The third “le Butin” letter BN3 relates a rip-roaring story: of how a dying French sea-captain gave the letter-writer three documents describing the location of buried treasure, urging him – as a fellow Freemason – to use the money for patriotic ends. All of which undoubtedly sounds a bit “Aaarrrrgh, Jim Lad, take thee moy treasure maaaps afore I die” to our modern ears: but all the same, it is a story that has proven surprisingly difficult to prove or disprove since it first appeared roughly a century ago.

And in that time, there has been no obvious shortage of treasure hunters wanting to know more about the story, and reading it in pretty much whatever way they want: as evidenced by this news item that appeared in the Thursday 18 June 1925 Lancashire Evening Post:

“£30,000,000” MINE LOCATED
A Londoner with gold-detecting instruments is said to have located a gold mine in Mauritius which was discovered and worked by the crew of the French corsair Nageon more than a century ago. It is said to contain £30,000,000 worth of gold.

Anyway, I’ve recently been wondering – might this dying captain have been Captain Malroux of the Iphigénie?

Captain Malroux

The basic story appears in numerous sources, such as René Guillemin’s lively (but far from reliable) (1982) “Corsaires de la République et de l’Empire”.

Guillemin’s chapter concerning Ripaud de Montaudevert relates .215-219] a well-known incident of 1799 concerning a French corsair corvette (the Iphigénie, 18 cannons) commanded by Captain Malroux (“un armateur influent de Port-Louis”) with Ripaud as its second-in-command. Summarizing Guillemin’s account of events:
* 25 August 1799: Iphigénie departed towards the Gulf of Ormuz, where it arrived and waited… and waited…
* 07 October 1799: they spot the Pearl (three-master, 16 cannons) leaving the Persian Gulf. They fight: the British captain and a Lascar die, and the Pearl surrenders. Sacks of gold and silver (4 million francs’ worth), 5000 small copper ingots, and “diverses autres marchanises de mondre valeur” are transferred to the Iphigénie, but forty Arab horses were left on the Pearl (which Ripaud took command of).
* 10 October 1799: they encounter the corvette H.M.S. Trincomalee (40 cannons or smaller cannonades, but with a crew of 140 sharply reduced by illness down to just 70) and the schooner Comet.
* The sea battle ends in the middle of the night with the Trincomalee exploding and the Pearl sinking
* The Comet ran away, and the Iphigénie then picked up the survivors.

OK, it’s not quite off the coast of India: but it’s not far away at all and the timing is good. We also have several vivid eye-witness accounts, including letters by John Cramlington (on the Cipher Foundation website).

Citoyen Malroux

Interestingly, there’s a report here – Gazette nationale, ou le moniteur universel, No 190 (page 1, top of column 3) – that quotes a report in JOURNAL DE TOULOUSE, L’OBSERVATEUR REPUBLICAIN; ou L’ANTI—ROYALISTE (page 2) verbatim:

Octidi 18e Germinal (99) L’an VIII de la République – 1800-04-08

Extrait d’une lettre de Brest, qui contient des particularités relatives à l’Isle-de-France.

Le citoyen Malroux, commandant un corsaire de 20 çanons, après avoir pris un navire anglais qui, indépendamment d’une cargaison très – riche, avait à bord 10 à 12 millions en pagodes d’or, a été rencontré par une frégate anglaise de 40 canons. Après un combat très vif, il l’a enlevée à l’abordage. Le capitaine anglais, désespéré d’être pris par des forces aussi inférieures, a fait sauter sa frégate au moment où on amenait le pavillon : le corsaire, se trouvant accroche à cette frégate, a coulé bas. La prise, qui est arrivée a bon port, est parvenue à sauver quelques personnes des deux équipages; mais le capitaine Malroux a péri. C’est une belle action bien maleureusement terminée, etc.

However, this was followed up by a slightly sniffy article in a later issue that downplayed almost everything about the incident:

Sextidi 26e. Germinal, (N°. 103.) L’an VIII de la Republique:

Un habitant de l’Isle-de-France, arrivé au Havre ces jours derniers, a confirmé, quant au fond, la nouvelle de la capture d’un riche bâtiment anglais par un corsaire français ; mais il en rectifie ainsi les détails:

» Le corsaire du capitaine Malroux n’avait que 14 canons, de 4; le bâtiment ennemi n’était pas une frégate de 40 canons, mais une corvette de 26.
» Malheureusement, lorsque le capitaine anglais fit sauter sa corvette , les grapins étaient encore à bord, et le corsaire a coulé bas.
» On a connu ces détails par la prise qui est arrivée à l’Isle-de-France , deux jours avant le départ de cet habitant.
» Elle n’est évaluée que 100 à 150,000 piastres, l’or ayant été embarqué à bord du corsaire, au moment de la capture.

There’s a lot more to the history, but that’s all I can fit in a blog post for the moment. 🙁

La Perle, Le Butin and… La Buse?

All in all, I think Malroux is a surprisingly good fit, and nothing in all the accounts of his death contradicts the BN3 story: but oddly, it seems that I’m far from the first person to consider this.

If we take another look at the second La Buse cryptogram…


…it includes drawings of three large ships: “Le Victorieux” (32 cannons), “La Perle”, and a third (unnamed) ship in the middle of exploding.

Now, I can’t prove it, but – given that there already seems evidence that strongly suggests that the second La Buse cryptogram was faked no earlier than the start of the twentieth century – it seems highly likely to me that this was intended by the fakers to intimate a link between the (in reality probably entirely unconnected) La Buse cryptogram and the Le Butin letters.

Who would want to do such a thing? Someone with an interest in both cipher mysteries, for sure: and who had a better knowledge of Indian Ocean maritime history than most people, good enough to point a knowledgeable finger at Malroux.

I’m sorry to have to say it, but this seems likely to me to be the work of someone close to a well-known French treasure hunting group, either to gull them all or as part of the kind of treasure map theatre they seem to have engaged in to show off to each other.

Which is a shame, because I would have loved to have talked with the people behind it, because I’m sure they would have had some great stories to tell. But perhaps no-one will ever know now. Oh well!

Trawling through the New Zealand shipping records for departures from New Zealand to Sydney for 1947-1948, it turns out that there were quite a few more to consider than just the Wahine. And so I went through them all. Though I filtered names out where I could (based on age), I included names where no age was given – but hopefully most of those will be easily cross-off-able.

What may be most interesting for some researchers is that the Marine Phoenix travelled from San Francisco to Sydney via New Zealand: and so, in one fell swoop, would seem to have the capacity to possibly join the American clues (Juicy Fruit + tailoring) and the New Zealand clue (Whitcombe and Tombs’ Rubaiyat) to the dead man in Australia.


