone number did not come into being until 1997. […] Maybe this reward poster is from the time of Harvey Hines investigation.

Even Wikipedia lists this fact: “Created in 1997 by split from 916.” From that alone, there seems no chance at all that this poster was really from 1970 or 1971.

Moreover, commenter Slug then quickly pointed out (a) that the typesetting seemed inconsistent with the 1970s, and (b) that it seemed to have been laid out in close-to-exactly the same way that MS Word 97 would have done it. Others have also pointed out that it used Times New Roman, further compounding the period inaccuracy of the thing.

Finally, commenter Jupiter noted “a newspaper article about the Lass murder, written in 1971, that details a $500 reward put up by the family and people with information were to contact a private eye hired by the Lass family. There is no mention of having people contact the police with the info and the reward is considerably smaller”.

So where did the poster come from? Tom Voigt got it from Howard Davis, who in turn said:

Donna’s sister Mary sent that poster to me.It was done by the Lass family.

When asked about it, he then went on:

Mary mentioned to me a few times they had a family member(or in law) that is into computers,graphics,etc. He may have done the poster. She told me the reward was no longer in effect as I recall.Note at the bottom of the poster the family is mentioned.I do hope this doesn’t go into a all out contraversy as it was just an attempt at the time by the family to seek more information.I have enough to do as it is.Remember that Hines had pretty much convinced them Kane was the perp,hence,the ‘positive’poster wordage about having information,etc.

Put all this together, and the picture that finally emerges seems to be of the Zodiac theory industry collectively manufacturing a connection between Donna Lass and the Zodiac Killer – that is, Zodiac theorists convincing Hines so strongly that Laurence Kane (who Donna Lass personally knew) was the Zodiac Killer that he incited the Lass family to include a fake Zodiac-style cryptogram on a later faked-up poster.

The awful (and stupid) thing about this is that it encourages people to view the causality backwards: that while there is no doubt that Laurence Kane was connected to Donna Lass (and so could genuinely have been a person of interest), her sad death had absolutely nothing in common with any of the Zodiac Killer’s confirmed murders – the connection implied by the poster would seem to be totally bogus, in every sense of the phrase.

The Donna Lass Postcard

All of which process of elimination leaves us with the Donna Lass postcard, which the History Channel episode also trawled over for some time:

Well… after all the above discussion, it perhaps won’t come as any great surprise that there is a high chance that this postcard (which, let’s face it, contains nothing new about her death, nor proof of her murder, etc) is also fake:

A postcard, supposedly from Zodiac, was received by the San Francisco Chronicle on March 22, 1971, with the implication that Lass was a murder victim. However, the postcard contained no proof, as Zodiac was known for including. In 1999 a retired detective revealed to me that a former Zodiac investigator had admitted to forging the Lass postcard.

I’m sorry, but I have to say that I find this whole thing unbelievably sad. A vivacious young woman gets abducted (and, in all probability, killed) and all people want to do is to use her death to manufacture elaborate links falsely entangling it with a serial killer. What kind of vacuous, cynical theatre is that? This isn’t a cipher mystery, this is a cipher tragedy: shame on those who do such things.

What on earth, you may reasonably ask, is a Voynich “metatheory”? I use the term for a specific kind of Voynich Manuscript theory that seeks to explain more or less all its puzzling features by pointing to a single – usually surprising and/or counterintuitive – lateral step away from what we know (or, rather, what we think we know).

Because of the complexity of the manuscript, ‘normal’ Voynich theories tend to be a patchwork of simple explanations and tangled saving hypotheses (i.e. to try to explain why the simple explanations didn’t actually work): by way of contrast, metatheories instead assert that something really fundamental we tend to take for granted is wrong, and that all our confusions have arisen merely as a result of our treating the manuscript as entirely the wrong category of object.

In short, a theory tries to account for the difficulties we observe fairly directly, while a metatheory tries to explain away more or less the whole constellation of difficulties by pointing to (what it asserts is) a basic flaw in our mindset.

