This, you may be a little surprised to read, is a story about a “two-piece bustle dress of bronze silk with striped rust velvet accents and lace cuffs“, with original Ophelia-motif buttons. Maryland-based curator and antique dress collector Sara Rivers-Cofield bought it for a Benjamin from an antique mall around Christmas 2013: but it turned out – marvel of marvels – to have an odd-looking ciphertext concealed in a secret inside pocket.

In early 2014, German crypto-blogger Klaus Schmeh threw this puzzle to his readers to solve, not unlike a juicy bone to a pack of wolves. However, their voracious code-breaking teeth – normally reliable enough for enciphered postcards and the like – seemed not to gain any grip on this silk dress cipher, even when he revisited it a few days ago.

So… what is going on here? Why can’t we just shatter its cryptographic shell, like the brittle antique walnut it ought by all rights to be? And what might be the cipher’s secret history?

First, The Dress

It’s made of nice quality silk (and has been looked after well over its 130-odd year lifetime), so would have been a pricey item. The buttonholes are hand-stitched (and nicely finished), yet much of the other stitching was done by machine.

This alone would date the item to after 1850 or so (when Isaac Singer’s sewing machines began to be sold in any quantity). However, Sara Rivers-Cofield dates it (on purely stylistic grounds) to “the mid-1880s”, which I find particularly interesting, for reasons I’ll explain later.

All we know about its original owner, apart from a penchant for hidden ciphers, is her surname (“Bennett”) and her dress size. We might reasonably speculate (from the cost and quality of her silk two-piece) that she was somewhere between well-to-do and very well off; and perhaps from a larger city in Maryland (such as Baltimore) where silk would be more de rigueur; and possibly she wasn’t much beyond her mid-20s (because life expectancy wasn’t that good back then).

Who Might She Be?

It doesn’t take much web searching to come up with a plausible-sounding candidate: Margaret J. Bennett, “a dowager grand dame of Baltimore society” (according to the Baltimore Sun) who died childless in 1900, leaving $150,000 to endow a local trust to provide accommodation for homeless women.

Among Baltimore architectural historians, she is also remembered for the Bennett House at 17 West Mulberry Street: there, the land was purchased by F.W. Bennett (who was the head of his own Auction House in town), while the house was erected in 1880.

Anyway, if anyone here has access to American newspapers archives or (though I have in the past, I don’t at the moment), I’d be very interested to know if they have anything on Margaret J. Bennett. I didn’t manage to find any family archives or photographs online, but hopefully you cunning people can do much better.

Of course, there may well be many other Mrs Bennetts who also match the same basic profile: but I think Margaret J. is too good a catch not to have at least a quick look. 🙂

Now, The Silk Dress Cipher Itself

What Sara Rivers-Cofield (and her mother) found hidden inside the silk dress’s secret inner pocket were two balled-up sheets of paper (she called them “The Bustle Code”):

Within a few seconds of looking at these, it was clear to me that what we have here is a genuine cipher mystery: that is, something where the cryptography and the history are so tangled that each obscures the other.

Curiously, the writing on the sheets is very structured: each line consists of between two and seven words, and all bar three of these have the number of words written in just below the first word. So even when text wraps round, it appears that we can treat that whole (wrapped) line as a single unit.

Also oddly, the writing is constrained well within the margins of the paper, to the point that there almost seems to be an invisible right-hand margin beyond which the writer did not (or could not) go. It therefore seems as though these sheets might be a copy of a document that was originally written on much narrower pieces of paper, but where the original formatting was retained.

Another point that’s worth making is that the idea of using word lists for telegraphy (and indeed cryptography) is to keep the words dissimilar to each other, to prevent messages getting scrambled. Yet here we appear to have words very similar to each other (such as “leafage” and “leakage”), along with words that seem to have been misheard or misspelt (“Rugina” for “Regina”, “Calgarry” for “Calgary”, etc).

To me, this suggests that part of the process involved somebody reading words out loud to someone writing them down. Hence I’ve attempted to correct parts of my transcription to try to bring some semblance of uniformity to it. (But feel free to disagree, I don’t mind).

Interestingly, if you lay out all the words in columns (having unwrapped the word wrapping), a number of striking patterns emerge…

The Column Patterns

Where the codetext’s words repeat, they do so in one of three groups: within the first column (e.g. “Calgarry”), within the second column (e.g. “Noun”), or within the remainder (e.g. “event”). In the following image, I’ve highlighted in different colours where words starting with the same letter repeat from column three onwards:

Moreover, the words in the first column are dominated by American and Canadian place names: although (just to be difficult) “egypt” and “malay” both appear elsewhere in the lines.