According to this very interesting page:

She was launched on the 9th. of August in 1945 by the Kaiser Shipyard at Vancouver Washington. 12,420 tons, 523 feet long with a 71.2 foot beam. One funnel, engine aft with a single screw and a speed of 17 knots. Built with accommodation for 3,800 troops.

The ship was thus too late to play any part in WW2.

Troopships were operated by Army Transportation Service with civilian crews, by the US Navy, or by the War Shipping Administration. The ship was managed by the Moore- McCormack Line for the US Maritime Commission.

Her maiden voyage on the 12th. of December 1945 was from Seattle to Nagoya Japan. She seems to have carried troops from Japan to Tacoma WA over the period 5th. of January/ 17th. of January 1946.

My report states she was laid up in Suisim Bay at San Francisco in 1947, but you thought your family sailed in her in 1948, perhaps that was, in fact in 1947, before the ship was laid up.

Anyway, here are a whole sackful of Eastern European names culled from these lists, make of them all what you will: I’ve carried out simple NAA searches where I can, but many of you can doubtless proceed much further if you so wish. 🙂

“Marine Phoenix” to Sydney, 26 May 1947

* Mr Herech Gildener (42) + Mrs Henryka Gildener (42) + Miss Renata Gildener (11) + Edyta Gildener (1) – Poland
* Mr Wolf Lewenkopf (47) + Mrs Mirla Lewenkop (37) – Poland
* Mr David Litman (52) – Poland

Hersch Gildener and David Litman are both listed in the NAA, but I couldn’t see the Lewenkop[f]s there at all.

“Marine Phoenix” to Sydney, 28 Jul 1947

* Mr Alush Emin (52) – Albania
* Mr Ludwik Menasohn (45) + Mrs Augusta Menasohn (37) – Poland
* Mr Jozef Perlen (52) + Stefanica Perlen (30) + Hyvka S. Perlen (39) + Ludwik Perlen (9) – Poland

Alush Emin is in the NAA (1947-1972), Ludwik Menasche [corrected spelling] likewise (1947-1947), and Josef Perlen (1947-1955). The Menasches appear in a paywalled 1968 Sydney Morning Herald, so we can rule them out. Jozef Perlen seems to have been born in 1903: his pre-war address is given here.

“Largs Bay” to Sydney, 04 Sep 1947

* Mr V Mischenko (42) Police Officer + Mrs V Mischenko (31) Domestic Duties + Master D V Mischenko (7) Student – Siberia
* Mr B Zarimba (38) Electrical Engineer – Russia

Vladimir Mischenko (born 24th July 1904, NAA files 1930-1947, but also document dated 1952), “B Zarimba” (“Zaremba”?) not found on NAA.

“Marine Phoenix” to Sydney, 06 Nov 1947

* Mr O Hanker (?) – Poland
* Mr J Pakula – Poland
* Mr J Zylber – Poland

According to the NAA, Oscar Hanner was born on 24th January 1922 (so would be too young for us); Jozef Zylber’s file is 1947-1972; while Jozef Pakula’s file is 1947-1947 (barcode 8781463 – note that there are two Jozef Pakulas as well as a Jozek Pakula listed).

“Annam” to Sydney, 19 Nov 1947

* Joe Lateiner (51) Hairdresser – Poland

No sign of Joe Lateiner: lots of hits for the pianist Jacob Lateiner, though.

“Rangitiki” to Sydney, 30 Nov 1947

* Mr M Sumic (47) Orchardist – Yugoslav
* Mr P Braun (43) Manufacturer – Czechoslavakian

No sign of either of these men in the NAA. Howeverm Trove has an advert for grapes on 26th February 1939:

GRAPES for Sale, White and Red Muscat. Passenger train 6/6 freight paid, M. Sumic, Swan View.

There appear to be plenty of Sumich family members in Swan View.

“Marine Phoenix” to Sydney, 29 Dec 1947

* Mr Solomon Berglas – Poland
* Mr Leon Bilczewski + Mrs Leon Bilczewski + Master Jacob Bilczewski (1) – Poland
* Mr David Fromberg + Mrs David Fromberg + Miss Miriam Fromberg + Master Grzegorz Fromberg (8) – Poland
* Mr Lew Frydman + Mrs Lew Frydman – Poland

NAA has a Salomon Berglas “[Austrian – arrived Sydney per Oronsay, 5 February 1940]” (file 1940-1947); NAA barcode 4309696 refers to “[Application for admission of Leon, Luba and Jakob BILCZEWSKI to Australia]”; but no sign of the Frombergs or the Frydmans.

Since the Voynich Manuscript surfaced in about 1912, many of the best-known codebreaking experts have studied its writing (‘Voynichese’) in depth. Of them, many have concluded that it was written using a cipher system that was (a) stronger than a simple (monoalphabetic) substitution cipher, yet (b) mathematically weaker than a polyalphabetic cipher.

If the University of Arizona’s 2009 radiocarbon dating of the Voynich Manuscript’s vellum (which points to the first half of the fifteenth century) is correct, the most likely reason for (b) becomes blindingly obvious: polyalphabetic ciphers (such as those of Leon Battista Alberti, Abbot Trithemius, and Vigenère) hadn’t yet been invented.

So, does that mean that all pre-polyalphabetic ciphers were easy? Errm… nope. In fact: not even close.

Fourteenth Century Cryptography

Even though Gabriele de Lavinde’s 1379 collection of Vatican ciphers were, at heart, simple (monoalphabetic) ciphers, many also included “nulls” (special cipher shapes that code for nothing at all, and were added into ciphertexts specifically to try to misdirect codebreakers). In the hands of a tricksy encipherer, this can already become not at all straightforward to crack.

Even the very clever CryptoCrack doesn’t have a tool for predicting / identifying nulls in a given ciphertext: and it turns out (I believe) that this is a significantly harder technical challenge than you might think.

Moreover, many of the ciphers in Gabriel de Lavinde’s cipher ledger also contained a nomenclator: this was a list of typically a dozen-or-so shapes enciphering entire words, like a cross between a cipher and a code. (Broadly speaking, a ‘cipher’ enciphers a message a letter at a time, while a ‘code’ encodes a message a word at a time: so nomenclators blur the line between the two).

However, it’s far from clear (to me at least) whether nomenclators were added in the 14th century for security, speed or brevity. I suspect that to insist that it was just a matter of security would be to project principles of Schneieresque computer science onto the codemakers and codebreakers of the 1300s: the true answer would be some vague (and probably unworked-out) combination of all three.

Fifteenth Century Cryptography

At the beginning of the 15th century, however, things started to shift (slightly) in the world of codemaking. 1401 was when a secretary at the Duchy of Mantua produced the following cipher alphabet for corresponding with Simeone de Crema:


Now, in many ways, this is a particularly stupid cipher alphabet, because the top (core) line maps each character in the alphabet to its reversed-alphabet equivalent (i.e. ABCDE –> ZYXUT and vice versa). Yet what is simultaneously clever about it is that it allocates multiple shapes to each of the five vowels.

