A quick note following up yesterday’s post about Henry Debosnys and the S.S.Cimbria (that Debosnys claimed to have caught from Le Havre in June 1871).

According to a February 1980 article (in issue #105 of The Chronicle of the US Classic Postal Issues) called The Hamburg American Line – Mail Packets from New York 4 January 1870 to 23 December 1875 – via Plymouth and Cherbourg to Hamburg by Clifford L. Friend and Walter Hubbard, the S.S. Cimbria did not (just as I suspected) call at Le Havre on the crossings arriving at New York on the 21st May 1871 or 2nd July 1871.

Here’s a table containing links to all the information I have for Cimbria arrivals in New York in 1870 and 1871:

- Le Havre -/- New York -
23 Jan 1870 / 04 Feb 1870 - Roll 323, but Cumbria out of Glasgow rather than Cimbria?
05 Mar 1870 / 15 Mar 1870 - Roll 324, pp.253-264
16 Apr 1870 / 26 Apr 1870 - Roll 326, pp.299-315
04 Jun 1870 / 14 Jun 1870 - Roll 330, pp.151-166
........... / 14 Nov 1870
........... / 05 Jan 1871
19 Feb 1871 / 01 Mar 1871 - Roll 339, pp.317-323
01 Apr 1871 / 09 Apr 1871 - Passenger list
........... / 21 May 1871 - Roll 343, pp.118-139
........... / 02 Jul 1871 - Roll 345, pp.141-153
15 Sep 1871 / 25 Sep 1871 - Roll 349, pp.34-49
28 Oct 1871 / 08 Nov 1871 - Passenger list

(Say what you like: people may keep trying to stamp it out, but philately will get you everywhere.)

Hence Debosnys plainly could not have caught the Cimbria at Le Havre in Jun 1871, because the ship didn’t stop there on that Atlantic crossing.

Moreover, even though 1871 saw many people emigrating from France to America, this is not reflected in the passenger lists of the Cimbria, in which I have seen not a single French person in 1871, and but a handful in 1870 (almost all of which were people in their 20s). I cannot help but suspect that the Cimbria did not normally take on passengers at Le Havre. As a result, right now I am deeply skeptical that Debosnys travelled across on the Cimbria in either 1870 or 1871.

Hence I think it far more likely that Debosnys came over on one of the numerous ships from Le Havre during 1871 carrying French emigrants. But trawling through those passenger lists (many of which are quite poor quality in the PDFs of the microfilms) would be quite an epic task, with only a small chance of success.

It might be better to first narrow down the range of years in which he made this journey. Currently, the earliest external record we have of Debosnys in America is from the French Society in Philadelphia in December 1878, where he and his wife Celestine were the recipient of charity until her death in 1882 [Adirondack Enigma, pp.90-91]. Celestine certainly existed, because commenter Misca found this entry on ancestry.com:-

Name: Celestine Debosnys
Birth Date: abt 1839
Death Date: 5 Mar 1882
Death Place: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Age at Death: 43
Gender: Female
Race: White
Cemetery: Alms House
Marital Status: Married
FHL Film Number: 2057163

“I checked the Alms House cemetery. She is not listed there but this may be an oversight of some sort. Not sure.”

I guess the next step back in time would be finding the date of their marriage. Hmmm…

As Gerry Feltus’ “The Unknown Man” is to the Somerton Man, Cheri Farnsworth’s all-too-brief “The Adirondack Enigma” is (though densely informative) self-avowedly far from the last word on the mystery surrounding Henry Debosnys. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that many doors in her book remain swinging wide open, waiting for determined readers (perhaps with access to different sets of historical resources) to march through them into the darkness beyond, wearing their well-used +10 Night Goggles of Historical Truth.

Which is, of course, exactly what a fair few Cipher Mysteries readers love to do.

For all of us, though, the central challenge with Henry Debosnys is simply this: that while it seems that a portion of what he told reporters (and while in jail he spoke to them a lot, all the while he wasn’t trying to engineer his own escape) was basically true, a second portion was misspelled or misremembered, and a third portion was outright fabricated. (“Self-serving baloney” wouldn’t be a great exaggeration). And so our difficulty is knowing where each portion starts and finishes.