The third column is overwhelmingly dominated by l-words (legacy, loamy, etc): generally, words in the third to seventh columns start with a very limited range of letters, one quite unlike normal language initial letter distributions.

Indeed, this strongly suggests to me that the four instances of “Noun” in the second column are all nulls, because if you shift the remainder of those words across by one column, “laubul” / “leakage” / “loamy” / “legacy” all slide from column #4 back into the l-initial-heavy column #3.

It seems almost impossible at this point not to draw the conclusion that these words are drawn from lists of arbitrary words, arranged by first letter: and that without access to those same lists, we stand no real chance of making progress.

All the same, a commenter on Sara Rivers-Cofield’s blog (John McVey, who collects historical telegraph codes, and who famously – “famously” around here anyway – helped decode a 1948 Israeli telegram recently) proposed that what was in play might be not so much a telegraphic code as a telegraphic cipher.

These (though rare) included long lists of words to yield numerical equivalents, which could then be used to index into different lists (or sometimes the same list, but three words onwards). Here’s a link to an 1870 telegraphic cypher from McVey’s blog.

However, from the highly-structured nature of the word usage and repetitions here, I think we can rule out any kind of formal telegraphic code, i.e. this is not in any way a “flat” words-in-words-out code substitution.

Rather, I think that we are looking at something similar to the semi-improvised (yet complex) rum-runner codes that Elizebeth Friedman won acclaim for breaking in the 1920s and 1930s: strongly reliant on code lists, yet also highly specialized around the precise nature of the contents of the communication, and using amateur code-making cunning.

That is, the first two columns seem to be encoding a quite different type of content to the other columns: the l-list words seem to be signalling the start of the second half’s contents.

Were Other People Involved?

I’ve already suggested that the words on the two sheets were copied from smaller (or at least narrower) pieces of paper, and that as part of this someone may well have read words out for someone else to copy down (because spelling mistakes and/or mishearing mistakes seem to have crept in).

However, someone (very possibly a third person) has also apparently checked these, ticking each numbered line off with a rough green pencil. There are also underlinings under some words (such as “Lental”), not unlike a schoolteacher marking corrections on an exercise book.

Yet once you start to get secret writing with as many as three people involved, the chances of this being an individual’s private code would seem to sharply reduced – that is, I think we can rule out the possibility that this was the delusional product of a “lone gunman”. Moreover, there must surely have been a good-sized pie involved to warrant the effort of buying (or, perhaps more likely given the idiosyncratic nature of the words) assembling code books: by which I mean there was enough benefit to be divided into at least three slices and still be worth everyone’s while.

What I’m trying to get at here is that, from the number of people involved, the tangledness of the code books, and the curious rigid codetext structure, that this seems to have been an amateur code system constructed to enable some kind of organized behaviour.

Betting springs obviously to mind here: and possibly horse-racing, given that “dobbin” and “onager” appear in the codewords. But there’s another possibility…

Numbers and policies?

With its Puritan historical backdrop, America has long had an ambivalent attitude towards both gambling and alcohol: the history of casinos, inter-state gambling, and even Prohibition all attest strongly to this.

By the 1880s, the kind of state or local lotteries that had flourished at the start of that same century had almost all been shut down, victims of corruption and scandals. The one that remained (the Louisiana Lottery) was arguably even more corrupt than the others, but remained afloat thanks to the number of politicians benefiting from it: in modern political argot, it was (for a while, at least) “too big to fail”.

What stepped into the place of the state lotteries were illegal local lotteries, better known as the “numbers game”, or the numbers racket. Initially, these were unofficial lotteries run from private residences: but later (after the 1920s, I believe), they began to instead use numbers printed in newspapers that were believed to be random (such as the last three digits of various economic indicators, such as the total amount of money taken at a given racetrack), because of – surprise, surprise – the same kinds of corruption and rigging that had plagued the early official state lotteries.

Though the numbers racket became known as the scourge of Harlem in the first half of the twentieth century (there’s a very good book on this, “Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars”), modern state lotteries and interstate sports betting all but killed it off, though a few numbers joints do still exist (“You’re too late to play!“).

Back in the second half of the 19th century, ‘policy shops’ (where the question “do you want to buy a policy?” drew a parallel between insurance and gambling) started to flourish, eventually becoming a central feature of the American urban landscape. With more and more state lotteries being shut down as the century progressed, numbers were arguably the face of small-stake betting: in terms of accessibility, they were the equivalent of scratch cards, available nearly everywhere.

