The problems Cipher Mysteries recently had with its last web hosting supplier were all logical consequences of scale: not only had the blog got larger and the number of comments shot up, but also WordPress (and all those ‘must-have’ caching and security plugins) had got larger (and slower) as well.

I genuinely thought that moving the site to a WordPress multisite installation on a far more heavyweight hosting account would be (despite the inevitable hassle the transition involved) a great technical fix for all those scaling issues. And in many ways, it was: Cipher Mysteries now seems (touch wood) to be working better than it has done for a long time (though I’m still looking for a good multisite redirection plugin, bah).

But having now sat down to start posting again after my enforced break, I realise that I had overlooked a quite different scaling problem, and the effects that has been having on Cipher Mysteries. And this turns out to be something I don’t yet have a fix for, technical or otherwise.

Small Blog, Big Stories?

Over the last year or so, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to write blog posts on unbroken historical ciphers, and for one simple reason: that, having researched all the major ones in great detail over the last decade, a thousand words or so is too small a space to fit even a preamble to a new angle, let alone the new angle itself.

In practice, this is having the effect of dissuading me from writing anything about anything: inside the WordPress editor, I have thirty or more draft posts started that I just can’t find the energy to complete – in each case, having written a page or two or three, I can already tell that they’re all going to be too long.

In short: without really realising it, I’ve silently undergone a transition from medium-form to long-form, to the point that I can’t sensibly fit what I want to write into blog posts. And I don’t know what to do about it.

Schmeh For Two?

At the same time, Klaus Schmeh has arrived on the scene with his (entirely sensible, though occasionally Lego-minifigure-abusing) Krypto Kolumne, which covers a diverse collection of crypto stuff (particularly enciphered German postcards).

Klaus has a good presentation schtick, a nicely dry sense of humour, and a loyal online audience that relishes being fed unsolved cryptograms that it can (and often does) actually solve. He has taken what I would categorize as a more journalistic angle on historical ciphers: he seems less interested in solving or researching them himself than in enabling other people to grow them into a more substantial story.

By comparison, my own research interests have become far narrower and far more specific as time has gone by. This has been the perhaps inevitable result of exploring and testing the outer limits of knowledge of the “big” unsolved historical ciphers – the Voynich Manuscript, the Rohonc Codex, the Beale Papers, the Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat Page, the WW2 Pigeon Cipher, the Dorabella cipher, La Buse, Le Butin, etc. It’s a list whose elements were all individually well-worn by the time Elonka Dunin put them together and posted it on the Internet.

“Opinions Are Like…”

But this process of knowledge exploration has also meant that I have developed strong technical opinions: these are not only about the range of possible decryptions, but also about the limits of what can and can’t be known about a given artefact – i.e. what evidence we do have, and what we can infer from that evidence.

And expressing such technical opinions have, of late, brought me into repeated conflict with various people on the Internet: for example, I think that there is no evidence of “microwriting” in the Tamam Shud page whatsoever that could not similarly be drawn out from almost any digital image whatsoever – I continue to receive online abuse (and indeed accusations of mental disorders) for saying this. Which is the kind of thing only libel lawyers find enjoyable reading (simply because it pays their mortgages).

It has got to the point where I’m utterly bored of moderating snarky comments written by people who want to take a cheap shot at me: being ghastly to me has become a kind of initiatory hazing ritual for cipher nutters.

The Mainstream Arriveth

Another thing that’s going on is that, thanks to what looks like extended Turing Mania, historical ciphers have moved into the mainstream. Even today’s announcement that a teleprinter for a Lorenz SZ42 machine was bought on eBay for £9.50 (which is a nice little story, but far from cryptologically earth-shaking) emerged not via (say) the CryptoCollector mailing list, but via the BBC.

Even Kernel Magazine devoted its last issue to Codes and Ciphers: though this actually turned out to have only micro-interviews with Zodiac Killer Cipher researchers and a largely unrevealing summary of the A858 (ok, “r/A858DE45F56D9BC9” in full) subreddit code thing.

