The new week brings a further episode of the History Channel’s “The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer”, not for the first time promising much but delivering little (Donna Lass car directions, really?) – the best part [37:25] was the interview with Zodiac Historian Misty Johansen (who wasn’t playing to CARMEL’s script). Even though it also partially revealed Craig Bauer’s much-trailed-and-supposedly-earth-shattering decryption of the Z340, that already looks to be more than a bit of a bust (sorry Craig), which I’ll discuss properly once the season finale has aired.
Things must be particularly bad when it takes someone on Reddit to nail it, but according to ‘chickendance638’:
if you made a drinking game where you drank when somebody said “game-changer” or “huge” then one could forget about the incredibly shitty tv show that’s just been viewed.
Though I’m pleased to say that the same commenter then proved sufficiently wise to the dangers of expressing even mild exasperated sarcasm on the Interweb by noting:
Gotta be careful, if it catches on I could be responsible for more deaths than Zodiac himself
Anyhoo, the Zodiac-Killer-associated cipher this week’s episode highlighted was a short ciphertext included in a letter sent to the Times Union in Albany, NY and postmarked August 1st 1973 (which Karga Seven’s handwriting expert duly affirmed was by the Zodiac Killer). So let’s do our collective codebreaking thing on the “Albany Cipher”…
The Albany Cipher
As always with everything Zodiac related, it’s important to say that the Albany Cipher had been discussed and debated by Zodiac researchers for many years before it appeared on the show. The clearest image we currently have to work with is…
…though this image of its cipher scanned from Lyndon Lafferty’s (2012) “The Zodiac Killer Cover-Up: The Silenced Badge” (p.427) may possibly be slightly clearer, but it’s hard to be sure because of the screening…
Incidentally, I emailed the Times Union’s archive people to see if they happen to have a photo of the letter in their files. They kindly replied that:
We do not have the letter and nobody here has any information on its whereabouts, the actual receipt of the letter and what happened to it.
Which is a shame, but it is what it is.
Cracking the Albany Cipher
As was made clear during Hunt Ep.4, the Albany Cipher was originally cracked by the FBI many years ago, though the version they released to the public had the very first part of the plaintext – presumably containing the non-victim’s name – heavily redacted. So far, this was a basically correct account, i.e. the programme makers didn’t yet again claim that the decryption was puked out by CARMEL.
What we have of the plaintext runs: xxxxxxxxxxxxALBANYMEDICALCENTRETHISONLYTHEBEGINNING. Even though it would normally be the case that having this many plaintext letters would force the rest of the ciphertext to be one of only a small number of possibilities, a number of things conspire to make this difficult here. For a start, a number of cipher letter shapes are very similar: moreover, the quality of the reproductions we have are not good enough to definitively tell them apart; while a third difficulty is that people’s names tend to be more variable and hard to pin down than ‘pure’ dictionary words. And so on.
From the letters we have, the cipher alphabet mapping looks something like this:
Using these, some of the letters in the name section seem quite solid: CONxxExxENLY. The closest single word (with a couple of ciphering slips) would be CONSEQUENTLY, but because that’s not a name, it doesn’t make sense in context. If you like Mexican food, you can also try to start it CON QUESA: but this also seems unlikely in context.
Which is why, back in 2013, Zodiac crypto-meister Dave Oranchak floated the idea that the name might possibly be CONNIExHENLY. (This is of course the same name that CARMEL supposedly suggested in 2017, *sigh*.)
But cryptologically, I’m not so sure that Dave was on the money here: given that there seems no obvious reason to think that the message contains homophones, we should surely not begin by accepting ‘N’ as the fourth plaintext letter, and, rather, should instead directly reject it. However, because most of the plaintext alphabet has already been allocated, the unique shape at position four must surely be an otherwise unused plaintext letter.
Moreover, there are patterns within the mapping layout: for example, I’ve marked up R/S/T with the same proxy cipher shape in the table because (frankly) I can’t tell them apart in the ciphertext, so they look to be part of the same shape family. Hence I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the same pattern was also used for adjacent letters Q or U. And finally, the closest visual match to the unknown fourth shape of the ciphertext is the shape used for Y: so I would be unsurprised if this letter stood in for an adjacent letter e.g. X or Z.
Put all this together: and if this is a name, my own best guess is that the first six letters are in fact “CONZUE” (short for “CONZUELA”). I’m sure Spaniards will be happy to tell me which part of Spain or South America “Conzuela” is typical of (or whatever).
Fans of Family Guy will (of course) know the name Consuela well:
Yes, it’s the famous “I clean toilet” sketch. 🙂
What would Consuela say about the Albany Cipher – does she think it was made by the Zodiac Killer? Only one possible answer: “No, no“. Well… either that, or “More Lemon Pledge“, you choose (and you pay). 😉