For example, Gordon Rugg’s hoax metatheory asserts that the Voynich Manuscript ‘could be’ or ‘is’ (depending on which journalist he’s talking to) a 16th century hoax (technically, a simulacrum) that was constructed at speed using sets of ingeniously-arranged tables and grilles: and hence that the entire statistical edifice of oddly-language-like textual behaviours that taxes Voynich researchers so greatly is no more than an incidental by-product of the hoax’s cleverly-structured meaninglessness. (It’s just a shame that the radiocarbon date for the manuscript’s vellum turned out to be a century earlier, or else he wouldn’t now look like a bit of a fool. Still, I did tell him so at the time. *sigh*)

Another long-running Voynich Manuscript metatheory is Richard SantaColoma’s 2012 proposal (having previously proposed various similar hoax theories) that Wilfrid Voynich himself created the Voynich Manuscript as a sort of fake or a hoax. Rich continues to write about this, and even gave a presentation called “Is the Voynich Manuscript a Modern Forgery? (And why it matters)” at the recent (2017) Symposium on Cryptologic History in Maryland. Here’s what he looks like:

As always with the Voynich Manuscript, broadly the same thing has been suggested numerous times before, e.g. Michael Barlow’s (1986) Cryptologia article “The Voynich Manuscript – by Voynich?”. But what has distinguished Rich’s presentation is his readiness to fight his corner against all-comers, even though the physical evidence, the historical evidence, the codicological evidence and indeed the palaeographic evidence each separately seems to weigh quite strongly against it. Oh, and the fact that Voynich spent so much time trying to get people to prove it was by Roger Bacon.

Anyway, given that so few people now seem to understand the actual nature of Rich’s hoax claims (and why refuting them matters), I thought a post was a little overdue. So here it is.

Not Probably, But Possibly

As mentioned above, the radiocarbon dating of the vellum points specifically to the early 15th century: to which Rich responds that there is some evidence that some forgers have sometimes used caches of unused old vellum as the support medium for their forgeries. So his argument runs: because some forgers have done this on some occasions, it could have been the case here too. And so the radiocarbon dating – though obviously opposing simple forgeries – cannot be used to absolutely disprove the suggestion that the person who (putatively) hoaxed the Voynich Manuscript.

Similarly, even though the codicological evidence directly implies that the Voynich Manuscript has been rebound and overpainted (leaving bifolios mis-coloured and out of context), Rich’s position is that this implies Wilfrid Voynich must have been not just a hoaxer, but a highly sophisticated hoaxer, deliberately shuffling the vellum bifolios and overpainting them to simulate what might have happened over time to such a document (had it been genuine). And, naturally, the more codicological details that you add to this list, the more sophisticated a hoaxer Wilfrid Voynich must surely have been, he would argue. Even though increasing the sophistication and complexity like this makes the hoax less probable, it remains a possibility: and the smaller the possibility, the more wondrous a deception it surely was.

The palaeographic evidence to do with the ultra-rare numbering system used to number the quires is a strange one: this specific (and rather cumbersome and impractical) system seems only to have been used for a few years during the mid-15th century in no more than a few parts of what is now Switzerland. Rich’s response here is that because Wilfrid Voynich was an antiquarian bookseller roaming Europe looking for rare books and manuscripts, he would surely have been well-placed to see such a system in action in the kind of rare manuscripts he regularly saw. Again, even if there is no evidence that Voynich himself actually bought a separate manuscript where this rare numbering system appears, this is a historical possibility that we cannot use to disprove Rich’s basic claim, despite its low intrinsic probability.

Despite the mathematical fact that multiplying two small probabilities together makes a much smaller net probability, Rich’s overall position as far as these contraindicating evidences goes is simply this: that if his proposal that Wilfrid Voynich faked/hoaxes the manuscript is correct, then the final probability that all these other things happened is actually 100%, however unlikely each may seem to an historian.

