Here’s a link to a 24-minute Youtube video of Elonka Dunin making a presentation on the Beale Ciphers a few weeks ago (November 2015) at PhreakNIC 19, a hacker/tech convention held in Nashville every year.

Elonka Dunin talking about the Beale Ciphers

[ Note that in the following, I try to actively distance the Beale Papers (i.e. the pamphlet, which is hugely problematic as a source of historical evidence) from the Beale Ciphers (i.e. the three dictionary ciphertexts). ]

Elonka starts by showing a brief (but poor quality) intro to the Beale Papers courtesy of the TV history documentary series “Myth Hunters”, which you can tell is full of crackpot theorists serious historians because my face appears straight away. 🙂

Elonka’s Opinion…

Ultimately, Elonka’s opinion is that despite the crypto, both the Beale Papers and the Beale Ciphers are literary fakes, even though she appreciates that the Gillogly strings (which we should probably actually call the Hammer strings, after Carl Hammer who first described them) can very clearly be taken either as evidence of the Beale Ciphers’ fakery or as evidence of its genuineness.

In some ways, it’s not often individual cipher mysteries break down to an either/or (my apologies, I just heard Simon Munnery on “Quote Unquote”, which brought back fond memories of being filmed in a draughty warehouse for Munnery’s Kierkegaardian TV show “Either/Or” as a sort-of-quiz participant many years ago), so this is quite an unusual aspect of the Beale Ciphers. By which I mean that unlike the Voynich Manuscript’s ten thousand stupid competing theories, the presence of the Gillogly strings implies that there are only really two workable explanations for the Beale Ciphers (note: not the Beale Papers): (a) that they’re completely genuine, or (b) that they’re completely fake.

Specifically: if there’s any evidence that suggests that the Beale Papers are themselves anything but a lurid fabrication, I have yet to see it. In fact, the only actual issue would seem to be whether the papier maché fleshing out was done on top of a thin (but genuine) wire skeleton, or whether the underlying skeleton was fake as well.

My Opinion…

For me, I think it is reasonably likely that there was indeed a Thomas Beale who left a box (containing the cryptograms) behind at the Washington Hotel for safe keeping. But given that the innkeeper Robert Morriss didn’t actually start working there until 1823, it should be possible for us to directly conclude that the letters (in the pamphlet) apparently addressed to Morriss at the Washington Hotel and supposedly written in 1822 are therefore completely fake. Basically, Beale couldn’t have written letters to someone who wasn’t working there yet.

And if those letters are fake, then the backbone of the entire pamphlet is fake. And so I find it easy to agree with people who think that the Beale Papers are fake. But what, then, of the Beale Ciphers?

My own suspicion is that what we’re looking at here is – much as seems to have happened with the “La Buse” cryptogram – a fake story elaborated around the hearsay bones of a real (but poorly-understood) cryptogram. But, as again so often happens, perhaps there were several layers to the storytelling going on here.

Firstly, I suspect that Morriss made the first level of elaboration in order to justify his having broken the locks of a sealed container some years after it had been left at the Washington Hotel (presumably for safekeeping with a previous innkeeper). And I would expect that there was a second level of elaboration added by the person who became the next owner of the object (though I doubt we will ever know more about this shadowy person). And whether the topmost level of elaboration (to turn it all into pamphlet form) was added by Ward or Sherman probably matters not a jot.

So in the Beale Papers, it would seem from all this that what we have been handed down is a fictional story wrapped around a retelling of a self-justificatory lie, which itself in turn was wrapped around a set of three ciphertexts that themselves may or may not be real. No wonder it has proved difficult for people to make sense of it all!

Ultimately, though I think the Beale Ciphers are real, Elonka concludes otherwise: hence we sit either side of that particular either/or fence – but feel free to choose whichever side seems to you to have the greener grass. 😉

8 thoughts on “Elonka and the Beale Ciphers…

  1. I agree Nick (I think – assuming we agree what ‘real’ means).
    The story (without a shadow of a doubt) is crud, however I don’t think it makes sense for the ciphers to be anything but ‘real’. I think anyone going to such an effort would likely at least encrypt SOMETHING (eg the Gillogly sequences – and I’ve read some suggestion that somehow links all that back to typesetting sequences – I forget the detail but it made a lot of sense [potentially explaining why the alphabet is “close but not quite” and why there are other interesting patterns – although I suppose we also need to remember the decrypted paper was full of “close but not quite” too]).

    To me it simply doesn’t make a lot of sense to set up an elaborate hoax with a non-existent code, that is, if I were pulling such a prank, something somewhere would decrypt to “aren’t you a clever little cookie” (or equivalent). The problem (I think) is that in all likelihood at least one of the codes would be done in some obscure (possibly home grown) system and possibly something that makes no sense (or perhaps doesn’t even map back properly – home made systems aren’t always cryptographically sound – and a naive attempt might result in something like a hash). Perhaps the Gillgoly sequences sort of indicate against this (because although there is a pattern, it was perhaps chosen (eg the typesetter theory) because it was convenient, not because it’s meaningful (I’d call it random, but I think people would take that too literally).

    Following down the typesetter line (I forget the exact link, but it was something to do with how printers leave their frames padded with letters when they’re not using them or something….I’ll try to find a reference if you’ve not already seen one), there’s a mild possibility then, that the creator of the ciphers (we can call him Beale if you like, but I think the jury’s still out) made plaintext copies for himself (depending on how much forward planning there would have been).