Yet arguably the only good mainstream article on cipher mysteries in the last decade has been Christopher Tritto’s excellent Code Dead on Ricky McCormick: and even that barely touched the nature of those pages.

And so even though codes and ciphers are now officially “cool”, there’s almost no good writing on them out there at all: and where Cipher Mysteries fits into the overall landscape any more is something I’m struggling to see.

Finally, Nick Gets To The ‘Focus’ Bit

So what will Cipher Mysteries’ focus be, going forward?

Right now, I don’t honestly know. But what I do know is that things have to change…

…but what a pain in the neck moving a large blog from a single-site WordPress install to a WordPress multisite install is. 🙁 I started trying to count how many individual steps it took to get it all working again, but gave up around ninety (for what it’s worth, I’d guess the final figure was closer to 150). Astonishing (and not in any good sense of the word).

Anyway, even though I *think* I’ve got everything basically working again, please use this page to let me know if you find anything broken. Which is entirely possible, unfortunately. Thanks!

If you’ve been wondering why Cipher Mysteries has been so quiet for a few days, it’s because my PC has been out of order (the old power supply died, *sigh*). But it’s now working again, no thanks to Corsair (boo).

Though this is good, it unfortunately also means I now have a lot of catching up to do, so I shall continue to be subdued for a few days while emails get replied to and everything slowly eases back into some kind of normality.

In the meantime, I thought you might like this: a song by UK indie band Fanfarlo called “Harold T. Wilkins, or How to Wait a Very Long Time“. It was used in the (2010) film “Going The Distance”, if you were unfortunate enough to end up watching that on a plane.

If you don’t know who Harold T. Wilkins was, why, you’ve missed out on sooooo much: he wrote about allegedly lost pirate treasure (particularly Captain Kidd’s), lost Atlantean civilizations, what we now call cryptozoology, and UFO conspiracies… but all more than 40 years before the X-Files. And to my eyes, he seems to have made up a large part of everything he wrote. In short: 50% bad journalist, 50% bad Erich von Daniken. Which is… an interesting mix, you might say.

Fanfarlo also released a pretty good acoustic all-in-one-tiny-room version of the song here, though (purists look aside) the bass guitar did look to me as though it was plugged into an amp.

I grabbed the opportunity to go to the National Archives in Kew for a short while this morning to have a look at some prize papers – papers in the archives relating to the capture of ships.

In almost all cases, these are made up of depositions and submissions to the Prize Court about who should be rewarded for the capture. In a few lucky cases, though, the bundles include log books and lists of crew members.

Because I’ve recently been thinking about whether the “Captain Hamon” in BN3 (the final document of the three commonly attributed to Bernardin Nageon l’Estang) might actually be Jacques-Félix-Emmanuel Hamelin, I wanted to see La Vénus’ prize papers. Might they include a list of ensigns and sailors? It was worth a look.

HCA 32/1752 is divided into two parts: La Vénus’ prize papers are in Part 2. But unless you really enjoy grinding your way through interminable longhand legal wrangling, I would only recommend them over (say) Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. By which I actually mean: not at all.

The Timeline Problem

But the overall process of putting together the picture of Hamelin and La Vénus has revealed what could very well be a timeline problem with the “Hamon == Hamelin” hypothesis.

19th November 1809: Hamelin and his ship La Vénus were captured by HMS Boadicea
10th December 1810: Hamelin and the other Prisoners of War were sent on the Bombay Merchant to the Port of Morlaix (near Brest)
2nd February 1811: three frigates sail from Brest – Renommée (Commodore François Roquebert), Clorinde (Captain Jacques Saint-Cricq), and Néréide (Captain Jean-François Lemaresquier)
February 1811: Hamelin arrives back in Brest.
12th February 1811: Tamatave was captured by the brig HMS Eclipse
6th May 1811: the three French frigates arrive at Mauritius
19th May 1811: Roquebert’s squadron reaches (and recaptures) Tamatave
20th May 1811: Tamatave again falls to the British (though this time for good).

surrender_of_the_fort_of_tamatave-cropped

Ideally, we would expect this timeline to square with BN3:

I’ve been sick since the fall of Tamatave, despite the care of my friend the commander
[…]
When I am dead, Captain Hamon will give you the little that I possess that I saved during my adventurous life at sea.

