I’ve been trying to post about the cipher that was attached to Paul Emanuel Rubin’s stomach for over a year now: so it’s about time I pushed what I’ve found out onto the web, to see if anyone else has more luck.

The story starts with a pair of 35-minute videos of a 2013 talk on unsolved ciphers given by Craig Bauer, managing editor of Cryptologia. Part 1 covers the usual suspects (Voynich, Beale, Dorabella, Somerton Man, etc), while Part 2 moves on to largely American cipher mysteries (Zodiac, Kryptos, etc). The slides are also available here.

One American cipher that has long fascinated Bauer (right at the start of Part 2) is the case of Paul Emanuel Rubin, who on the morning of 20th January 1953 was found dead (from cyanide poisoning) with a cipher taped to his stomach. Bauer showed a picture of the cipher taken from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin:-


Newspaper Accounts

The best newspaper account I found was from the Schenectady Gazette, Friday 23rd January 1953:-

Dead Youth Sent Friends Coded Notes

The parents of a chemistry student who was found dead of cyanide poisoning with a coded letter taped to his stomach told police today that the youth had the curious habit of sending coded letters to friends.

One unidentified friend in Paul Rubin’s Brooklyn neighborhood told police he might be able to decipher the typewritten note that has baffled the FBI. Two words in it were recognizable – “Dulles” and “Conant”.

But these developments only heightened the puzzle for Coroner Joseph Ominsky. “I am keeping in my mind the opinion that this is no suicide,” he said. Yesterday Ominsky said there was a possibility it was murder.

The body of the 18-year-old New York University student was sent home to Brooklyn today for an Orthodox Jewish burial while local and federal authorities tried to learn how he came to die Tuesday in a ditch at International airport.

Ominsky said the FBI should explore contacts the victim had in New York and here to determine if he had been a messenger for some unusual activity.

“Until this question is answered,” the coroner said, “I cannot set a time for an inquest.”

The FBI here, informed of Ominsky’s statement, said it had “no comment”.

A number of curious objects were found in Rubin’s pockets and the appearance of the words “Dulles” and “Conant” on the coded message lent a cloak-and-dagger air of mystery to his death by cyanide poisoning. It was assumed the names referred to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and James Bryant Conant, U.S. high commimissioner in West Germany.

The FBI here has sent the message to its cryptographers in Washington.

Neither the parents, who said Rubin left home last Monday morning ostensibly for classes, nor the friend, could see any motive for suicide.

Moreover, according to this report

Ominisky [sic] said that if the cyanide was self-administered, the body would not have been in its orderly position, with the youth’s thick lense [sic] glasses undisturbed. He pointed out that cyanide kills quickly, and no vial or other container was found at the scene.

However, the Shamokin News Dispatch reported the next day (23rd January 1953) that:-

Investigators disclosed today that a five-inch long test tube was found near the ditch where the body of a New York University chemistry student was discovered last Tuesday.

The vial was turned over to city toxicologists for tests to determine if it had contained the cyanide which killed 18-year-old Paul E. Rubin, of Brooklyn, N. Y., a sophomore at NYU.

Police said the test tube was found about five feet from the 12-foot deep embankment near the International Airport in which the body was spotted by a soldier en route to catch a plane.

A thorough search was made of the area, but nothing else was found, police reported.


Police reported that an unidentified friend of the victim said that he could probably decipher the message found on the body if he could find the proper code books, but it might take him a week.

“Curious Objects”

Bauer (who either has access to far more newspapers than me or has seen the Coroner’s Report) noted that the “curious objects” included:

* “an image of an airplane with a Nazi swastika on its tail assembly” in a wallet: on the photo’s rear was written “France Field, Panama”.
* Another picture in the same wallet was of “The Thinker”, Rodin’s well-known sculpture.
* “a plastic cylinder containing a signal fuse” (a magic prop)
* “the casing of a spent .38 caliber bullet (found in a pocket of his topcoat)”
* “a fountain pen gun”
* “forty-seven cents” (though he had started the day with a rather more substantial $15)
* the February 1953 issue of “Galaxy Science Fiction”

Attempted Followups

To me, this is an unsatisfactory cipher mystery because we can’t even see the cipher clearly. I asked the FBI if they would release a better quality scan of the cipher, but got no reply (which is a shame).