For a long time, though, information was king: if you were organized enough to get access to the numbers before the policy shop did, you could (theoretically) beat the odds. Winning numbers were even smuggled out by carrier pigeon: yet policy shops (who liked to take bets right up until the last possible moment) were suspicious of “pigeon numbers”, and would often not pay out if they caught so much as a sniff of subterfuge. It’s not as if you could complain to the police, right?

At the same time, a whole hoodoo culture grew up around numbers, where superstitious players were sold incense sticks, bath crystals, and books linking elements in your dreams to numbers. First published in 1889, one well-known one was “Aunt Sally’s Policy Player’s Dream Book”:

This contained lists linking dream-items to suggestions of matching number sequences to back, with two numbers being a “saddle”, three numbers a “gig”, and four numbers a “horse”: on the book’s cover, Aunt Sally is shown holding up “the washerwoman’s gig” (i.e. 4.11.44). There’s much more about this on Cat Yronwode’s excellent Aunt Sally page.

Might it be that these two Silk Dress Cipher sheets are somehow numbers betting slips that have been encoded? Could it be that each line somehow encodes a name (say, the first two columns), the size of the bet, and a set of numbers to bet on? There were certainly illegal lotteries and policy shops in Baltimore, so this is far from impossible.

Right now, I don’t know: but I’d be very interested to know of any books that cover the history of “policy shops” in the 19th century. Perhaps the clues will turn out to be somewhere under The Baltimore Sun…

24 thoughts on “The Silk Dress Cipher….

  1. James R. Pannozzi on May 22, 2017 at 10:15 am said:

    Intriguing !

    Don’t know if it applies here but a little known resource in solving Victorian era Newspaper ciphers (tiny text at the bottom of columns on the front page…typical message, “Meet you at same spot, Paternoster Row, midday tomorrow” is “Mr. Babbage’s Secret: A Tale of a Cypher and APL”. This book demonstrates using the now obsolete APL computer language to develop various attempted solution computations, frequency analysis, etc..

  2. Scotty on May 22, 2017 at 2:11 pm said:

    Just an observation – but the number just below the first each line is the number of words for that line. The writer was tracking the number of words.

    The resultant numbers obtained in turn might lead to another word list lookup.

  3. Scotty: I covered this in the post. 🙂

  4. Some data and a thought.

    From and Find-A-Grave:

    Margaret J. Patterson Bennett (1823-1900), daughter of John and Margaret Patterson, married Frank W. Bennett (1820-1880), son of Jesse Bennett (1791-1851) and Sarah W. Bennett (1796-1890) in 1845 in Baltimore, MD. The couple had no children.

    When she died, she left money to found the home as mentioned above and several other charitable bequests. The remainder was left to her husband’s grand-nephews and grand-nieces. There was an intent to contest the will on behalf of her second-cousins, claiming that they were her closest relatives, rather than her husband’s relatives. Apparently the paperwork to contest the will was never actually filed, however (Baltimore Sun).

    You may be correct about betting slips, however, when I think about Baltimore in 1860-1880, I think of a city that was on the frontline of the US Civil War and the immediate aftermath. It stayed in the Union, despite being a slave state, and came under direct Federal administration after the Baltimore riot of 1861. Confederate sympathizers, even a small, poorly-organized group of them, would have good reason to encode some of their communications. I haven’t yet found any evidence that Frank Bennett served on either side of the conflict, despite being 40 at the time. As an auctioneer, he would likely make a good part of his income auctioning off tobacco or even slaves.

    What do we know about US Civil War codes?

  5. milongal on May 22, 2017 at 10:08 pm said:

    The numbers to the left of the paragraphs would appear to be times . If the information being bet on became available overnight, perhaps these times represent when somebody found the information available (especially the 2 after 11PM).

    What strikes me, though, is that the first one is skewed and the other 2 are clearly left of the text proper. This certainly suggests there was either a particular format to the text or (as you point out) that it’s been traced (or atr least transcribed – someone trying to crack a code may realise they’ll need plenty of space and deliberately try to write to the middle of the page – and this might explain why the numbers are needed to show line lengths too) from a narrower paper, and the “times” may have been added onto the transcription.

    There’s some interesting crosses under some words – there’s 3 that clearly count out a scribbled out word, and then 1 under the next word (line 2, sheet 1). I won’t encourage conspiracy theorists by mentioning that with the blue line through the cross it looks vaguely like the ‘x’ in the SM ciphers (oh, maybe I will – but seriously guys, that’s a joke).