For example, he wrote in a margin that he changed his name to “Henry Deletnack Debosnys” in October 1870 [Adirondack Enigma p.71] (though without any explanation); and he claimed that he travelled from Havre de Grace to New York aboard the Cimbria in June 1871 with his [presumably first] wife Judith (he says she then died in July 1871, whereupon her body was sent back to France).

Debosnys elsewhere writes that his children were (as of 1883) being brought up by a brother in England: so it is not obvious whether the children he claimed to have were with them on the Cimbria.

However, Farnsworth flags that she could find no archival trace at all of Judith Debosnys’ life or indeed death: which I for one find highly suspicious.

And My Current Hypothesis Is…

Personally, I suspect that what is happening here is that we’re being spun a great big line – a complicated, tangled line, for sure, but a line nonetheless.

I must be clear: there seems no obvious reason to conclude that Debosnys, for all his linguistic brio, was anything more than a manipulative, lazy, grotesquely egotistical sociopath, if not actually an outright psychopath. We cannot directly trust any detail of his claimed life that we cannot verify.

So… might it be that Henry Debosnys had already killed his first wife (who was perhaps called Judith, or perhaps not) back in France (perhaps in or around October 1870), and hence the primary purpose of changing his name was to evade justice? This seems the simplest explanation of all, absent any evidence either way.

Was Debosnys On The S.S.Cimbria?

…and if so, what name was he using? It may well be that the only thing we can trust to be moderately accurate is his age (and possibly his nationality): so perhaps we can produce a list of candidates of the right sort of age who all boarded the Cimbria at Havre Le Grace circa June 1871, and then use other cross-referencing means to try to whittle that down to a small handful.

As a result, I think these are certainly questions that we might be able to answer, if (and only if) Debosnys was moderately truthful about arriving on this ship at around this date.


From this (cached) history of the Cimbria, we can see that it crossed the Atlantic to New York 72 times between 1870 and 1882, before sinking in January 1883. (More pictures here.)

During the year 1871, the Cimbria arrived eight times in New York (according to this): here’s a link to a transcribed list of the passengers on board the ship when it landed in NY on 10th April 1871. According to this page, one person died of smallpox and one was hospitalized on the 21st May 1871 arrival, while two were hospitalized on the 2nd July 1871 arrival. So it would initially seem probable we should be looking at the 2nd July 1871 arrival, right?

The Cimbria’s arrival and passenger list is indeed noted on pp.141-153 of Roll 345. But here’s a mystery for you: apart from a few Swiss and a handful of Dutch, it seems that every non-American passenger on this arrival was actually German. So there would seem to be no reason to think this steamer stopped at Havre le Grace on its way over.

Similarly, Roll 343 covers Cimbria’s 21st May 1871 arrival on pp.118-139: and (again) apart from some Russians, some Dutch, some Belgians and a Mexican, every non-American passenger was German: not a single French person either. Did this stop at Havre le Grace? It wouldn’t seem so.

All in all, it seems probable to me that if Debosnys did arrive on the Cimbria from Havre le Grace, it wasn’t in May, June, or July 1871. The Cimbria definitely did call at Havre Le Grace on other crossings (e.g. 25th October 1871), but apparently not these ones.

Can someone who is tolerably good at reading 19th century American handwriting please have a look at these two passenger lists and see if I’m missing something really obvious?

My prediction would be that Debosnys arrived in New York after October 1870 but before 1872: and that there is a reasonable chance (though far from certain) he travelled on the Cimbria. But until I see anything verified by proper archival evidence, I’m really not sure what to believe about this man: and I strongly recommend that anyone else trying to make sense of this tale should do much the same.

In Essex County, New York in 1882, a mysterious man called Henry D. Debosnys was convicted of (and executed for) killing his newly-married wife, a widow by the name of Elizabeth Wells. He claimed to have been born near Lisbon in 1836, but refused to identify himself further, saying that to do so would bring shame upon his family.