    I suppose there is the possibility that (assuming the driver was to sell pamphlets – which I guess is the most likely explanation) that it is just random numbers deliberately undecipherable (or even a random encryption, which is essentially the same thing) – and the reason it appears to to show a random distribution is that people don’t pick random numbers well (especially when they don’t have a pseudo-random number generator) – and perhaps assuming “human randomness” and thinking about whether anything can be gained by assessing he numbers used might be an interestng exercise….although that’s too much psychology for my taste.

    However, to me this doesn’t really make sense. For me, just like the Zodiac Killer toyed with authorities to demonstrate their intelligence, so Beale (or equivalent) would make something “theoretically solvable”, and delight in seeing that noone was as smart as he.

    I think the Ciphers are all “real” encryptions, but I wouldn’t necessarily be expecting any non-obscure solution (at best the same substitution as before but from a book that was considered obscure back then – not the bible, or the DOI or whatever), and at worst some homemade crypto system (even something like a Caeser shift and THEN substitution as per before [I wouldn’t expect anything massively complex in today’s cryptographic standard, but something which at the time might have been a bit different]). Maybe these are moot points….whether it’s random or unbreakable because of obscurity doesn’t really make much difference.

  2. Johnno: if you can differentiate between the Beale Ciphers (i.e. the unsolved B1, the decrypted B2, and the unsolved B3) and the Beale Papers (i.e. the pamphlet and the supposed letters etc), I suspect you’re halfway towards seeing them all clearly. And if we can extract an extended alphabetic sequence from B1, it is clearly not random: so… what is it? 🙂

  3. All the Beale cipher are very real to me having decoded them is an advantage I have seeing them as real. I am not in Virginia and I am most interested only in being the one and only person who has decoded the ciphers. I will finish the final drafts of them and I have been looking into the back story of them to have a more complete view of the whole episode of this adventure. I have not been working but just a few hours a week at this point in time. If there was some place to work on them as a job every day would be the best way to spend the time I need to finish the final draft. Other than that its going to be a bit more time to finish it all there were some good surprises along the way !

  4. Jarlve on March 3, 2017 at 9:57 am said:

    Hey Nick,

    I’ve been looking at the Beale ciphers and have a few interesting observations to share. The following link shows an image of the B3 where each character number is given a color, the higher a number is the brighter the color.

    It shows that the higher numbers are located in the second half of the cipher and that something incremental is going on. There are sequences of numbers that gradually increase in size. Also, there seems to be some bias towards even/uneven rows and perhaps there are traces of vertical alignment (20 columns). The B2 does not look anything like this at all and the B1 may show traces of it.

    I’ve captured this incrementalism of the character numbers in the B3 in a statistic that I call “slope”. The slope of the numbers “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9” is 1 and the slope of the numbers “9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1” is -1.

    The slope of the B1 is 0.121, the B2 is 0.059 and the B3 is 0.225. In other words, about 22.5% of the character numbers of the B3 increment in this way. While in the solved B2 it is only 5.9% (which is close to the average randomization).

    This “slope” is a property of ciphers which use the information of the previous character number to encode the next and/or use the information of the position numbers. So I want to put forward as a hypothesis that the B3 may be this kind of cipher or alternatively that these incremental sequences encode information in a different way or that they are filler.

    Additionally, if we look at grouped unigram repeats the B3 spikes low at 20 or multiples of 5. That may be connected to the high slope of the B3. My guess is that there is definitely more than meets the eye here and that the unsolved Beale ciphers deserve another look.

    B3 unigram repeats:
    Grouped per 2 characters: 0
    Grouped per 3 characters: 0
    Grouped per 4 characters: 1
    Grouped per 5 characters: 1
    Grouped per 6 characters: 1
    Grouped per 7 characters: 3
    Grouped per 8 characters: 3
    Grouped per 9 characters: 4
    Grouped per 10 characters: 5
    Grouped per 11 characters: 8
    Grouped per 12 characters: 10
    Grouped per 13 characters: 10
    Grouped per 14 characters: 11
    Grouped per 15 characters: 9
    Grouped per 16 characters: 16
    Grouped per 17 characters: 14
    Grouped per 18 characters: 16
    Grouped per 19 characters: 13
    Grouped per 20 characters: 11
    Grouped per 21 characters: 20
    Grouped per 22 characters: 20
    Grouped per 23 characters: 23
    Grouped per 24 characters: 20
    Grouped per 25 characters: 18
    Grouped per 26 characters: 24
    Grouped per 27 characters: 27
    Grouped per 28 characters: 22
    Grouped per 29 characters: 36
    Grouped per 30 characters: 23

  5. Jarlve: that’s fascinating – to my eyes, it also suggests that the odd/even property is most marked in the second half of the Z340 B3, to the point that the message might actually be located in only half of the second half of the Z340 B3…

  6. Jarlve: sorry about that, your diagram looked very much like a Z340 diagram I was looking at a few days ago, and I was too hasty to respond. 🙁

    But it’s interesting all the same, and for the same reasons I noted. 🙂

  7. Jarlve on March 3, 2017 at 3:59 pm said:

    Hey Nick,

    It is indeed marked in the second half of the B3. Frequency wise the cipher improves when some of these sequences are removed because they are mostly made up of low frequency symbols.

    If I may ask what Z340 diagram you were looking at, anything interesting?

  8. Jarlve: I was going through the list of unusual features of the Z340 that Dave O sent me to think about, when I found a page comparing the top half and bottom half of the Z340. I’ll try to find it in my Internet history when I get home, but it was a few days ago (so about 8000 webpages back in the list *sigh*).

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