To be honest, I think it would be a bit of a stretch to infer from this (as David Kahn tries to) that the notion of defending against frequency analysis-based attacks must necessarily have been entering cryptographers’ minds as early as 1401. Rather, it seems many times more likely to me that this trick (now known as “homophonic substitution”) was originally devised for a far more mundane reason: to make it harder for codebreakers to tell which letters are vowels and which are consonants.

Fast forward to the middle of the fifteenth century (probably circa 1450-1455), and we can still see the same palette of tricks in action in the following (undated) cipher alphabet in the Tranchedino cipher ledger from Milan:


Apart from not using the same alphabet backwards as the base cipher alphabet, it would seem that not much has changed since 1401: the vowels are still obfuscated with multiple homophonic alternatives (though with only three different shapes per vowel here, rather than the four shapes per vowel used half a century before).

The more observant among you will also notice that the (formerly Tironian) shorthand abbreviation ‘9’ gets its own cipher shape, as does ℞ (i.e. Rx, if your prehistoric browser can’t render Unicode character ‘U+211E’).

However, the later cipher alphabet also has special cipher shapes for doubled letters, a few other common shorthand abbreviations (p, etc), and a few more nulls than before:


The nomenclator is noticeably beefed up, with this particular cipher boasting more than eighty special entries:


Another Mantuan Cipher (1450)

Given that the 1401 cipher was from the Duchy of Mantua, it’s interesting to have a look at a Mantuan ducal cipher from 1450 in the Tranchedino ledger. This now has two homophonic shapes per consonant (except for x, z, and the ‘9’ shorthand shape), and three homophonic shapes per vowel:


It then has a mini-codebook of common words (Come, Quando, Quanto, Non, etc) and some nulls:


Interestingly, this is followed by an entirely new section, with arbitrary shapes standing in for a whole load of syllable groups (ab, ac, ad, af, ag, etc):


Finally, the page finishes up with roughly the same (small) size of nomenclator as had been in use in Mantua half a century previously:


So, You Call This “Progress”?

There is a long-standing (and widespread) tendency among writers on cryptography to present the development of ciphers in the fifteenth century as a kind of prototype of the modern arms race.

It’s perfectly true that, as the number of parties enciphering messages grew (along with the first flush of modern diplomacy) in the mid-15th century (many historians quite reasonably date this to the 1454 Treaty of Lodi), so too did the number of people who became experienced at cracking them.

However, there seems to me to be no evidence suggesting any kind of awareness of frequency analysis in the West in the fifteenth century. While Leon Battista Alberti’s short book on ciphers (“De Cifris”, 1466/1467) did cover this very well, he appears to have devised the abstract principles himself: and the contents of his book seem never to have been shared with anyone outside the Vatican. Similarly, al-Qalqashandi’s (1412) Arabic encyclopaedia entry on frequency analysis (mentioned in Kahn) appears never to have been transmitted to the West.

Don’t get me wrong, cryptology and cryptography both genuinely advanced in the sixteenth century: but in the fifteenth century, code-breaking had no mechanisms, no abstract methodology to work from: and fifteenth century code-making relied, by and large, on exactly the palette of tricks that were in place by 1450 or so. The only noticeable difference was that of scale: more homophones, more syllables, more nulls, and bigger nomenclators.

What, Then, Of The Voynich Manuscript?

In almost all practical senses, I think it’s fair to note that the Voynich Manuscript stands outside the cipher-making traditions you can see embodied in the cipher alphabets described above. It would seem to have too few cipher shapes to be using homophonic cipher tricks, doubled letters, a nomenclator of commons words, or even nulls.

And yet it dates to this precise period: and – arguably the most telling cryptanalytical feature of all – there is still no modern-day consensus as to which shapes are vowels and which are consonants. Even now, the letters that resemble ‘a’, ‘e’ (sort of), ‘i’, and ‘o’ continue to convince people seeing the Voynich Manuscript with fresh eyes that they ‘must’ not only look like vowels, but ‘must’ also be vowels. However, the closer you look at these, the unlikelier and wobblier this conclusion gets.

So, here’s your paradox for the day: even though the Voynich Manuscript is almost certainly not using the homophonic trick of using multiple letters for each of the vowels that was in use as early as 1401, it very much seems that its author devised or adapted an alternative way of concealing the plaintext’s vowels, i.e. of answering the same basic cryptographic ‘problematique’.

But how did it do that?

Archives New Zealand has made seven million historical passenger records available online through an arrangement with Utah-based . The transcriptions were made by network of generous volunteers (though I have to say that the quality of the transcriptions varies, where a fair few of the pages I looked at were only partially complete).

And so, following on from my previous post, I thought I’d see if any male Balts or Poles aged 40 to 60 travelled on the Wahine from New Zealand to Australia in 1947 or 1948. This turned out to be an extremely short list:

Poles on the Wahine

* 09May1947 - N Szuchmacher - 47 - Printer
* 21Nov1947 - M Zable...... - 41 - Engineer (travelled with wife + two sons)
* 05Dec1947 - M Wilniewezyb - 35 - Priest
* 18Dec1947 - N Naum....... - 52 - Manufacturer
* 31Dec1947 - S Bilgorri... - 50 - Tailor

I included Father Michal Wilniewczyc because I have a nice photograph of him on the 5th December 1947. This was the very day that the much-loved priest left the Pahiatua Polish Children’s Camp in New Zealand, where 733 Polish orphans and half-orphans had been taken in 1944. Which is a story for another post entirely. 🙂

Michal Wilniewczyc 05Dec1947 about to travel on the Wahine

What of the others? N Szchumacher (spelt correctly) would seem to be the “Nojach Szuchmacher” referred to in a single document in the NAA from 1946, where he is a nominee for “RYBAJZEN Jozef [aka Aizen]”, who had apparently applied for naturalization in 1943. This “Nojach Szuchmacher” was without any real doubt the Noah Schumacher who (according to the NAA) arrived at Sydney on the Wahine on 13th May 1947. If it is correct that Schumacher’s file runs through to 1955 (as it appears to), we can probably rule him out as a candidate for the Somerton Man.

“N Naum” would appear to be Norman Naum (born 18th May 1895, died 12th May 1959, buried in Karori Cemetery in Nea Zealand), so I think we can rule him out too.

The Zable family – “Mrs H Zables” (Tailoress, 41), Master B. Zable (2), and Master A. Zable (8 months), both born in New Zealand – I traced through to their naturalization application in New Zealand: Zable, Myer (Zabludowski, Mejer); Zable (Zabludowski), Hodes Mrs. All of which (eventually) let me determine that Myer Zable was a poet and that he died on 31st July 1992 in Melbourne. So we can rule him out, too.