Some may say that this is a lot like explaining away the chocolate bar missing from the kitchen table as having been taken by hungry aliens who beamed it up to their mothership to eat it: but that’s perhaps a little too glibly sarcastic. Rather, I think the real situation is that Rich defends the possibility that Voynich faked/hoaxed his manuscript so avidly because he thinks that the weight of secondary explanations it yields balances out its net improbability, i.e. that the explanation’s high utility is in inverse proportion to its likelihood.

Document X

In my opinion, however, the place where Rich’s argumental train struggles to stay in contact with its logical rails is in its relationship with a complex of 17th century letters to and from Athanasius Kircher, that famously describe a document strikingly similar to the Voynich Manuscript.

In recent years, this set of letters has been documented and dissected in depth, from which prolonged study there now seems no doubt whatsoever that they are all referring to a single mysterious document (let us call this “Document X“) that was owned by Georg Baresch, passed to Johannes Marcus Marci after Baresch’s death, and then passed by Marci to Athanasius Kircher.

Rich SantaColoma firstly points out that we have no direct proof that Document X is the Voynich Manuscript, and that we should therefore be wary of assuming that the two are the same object. He further contends that in his opinion, the Voynich Manuscript was instead faked/hoaxed by Voynich specifically to make it resemble the description of (the presumably now long-lost) Document X.

For this to be true, it would seem that Wilfrid Voynich must have been aware of the contents of some or all of these letters in 1914 or before, so that he could design his hoax/fake to resemble their description of Document X.

However, even though Kircher’s thick volumes of letters were well-known during his lifetime (e.g. De Sepi’s 1678 description of Kircher’s museum in Rome), they were not listed in later Jesuit sources (such as Sommervogel and De Backer (1893)). Furthermore, the modern rediscovery of Kircher’s correspondence came about long after the Voynich Manuscript appeared on the world stage: until John Fletcher took on the mammoth task of reading and judiciously summarizing the more-than-2000 letters in the 1940s, there had been no more than passing mention of them at all since the 17th century.

For Wilfrid Voynich to have even seen these volumes would therefore have been highly surprising: and what is more, for him to have had sufficient time (and good enough Latin) to work his way through them enough to draw out the strands of the sub-network of letters around the Voynich Manuscript nearly a century before anyone else did is basically impossible.

Apologies to Rich SantaColoma, but there is therefore no way whatsoever that Wilfrid Voynich himself could have built up a description of Document X that would have been good enough to work as a template for him to use when (supposedly) forging/hoaxing the Voynich Manuscript.

Saving Hypotheses Aplenty

If that’s a bust, what other alternatives still remain open? Alas, the problem with imaginative historical interpolation is that there are almost always numerous ways to construct saving hypotheses to paper over the cracks in any wonky explanation’s wall, no matter how wide those cracks may be.

For example, it is possible that an entirely unknown group of people (let’s say, one or more 18th or 19th century Jesuit students) had access to Document X, and from that built up an entirely separate set of descriptions of it: and that it was this separate set of descriptions that Wilfrid Voynich had access to, which he used as the basis for his hoax/fake.

However, the way that the 1665 Marci letter (the one that Voynich said he found tucked into the manuscript) ties in so neatly with the rest of the 17th century Kircher correspondence then becomes very hard to reconcile. And so you would be left with the awkward conclusion that this unknown group of people must also have had access to Marci’s letter. In fact, I think you would be forced to conclude that this letter originally accompanied Document X, but that even though Document X was lost, the still-extant accompanying letter was inserted by Wilfrid Voynich into his faked-up version of Document X.

But this is starting to sound too unlikely even for Rich SantaColoma’s subtle taste for the barely possible. :-/

If you don’t like that, then another possibility could be that Wilfrid Voynich was shown (or saw) Document X itself (including Marci’s letter), but then created his own fake Document X while stealing Marci’s letter to attach to his own version… but this is all veering into the realms of the historically fantastical, and I don’t want to do Rich’s work for him. 😉

And So The Moral Of The Story Is…

In my opinion, what Rich SantaColoma offers up doesn’t really fall in the category of History, but is rather a kind of Debating Society take on historical certainty – for unless you can prove to him to his satisfaction that his argued scenario is impossible by his own criteria, he feels happy to announce that he has won the debate.