I also asked the Special Collections Research Center at Temple University (who have a large archive of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin’s photos, many of which won awards) about the photo. Unfortunately, the scan of it they very kindly sent me from their microfilm archives was slightly worse than the one we already had, so no luck there either.

Also, I should point out that William Friedman retired in 1956, and without any doubt would have been shown the cipher at the time: so perhaps there’s a mention of it in Friedman’s papers at the George C. Marshall Foundation. I’ve had no luck there (though the archive does have lots of great photographs, if that floats your boat), so feel free to pick up my Friedmanian dropped baton and carry it further yourself.

Any other suggestions?

So… What Do I Think?

Firstly, I have to say that I think anyone who types out a mysterious note and tapes it to their stomach to be found later must (a) be suffering from some complex mental illness and (b) be about to consciously embark on a pre-planned perilous action. I’m sure up-to-the-minute politically correct healthcare professionals have a whole wealth of ways of pussyfooting around the term, but to me this has plenty of features that suggest paranoid schizophrenia.

Secondly, looking at the cipher itself, it’s clearly a mess: or rather, it doesn’t appear to be the product of an ordered, controlled mind or even a single cryptographic system. There are fragments of binary 0s and 1s (interpersed with dots and x’es), German, made-up words, an odd-looking signature, all kinds of stuff.

As a result, my overall opinion is that what we are looking at here is probably a product of delusion and steganography in equal measures: and so it is probably a kind of unhappy cryptogram rather than a tricky ciphertext per se. Hence my conclusion: that even though I would very much like to see the note in its entirety, I don’t currently believe that we will ever solve it.

Some things are just lost to the world.

28 thoughts on “The cipher on Paul Emanuel Rubin’s abdomen…

  1. bdid1dr on February 15, 2015 at 4:31 pm said:

    Possible scenario (?):
    Medical student? Possibly at Long Island College/University? Possibly “Greek” Fraternity initiation foolery gone wrong?

  2. Did anyone who knew him suggest that he was mentally unbalanced? Apart from writing ciphers, that is.

  3. Diane: I don’t know if they did, but I’d guess the Coroner’s report (which I would love to see, but also didn’t get a reply when I wrote to the relevant Archive) would have covered this. With luck someone will be able to get a copy. 🙂

  4. Nil nisi.

  5. bdid1dr on February 16, 2015 at 1:58 am said:

    Nick, you may be able to approach Long Island University to see if he was a student or alumni. I’m suggesting this because my current physician received his MD from there. The Registrar’s office might be able to give you some background information without breaching privacy regulations.
    Also, if the Coroner’s office is being non-responsive, find a local newspaper reporter to see if he can dig for more details.
    One last resort (and could probably be upsetting) is to approach the young man’s family members. Keep in mind that Jewish burial custom is quite strict in burial/interment timelines. But, if it should be that his surviving relatives are still trying to find answers to the circumstances of his death, your query may be received gratefully by his parents and relatives.

  6. Bdid1dr
    You might like to know that I’m revisiting as many of your Chios posts as I can find.

  7. Interesting post but the link in “The slides are also available here.” (2nd paragraph, above) is wrong. It should be http://wdjoyner.org/video/bauer/bauer-Unsolved-ciphers.pptx.

  8. David Joyner: fixed, thanks! 🙂

  9. bdid1dr on February 16, 2015 at 3:59 pm said:

    Correction to the name of the university: NYU located on Long Island New York. Another university, not too far away is SUNY.

    Diane, it has been a while since Thom S. has posted anywhere on Nick’s blog. Chios, mastic trees, and water-pumping wind-mills.