Finally: the tailor “S Bilgorri” would appear to be Solomon Bilgorri of 31 Fouberts Place, Regents St, London W1 (very close to Carnaby Street, naturally), who travelled from London to New Zealand on the Rangitata, departing 14th Feb 1947. Might Solomon Bilgorri have been the Somerton Man? The father of Harry ‘Sonny’ Bilgorri (the famous East End tailor popular among London gangsters) was also called Solomon Bilgorri (though he was born in 6th July 1893 and died on 14th June 1973, it says here), but I suspect these were two different people… though it’s hard to be sure. (‘Bilgorri’ itself was simply the name of a town in Poland.)

Claimed (with more than a passing nod to the Voynich Manuscript) to be “the world’s most mysterious whisky”, Glenlivet Cipher – priced at £90, but also somehow “exclusive to Selfridges” at £110, don’t ask me to explain – comes in an “opaque black bottle without any cask information, age or tasting notes”.

Glenlivet Cipher

The (almost inevitable) newmedia twist is that Glenlivet have not merely given the whisky its own #TheGlenlivetCipher hashtag *sigh*, but have also produced an online Cipher Experience to guide buyers through their own tasting, to try to help them decipher (what Glenlivet’s distiller Alan Winchester considers to be) the correct set of tasting notes. They also give you some clues in the form of short videos, all accompanied by a slightly self-important-sounding string backing. Which is nice.

Thankfully, there is (as far as I can tell) no silver dolphin concealed under a certain stone by the Moray Firth to be found at the end: it’s just a bit of PR-tastic tasting fun. All Alan Winchester says is that Glenlivet Cipher has an ABV of 48% and that it’s a non-chill-filtered single malt: the rest you have to work out for yourself.

Note that Glenlivet did a broadly similar thing back in 2013 with its limited edition (only 3500 bottles) Glenlivet Alpha, which also had no tasting notes or details beyond the minimum legal requirement (though they released more details after a month, presumably when they’d sold them all). By way of contrast, Glenlivet Cipher is to be produced in a quantity of 25,000: whisky aficionados thirsty for information will doubtless have a slightly longer wait this second time around. 🙂

Anyway, given that I got my WSET Level 2 qualification a few years back, I’m planning to give the Glenlivet Cipher Experience a go (though £90/£110 will be a decent-sized chunk out of my meagre cipher bookbuying budget). Perhaps Glenlivet’s PR people will ride to my rescue here, fingers crossed. 😉

A comment left here today by Mark Pitt very kindly pointed me to the Elgar- and/or Dorabella Cipher-related Sotheby’s Lot 92 from May 2016.

The lot contained a rather distressed (“binding broken, pages loose, wear and some damp-staining“) first edition copy of Dora Penny’s (1937) “Edward Elgar: Memories of a Variation” apparently from Dora Penny’s own library (“D.M.P. 1937”, though by then the final ‘P’ then stood for ‘Powell’, her married surname), along with various photographs of Elgar and his coterie all “captioned by Dora in blue ink”.

Oh, And A Micro-Cryptogram, Too

Also included was a small fragment written by Elgar, noting that he “wrote to [musical instrument dealer] Hill offering to purchase Gagliano [violin]”, on a ~5.5cm x ~7cm piece of paper that had “traces of mounting to verso”. This is what it looks like (image taken from Sothebys’ site):


The expected price was £600-£800, but the actual hammer price was £1750.

What seems to have raised the level of buyer interest was the presence of a single three-letter cryptogram repeated six times (though with the first time crossed out), with three of the instances preceded by a ‘£’ sign. Given that this is arguably the shortest cryptogram I’ve yet posted here, I thought it was well worth dubbing it a “micro-cryptogram”.

But… what could this be? And, most importantly, might we be able to crack it?

Ah, It’s Also In His Diary

Fortunately, Elgar historians and biographers got there first (after a fashion). For if you turn to p.158 of Jerrold Northrop Moore’s (1984) “Edward Elgar: A Creative Life”, you will discover that the same micro-cryptogram appears in his diary: “[56] Elgar’s diary entry [for buying the eighteenth-century Gagliano violin] follows the £-sign with three squiggled marks“. (Figuring that out took me all of thirty seconds, much of which was spent trying to unwedge the copy of “A Creative Life” from the back of the bookshelf it was sitting on.)

So it would seem that what was on sale at Sothebys contained something like pen-trials or rehearsals on a scrap of paper for the same three-glyph cryptogram he added to his diary. Moreover, if we could discover by other means what price the Elgars paid for the Gagliano violin in 1891, then it seems we would be able to solve the cryptogram.

However, having now spent significantly more than thirty seconds trying to determine this (with no success), all I can do is throw it open to you all. How many pounds did the Elgars pay for their Niccolò Gagliano violin in 1891? Find that out and you presumably will have solved possibly the shortest genuine historical cryptogram ever. 🙂

Absence of Provenance Is Not Evidence Of Providence

All the same, I have to say it seems odd to me that the (normally very thorough) Sothebys people failed to pick up on this connection with Elgar’s diary. The catalogue entry for the preceding Lot 91 (Lot 91) was much more their normal style, with a rock-solid provenance (“From the collection of Edward Speyer, to whom Elgar gave these manuscripts“): unsurprisingly, that went for a handsom £72,500 (close to the middle of their estimated range).

So… what was the difference with Lot 92? What was its provenance? I can’t help but wondering whether the “binding broken, pages loose, wear and some damp-staining” condition of Dora Penny’s own copy of her book might be trying to tell us, along with all the photographs hand-annotated by her.

You see, there is one person who could very easily have been the source for this: Dora Penny herself (albeit indirectly).

When I tried to trace the history of the Dorabella Cipher itself a few years ago, I found that it had been part of a a sizeable set of Dora Penny’s Elgar-related papers, that had been presented to the Royal College of Music Library “by Mr and Mrs Claud Powell [in] 1986”. However, as an RCM archivist I talked with told me, several boxes of this Elgar material were somehow lost (possibly in Leeds?) while being transported to London, and that was the last that was seen of them.

What, then, are the chances that one or more of these cartons ended up in someone’s slightly damp garage for the next thirty years, and that this rather poor condition copy of the book is the first sight anyone has seen of these since 1986? Perhaps the seller didn’t want to be identified for that reason, in which case it could easily be why the lot was clearly marked as “sold not subject to return”, and without a hint of a flicker of a provenance.

Even So, Does It All Add Up?

Even if the above will turn out to be the story behind this item, I have to say that the picture as a whole still doesn’t quite ring true to me.

Put simply, I would be a little surprised if Dora Penny had had reason to mount this poor scraggly piece of writing on her wall. After all, she had the Dorabella Cipher itself: this micro-cryptogram is surely very much its poor relation, as well as being unprepossessingly tiny.