From this, it would seem that BN3 was written either after the first fall of Tamatave (12th February 1811) or – perhaps more probably – its second and final fall (20th May 1811). Yet by then, Captain Hamelin had been captured for over a year and had been returned to France. Moreover, Hamelin, despite subsequently being made a Rear Admiral by Napoleon I and having his name engraved on the Arc de Triomphe, never again returned to the Indian Ocean.

I don’t know if this timeline definitively rules out the Hamon / Hamelin hypothesis: but it’s certainly not supportive of it just yet.

More as it happens.

When I looked again at the “Le Butin” documents a few days ago, I noted that I thought BN3 (the third letter, apparently dating to not long after the Fall of Tamatave in 1810) had been written not by Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang, but by someone else entirely – someone who had ended up with Nageon de l’Estang’s Will and other documents.

Whereas Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang seems (from his letters) to have thought and acted like a pirate, this unidentified other person seems by contrast to have thought and acted like a corsair (i.e. a French privateer). I know there’s a lot of practical overlap between the two categories, but the two men’s core motivations seem to have been quite different, along with their use of language.

If we abandon the idea that the third letter (“BN3”) is in any way connected to Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang, can we use the internal evidence to identify the missing corsair who appears to have written it? It would seem that:
* he was from a family in France whose ancestral house remained but whose proud splendour had long faded;
* he had a “beloved brother” called Etienne, who had at least two sons;
* he was alive after the Fall of Tamatave in 1810 (though weak, and fearing death);
* he had (almost certainly) been on a ship under a “Captain Hamon” (Jamon?) not long before;
* his “glorious feat of arms” had been rewarded by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, the First Consul;
* he was on the Apollon’s ill-fated last sea mission in 1798;
* at “our last battle with a large British frigate on the shores of Hindustan”, the dying Franc-Mason captain had given him “his secrets and his papers”, leading to buried treasure; and
* there were three documents about the treasures (though it would seem that we only have seen two of them).

Incidentally, I’ll return to the “last battle with a large British frigate” at a later date (I now have a strong suspicion which battle that was): but right now I’m more concerned with the Apollon.

The Apollon Crew List

After a previous spectacular success when captained by Jean Francois Hodoul, the 12-cannon Apollon (now captained by Louis Le Vaillant) was captured in 1798 by HMS Leopard. According to the prize documents in the National Archives at Kew, it had either 132 or 137 men on board.

If our missing corsair was – as BN3 suggests – on the Apollon’s last sea mission, then we should be able to see his name on the crew list. Furthermore, I think it would seem more likely that he was a sailor, ensign, or pilot than a volunteer, cook, or carpenter: and we can very probably rule out anyone with a non-French surname or any of the “noirs liberés” on board.

Hence I have image-enhanced roughly half of the crew list, numbered them, and placed them on a new page on the Cipher Foundation website.

The first two names on the crew list are very straightforward: Louis Le Vaillant and Jean Francois Hodoul, the latter of whom left the ship at the Seychelles (according to a note in the margin):

001-Louis Le Vaillant

002-Jean Francois Hodoul

However, there are plenty of other names on the crew list that I’m far less certain of, so this is very much a work in progress.

Could I therefore please ask those readers with experience of reading older French handwriting if they would contribute, by suggesting what the other crew members’ names are? I have made some obvious-looking readings to try to get the list going, but this is not something I can claim any great expertise in. Please leave your comments either on this page or on the Cipher Foundation page and I’ll integrate them into the list, crediting you on the page for your help if you like.

Incidentally, I’m simply not allowed – as normal with historical archives – to publish the raw images of the crew list from Réunion on the web. But feel free to email me (nickpelling attus nickpelling dottus commus, hopefully you can read Latin email addresses) if you are a researcher who would like to see more from a particular page etc.