    The blue lines strike me as someone trying to ‘solve’ the cipher. If it’s from someone who understands how the cipher worked it might give hints to how it should be decoded (but it could equally be someone else trying to crack it without really knowing anything about how it should work), and both in blue and in a darker pen there appears to be some underlining under some letters on sheet 2….and I can’t help but notice the line beginning ‘Knit’ is further indented (and ‘knit’ is probably inconsistent with other words beginning a line – which typically look like proper nouns). To me this further indicates that the numbering is not done by the person who wrote the original….

    But I’m guessing all of that’s quite obvious to most people….

  6. GeorgeC on May 23, 2017 at 10:54 am said:

    I’m no handriting expert, but the formation of the letters in the word “Bennett” on the sewn-in label look remarkably similar to that of the code/cipher, implying to me at least that they were written by the same person.

  7. Denis Williamson on May 24, 2017 at 2:35 pm said:

    I haven’t made much progress in decoding the message, but can I say that there seem to have been quite a few misinterpretations of the words written on the 2 papers. For example, in paper 1, Calgarry, Elliott (starts with “E” not “C”) are family names, Rugina is a given name (newspapers from the early 1900s are full of such names – see, although a subscription is demanded after a couple of free views, and even Google books).
    And… some words on paper 1 are abbreviations: e.g. Indpls = Indianapolis?, Vicksbg = Vicksberg, Leavwth = Leavenworth. Even the ref to Cairo could refer to either an American family name, or a hotel (I’ve seen both in an Army and Navy Register for 1904).
    Actually, I have wondered whether each “line” of words was taken from something like a Register or newspaper that just happened to be on hand, and that perhaps the “plaintext” is to be found a given number of words before or after each of the code words – I mean, why write down the number of words in a line, when such is obvious and not, otherwise, of any use? Perhaps the numbers in each line refer to an “offset”.
    An e.g. if you have time and access (I don’t), take a look at The Indianapolis News of Thursday May 4th 1905 on – this came up when I searched for the line of words : Make, Indianapolis, barometer, nerite (on paper 1). Perhaps one could search more deeply with a closer look?
    I shall keep searching, but one of the infuriating things about Google Books is that they use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and it’s “appalling”, with a lot of the transcription turning out meaningless, so searched-for words are not always found.
    More later…

  8. Claude Shannon was a telephone switch mathematician that has been long associated with cryptology and cryptanalytics via this fundamental paper

    Enjoy the math side of code making and code breaking, a topic I studied and excelled 60 years ago at age 19.

  9. Jim Shilliday on May 25, 2017 at 5:27 am said:

    Hi Nick –

    I agree that the text feels like dictation, but I read (or correct) some of the words differently than the transcription does.

    I’ll just lead with my theory, to get it out of the way: Our bustled Baltimorean wasn’t too wealthy to apply to Western Union or a railroad for a job as a telegrapher. The profession was open to women after they had replaced men during the Civil War and the companies realized that women were just as skilled and could be paid less than men, see Wikipedia “women telegraphers.” The papers could be the “sending” half of her Morse code test. Perhaps she had to take dictation and send the text, counting the words so she could charge the customer the correct amount. The edit marks and left-side check off marks were done by the grader. Maybe the job was in the American Midwest (or the railroad went there), so her test included entries from a list of telegraph offices there. None of this explains the time entries, though; it’s hard to imagine that she took a test at 11:00 p.m. But I suppose it’s possible that the time notations were part of the dictation, since they are in the same hand.

    Even if this was a test, it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to solve. The tester might have simply picked up the last two dozen lines he had sent and read them to Ms. Bennett.

    An impression: the first sheet was carefully done, the second is more rushed. The letters on the first sheet are more upright, and the lines on the second sheet slant a bit. The words on sheet 1 are well-spaced; those on sheet 2 are closer (some even run together).

    If the edit/correction marks are really what they seem to be, then there’s a bit of an oddity. Some obvious mistakes are marked, but the grader seems not to care when a place name is misspelled, since none of those obvious errors are marked. That might make sense if the place names were already familiar (as telegraph stations) and weren’t as ambiguous as the rest of the text.

    Something numerical: In 12 of the 24 lines, one of the last two words starts with “n.”

    The transcription from the top (facts are mostly from Wikipedia):

    At sheet 1, line 1, column 1 (1.1.1), “Smith” could refer to Smith Center, KS, founded in 1871, on a railroad (although it’s not clear whether it was a railroad town).

    The transcription has two onagers (see, but I don’t see any in the text. The first one (1.3.2) is “Indpls” (for Indianapolis, cf. “Vicksbg” for “Vicksburg”), and the second (2.5.2) is “Onaga” (in Kansas). Look at the “g” in the next word (”league”); they’re identical. Onaga might have been more prominent in the 19th century than it is now – it started as a railroad town.