Moreover, because Rich seems to believe that the proposal that Wilfrid Voynich himself faked/hoaxed the Voynich Manuscript is itself enough to resolve all otherwise-difficult-to-explain issue, this is something against which he is happy to balance a homeopathically low level of probability, one lower than just about anybody else would consider acceptable.

Yet it seems to me from this that whereas most Voynich theories are based on some kind of psychological projection on the part of the theorist, there is something quite different going on here. Despite the sustained effort Rich has put into sustaining the dwindlingly small possibility side of his Wilfrid-Voynich-hoaxed-it-himself theory, there seems to be a thoroughly irrational component to the other half of his equation. That is to say: what exactly about the Voynich Manuscript would any modern hoax theory throw any light on? What would it explain about the manuscript’s strange text and hard-to-pin-down diagrams? How does the notion that it is a hoax help explain the intricacies of its patterns? If Voynich created it, how did he create it? But all such questions seem to trail off into an awkward silence.

Regardless, all the while Rich’s absolute-disproof-avoiding way of going about this is merely his idiosyncratic opinion, it is (of course) of no wider importance whatsoever: as always, people are free to hold whatever opinions they like, however odd or curious they may be. Given that we’re living in a postmodern world where even Stephen Bax is feted as a Voynich expert, rhyme and reason of the sort I happen to value would seem to be rare commodities indeed: so perhaps I’m simply a Victorian dad peering at Instagram and wondering why all the children depicted aren’t working up chimneys.

But if I were to be asked – as indeed sometimes happens – whether I think there is any merit in Rich’s suggestion of a modern hoax by Wilfrid Voynich, I would have to say: I haven’t seen any sign of it yet, and if I’d have held my breath waiting for it, I’d be long dead by now. Oh well.

Here’s another Voynich-themed art show to add to what is already a medium-sized list: “Drawing Close – Voynich Series”, by Sabina Sallis. It’s at the Customs House art centre in Mill Dam conservation area in South Shields, close to the River Tyne south bank ferry landing until March 2018.

Helen Shaddock seems to like it, noting that “Sabina uses drawing, video, performance, sculpture and narrative in a multimedia transdisciplinary approach that interweaves fact and fiction”, and that her Voynich Series “attempts to bring forward knowledge and thoughts that are enmeshed with life processes and invites the audience to decipher their own meaning”.

In some ways, we already have more than enough people ‘deciphering their own meaning’ from the Voynich Manuscript: even if (miraculously) one of the existing set of Voynich theories turns out to be essentially correct, that would still mean that the other 999+ theories out there are just plain nonsense.

But if artists want to do the same thing in the name of Art, that’s fine by me: at least it’s not like a certain anonymous Italian writer who claimed that his fanciful Voynich novel revealed the true nature of both the Voynich Manuscript and the Titanic disaster etc etc. What a mess. 🙁

Elsewhere on Tyneside

I wonder what Tynesider Wor Cheryl would make of all this: though she does sometimes lurch a bit close to Cockney Star Trek, as in this reicent puurst…

Reinventin meiself az a grime awtist.
Look oot faw a new album bein released bei Cherylzee

🎼Gannin oot
Oot an aboot
Coppah divint shoot!🎼

…Wor Cheryl would surely have sumthin ta sei: mebbe…

Tha Voynich manyiscript, Pet? Izunt that some medicul instruckshun manyual fer medyievul womun, leik? It wuz in tha TLS, so it merst be true, uthaweiz therra bunch uv reit idyits.

Well, all ah can say is that ah wunce hadda groin itch, but dinna leik menshunin it in perleit compny. An ah certainly wouldna reit a herl buik about it.