Thanks!

Films and TV typically depict code-breakers as genius mathematicians running clever programmes on the fastest computers of their day – but for the kind of code-breaking I do, putting it into a computer is almost always the last step, not the first step.

In fact, there are close to a hundred things historical code-breakers like to try to work out first, such as:
* Who owns it?
* Who owned it in the past?
* Does it look genuine?
* Is there anything that might prove that it’s a fake?
* Was the code connected to any other documents?
* Are there references to the code in other documents?
* Is there any extra writing directly linked to the code?
* Do we know who the code-maker was?
* What was the code-maker’s situation?
* Who was supposed to be able to read the code?
* Are there any other documents written using the same letter shapes?
* Why was there any need for a code at all?
* Is it a code, or a cipher, or something in-between?
* Was each line of text written left-to-right or right-to-left?
* What language was the hidden message probably written in?
* Does the code’s text have any unusual features?
…and so on.

In short, if you ask your computer to work out what a message says in English when it’s actually written in German, it’s never going to find an answer, is it?

And the more that you can work out for certain before you try breaking the code, the greater the chance you will actually solve it.

Are Ricky McCormick’s Notes In Code?

Though I’ve covered Ricky McCormick’s mysterious notes here before, the short answer is…

No, they’re not.

When Ricky McCormick dropped out of school, he was barely able to read or write: the system had failed him completely – perhaps he was dyslexic, it’s hard to say. His parents “told investigators he sometimes jotted down nonsense he called writing“; that “the only thing he could write was his name“; and that Ricky “couldn’t spell anything, just scribble.”

The poor quality of the handwriting in his notes is completely consistent with the suggestion that he wrote them himself. And if he could barely write English, writing notes to himself in code seems extraordinarily unlikely.

So if you start off (as the Wikipedia “Ricky McCormick’s encrypted notes” page does) by assuming that Ricky McCormick’s notes are encrypted, I believe you have already doomed your code-breaking attempts to failure.

Personally, I can’t come up with even a single reason why the FBI ever thought that they might be in code (in the sense of a cryptographic code).

But we still might be able to read them…

Reading Ricky McCormick’s Notes

I think the most likely explanation for the notes is that they are written in (what is effectively) his own private language – notes to himself that nobody else needed to be able to read.

I’ve marked up the top few lines of the second note so that you can see some of the groups of letters (such as “WLD” and “NCBE”) that occur again and again:-

note1-top-large-annotated

One mystery is why the “SE” pair occurs so often: perhaps that was related to a speech quirk he had.

Also: the bottom line of the first note has a sequence that seems to say “(194 WLD’S NCBE)”. This makes it look as though both “WLD” and “NCBE” are nouns, and that (whatever they actually are) a “WLD” can own a “NCBE”… but that’s as far as I can go.

When we read these notes, I think we’re hearing inside Ricky McCormick’s head. But until we talk with the people who knew him, know his speech patterns, know his world… we’ll probably never make sense of them.

When, as so often happens, a cipher mystery’s genuine history gets overlaid by multiple layers of wishful thinking, unpicking them all can prove extremely difficult. In many cases, those extra layers can end up offering at least as much of a barrier to research as the original artefact itself.

This is, essentially, where things stand with the historical mystery surrounding Bernardin Nageon l’Estang. Originally referred to in the newspapers of the 1920s as the “Chevalier de Nageon” or Chevalier Nageon, he has now become better known as “Le Butin”, i.e. ‘The Booty’ (a cipher for raw greed if ever there was such a thing).

The three letters famously linked to him would seem in principle to place the man at the scene of all manner of Indian Ocean corsair / privateer / pirate / sea-action / derring-do circa 1790-1810: but in close to a century of searching, nobody has yet turned up a scrap of practical evidence that he ever existed.

What on earth is going on?

Dating BN1 – The Will

The first document is, without much doubt, a Will. It leaves possessions to “my nephew the reserve officer Jean Marius [Jean-Marie Justin] Nageon de l’Estang […] My writings are deliberately difficult to read as a precaution; I would tell Justin if I were to retrieve them first.”

