Having studied unsolved cipher mysteries for more than a decade, it seems to me that there are some distinct patterns of behaviour around them (by owners and by others) that serve to muddy the waters for modern researchers.

And so for the sake of collaborative clarity, I think that each of these behaviours ought to be given a ‘pattern name’. (There’s a very large “Patterns” literature in Architecture, Computer Science and Management, where common patterns of behaviour [both good and bad] are given names.) You may agree or disagree with the specific examples I give (and/or you may have a better pattern name in mind), but please hear me out, see what I’m trying to get at here…

“Cipher myth-making”

This behaviour typically occurs in the situation where someone has inherited or found an unsolved historical cipher, but has no provenance or definite historical context to work with. Unable to solve the cipher, the owner then (for whatever reason) concocts a myth or legend around it that they would like to be true.

The prime example here would seem to be the first version of “La Buse”‘s cryptogram (as famously described by Charles de la Roncière in his 1934 book “Le Flibustier Mysterieux”).

To my eyes, the odds are high that this was found in a notarial archive but with nothing accompanying it to help place or date it. And then, perhaps inspired by the early twentieth century Mauritian “gold rush” to find the Nageon de l’Estang pirate treasure, the owner presumed (though without proof) that it was a pirate treasure map.

My guess is that the myth that was added here was that of Olivier Levasseur hurling a treasure map into the crowd just before his execution, and exclaiming “Mon trésor à qui saura le prendre“. (There is, as far as I can tell, not a jot of evidence to support the idea that this melodramatic little scene actually happened.)

Without that, why would anyone link the cryptogram with La Buse?

“Cipher backfilling”

This behaviour occurs when the unsolved cipher has some kind of story already associated with it, but the absence of useful support details offers an evidential vacuum that demands to be filled in.

This differs from cipher myth-making in that here some kind of basic story needs to first be in place (though whether that story itself is true or false is another matter entirely): the additions are then in the form of elaborations to the core narrative, fleshing out its skeletal structure.

The obvious example of this would seem to be the second “La Buse” cryptogram:

Here, the elaborations would be the extra lines of cipher (some apparently cribbed from Poe), the drawings (some apparently cribbed from Howard Pyle), and the pigpen ciphertext saying “LA BUSE” (apparently cribbed from the myth).

The Beale Papers?

As with the two different “La Buse” cryptograms, the evidential haze around many other unsolved cipher mysteries can exhibit both cipher myth-making and cipher backfilling at the same time.

For example, I think there’s a strong argument that while the Beale Ciphers themselves could well be genuine, the case for the Beale Papers‘ being genuine is somewhat less straightforward.

The supposed bedrock of the history is that Beale placed an iron box with the cryptograms in trust with an innkeeper called Robert Morriss, who then opened it 23 years later (in 1845). However, the well-known problem with this timeline is that Morriss did not start work at the Washington Hotel until 1823, which was apparently after the box had already been left.

This suggests that Morriss may well have inherited the box from a previous innkeeper at the Washington Hotel: and that even if Morriss knew the correct name of the box’s owner (which was presumably, but not necessarily, written on the box itself), he may well never have actually met him.

This further suggests that Morriss may have taken the basic story about how Thomas Beale left a box at the Washington Hotel in the early 1820s and backfilled it until it became a tale worth telling and re-telling (while perhaps also advancing his personal claim on any treasure that may get found on it).

Moreover, it would seem that Morriss’s tale was then further elaborated by the (unnamed) author of the Beale Papers, until it became a tale worth printing (and hopefully buying).

However, if you put the Beale cryptograms to one side, I don’t currently see any evidence that anything about the Beale Papers is genuine, not even Thomas Beale’s name. Which perhaps goes to show how careful you have to be when trying to make sense of cipher mysteries.

The Voynich Manuscript?

It could well be that the the 1665 Marci letter that famously accompanied the Voynich Manuscript contains distant echoes of previous cipher myth-making: its suggested link to Roger Bacon now seems somewhat spurious, but was notable enough for Raphael Mnišovský to remember some decades later.

The supposed link between the Voynich Manuscript and John Dee / Edward Kelley is somewhat easier to deal with: without any real doubt, this was Wilfrid Voynich’s own cipher backfill. But his notion that the only conceivable way the manuscript could have travelled from England to Bohemia was via Dee and/or Kelley seems both historically and intellectually unsatisfactory.

Perhaps the bigger story here, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is that the Rosicrucian Manifestoes might possibly be the most extraordinary cipher backfill ever, i.e. that they were part of a huge after-the-event false history construction designed to appropriate the Voynich Manuscript into a scheme to con(vince) Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II into backing a proto-Freemasonic group. But we may never be able to determine whether or not this is true.

Nowadays, there seems to be no end of people putting out YouTube videos and websites with Voynich-related backfill: indeed, perhaps the biggest challenge we face going forward is swimming through the brown tide of cipher backfill. Oh well!

8 thoughts on ““Cipher myth-making” and “cipher backfilling”…

  1. Cathars, @nic, where can I query it?

  2. Thanks, looks like it might be worth another shot, if only to us in the trenches.

  3. Pete: if it is a shot, it’s only in someone’s foot. Try to make sure it’s not your foot.

  4. It’s all in the balance, your negatives against all positives. Then we can judge.

  5. Pete: judge all you like, but only meddling in the evidence room by the Hand of God could make a truly terrible Cathar Voynich theory workable.

    And so far, all Cathar Voynich theories I’ve seen are truly terrible.

  6. milongal on April 3, 2017 at 7:29 pm said:

    Wot if the innkeeper got the name muddled up and it was really Thomas Keane….

    NB I assume when you talk about the Beale Ciphers plausibly being “genuine” I assume you mean in so far as they might actually encrypt something, rather than the contents of the plaintext actually being anything other than a wild imagination or a good story….?

  7. Milongal: there seems to be good reason (as far as I can see, at least) to think that the Beale cryptograms B1 and B3 are genuinely enciphered, and indeed enciphered using the DoI in some way.

    As to the rest of the Beale papers… it’s really not so clear that they will prove to be a help in any useful sense of the word. :-/

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