Might it be that the person who owned this had had it mounted on his or her wall in their study, sitting next to the Dorabella Cipher itself? What an incredible story that would be! Well… something to think about, anyway. 🙂

A small remark in the 2013 TV documentary on the Somerton Man seems to have escaped everybody’s attention. I covered the documentary here at the time, but arguably the most interesting bit begins exactly five minutes into the video (transcript as follows):

Kate Thomson: And… there was home life, and there was outside life; but I grew up very much that there’s a barrier between the two, and the two you don’t integrate.

Charles Wooley (voiceover): Today, Kate remembers a mother who was loving, but secretive – so secretive, she now believes that her mother was a Soviet spy.

Kate Thomson: She certainly said once she was teaching English to newly arrived migrants, and at the time there’d been a small group coming from Russia into Australia, and as she said to me, “Ah, I’m surprised that I can still quite understand Russian”.

Charles Wooley (as interviewer): She dropped that bombshell!

Kate Thomson (reported speech): “Yeah, so when did you learn Russian?” “Well, that’s for me to know.

At first sight, this would seem to achieve nothing apart from hosing a tankerful of petrol onto the already-long-burning conspiracy fires raging beneath the Somerton Man’s pyre-like heap of evidence. But in fact, if you carefully link what Kate Thomson is saying with the history of post-war migrants to Australia, a quite different picture emerges…

Postwar Migrants

I mentioned Ramunas Tarvydas’ (1997) “From Amber Coast to Apple Isle” here back in 2015 when I was first looking at the Electrolytic Zinc Co. of Australia’s mining operations in Rosebury and Risdon (both in Tasmania).

But Tarvydas’ book starts by describing how the very first wave of post-war Balts (i.e. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians) came to Australia, from their arrival by boat in Fremantle to being allocated work.

The migration scheme had been set up by Arthur Calwell, the Minister for Immigration: because Australia had to “populate or perish” (p.6), migration from the enormous numbers of displaced persons (“DP”s) throughout Europe was – though as politically sensitive an issue then as now – the only real option to try to lift the overall economy.

Tarvydas states that “the initial intake for Australia was restricted to single men and women between the ages of 18 and 40” (p.7). Calwell also put in place a selection policy that favoured those immigrants who happened to be “white-skinned, with blue eyes and blond hair”. Not something that modern historians would look on with any great admiration, let’s say. 🙁

The first group of migrants was known as “the First Transport or Transport I […] 729 men and 114 women” (p.7): these “First Swallows” arrived at Fremantle on 28th November 1947. Four days later, the Balts were put on the HMAS Kanimbla (an Aussie troop-carrier), arriving at Melbourne on 7th December 1947, whereupon they were taken to Bonegilla camp.

Tarvydas asserts that many of the Balts in the first waves “were political refugees rather than immigrants motivated by economics” (p.17): all the same, I’m fairly sure neither account captures the entire picture. Even so, though the USAT General Stuart Heintzelman was supposed to have carried only labourers and similar workers on its first migration run from Europe to Australia, this was clearly not the case. Many of the Balts on board had had professional careers: for example, a lady (Mrs Augustauskas) who had formerly been a pharmacist in Lithuania was initially given a cleaning job at Calvary Hospital (though she later “resat her examinations and became a fully qualified pharmacist” (p.18)).

And so the problem is…

Now that you can see the external history a little more clearly and specifically, do you see the problem with Kate Thomson’s “Soviet Spy” interpretation of what her mother Jo Thomson told her?

The Balts – who made up a very large part of the early waves of immigration into Australia – did not primarily speak Russian. And at that time (and for decades afterwards) there were no waves of Russian-speaking migrants washing onto Aussie shores.

It therefore seems highly likely to me that the migrants Jo Thomson would have been helping to learn English were Balts or possibly Poles, because they were “coming from [what had become annexed into] Russia into Australia”.

Adelaide Migrants

Postwar, the Commonwealth Migration Office was based in Adelaide. And at the beginning of 1948, it was decided that a camp should be built for migrants not too far from Adelaide: this was Woodside, but it was only opened in 1949 (so is out of our date range).

The first sight Adelaideans had of these post-war migrants was in January 1948, when a group of 65 young Balts who had been allocated to work for the Water Supply Department building a new pipeline from Happy Valley Reservoir were accommodated in tents in a paddock in Bedford Park, just south of Adelaide. The press took lots of admiring photos of the strapping young migrants:


But (just as Tarvydas says), they weren’t an obviously good fit for the work that was on offer. A spokesman for the Engineering and Water Supply Department noted: “The Balts are not very keen on pick and shovel work. Most of them are young intellectuals — musicians, draftsmen, surveyors, electricians, medical attendants, engineers, and students. Not one was a laborer by occupation. They were picked from the wrong section of the community from our point of view. We want laborers.”

Moreover, it quickly became clear that four weeks of English language classes at Bonegilla hadn’t really been enough: even an op-ed piece of the day thought that the authorities should do something about it (Why oh why? cont. p.94). The young lad Olaf Aerfeldt who was the Bedford Park Balt’s unofficial interpreter had only got there by chance, flipping a coin to choice between Australia and South America (pp.42-46): but they needed to learn English. And – as you can clearly see from this photo – they were anxious to learn, but had no lessons:


At this point, several local people – Mrs and Mrs Lyall Fricker, Peter McDonald and L. A. Tepper – stepped forward to offer their services as volunteer teachers. Though things seemed to have improved somewhat by May 1949.

Finally: I’ll leave the story of how 280 Polish ex-servicemen were discharged in Adelaide on 30th September 1947 for another day: they formed arguably the very first large wave of migrants from mainland Europe, predating the “First Swallows” by a few months. But who’s counting?

And so…

To my eyes, there seems to have probably been only a relatively small window when Jo Thomson would have been helping Adelaide migrants to learn English: late 1947 (when they started to arrive) to early 1950 (when the flow of big migration boats stopped). And there were basically no Russians at that time: mainly Balts and Poles.

If some of the migrants who had formerly lived in Bedford Park were asked if they remembered Nurse Thomson, what would they say? It would be interesting to find out, I think: it might give us a better idea of how that side of her life worked. It probably wouldn’t stop the crackling conspiracy fires (though these may well continue burning, regardless of whatever happens to be uncovered in the future), but it would be good to know, right?