    At 1.3.6, “nerite” is a reasonably common type of sea snail, but then why would it be marked with an “x”? Maybe it’s a rushed error for “write.”

    “Saints” (1.7.1) and “markets” (1.7.6) aren’t plural; both end in a “final t” – what I remember calling a “Catholic t” because the parochial schools taught it but the public schools didn’t. The writer is inconsistent, sometimes using the final form (“west” not “wests” at 1.6.2, “event” not “events” at 1.11.5), sometimes ending a word with the usual crossed form (“event,” 1.1.6), and sometimes using the final form and crossing it anyway (“linnet,” 1.1.3).

    “Seawoth” (1.7.1) is “Leavwth” (Leavenworth, Kansas).

    “Cairo” (1.8.1) might refer to Cairo, Illinois, despite “egypt” at 2.9.7. BTW, if the text was dictated, then the writer was familiar with the town, since she spelled it correctly even though it’s pronounced “kay-ro.”

    “Concordia” (1.11.1 and 1.12.1): There’s a Concordia, Kansas that was on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad by 1887. It was important enough to be a frequent stop for traveling entertainers.

    “Celliette” (1.10.1) looks like “Elliott” – if you look one and two lines down, it’s obvious by comparison that the first letter isn’t a “C.” There’s an Elliott, North Dakota, with a railroad siding, founded in 1883, although that might be a stretch (2010 population 25).

    “Memorise” (we’d use a zed over here) at 1.10.2 is “remorse.”

    “Miraculous” at 1.12.2 is a stretch (it looks like “meraccous”), and it’s already marked “wrong” with a “x” for us. It might be a stab at “Americus,” a town in Kansas that was a shipping point on the M-K-T Railroad at some point after the town’s founding in 1857.

    The next word (1.12.3) is transcribed “luminous” but a simpler reading is “humus.” The initial letter is different from all the ones above it in the column (even though it is in the third column and ought to be an “l” word). There’s an initial “h” at 2.10.3 to compare with.

    At 2.1.1, “Bismark” is surely Bismarck, ND.

    Both instances of “leakage” (2.1.3 and 2.8.4) are “leafage.” The writer uses only the block form of “k,” and writes it prominently (e.g. 2.1.4, 5).

    “Usual” at 2.3.4 should be “us nail” to match the indicated word count (6, not 5). (Against that, “us” would be the only two-letter word in the text). Compare “Helena Onus” at the beginning of the line and “leafage buck” two lines above, also run together.

    What looks like a plus sign under “piped” (2.4.4) might be the word count, 4, just written in the wrong spot. I don’t think it’s an “x” because the other x’s seem to indicate mistakes.

    “Cusin” (2.6.1) is “Custer” (in South Dakota), at some point served by the Burlington Northern Railroad.

    I suspect “lertal” at 2.7.3 is “lentil” – we already have someone telling us it’s misspelled.

    I’d guess “lawful” for the next word (2.7.4); it’s more likely than “laubul.” In this case, I think the writer heard it about right (“lauful”), but the transcriber read an “f” as a “b.” Compare with the “f” in “wrongful” at 2.10.2, they look about the same to me.

    In the same line, at 2.7.5, “palm” has an editor’s mark, although it seems correct. Maybe the dictation was “psalm” and the writer heard it OK but miswrote.

    At 2.10.1, “Knit” is “Grit” – check the “G” at 2.7.1. The writer uses the block letter “K,” not the cursive form.

    At 2.12.1 “Minnedos” is probably “Minnedosa” (in Manitoba), which had a railroad line by 1873.

    At 2.13.3, “Vanguard” is likely just what it looks like: “Unguard.” The writer made a pointy capital “V” at 1.5.1 (“Vicksbg”), so this is probably a “U.” Maybe the dictation was “on guard” or even “en garde”? (But if it was really two words, this would be the only eight-word line.)

    In the last line (2.12.4-5), the transcription has “legacy such.” That can’t be right – there’s an obvious “d,” and writer wouldn’t have inserted it out of nowhere. My guess is “legacy dutch” (and we have helpful edit marks under the spot where the “t” should have gone).

  10. Jim Shilliday: thanks very much for your clarifications on the handwriting, I’ll write them all up in a separate post very shortly. The transcription I included the screenshot of was more a work in progress than anything else.

  11. A couple more notes from newspaper gleanings that may or may not be relevant. Mrs. Bennett had $200,000 in her safe in her house when she died. She was a wealthy woman, but people were startled that she had that much cash on hand.