    So, the last couple of days I’ve been revisiting websites which discuss Queen Isabella’s (and Ferdinand’s) expulsion of Jews and Sephardics from Spain. Somewhat coincidental with their sponsorship of Columbus and various Monastic efforts in “New Spain”? Also, Ellie V. probably hasn’t been too far off the ‘beaten path”. Round n’round we go, eh?

    Mr. Joyner, I just tried the video link you’ve provided — no go for me. ?

  10. SirHubert on February 17, 2015 at 9:51 am said:

    France Field, according to dear Wikipedia, is now Enrique Adolfo Jiménez Airport in Panama. It was formerly a US military airfield built to protect the Panama Canal.

    If Wikipedia is right, it was renamed France Air Force Base in 1948 and closed in 1949. So, if the photograph of the Nazi plane is authentic and the annotation accurate, it must date from 1949 or earlier, when Rubin would have been 13 or 14.

    The ‘curious objects’, and indeed the ‘cipher text’, sound exactly like the kind of things a fictional spy would have carried in a sub-John le Carre post-war thriller. Or what an 18-year old student might have expected a spy to have about his person.
    And having two tell-tale proper names just happening to be left en clair? Come on

    I have no idea whether Rubin killed himself or was murdered, but this is all far too staged to be real. Surely?

  11. SirHubert: if it is a cipher, I think the two “names” give a reasonably clear indication of the kind of cipher in play – for only a Trithemian cipher has sufficient ‘pliability’ to allow a stream of near-random letters to be manipulated into reading as words.

    There’s already more news about the cipher too, but that’s not for publication just yet… though I’ll post it as soon as I can. 🙂

  12. OK, Nick, I’ll leave the rest of the puzzle/cipher to you — as long as you keep us posted on your progress. (Please? Thank you!)
    bd — with a big smile, Cheshire cat style: )

  13. bdid1dr on February 24, 2015 at 1:43 am said:

    Not necessarily schizophrenia; but rather bipolar disorder?

  14. nomad on July 7, 2015 at 7:53 am said:

    Conant was a very interesting figure. It has been claimed that, following World War II, he with Dulles assisted in bringing Nazi scientists into the USA. Something that the American public knew nothing about and the West Germans would, three years later, protest about. Even before the war, Conant had some interesting connections. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2014/01/17/conants-war-inside-mouse-trap/

  15. avat nomad ar: a particularly interesting article on Conant, thanks very much for sharing! I didn’t know at all about Conant’s connection to Lewisite in WWI, that’s definitely not something I’d like to dig up a container of in my garden. 🙁

  16. Short and not really helpful but still mention of this case in LIFE Magazine, Feb. 2, 1953: https://books.google.ca/books?id=KUIEAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA3&pg=PA30#v=onepage&q&f=true

  17. Albert Mock on August 31, 2017 at 1:08 pm said:

    Has anyone filed Freedom of Information Requests?

  18. Albert Mock: yes, Craig Bauer did for his book “Unsolved!” He sent me a copy of the FBI file, but I’m still waiting for them to appear on his / his publisher’s website.

  19. Thomas on August 31, 2017 at 7:42 pm said:

    Another link to the ciphertext: https://www.coasttocoastam.com/pages/cipher-images-from-craig-bauer
    There is a connection between the men mentioned: Nuclear Physics. Conant and B.H. Ketelle were members of the Manhattan Project. Janossy was a Hungarian nuclear physisist at the same time. Tywood is a professor of Nuclear Physics in Isaac Asimov’s short story ‘The Red Queen’s Race’ from 1949.

  20. Thomas: thanks for the link, much appreciated. Craig gave me a higher resolution version of the same image a while back, but even this one is clear enough to make out every letter satisfactorily.

    As to the suggested nuclear physics connection: I can’t see any obvious way that Rubin (who was manifestly the author of the cryptogram, and almost certainly of the cipher system as well) would have put names in the text were they not a distracting feature of the covertext rather than semantically important parts of the enciphered message. But it’s a fascinating link nonetheless, and may well cast a little more light on what was going on in his head in the days close to his death: is it something I should credit you with suggesting?