Adelaide Railway Station (Again)

One last thing: while trawling through Trove, I found an Adelaide News article from 20th November 1948 about Balt women working in Adelaide Railway Station that I thought I’d share with you:


[Mrs Natalia Aerfeldt at top, Mrs Vera Plume at bottom left, and Mrs Anna Kirkmann at bottom right]

Three newly arrived Balt women working in the refreshment service at Adelaide Railway Station have husbands training as railway porters here.
A 17-year-old son of one couple is a youth cleaner in the department.
Mrs. Anna Kirkmann, who serves in the dining room, was a bank manager’s private secretary in [Estonia] before the war, and later worked for Unrra.
She arrived here with her husband, Paul Kirkmann, on Thursday as members of a party of 55 Balts.
Other railway family groups besides the Kirkmanns are Mr. Janis Plume, Mrs. Vera Plume, and their son, Roberts, who are
Latvians, and Mr. Bronius Lukavicius and Mrs. Jule Lukavicius, who are Lithuanians.
Mrs. Kirkmann is living with her brother at Glenelg. The married men and Roberts are at the railways hostel at Islington. The other women are in refreshment service quarters at Adelaide Station.
Balts with the railways total nearly 400. Seventy men are porters and cleaners; 100 are being trained for that work, and the remainder are divided between south-east gauge broadening and metropolitan maintenance work.
Mrs. Natalia Aerfeldt, also in this week’s party, is the mother of Olaf Aerfeldt, interpreter at the waterworks camp at Bedford Park. Olaf’s father has gone to Globe Timber Mills, Port Adelaide.

And so there you have it – even by late November 1948, Baltic migrants were working in Adelaide Railway Station, embedding themselves right into the very texture of the Somerton Man’s story.

Who’s to say that he himself wasn’t a migrant?

The Somerton Man – found dead on Somerton Beach near Adelaide on 1st December 1948 – had, in his fob pocket, a small slip of paper on which was printed “Tamam Shud”. It was subsequently determined that this slip had been torn out by hand from the last page of a Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: and that the specific edition of the Rubaiyat had been published by Whitcombe and Tomb’s in New Zealand, as part of their “Courage And Friendship” series.

(Note: if we knew what other books in the “Courage And Friendship” series were listed on the inside front cover of the Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat, we’d almost certainly be able to determine the precise year in which the book was printed).

The Tasman Sea

So: given that the Rubaiyat had started in New Zealand but ended up in Australia, it seemed highly likely to me that the book and its mysterious owner had travelled across the Tasman Sea from the former to the latter between 1st January 1945 and 1st December 1948. But… exactly how did they make that journey?

To try to answer that question, I bought a copy of Peter Plowman’s (2009) Wanganella and the Australian Trans-Tasman Liners to find out. Plowman’s book covers the history of all the major passenger ships that travelled the roughly 2000km across the Tasman Sea very well, and with admirable attention to detail (the page numbers in the following refer to Plowman’s book).

It didn’t take long to discover that we would appear to have only three ships to consider: the Katoomba (briefly), the Wanganella (also briefly), and the Wahine. Let’s look at each of these three ships in turn…


As 1946 began, there was pressure on the Australian government to help get “the thousands of New Zealand residents who had been stranded in Australia for the duration of the war” back across the Tasman Sea (p.118).

However, this apparently simple-sounding objective proved very difficult to attain in practice. Of the ships that had seen Trans-Tasman service before the Second World War, the Awatea had been sunk en route to Gibraltar in 1942; the Monowai’s intense war-time usage had left it needing an extensive refit; while the luxurious liner Wanganella similarly needed a year’s refitting to turn it back from the hospital ship it had served as for many of the war years.

In the short term, this only really left “the veteran coastal liner Katoomba” (p.118), which had been converted to a troopship during the war: as a result, it was only able to take passengers across in what at the time was called “austerity” quarters. I found a nice picture of it here.


The Katoomba made only a single round trip, initially carrying 600 passengers and 2,000 tons of cargo out to Wellington: even so, its departure was plagued by industrial action that delayed its departure by a fortnight, before finally arriving on 6th February 1946. Its return journey terminated at Sydney on 23rd March 1946 (travelling via “Totokina and Rabaul”), (p.121), but the ship never made another journey on that route.



(Image from Reuben Goossens’s excellent webpage)

The Wanganella had been a beautiful (and much-loved) liner before the war, but its post-war refit took until October 1946 to complete. And its first journey then was from Sydney to “Auckland, then on to Suva, Honolulu and Vancouver. Leaving Vancouver on 27 November, Wanganella returned to Sydney on Saturday, 28th December”. (p.122).

However, its heavily anticipated (and fully-booked) second journey on 17th January 1947 fared much worse. As the gigantic ship entered Cook Strait in Wellington Harbour on the evening of 19th January 1947, it was accidentally steered onto Barrett Reef, where it remained stuck for seventeen days amidst remarkably mild weather (since then known locally as “Wanganella weather”) (p.130). Unsurprisingly, it then needed extensive mending in the shipyards before it could take to the seas again.

So as things turned out, the Wanganella’s next journey was to be 9th December 1948: and as a result, its part in our timeline comes to a close here also.


Though the Wanganella’s much-hoped-for fortnightly sailings had been booked out for months, after its accident in the harbour put it out of commission there were simply no suitable ships to replace it with. So the Wanganella’s owners (Huddart Parker) decided to use the “veteran steamer Wahine” instead (p.136).


(Image taken from a website devoted entirely to the ship!)

It carried 300 passengers on its first journey from Wellington to Sydney on 14th February 1947: it left Sydney on the 21st February 1947. It then left Wellington on 28th February 1947, and continued a regular service for the next three months. However, the trips stopped for the (antipodean) winter on 3rd June 1947, restarting on 12th September 1947. “In all, Wahine made sixteen return trips across the Tasman Sea in 1947” (p.137).

In 1948, however, the Wahine made only ten round trips across the Tasman Sea, with its last departure being on 14th May 1948. “For the rest of 1948 there was no passenger service provided by Huddart Parker or the Union Line across the Tasman” (p.137).

And so…

It may not sound like much, but I harbour [*] a very strong suspicion that the Somerton Man travelled from New Zealand to Australia on one of these trips, with the little Whitcombe and Tomb’s “Courage and Friendship” Rubaiyat stowed [**] in his pocket.

And, moreover, I further suspect that should we list all the male passengers aged (say) between 45 and 55 who travelled on the Wahine’s twenty-six journeys during this period, we would see the Somerton Man’s name.

How many names would that yield? Perhaps three hundred or so would be my finger-in-the-air guess: but we may be able to eliminate many of them very quickly. And we may may already have seen one or two of the names from other directions (I have one particular surname in mind… but that’s a story for another day completely), which would be a highly intriguing development.

OK, so… shall we draw up a list, then?

[*] Sorry about that. 🙂
[**] And that. 😉

The “Somerton Man” gained his epithet from Somerton Beach near Adelaide, which was where his dead body was discovered in the early morning of 1st December 1948. Yet despite the mass of forensic evidence (his body and, more recently, an analysis of one of his hairs) and physical evidence (his clothes and possessions, plus his suitcase), his real identity has never been determined.