    The same article notes that Mrs. Bennett was well-known for her modest lifestyle, given her wealth, and her lack of interest in clothing. I found the latter particularly interesting, given the undoubted expense and elegance of the dress in question. (Baltimore Sun, Sat, Aug. 25, 1900, p. 12)

  12. bdid1dr on May 25, 2017 at 8:31 pm said:


    While I was trying to find the Bennett family members who married Duglass/Douglas family members in the late 1700’s/1800’s, I took another look at the silk dress discussion which you also allowed the enlargement facility.

    What appeared to be an ‘events calendar and recipes to be provided’ — came across to me as being calendar dates and timing for picking up passengers for the freedom train — (escaping slaves) .

  13. Jim Shilliday on May 25, 2017 at 11:40 pm said:

    I hadn’t thought it important before, but bdid1dr’s mention of escaping slaves reminded me that Concordia, Kansas (mentioned twice in the text) is the site of the National Orphan Train Complex, housed in a restored Union Pacific Railroad Depot. Maybe the place names are destinations, and Ms Bennett was one of the many well-intentioned easterners who had a hand in the forced relocation of orphaned and unwanted children (including those of single young mothers), a tragedy that began in 1854 and didn’t end until 1929, when the Orphan Trains were finally replaced by local foster care systems. That would fit nicely with the notion that Ms. Bennet was a wealthy philanthropist. Then we must ask why the information would have been encoded — there was nothing secret about the program itself. But just as was the norm until recently in the adoption process, there would have been a felt need to keep the children’s families in the dark about where the children were being sent. Maybe we have a list of destinations, train numbers, children’s names, and departure times, or something similar.

  14. Jim: as I’m sure you know, the dates don’t quite work for the Underground Railroad. However, the Orphan Train is a very interesting possibility which I wasn’t previously aware of, thanks very much for the suggestion! 🙂

  15. E: that’s an interesting find, and perhaps casts doubt on my suggestion (however tentative) that the dress might have been hers. Thanks!

  16. Jim Shilliday on May 29, 2017 at 8:57 pm said:

    I think we can establish dates for the source of the Silk Dress Cipher text (and possibly dates for the actual dictation/writing). Based on the inferences below, the source of the dictation (not necessarily the dictation itself) is likely to be 1884-1885. The maps below can all be found at I’ve continued digging into the text and will post the results (or more likely links to them and to the sources) when complete.

    1. The place names in the text seem to be railroad stations (or telegraph offices), clustered in northeastern Kansas. Either the written text had something to do with railroads/telegraphy, or else the source (e.g. a codebook) did. I plotted the likely places on Google Maps; the focus is clear even if some of the guesses are wrong:

    2. Concordia KS, mentioned twice in the text, had no railroad until 1877 (but soon had six lines radiating from it). The railroad didn’t reach Downs KA (possibly the referent of “Down” in the text) until 1879. Downs was founded that year (according to its website); it’s about 50 miles west of Concordia.

    3. The railroad reached Vicksburg KS (probably the referent of “Vicksbg” in the text), in 1880, but in 1882, the town changed its name to “Randall” (according to its web site). Vicksburg is still listed on an AT&SF railroad map from 1885, but it’s Randall on a Rand-McNally map from the same year. Vicksburg/Randall is 21 miles west of Concordia.

    4. Cuba KS is likely the referent of “Cuba” in the text; it’s about 14 miles northeast of Concordia. Cuba was founded in the 1870’s, but it wasn’t a railroad station until 1884 (the town was actually moved so it could be on the railroad!). It’s not on the 1885 AT&SF map, but it does appear on the 1885 Rand-McNally map.

    5. “Bismark” could be Bismark KS, a town and railroad station a few miles southwest of Topeka, shown on the 1885 AT&SF map as “Bismarck.” On the 1885 Rand-McNally, it is listed as “Bismark P.O. or Halifax Sta.” The station had switched names by 1885; an image of a ticket receipt from August 21 of that year shows only “Halifax” on the route. By 1899, it was just “Halifax” on the map and still appeared that way on the 1915 map. By 1948, it was gone – and by the time of the 1990 US census, there was no longer a Bismark or Halifax in Kansas.

    Since the source of the text includes Cuba, it can’t be earlier than 1884 (or as a fallback, 1879 (Downs) or 1877 (Concordia)). Since it includes Vicksburg and Bismark, it can’t be much later than 1885 if it was based on current information.

    If the text is actually involved with telegraphy and railroads (as would be the case if it was dictated by a railroad/telegraph official to a job applicant or trainee), it would have used a reasonably current and accurate source, and therefore the dictation and writing were likely done in 1884 or 1885.