According to sources on Ancestry.com, Jean-Marie Justin Nageon de L’Estang was born on the 8th August 1770 in Mauritius, and died on the 9th May 1798. So it would seem that we should be able to date this to before 1798: and if we could find out when this Jean-Marie Justin became a reserve officer, we might also be able to squeeze out an earliest date for this Will. But that’s about as far as we can go with it.

Dating BN2 – Letter to Justin

This letter begins “Dear Justin” (so was almost certainly to the same Jean-Marie Justin Nageon de L’Estang mentioned in BN1), and has a French Republican date at the top: “20 floréal an VIII”, i.e. 10th May 1800. However, given that Jean-Marie Justin Nageon de l’Estang died in 1798, this immediately seems problematic.

Emmanuel Mezino skirts this issue by asserting that the date must therefore have actually been “20 floréal an III” (i.e. 10th May 1795) and was mistranscribed. It is also possible that at the time of writing, the writer didn’t yet know that his nephew Justin was dead… it’s hard to be sure either way, given that nobody seems to have actually seen these documents in decades.

BN2 says that “a true friend will give you my will and my papers”, so we can also probably use this to date BN2 to after BN1.

Dating BN3 – Letter to Etienne

The third letter brings with it an abrupt change of tone: the writer is now concerned less about concealed booty than about what retrieving that booty can do for (French) patriotism in the hands of a (French) Freemason. The writer’s meagre possessions are also in the care of a Captain Hamon (Jamon?), which seems to run counter to BN1.

The writer of the third letter also notes that “I’ve been sick since the fall of Tamatave”: this marked the Invasion of île de France, where the French finally surrendered on 3rd December 1810. So this letter BN3 would seem to have been written in early 1811 or so.

The writer also mentions his “adventurous life before embarking on the Apollon” – the Apollo was built in 1796, sailed out of Boston, was then captured at Brest, was captained by Jean Francois Hodoul in 1797, but was then captured by HMS Leopard in 1798 (I’ve gone through the prize papers). The misadventure alluded to would therefore seem to be the capture of the Apollon in 1798. But there was no Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang in its final crew list.

All in all, BN3 doesn’t sound to me as though it came from the same person who wrote BN1 and BN2.

The Missing Pirate

Sifting through all this evidence, I find myself being led towards a new conclusion: that if Bernardin Nageon l’Estang was indeed the author of BN1 and BN2, it now seems very probable to me that someone else entirely wrote BN3. That is, it seems more likely to me that BN1 and BN2 were the documents owned by the “captain […] on his deathbed”, and passed to the writer of BN3 (who wasn’t Bernardin but someone else entirely). Which is not at all to say that Nageon l’Estang was the captain, but merely that the dying captain owned BN1 and BN2.

In which case, it would seem that we have perhaps identified a missing pirate: and so should be looking not for Bernardin Nageon l’Estang, but for someone
* who was on the Apollo’s ill-fated last sea mission before being captured (there is a crew list still in existence);
* whose “glorious feat of arms” had been rewarded by the First Consul (Napoleon Bonaparte);
* who had a “beloved brother” called Etienne;
* and who was still alive at the Fall of Tamatave in 1810.
It’s not an insurmountable task, I think: and now that we can state it in such bald research terms, perhaps answering it will prove to be possible…

However, as far as BN1 and BN2 goes, there is one additional problem I really need to mention…

The Indus Problem

BN1 mentions “un demi-terrain rivière La Chaux au Grand-Port, île de France, et les trésors sauvés de l’Indus, savoir“. Reading this the other day, I wondered to myself where the by-now well-worn phrase “Trésors [sauvés] de l’Indus” originally came from, just in case it was a phrase ‘out of time’ in the same way that “stampeding” seems to be a phrase out of time in the Beale Papers.