Police investigators were then led down into not so much a ‘rabbit hole’ as a labyrinthine warren of ‘twisty passages all alike’ by the tiniest of objects half-concealed in the man’s fob pocket… a tightly-furled slip of paper with the words “Tamam Shud” printed on it:

Tamam Shud Slip2

A cropped version of this appeared in the 9th June 1949 edition of the Adelaide Advertiser, just before the first Coronial inquest was due to start:


Police determined that these two words were Persian for “The End”; that they were the concluding piece of text in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (a popular book of poetry at the time); and that they were printed in a font that was specific to the editions put out by Whitcombe and Tomb’s (a New Zealand publishing company).

As a result, the police took the opportunity of the flurry of publicity surrounding the inquest to ask anyone in the general public to come forward if they just happened to have a copy of the specific edition of the Rubaiyat from which the final two printed words (“Tamam Shud”) had been ripped out by hand. A picture of the original Rubaiyat’s front cover appeared in the 26th July 1949 Adelaide News:


Amazingly, a Rubaiyat that exactly matched this description was quickly brought forward by a publicity-shy local “businessman”: it had been discovered in the back of his car parked in Jetty Road in Glenelg, not too far from the beach where the dead man’s body had been found. And when police photographers carefully examined indentations on the back of that (now long-lost) Rubaiyat, they uncovered not only something that looked like a mysterious code, but also one or more phone numbers (and possibly even a name, though this item remains completely unconfirmed).

What of these two wonderfully specific pieces of evidence? The code-like text was speedily passed to a top Australian code breaker (almost certainly Eric Nave), but proved indecryptible. As for the phone number(s), one led to a local nurse called Jo Thompson, who denied all knowledge of the Somerton Man when asked by the police (though we now know that she did know more than she said).

At the time, however, the code and the phone-numbers were the police’s two last-gasp hopes of cracking the mystery: and when those leads went cold, so too did the case. Despite all the wild and unfounded speculation (ranging all the way from romance and illegitimacy to Cold War espionage) that the decades since have seen, this is as much as we genuinely know… the rest is just guesswork (and often highly fanciful guesswork at that).

All the same, what these very public dead-ends did manage to achieve was to intensify the mystery surrounding the unidentified dead man on Somerton Beach. Who was he? Why was he there? How did he die? What had happened?

The Rubaiyat

One of the few non-speculative research avenues open to investigation is the Rubaiyat itself. What was its story? Where did it come from?

Retired detective Gerry Feltus, the man who (literally) wrote the book on the investigation into the Somerton Man cold case, spent years trying to find Whitcombe and Tomb’s editions of the Rubaiyat (as described in his Appendix 5). Here’s a picture of what he was looking for (note the highly ornate border):

Rubaiyat W&T SM Last Pages

After a great deal of searching, Feltus eventually managed to locate “two first edition copies”. One, however, “was printed in a different font and there was no ‘Tamam Shud’ at the end”, so was of no direct help to his search (p.168). The following is a scan of a different copy of this same particular edition:

Last page of Rubaiyat

Yet though the other copy Feltus found was a much better match, it too was not identical: the font and layout was the same, but the front cover was smaller and squarer than the image of the cover that appeared in the media at the time, while “the page positioning differed”. (p.169)

How could it be that Feltus’s years of diligent searching had produced a copy that was nearly-but-not-quite identical? What was going on?

Whitcombe and Tomb’s

Founded in 1888 in New Zealand, Whitcombe and Tomb’s (now merged and reborn as “Whitcoulls”) was by 1948 something of an institution: it printed text books and all manner of serious-minded stuff. Here’s a photo of its Dunedin store in 1931 (which I found here):


But as WWII approached, W&T was struggling to find an edge over its many rivals: it was perceived as being staid and somewhat boring, while its competitors were building up reputations for having a stylistic edge over W&T.

If you look again at the edition above, I think you can see W&T’s inner bore emerging: even though it uses a nice enough font, overall the pages themselves are rather dull-looking – though professional, it’s completely unremarkable. The final page states:


By way of comparison, the other edition not only has a highly-decorated border on every page, it finishes with a triangular design that stresses the artistry involved in the new production – that it is “A W&T Art Production“:


Something seems to have changed…

Rubaiyat Advertisements

I suspect we can learn a lot more from the press advertisements the company took out to try to sell its Rubaiyats.

The sequence of advertisements in New Zealand Papers Past (a Kiwi version of Trove) starts with a 24th December 1936 W&T advert for a Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam at 4/6. However, I’m not sure what to make of it.

Papers Past then has the following advert from 22nd November 1941:

Pretty Booklets

The Courage and Friendship Booklets, produced by Messrs Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd. (Auckland), are enveloped ready for post, a very attractive means of conveying a Christmas greeting, The five titles issued are Bracken’s Not Understood, Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, some songs and poems of Robert Burns gathered as Sprigs o’ Heather, an anthology of Great Thoughts from famous books, and Golden Threads drawn from Trine’s “In Tune with the Infinite.” The booklets are prettily designed, two being printed in a decorative letter.

According to this November 1941 advert, these booklets were priced at 1/6 (or 1/7 posted). The posted price went up to 1/8 in 1943, when a sixth title was added to the list (“Falling Leaves, thoughts for shadowed days”).

However, an advert from 22nd April 1944 announced a new – and much more upmarket – edition:


Delight again and again over, this wise old Persian’s verses; you can never exhaust their pleasures: they carry you far beyond the four walls of everyday life – singing with sheer beauty of love, and life’s riches – The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. New edition bound in dark green cloth, with illustration. 12/6

21st December 1944 saw them advertising their cheaper (1/6) Courage and Friendship version, and now with “Merrie England, songs from Shakespeare” (a seventh title) added to the list.

Similarly, the following year (29th November 1945) saw them selling the same series at 1/6, but this time with “Forget-me-nots, an anthology of friendship” (an eighth title) added to the list.

Trove aficionados can also find Australian adverts, e.g. for the Courage and Friendship series:
* 5th December 1942 (Courage And Friendship, 5 titles, 1/6 each, 1/8 posted)

Once you get to 1944, the second luxury edition appears on sale in Australia:
* 22nd January 1944 8/6, 8/10 posted
* 26th January 1944 8/6, 8/10 posted

And then there’s a third leatherette-bound W&T Rubaiyat we’re not otherwise aware of:
21st December 1946 and 25th December 1946: “THE RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM. A delightful leatherette-bound volume, suitable for presentation. Price, 5/6 (posted 5/8).”

And is this 1947 version the same as the Courage And Friendship edition, but at a slightly higher price?
* 3rd May 1947 “RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM 2/5. Postage, 2d. A compact, well illustrated edition of this evergreen classic”.


This 1947 version sounds like the 1944 luxury edition again:
* 27th September 1947 “RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM, Large gift edition, beautifully illustrated. A Whitcombe and Tombs art production. 8/6. (Posted 8/10.)”