    Otherwise, the person doing the dictating (or making the code) might have simply pulled an old book or map off a shelf, so we can only date the source to 1884-1885, not the writing. If that’s the case, then the fallback assumption on the writing would be that the papers are contemporaneous with the dress, so they could be from 1884 to whenever styles changed or the wearer died. The papers seem authentic (just a gut feeling), but strictly speaking, they could have been written, balled up and stuffed into the dress anytime between 1885 and the day in late 2013 when Sara Rivers-Cofield bought it.

  17. Jim Shilliday: did you notice that there are two Concordia, KS stations in the 1888 railroad map? There’s one a little to the East of Leavenworth, and the other a long way to the West. not sure if that means anything, but I thought I’d mention it. 🙂

    Keep at it!

  18. Jim Shilliday on May 30, 2017 at 1:19 am said:

    I hadn’t noticed the eastern one, I was looking at an 1885 Rand-McNally that stopped at Leavenworth — but there are two Concordias in the text, so why not? The 1888 map covers more area — the Concordia east of Leavenworth is actually in Missouri, about 40 miles southeast of Missouri City, which also might be referenced in the text (“Missouri”). I just added Concordia MO to the Google Map.

    Also, I just found some evidence that the text source refers to telegraph offices and not railroad stations (assuming it’s one or the other): Custer SD had a telegraph office by 1877-1878, but the railroad didn’t get there until 1890 — so it wouldn’t have been on any 1885 lists of railroad stations.

  19. Hi all! This is Sara, the owner of the dress and code sheets, and I must apologize for not responding to this blog when it first came out. I had just become a new mom and having a newborn was pretty all-consuming (and tiring!) at the time.

    I have nothing to contribute regarding the type of code, and will leave that to those of you who know about that sort of thing, but I should tell you more about the provenance of the dress, because the idea that it belonged to a well-to-do Baltimorean should not be influencing the research. That’s because even though I live in Maryland, I bought this dress in Maine.

    I found the dress at an antique mall I go to fairly often with my mom (who lives in Maine), and after we found the code we asked the staff of the antique mall to contact the seller to find out where it came from. They kindly did so, but alas, the seller had purchased the dress a long time ago and couldn’t remember. She goes to a lot of auctions around the State to fill booths in a few antique malls in the region. So there really is no provenance. Even though I’d like to think it had been in Maine since it was made, the fact is that a lot of people retire to Maine with all of their old belongings, so this could have come from anywhere really.

    A few more things about the conjecture regarding the owner of the dress… First, I’m not so sure this dress would have been owned by only a well-to-do woman. It is a nice silk dress, but it’s not an unusual style. These kinds of dresses are pictured in the the 1886 Bloomingdale’s catalog and the Montgomery Ward catalog, so it could have been mass-produced for middle-class consumers. The alterations left behind stitch lines, and I don’t think a wealthy woman would have tolerated that if she could afford something new instead.

    Also, the idea that the owner would have been in her 20s because of short life expectancy is based on a common misunderstanding of historical death rates. While it is true that average life expectancy was much lower in the 19th century, the average was heavily skewed by infant and childhood death rates. If you lived to be an adult, your chances of living until age 60 were pretty good (here’s a blog about this:

    Finally, keep in mind that this dress style became popular in the mid-1880s, but that doesn’t mean someone wasn’t still wearing it 5 or even 10 years later. Presumably the code ended up in the pocket the LAST time someone wore this dress, so the code probably dates a bit later than the dress itself. This could be especially true if the dress ended up in the second-hand market after the first owner was done with it. If the alterations are indicative of a second owner, then again, we’re not looking at a wealthy person having left the code in the pocket. In terms of timing, I’d look at the time period from 1884-1894 just to give it a good conservative 10-year bracket.

    So if it could be from anywhere, and it could have belonged to any adult woman who could afford to buy a silk dress from a local shop, mass-market catalog, or even second-hand store does that change your thoughts on the code at all?

  20. Sara: thank you so much for your comment, I hope you and your new child are doing well. 🙂

    Clearly I made some guesses based on very little information before, so I shall now try to repeat the process with a little more information, see where it leads…

  21. Sara: I enjoy reading about people who care for historical treasures. Well done.

    Nick: following on from the above excellent research on railroad telegraphy –

    I did a lot of research on wireless telegraphy when I tried to decode the famous STENDEC* message. In the days of sending messages over ‘the wires’ the codes and abbreviations used were non-standard and very much ‘in house. Compare code in this 1921 book to standard Morse code.

    I would assume, but can find no proof, (sound familiar?) that a telegraphist would learn ordinary words or fairly common/obvious abbreviations before moving on to in-house codes after a degree of proficiency had been reached.

