Since my recent post on the silk dress cipher, Jim Shilliday left an extremely helpful comment, in which he suggested specific readings for many of its various codewords.

So here’s a link to a Microsoft Word document containing a tabbed transcription of the Silk Dress Cipher.

The Locations

The first two columns contain a large number of codewords that seem almost certain to be American / Canadian place-names:

-----Sheet 1-----

Smith nostrum
Antonio rubric == San Antonio, Texas
Make Indpls == Indianapolis, Indiana
Spring wilderness
Vicksbg rough-rack == Vicksburg, Mississippi
Saints west
Leavwth merry == Leavenworth, Kansas
Cairo rural == Cairo, Illinois (or perhaps Cairo, Georgia?)
Missouri windy == Missouri / Chicago?
Elliott memorise == Elliot, Maine [though this is not hugely convincing]
Concordia mammon == Concordia, Kansas
Concordia merraccous == Concordia, Kansas / Americus?

-----Sheet 2-----

Bismark Omit == Bismarck, North Dakota
Paul Ramify == ?
Helena Onus == Helena, Montana
Green Bay == Green Bay, Wisconsin
Assin Onaga == Onaga, Kansas
Custer Down == Custer, South Dakota
Garry [Noun] Lentil = Gary, Indiana?
Minnedos [Noun] Jammy = Minnedosa, Manitoba
Calgarry Cuba == Calgary, Alberta / Cuba
Grit wrongful
Calgarry [Noun] Signor == Calgary, Alberta
Landing [Noun] Regina == Regina, Saskatchewan

I put all these locations onto Google Maps to see if any patterns emerged:

So… What Links These Places?

In a comment here, bdid1dr suggested that these towns might possibly be connected with the “Underground Railroad”, a route a large number of runaway slaves followed to get them from the South to Canada (where slavery was illegal). All the same, even though this is an interesting slice of American history, it is almost certainly not the explanation for the Silk Dress Cipher because (a) the dates are wrong (slavery had been made illegal in the US by the mid-1880s, and so the Underground Railroad was not still in operation), and (b) the locations are wrong (the Underground Railroad largely ran up the Eastern side of the US, quite different to the pattern we see here).

In a further comment, however, Jim Shilliday points instead to a quite different American history: the Orphan Trains. These ran from 1854 until as late as 1929, shifting East Coast orphans (though in fact a large number of them had one or even two parents) out to farms, many in the mid-West. What particularly triggered Jim’s memory was that (as he noted in his comment) “Concordia, Kansas (mentioned twice in the text) is the site of the National Orphan Train Complex, housed in a restored Union Pacific Railroad Depot“.

It is certainly striking that for a piece of paper found in Maryland, everywhere (apparently) listed seems to be a long way away: and that there appear to be three locations in a line in Kansas – Leavenworth, Onaga, and Concordia. (When I checked, all three had railroad stations: from Leavenworth Junction, trains ran to Onaga [rails laid 1877 by the Leavenworth, Kansas & Western Railway] and separately to Concordia (via Miltonvale on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Line.)

The New York Historical Society holds MS 111, (The Victor Remer Historical Archives of The Children’s Aid Society): which is so large that it’s hard to know where to begin. Portions have been digitized and placed on flickr, but these seem to be mainly photographs: individual case files are only allowed to be examined at the archives.

If there is some kind of guide to the Orphan Trains’ destinations (whether as a book or online), I haven’t yet found it. However, given that somewhere between 120,000 and 270,000 children (depending on which source you believe) were placed, it would perhaps be unsurprising if almost all destinations were covered at one time or another: and it would also be unsurprising if the placement or travel records that remain are far from complete.

Incidentally, the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia is holding its 2017 Annual Orphan Train Riders Celebration from 1st to the 4th June 2017, if anyone not too far away is interested to find out more.

Orphan Trains and Maryland

Probably the most usefully skeptical resource is Orphan Train Myths and Legal Reality: the author (R.S.Trammell) argues that, though well-intentioned, in practice the Orphan Trains offered what was only a quick fix for what was a much deeper problem, and helped delay the kinds of deeper reforms and changes in attitude that were needed at the time.

Trammell also notes: “Orphan train trips were also sponsored and financed by charitable contributions and wealthy philanthropists such as Mrs. John Jacob Astor III who, by 1884, had sent 1,113 children west on the trains.” And also that New York wasn’t the only starting point: ” [s]imilar institutions were created in Baltimore, Maryland and Boston, Massachusetts”.

Trammell’s source for this last point was the 1902 book by Homer Folks: “The care of destitute, neglected, and delinquent children“. This talks (p.49) about the 1807 foundation of the Baltimore orphan asylum, which had originally been the “female orphaline charity school”, and then the Baltimore female orphan asylum managed by “nine discreet female characters”, and where “[t]he directors were also given power to bind out children placed in the school”. Folks also mentions “St. Mary’s female orphan asylum”, a Catholic asylum in Baltimore founded in 1817.

But can we find any records of these orphan asylums? Hmmm…

7 thoughts on “The Silk Dress Cipher and the Orphan Train…?

  1. JK Petersen on May 29, 2017 at 6:38 pm said:

    Very interesting topic, Nick.

    Due to time constraints, I couldn’t look at the notes in depth, but am enjoying the historical narratives inspired by the post.

  2. Greg on May 30, 2017 at 6:56 am said:

    Following this placename logic ‘Paul’ would plausibly be St. Paul, MN, and ‘Spring’ could be Springfield, IL.

    It seems to me ‘Noun’ is a mishearing of ‘none’ (in keeping with the sugestion that the whole thing was transcribed from hearing) which would go with moving the ‘l’ column left in those lines, lining it up.

    2.9 has ‘Egypt’ at the end of the line and 2.10 seems oddly short, moving ‘Egypt’ to the ‘places’ column at the beginning of 2.10 (again assuming a transcripting error) aligns ‘duck’ and ‘fagan’ between 2.9 and 2.10. There are half a dozen places called ‘Egypt’ in the US.

  3. Mrs. Bennett’s will also included relatively small sums of money to The Nursery and Child’s Hospital of Baltimore ($2,000) and the Kelso Home for Orphans of Baltimore ($2,000).

    An interest in the orphan train would seem to be in line with what we’ve learned about her.

  4. An additional random thought –

    I also wonder if some of the non-place name words might be names, perhaps of particular orphans? Others could be notes of particular homes/potential placements?

    Make = Mike?
    Merry = Mary?
    Windy = Wendy?

    The home in Cairo is particularly rural?

  5. E: it’s very interesting indeed, but please bear in mind that this Mrs Bennett is still no more than a plausible guess on my part. The question of what would be sufficient evidence to prove the suggested link definitively remains wide open… :-/

  6. nick – true. I am currently accepting that identification based on a preponderance of evidence, which is not the same as proof.

  7. Catherine on June 3, 2017 at 4:19 am said:

    Very interesting. ..I don’t know much about USA history, but in Canada we had work camps for chinese …sad part of our history…bur interesting fact, the workers were to build the trans Canada railway. Camps were mainly located around Calgary and along the prairies (so..Regina)
    Seems like there might be some links…

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