As for this 1948 mid-price version, I’m guessing that this was the Rubaiyat published in London by Frederick Muller Ltd, because George Buday (1907-1990) was an artist and printmaker who emigrated to Britain from Hungary in 1937, and ended up living in Coulsdon (ten miles from Surbiton):
* 27th March 1948 “RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM. 3/2, postage 3d. An attractive little gift book, Illustrated with engravings by George Buday.”

So Many Rubaiyats, So Little Time!

Even though I have tried to collect as many of the Whitcombe and Tomb’s advertisements together as I can, I think it should (“Shud”?) be clear that it would take a far more determined book detective to reconstruct the exact sequence of books being published here.

The dull-looking “Printed by Whitcombe and Tombs” edition that Gerry Feltus found might conceivably be the 1936 Rubaiyat: or it might just as well be a very early version of the Courage and Friendship series.

Regardless, it seems to me that we can reduce most of Whitcombe and Tomb’s Rubaiyats into two basic families:
(1) the smaller and more compact, Courage & Friendship pocket Rubaiyats (low-end, cheap stuff for gifts)
(2) the taller and generally fancier deluxe presentation Rubaiyats (high-end, 5+ times more expensive!)

Moreover, from other stuff (to come in a follow-up post), it seems that the Courage & Friendship pocket Rubaiyats were reprinted in slightly different colours from year to year, both inside and out. For example, the decorative page borders were cream in one year and beige in the next, while the border blocked around the text was green in one edition and yellow in another. And the inside page of the front cover was reprinted at different times, because different Courage and Friendship Rubaiyats list different numbers of titles in the C&F range.

So it seems to me that if only a picture had been taken of the inside cover of the Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat, we’d be able to date it simply by the number of other Courage and Friendship titles listed in the same series. But perhaps there’s a note still in the police file somewhere.

Courage and Friendship Covers

The very nice “An Empty Glass” Somerton Man Wiki has rather splendidly managed to somehow collect a sequence of Whitcombe and Tomb’s Rubaiyat front covers in its page on the Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat.

Its key picture looks like this:


Here you can see different printing colour schemes being used in different years: and the substantial difference between the (compact) Courage and Friendship editions on the left and the deluxe version on the right.

So, What Is Going On, Nick?

I think it’s reasonably simple. What Whitcombe and Tomb’s were doing with the Rubaiyat was dipping their corporate toes into the oversize paddling pool of design aesthetics: which is why they tried different price-points, different materials, different techniques, different sizes, etc. By and large, it seems to have been an experimental time for them.

Each Courage and Friendship printing batch seems to have had its cover printed in a different colour: if only we had a record of the list of other Courage and Friendship books in the series that appeared on the front inside flap of the cover of the Somerton Man’s book, we would be able to tell which year it had been printed.

Gerry Feltus had found the right book: just not the right year’s edition of that book, it would seem. And the reason that there was so much year-to-year variability is simply because Whitcombe and Tomb’s was trying to extricate itself from the staid, boring corner of the market it had painted itself into so relentlessly for so many years. Even though it wanted to develop its arty side, it didn’t really know what was going to work in the wider book-buying market. (Frankly, it seems to me that it never quite managed this particular trick).

And so we have reached our almost-paradoxical conclusion of the day: that even though Whitcombe and Tomb’s deluxe version of the Rubaiyat (with its gilt lettering or hand-stitched lettering) would be a more desirable book to own from the point of view of a collector, it is very probably from the far more cheap-and-cheerful 1/6 Courage and Friendship edition that the Somerton Man had ripped out his “Tamam Shud”.

And quite why he did that at all is another matter entirely! 😐

Long-suffering-standing Cipher Mysteries readers cursed with photographic memories may recall a post I made back in 2008 that included images of Giovanni da Fontana’s rather wonderful Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber. Because this is a book-sized enciphered manuscript, it is a member of a highly select club, with little more than the Voynich Manuscript and Rohonc Codex to keep it company at their Christmas dinner.

As Bert Hall put it rather nicely, though, the Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber is not so much an illustrated text as a series of drawings accompanied by a bit of text (partially enciphered text, in this case). And the whole book is available online, which is just splendid.

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber

One of my favourite images from the Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber is of what seems to be a skateboarding rabbit. By which I mean not something from Pinterest

skateboarding baby rabbit

…but something from Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München Cod.icon. 242, fol. 37r, urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00013084-8 (“Mechanische Maschinen und Automaten”), dating to between 1420 and 1430…


If we look at the same image in context, it becomes immediately clear that this isn’t an anachronistic exercise in Internet whimsy, but a state-of-the-art early Renaissance killing machine:


This ‘rocket rabbit’, then was a quasi-terrorist device, to propel itself at speed at the foot of a building and blow itself up.

Oh, And The Rocket Cat As Well

Fontana’s rocket rabbit seems to have inspired this 1584 “rocket cat” (and similar “rocket bird”), which I saw discussed at a UPenn blog back in 2013:


The blog post also pointed to a c.1530 rocket cat:


Now Build Your Own…?

But it seems – to my eyes, at least – that even though written descriptions of “fire birds” setting besieged towns [alight] predate the Renaissance by half a millennium, it was Giovanni da Fontana’s rocket rabbit that begat the rocket cat. And what is particularly nice is that he shows us how to build one, piece by piece on Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München Cod.icon. 242, fol. 16v, urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00013084-8 (“Hydraulische Maschinen und Automaten”):


All of which, I believed, marked the end of this whole interesting line. For who on earth would be so splendidly insane as to actually build one of these for themselves? Such a person would need to have great expertise in making 3d models and historical reconstructions, and they’d need a film production company to fund it, etc etc.

That was never going to happen, was it?

Richard Windley

Step forward Richard Windley, who (it says here) “has lectured part-time in 3D Design at Hereford College of Art as well as making models and reconstructions for film and television productions”.


And step forward his awesomely wonderful rocket roller car, that was called “Fleeing tortoise” (as per the Latin description on the page) and was built for an Ancient Discoveries episode that aired on the History Channel (3×09 “Ancient Robots”? Perhaps there’s a copy on YouTube somewhere, but I haven’t yet found it):

Richard Windley's rocket car

Those who remember Zeno’s paradoxes of motion may recall that a fleeing tortoise was proved to be swifter than Achilles (to a Greek logician, anyway):

Richard Windley's rocket car

Here was Richard’s preliminary rocket car test run (in his back garden):

Richar Windley's rocket car is go!

His car indeed went like the rocket that it was, too bright and almost too fast to capture on a normal camera:

Richard Windley's rocket car test run

Zeno or no Zeno, I’d like to see Achilles try to outrun that fleeing tortoise. 🙂

But my favourite photograph of the many that Richard kindly shared with me is of him in his protective “furnace suit” (though this was for a separate – and potentially lethal – Greek Fire demo for a different documentary):


If there’s a more evocative photo of an historical maker out there, I’ve yet to see it! 🙂