According to Google Books, “Trésors de l’Indus” was from a couplet in the first part of the well-known 1804/1805/1806 poem “La Navigation” by Joseph Esménard:-

Et du golfe arabique échangeant les trésors
De l’Indus étonné reconnaissaient les bords

So: if the use of this phrase was inspired by La Navigation, it would mean that BN1 dates to after 1805 or so. Which would consequently make both BN1 and BN2 (which refers to BN1) fakes.

Ultimately, then, the evidence seems to lead us to suspect that BN1 and BN2 could well be post-1805 fakes, while BN3 may be a genuine letter by an as-yet-unidentified seaman, who had genuinely received BN1 and BN2 from a captain on his deathbed, who (in turn) had genuinely believed them to be real (even though they weren’t).

Thus is the twisted yarn of cipher mysteries oft arrayed.

PS: Revue des Deux Mondes

Incidentally, when I searched Google Books for the phrase “trésors sauvés de l’Indus”, it appeared in an article in one of the 1935 issues of the long-running French high-culture literary review journal “Revue des Deux Mondes” (Google lists it as being on “page 343”, though this seems to be of a collection of all 24 (?) issues published in 1935).

However, Gallica’s scans of Revue des Deux Mondes only currently go up to 1930: so I’d be extremely grateful if anyone can get access to what this says at some point, rather than the version of the letters given in a 1962 book by Robert Charroux (i.e. the ones on the Cipher Foundation page), just in case Charroux happened to have misquoted them, which is always possible with treasure hunters, sadly.

If sweary, angry, nihilistic (yet oddly well-informed) Australian rock ticks your boxes, The Drones would surely be for you. Their plinky take on the Somerton Man mystery (which they call “Taman Shud”, the genuinely incorrect Aussie spelling) starts on familiar territory…

who ditched that fox-gloved snitch?
loaded him with poison like a puffer fish
why don’t anybody feel like crying
for the Somerton somebody with the hazel eyes?
[…]
he’s gone and no one even cares at all
the earth won’t answer and the sea don’t mourn
for all of the probing into whether he exists
the question’s still as open like a radar dish
late 1948
is sending a transmission but its inchoate
[…]
why did anybody feel the need to lie
‘less that’s Warsaw on the seashore
on the day he died?
don’t nobody wonder where he’s been?
no tags no wallet
and his brains dry-cleaned

…but then quickly sprawls sideways into contemporary commentary, la-di-da-di-da.

To all of which I’d say: maybe the Somerton Man was a snitch, maybe he was poisoned, maybe he was a Soviet spy, sure, feel free to subscribe to all the long-running fantasies all you like… but maybe he was instead just a working class bloke bumping along the bottom at a time of poverty and uncertainty.

At this point, many traditional rock critics would spin away to assert (something along the lines of) that the song is ‘clearly’ using the Somerton Man’s apparent exclusion from society to amp up the band’s ongoing critique of racism and of blow-hard know-nothing Aussies (including the entire political class, left and right).

But that would, of course, be utter tosh: any song with the word ‘inchoate’ is just knobbery, albeit entertaining knobbery. I like it, though: and I guess that’s all that really counts. Here’s the video (which is even more fun than the song):

Taman Shud [lyrics]

(From Feelin’ Kinda Free (Side A))

thud thud my heart pumps blood
when ever someone talks about my taman shud
who ditched that fox-gloved snitch?
loaded him with poison like a puffer fish
why don’t anybody feel like crying
for the Somerton somebody with the hazel eyes?
why don’t anybody feel like crying
for the Somerton nobody with the hazel eyes?