A new day, and a new episode of “The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer” (S01 E02, in programme guide speak) to trawl through. Luckily, though, this week’s episode proved to be fairly lightweight:

Increasingly Uncomfortable

I’m sorry to have to say it, but as this series goes on, I’m getting less and less comfortable with the presentation. Televisually, the editing conceit has been to make it look as though all the evidence is being considered and discovered for the first time (and sort of ‘in real time’), but just about everything that pops up (hey, what magic beans has CARMEL found this time?) has previously been floated, shot down, raked over, partially resurrected and left hanging in a kind of evidential limbo ten or twenty times over. And so it’s more than a little bit grating to see so many creaky old ideas being dredged up and presented as if they were not only new, but also generated by a piece of software.

So, for all the potential cleverness of the software toolkit, CARMEL has been largely reduced here to a panto linking device, not a million miles from “And now for something completely different: a man with a tape recorder up his nose”. (Which, tape recorder reference aside, originally came from Blue Peter’s Christopher Trace, UK TV buffs might be interested to know.)

The connection the programme makers float between TWICH/TWICHED and SQUIRM/SQWIRM in the Cheri Jo Bates typed “Confession” letter and the Zodiac’s 1970 letter is interesting (of course, Michael Butterfield discussed this in 2009, though doubtless it was already old news by then). But in every other sense the Confession letter comes across to me as a crock, a simulation of a confession letter that says nothing actually new. And though two of the three notes that arrived six months later said that “BATES HAD TO DIE THERE WILL BE MORE Z”, these also come across to me as fakes, or rather someone simulating nuttiness.

At the same time, according to this Quester Files website page, “[t]he envelopes carried double postage. This is something the Zodiac did.” And moreover, “Sherwood Morrill, the Questioned Document’s examiner in Sacramento, examined the envelopes and writing. He said it was indeed The Zodiac’s handwriting.”

Putting all this together, even though I could comfortably accept the idea that the 1966 Cheri Jo Bates “Confession” letter and even the three (somewhat belated) nutty-looking handwritten notes were by the same person who would later become the Zodiac Killer, I would struggle to accept without any obvious supporting evidence the claim that he also killed Cheri Jo Bates, in the unquestioning way the programme makers seem to think their audience should. To me, it seems far safer to conclude that in 1966 Zodiac was instead merely fantasizing about killing, and that he instead wrote the suite of letters as a kind of performative role play theatre, projecting his incipient psychopathy onto the stabby, bloody, horrible backdrop of some other properly mad person’s crime (which was very probably driven by enraged sexual inadequacy and/or spurned passion).

Lone Wolf, or Sea Wolf?

As a side note, the question of the origin of the Zodiac and his ‘cross-hair’ symbol comes up again and again: an obvious issue is that his chosen symbol is not in any way connected with astrological or zodiacal symbols, which is also true of the (for the most part letter, reflected letter, and part-filled geometrical) shapes he uses in his ciphertexts. So, then: why ‘Zodiac’?

However, I have to say that the answer to this question seems to me to be very simple and indeed painfully obvious (though it has of course previously been pointed out a thousand times or more): that the most likely inspiration for the Zodiac’s symbol and name was the Zodiac Watch Company, which had during the 1950s achieved great renown with their Sea Wolf diving watch (and very similar symbol).

Note that the Zodiac Sea Wolf watch had (of course it did) a movable bezel, much as per the Mt Diablo note: which is not anything like proof, of course, but it’s definitely something to think about. (As a further aside, perhaps a watch historian might like to tell us which movable watch bezels of the 1960s had 0 / 3 / 6 / 9 markings on them.)

All of which finally spins this post back round again to poor Cheri Jo Bates’ murder: for, as the zodiackillerfacts site points out, it was there that “[I]nvestigators came upon a man’s Timex watch lying on the ground near the body”. Honestly, does anyone truly believe that a psychopath who specifically named himself after a macho Swiss watch brand would be seen dead – if you’ll pardon the phrase – in an American Timex?