  21. Albert Mock: thanks very much for that!

    Incidentally, I then looked to Montefiore Jewish Cemetery in Jenkintown PA, but could see no sight of Paul Emanuel Rubin being buried there (as per the death certificate). Any ideas?

  22. Thomas on August 31, 2017 at 9:10 pm said:

    Feel free to credit me. Maybe psychotic ideas were behind Rubin’s ‘ciphertext’.

  23. Albert Mock on August 31, 2017 at 9:18 pm said:

    I had also, today found connections in Janossey Ketelle searches which brought up a scanned 1950s article about nuclear science findings. I also looked at the Montefiore cemetery on Find-A-Grave. It indicates that only a small percent of the 100k graves have been added, so it’s no surprise it doesn’t show up.

    I also found some interesting information regarding the G-Man mentioned in the news paper. It’s nothing directly related to Rubin, but interesting. My few notes on all this are here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1gYZp7QOFTHQxubkWEJzKD8aeuYcrguKXf1HEIcucs1E/edit?usp=sharing

    It’s not much, but I’ve only just heard about this fascinating story as of today.

  24. Albert Mock: I’ll see if I can persuade Craig Bauer to let me post the FOI FBI file on Paul Rubin. No huge surprises, for sure, but lots to read nonetheless. 🙂

  25. Another possible “nuclear” connection?

    2pont 1/4ly suggests Dupont quarterly.

    Dupont was involved in the development of the A-bomb. In 1953 its Savanna River site was producing heavy water.

    “Heavy water was a critical item for Site reactor startups, and that need was met. Between 1951 and 1982 over 7,000 tons was produced by Du Pont.”
    Heavy Water for the Savannah River Site
    J. W. (Bill) Morris et al

    ‘quarterly’ may refer to a university, business or govt. quarterly report.

    The Asimov “red queen” connection may be to the futility of the arms race.

    Some (bad) Latin:

    ‘digis’ > drive, direct
    ‘meteore iElli’ > meteoria = forgetfulness, elli = to me.
    ‘Ivyondiolon’ ondiolon = waves.
    ‘aliacaui’ > alia cavi = beware other paths/places
    ‘datum’ > a thing given

    My 1.999999999 cents. 🙂

  26. Albert Mock on September 2, 2017 at 11:17 pm said:

    I’ve finished reading the FBI files. Lots of fun to read! I’m drawing some conclusions.

    Paul Rubin seemed like a big nerd, sort of the type that today would be into Comicon, maybe a bit antisocial, but he did not seem mentally ill. He also did not seem suicidal. I also think if he was suicidal over his grades he would have done it at home, at school, or near by. I don’t think he would have traveled 100+ miles and then killed himself at the airport.

    I don’t think the FBI did a good job in tracking down what I think was one of the best leads; the toll booth report of a guy who said his friend was poisoned. I think they should have dug deep for a friend or associate with a car like that.

    I’m fairly sure this was not a true matter of espionage, but still it is very weird. The FBI figured out what some of the weird things he had with him were, but the corrected list is still WEIRD. The “fuse” was a dosimeter for radiation, the pen-gun was a thermite pencil torch ( http://library.miami.edu/specialcollections/files/2014/04/pan-am-explosives_Page_1.png ), the picture of the plane was something a brother of a friend gave him, I have no idea why he had the .38 shell.

    I’ve been digging pretty hard on Ancestry and it’s mostly dead ends. I can’t find his family at all. No sign of them in the 1940 census. Plenty of Sam Rubin, but not in combination with Bessie and Paul.

    I’ve found some on Benjamin Mayer Birnbaum. He died in 1999, but it looks like his widow is still living. I’ve found a phone number for her, but would really like to first find and speak to one of their children, so as not to upset the woman with weird questions about her dead husband.

    So far I have not been able to find any photos of any of the people in this story.

    I did find a listing for his grave, but no photo. http://montefiorecemetery.org/interment/?id=5456986

  27. Albert Mock: did you ever contact Birnbaum’s widow? I’m about to post some updates on the cipher, and it would be great to know a little more about the people.

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