thud thud my heart pumping blood
when ever someone talks about my taman shud
he’s gone and no one even cares at all
the earth won’t answer and the sea don’t mourn
i don’t give a fuck about no Anzacery
i don’t care you got it interest free
i ain’t gonna fret about Lest We Forget
fuck the Murdoch press
i don’t get hung up on any carbon tax
or Ned getting strung up for being a psychopath
i ain’t really there with any class warfare
the only thing i care about’s the

thud thud my heart pumping blood
when ever someone talks about my taman shud
he’s gone and no one even cares at all
the earth won’t answer and the sea don’t mourn
for all of the probing into whether he exists
the question’s still as open like a radar dish
late 1948
is sending a transmission but its inchoate
don’t hate me for not caring ‘bout you losing your job
i think you’re gonna suit being a welfare slob
i don’t give a toss about no southern cross
or the gulag union jack
i don’t give a fuck if you can’t stop the boats
i ain’t at a loss if Simpson’s donkey votes
i don’t care about no Andrew Bolt
or even Harold Holt
it’s clear as
mud mud my taman shud
everybody mouths off
while they’re chewin’ cud

thud thud my heart pumps blood
when ever someone talks about my taman shud
why did anybody feel the need to lie
‘less that’s Warsaw on the seashore
on the day he died?
don’t nobody wonder where he’s been?
no tags no wallet
and his brains dry-cleaned
i don’t give a fuck about fuck off we’re full
i ain’t gonna send my kids to private school
i ain’t gonna grieve about no BHP
no silver spoons or mining booms
i don’t give a fuck about your brick and tile
i don’t really care if you’re a paedophile
i don’t care about no Master Chef
it’s as appetising as a whistle blower’s doom
or any French cartoon
nothing like a prune to make the death cults bloom
why you think the whole world’s gotta be like you?
fuck western supremacy
i ain’t sitting around being gallipolized
one man’s BBQ’s another’s hunger strike
why’d i give a rat’s about your tribal tatts?
you came here in a boat you fucking [—-]
my taman shud
everybody mouths off
while they’re chewin’ cud

thud thud my heart pumps blood
when ever someone talks about my taman shud.

Klaus Schmeh has just published a page on a previously unknown “Eliza” Masonic grave slab somewhere in Ohio, courtesy of Craig Bauer (Editor of Cryptologia, and who has a book on unsolved ciphers coming out next year).

Klaus’s commenters quickly worked out that it was actually the grave of Eliza Biehl (born 27th May 1862, died 2nd September 1915) buried in the Amboy Township Cemetery in Fulton, OH. It looks like this:

eliza-biehl

Klaus’s commenters quickly pointed out that the “John 3 – 16” on the left almost certainly refers to John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life“.

The right hand side is a Masonic pigpen cipher (obviously), but with a twist: it is actually enciphered from right-to-left, and so reads:

NROB
72-YAM
2681
———–
DEID
2-TPES
5191

It was actually a very nice piece of tag-team code-breaking, well done to everyone involved. 🙂

I’ve mentioned one particular Masonic gravestone back in 2008: but it turns out there are plenty of others out there, a few of which Klaus covers in this post on his site.

But here’s one he missed: that of John Farmer Dakin:-

john-farmer-dakin-pigpen

Here’s the plaintext if you’re too bone idle to work it out for yourself (it’s not hard, go on):

[—TRUSTINGODFOR—YOURSALVATION—]

Full bonus marks if you notice why this might give computer solvers a minor headache. 🙂

There are also various acrostic Masonic grave markings that occasionally turn up, such as FNDOZBTKC (which stands for “Fear Not, Daughter of Zion: Behold, The King Cometh”), and AHRHPCASDE (“And He reached her parched corn, and she did eat”).

Two More Masonic Gravestones…

But the real meat-and-two-veg of cryptic Masonic gravestones are pigpen cipher inscriptions: and so here are two more for you.

The first was from Dalkeith in Midlothian, and was cracked by amateur code-breaker Stuart Morrison. However, only really the headline of the story is on the web (i.e. no solution) and the image of the ciphertext isn’t really good enough to work with (in my opinion).

Dalkeith, St. Nicholas Buccleuch parish church. Stuart Morrison, who has cracked cipher on masonic gravestone.

If someone has access to a better quality image of this, that would be a good help. 🙂

And finally, a Freemason called Henry Harrison had some pigpen on his gravestone.

henry-harrison-cropped

Can you crack either of these? 🙂

For me, the Internet is a truly fabulous thing: in little more than a generation, its rapid growth has transformed the way that people find and communicate with each other, and has erected what is effectively a single global stage for a staggering number of people to become actors upon simultaneously.