    The mystery of the excess of words starting with ‘L’ is solved if the code used a single dash for L as in the cited book. In standard Morse the same test would list many words beginning with K. In standard code, breaks disambiguate between e.g. T A and K .
    _._ _ ._ _.. _ ..
    K T A D T I

    If that is correct, then it should be possible to reconstruct the original dot-dash code based on intitial letter pair frequencies. Or test against the morse in the cited book.

    imho: this was a record of a timed test in morse proficiency. The numbers are likely of words received correctly. It may have been put in the pocket and forgotten or deliberately kept as a memento of an accomplishment.

    As ever, I stand ready to be corrected/slated/embarassed. 🙂


  22. Patrick: nice article on STENDEC, thanks for the link. 🙂

    The bit that I suspect you’re missing about Prosigns (that in fact probably strengthens your argument) is that the Morse codes that made up a particular Prosign were usually run together to form a composite Morse code sequence.

    And if the receiver wasn’t expecting a Prosign, he/she could very easily misinterpret it / misparse it.

  23. Thomas on October 27, 2017 at 9:58 am said:

    In my opinion the underlying code is “The Anglo-American telegraphic code to cheapen telegraphy and to furnish a complete cypher”:;view=1up;seq=9;skin=mobile
    This codebook contains a great number of the words used in the silk dress cryptogram. Some examples: “event” at the end of some lines means: “You must explain.” “rubric listed” means “return as soon, the terms of loan are unsatisfactory” , “forbade” stands for “fright charges are light”, “lining” for “if the loan can be made”. “barometer” stands for the ” St. Pauls & Duluth railroad”. “ink” means “You must insist upon”, “malay”: ” I/we will manage”. “mammon”: “accomplished by good management”, “layman” means “lessee”. Apparently the cryptogram is the text of a telegram which was part of a businessman’s correspondence.
    Maybe another edition of this code (Hathitrust provides only that of 1894) could reveal more codewords.

  24. Thomas on October 28, 2017 at 5:56 am said:

    There are some gaps to be filled 🙁

    SMITH – I/we have notified him – LINNET – not going (to) – NONE – you must explain

    ANTONIO – return as soon – the terms of loan are unsatisfactory – FULL – you must insist upon

    MAKE – (here I don´t read ONAGER but SNAPLES or something like that, whatever this means) – St. Pauls & Duluth railroad (preferred stock) – NERITE (NERITITE would stand for: „the next one“)

    SPRING – with haste – if the loan can be made – ONE – can you mortgage real estate – NOVICE – he/they cannot arrange with the bank

    VICKSBG – responsible – raise as much as possible – if the loan can be made – MY – NANNY – BUCKET

    SAINTS – week – LUNAR – I/we will manage – who will be nominated – MARKETS – he/they cannot arrange with the bank

    SEAWOTH (or „LEAWOTH“) – may be able to – LEMON – SUNK – early

    CAIRO – the Columbia river – if the loan can be made – who will be nominated – JOHNSON – NONE – ICE (ICED stands for „to be identified“)

    MISSOURI – withdraw offer immediately – LUNAR – who will be nominated – JOHNSON – NONE – BUCKET

    CELLIETTE – it is a very important matter (i don´t read MEMORISE but REMORSE which stands for „to what do you refer“ – LEGACY – SUNK – DEW

    CONCORDIA – accomplished by good management – lessee – NULL – you must explain

    CONCORDIA – MIRACULOUS (is „MIRACULOUS“ right?) – LUMINOUS (maybe „HUMUS“?) – name if you can – MENU – a decisive battle

    BISMARCK – OMIT – who will be the lessee – they are buying – BANK

    PAUL – steady rates – if you can look into it – you must explain – I/we think he is likely to fail – who will be nominated – you must explain

    HELENA – do not omit to – LOFO – USUAL – early

    GREEN BAY – NOBBY – PIPED (PIPE stands for „please accept“)

    ASSIN – will be pleased to see you at my office – LEAGUE – who will be nominated – the freight charges are light – you must explain

    CUSIN (?) – draw at seven day´s sight –

    HARRY – NOUN – LERTAL – LAWFUL – was/were paid – NOVICE – you must explain

    MIMEDOS (or MINNESOTA?) – NOUN – JAMMY – who will be the lessee – before anything else – will be distributed


    KNIT – I am /we are wrong – HUGS – DUCK – FAGAN – early

    CALGARRY – NOUN – SIGNOR – if you can look into it – who will be nominated – GINNED – you must explain

    LANDING – NOUN – REGINA – LEGACY – SUCH (? there is a „d“ at the beginning) – I/we will give bail – ICE (ICED stands for „to be identified“)

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