From his time in jail, Debosnys left behind some drawings and sketches; some poetry in French (though fairly egotistical and shallow, it has to be said); and some cryptograms, at least one of which also seems to be a poem:-



However, nobody has so far decrypted so much as a word of any of these. I’ve put a complete set of scans on the Cipher Foundation website, and will post transcriptions there in a while, when I’ve worked out a good way of transcribing them (because doing so isn’t quite as easy as you might think).

I first found out about this cipher mystery from Klaus Schmeh’s presentation at the recent (2015) NSA cryptology history conference (as recorded by Rich SantaColoma), which focused on those historical affairs that involve both an unsolved cipher and an unsolved (or at least somewhat unexplained) crime.

Incidentally, there’s a 127-page book on the whole Debosnys affair – Adirondack Enigma: The Depraved Intellect and Mysterious Life of North Country Wife Killer Henry Debosnys by Cheri L. Farnsworth (2010) – which I have (of course) ordered and will discuss further when it lands on my doorstep.

But meanwhile, there’s plenty to be said about Debosnys’s ciphers themselves…

Initials in the Ciphers

Given that Debosnys claimed to have previously been married twice, the presence of a pair of holding hands next to the initials “L.M.F.” is suggestive of something to do with a relationship:-


There are also some initials embedded in one of the cryptograms, with a number of dots below each letters.


Given that the man’s name was Henry D. Debosnys, these H[4] D[8] D[7] L[6] M[6] F[5] patterns of dots suggest (if I have been able to count the dots correctly from the scan) that they code for H[enry] D[xxxxxxxx] D[ebosnys] L[xxxxxx] M[xxxxxx] F[xxxxx]. And my guess is that this will be true of sub-glyph dots elsewhere in the cryptograms. I would be interested to know what his middle name was, given that this pattern of dots seems to indicate its length.

Doubled Letters

From the cryptograms I have seen (and, needless to say, there may be more that I haven’t), there are only three glyph shapes that obviously appear in pairs:


Of these three, the doubled dotted-X pair (six or so instances) appears much more frequently than the other pairs (one each): which makes me suspect it is a genuine letter. If I had to guess, though, I’d predict that this “XX” glyph pair stands in for the French “double-v” (i.e. the letter “W”), because of the absence of many other doubled glyphs in the text. Doubtless you’ll have your own opinion, though.

By the way, does anyone have the doubled-letter instance statistics for French?

Snakes (but no Ladders)

The mention of snakes (as ornamental design features) in the Copiale Cipher certainly had some kind of echo (perhaps inadvertantly, perhaps not) in the second La Buse cryptogram. And, curiously, six snakes appear integrated into the text of Debosnys’s cryptograms:-


Even though I don’t yet know what is going on with these ciphers, I personally would be somewhat surprised if they turn out to have anything obviously to do with Freemasonry. But that’s just my opinion, make of it what you will (a crane, perhaps, or possibly a boat, depending on how good you are at origami).

Clustered Glyphs

These sit right at the heart of the problem we face when we try to transcribe Debosnys’s ciphers. So many of the glyphs we see are formed from a consistent set of subshapes that it looks very much to me as though many of these component pieces will turn out to be vowels, common letters or perhaps even spaces.

I’ve put a few of these clusters together here:


So, what would be the best way of transcribing these clusters? It’s far from obvious to me: I suspect that as soon as you know how to transcribe them, you’ll also know how to read the whole text.

And The First Decrypted Word Will Be…

For me, there’s little doubt that the first decrypted word will be either ‘je’, ‘me’ or ‘moi’, and that it will be in the poem-like section of the cryptogram. This is simply because Debosnys’s French poem uses the words ‘je’, ‘me’ or ‘moi’ on pretty much every line, so it seems highly likely to me that his encrypted poem will turn out to have much the same (egotistical) profile.

But please feel free to form your own cipher theories. 🙂