For arguably the first time in history, we Netizens are part of a global grouping that brings people together right in their own houses. Surrendering access to this has become unthinkable: WiFi / broadband has marched right up the list of human needs to the #4 position, just behind shelter, clean water, and food.

Yet what I love so much about the Internet is not just its freedom of expression but its tolerance of diversity – any web page can be visited by people from a vast set of nationalities, ages, religions, and opinions. To my mind, it should be a given that different people have different points of view: and that we therefore all need to learn not just to tolerate those differences, but by treating them with humour, dignity and respect, celebrate and integrate them in an overwhelmingly positive way.

Diversity and History

History, though, sits awkwardly with this worldview, because it is a discipline built on two opposing strategies. On the one hand, it would be a dull historian who did not have access to his/her widening, creative side to fill evidential gaps, using empathy and pragmatic common sense to suggest imaginative ways explanations. And yet on the other, it would be a foolish historian who did not also have a narrowing, logical side that uses disproof, deep reading, attention to detail and rigorous thought to close down foolishnesses.

This widening / narrowing duality sits, to my mind, at the core of what it means to be a good historian: tempering the fire of empathic imagination with the cold steel of historical logic is what it is all about.

On the Internet, though, History struggles to express this duality comfortably. Blogs and uncritical forums offer safe sandboxes for historical imaginations to run wild, proposing all manner of alt.history, counterfactual history, pseudohistory and pseudoscience: but without the narrowing faculty to counterbalance this widening, what gets posted can quickly degenerate into a one-sided caricature of History, rather than anything approaching a useful asset in getting to the truth of what happened.

In short, the “History” I see written on the Internet relating to the things I research and know about brooks no disagreement, let alone accepts any criticism: its authors see the whole idea of narrowing as an insult to their right to personal expression, and as such treat any form of questioning as if it were a personal attack on them, and in turn often respond disrespectfully and abusively.

“Internet History”, really?

But History is not a fiction to be written how you like. It is evidence-driven hypotheses about the past behaviour of real people who just happen, in most (but certainly not all) cases, to now be dead. My opinion – which sadly seems to be shared by few others – is that these real people have as much right to respect as living people, even if by dying they have inadvertently foregone their legal right to sue.

What all too often gets described as “Internet History”, then, is something formed into the general ‘shape’ of History but without logic (and hence without balance), and without respect for the dead (or even the living).

Even though the authors of these pages would like to pass them off as History, the point I am trying to make is that this is the one thing that they are not – for without logic, without balance, and without respect, I think they have moved sideways into a completely different area altogether.

The problem is that we lack a word to describe this other area: it’s not History, and it’s not even “faction” (fiction threaded around a densely factual backdrop) because the authors typically do not consider it fictional at all. What should we call it? “Junk History” (a term used ironically to describe Gavin Menzies’ Chinese fantasy concoctions) is just about as close as I personally can get.

chinese-junk

You may well have your own words. 😐

The Difference…

My suspicion is that the explanatory diversity of Internet historical theories that spring up is misread by many as an parallel expression of the cultural diversity of the Internet: and that we should (so the theory goes) therefore just leave them be – let a thousand (diverse) flowers bloom, no matter how wonky or twisted their stems.

However, the explanatory diversity of different proposed “Histories” (where usually at most one of them can be right, hence they are all in competition with each other) is not at all similar to cultural diversity (where each culture has found its own way of living simultaneously with all the other cultures).

What is missing from “Internet History” is (a) the ability to disagree with people amicably; (b) the ability to accept that there is a greater-than-90% chance that any given theory is wrong; and (c) the ability to face up to evidential problems in any given theory.

In short:
* It’s OK to be different – diversity isn’t an optional extra, it’s part of the whole Internet package.
* It’s OK to disagree – it’s a natural consequence of being different.
* It’s also OK to be proved wrong – better that than waste years of your life on something which was broken from the start, surely?