Here’s a delightful little cipher story that has so far defeated the NSA’s cryptologists. Can you do better?

In 1819, Lady Magdalene De Lancey, whose first husband Colonel Sir William De Lancey had died at Waterloo shortly after their honeymoon, was busy being wooed by the (presumably) no less dashing Captain Henry Harvey. While the latter settled his affairs in preparation for their marriage, she assailed him with letters nearly every day. What is nice here is that her lovesick correspondence was retained in a family archive, where a few years ago it was found by David Miller while researching his (2000) book Lady De Lancey at Waterloo. But what is curious is that some of the letters contain short sections apparently in cipher…

Transcriptions of coded phrases used by Magdalene Hall De Lancey when writing to her fiancé Henry Harvey.
Note: the letters are in the possession of Philip Davies and have been transcribed by David Miller and Sally Smith.

Letter #6: 4/5 February 1819

I told you to the Tytlers, & George St but I find myself invariably the worse of it – so I refuse all without exception of any but Geo: St – such kind parents deserve a little sacrifice – I dine there today – My Mother talks to me wt such delight of all my prospects shtesirreshteltdtyetoogdterldcofcshtsr glateshedeshdgtrshitdhlyskbtwisterhdgthis Oh I forgot I forgot – I beg 10000 pardons – (it was a joke)

[Alternative transcription: Mteirrethteltdtyetoogterloefeshtrplatesheideshdytehtdhlyskhtwiserhyithis

Letter #9: 8/9 February 1819

Lying down in the carriage is not comfortable — nor to be wished as we must not think of travelling at night — I know where I shall lye when I need rest, & I do not care for any one else you know. Oh that we were in the carriage, anywhere! This delay, this probation thatlydsrsofseedltilingsorgtrdbghiliglingsolersafftchiy Gfetdjsitlotltertelrleslity
but we shall be much much happier for the delay — we shall know each other thoroughly — we shall begin with an acquaintance of years, from the interest & constancy of our present communications —

Letter #12: 14 February 1819

You must allow me, henry, to look up to you as to a being superior in as much as is good for me – do not fear, my beloved – at moments when we are playful & alone & relaxed & easy I shall be your equal altogether & as fearless & familiar & impertinent as a spoilt child, but this is not at all incompatible with deference for your opinion & respectful attention to your wishes ridthjdbgdtehtetsisovdlgansdtofdrhtghldsdbtdilijche-
besides, Henry, I cannot lean unless I feel the power of my support – & I positively insist on leaning on you – I am all feminine – I have no independent powers, naturally – they have been forced up & called forth by circumstances & they have, like other unnatural & forced cultivation left the stem weaker than ever – I am as a honeysuckle which creeps & scrambles all over the tree near which it takes root –

On the one hand, it’s completely plausible that these are in cipher. David Miller wonders whether Magdalene met General Sir George Scovell at Waterloo, the man famously responsible for cracking Napoleon’s codes. (Yes, Scovell could possibly have given Magdalene some kind of cryptographic tip for keeping her correspondence secret… but all the same, that does seem a touch heavy-handed to me.)

On the other hand, they may not be in cipher at all. Sally Smith (whose book on Lady Helen Hall [Magdalene’s mother] is due next year) suggests that these odd little sections might simply be textual expressions of Magdalene’s frustration at the limitations of polite language, and that her husband-to-be would understand completely what she was alluding to in context. That is, he would have known from context what was frustrating his wife-to-be without her actually having to name names. Lady Magdalene does quickly follow the cipher-like sequence in the first letter with “(it was a joke)“, so perhaps this is the safest interpretation?

All the same, I do get an odd sense of things poking through the mix (and it’s not just the few actual words that are embedded in the ciphertext-like sequences), and of sense rather than merely nonsense. The first sequence appears to relate to what Magdalene’s mother was saying to her about her prospects; the second to Magdalene’s feelings about (presumably) her sexual frustration caused by the temporary separation from her fiance; while the third I’m not really sure about. The fact that there are characters on the pages in the places where they are does make sense… it’s just that the words as formed by those characters don’t.

The bigger problem is that they don’t make any obvious cryptological sense. The NSA Historian published at least some of them on the NSA’s internal e-message history page asking for people to try to crack them (for inclusion in David Miller’s book), but as yet nobody has succeeded.

So… what do you think? Lovesick random scrawls or calculated encipherment? Reading beyond the short extracts above, I think it’s fair to say that Lady Magdalene De Lancey’s thoughts quickly range from hot flushes to cool calculation: she thinks in a very multimodal (dare I say heteroscedastic?) way, making it hard to pin a single interpretational tail on her historical donkey.

Personally, I’m kind of stuck in the middle here. Even though I’m sure that Sally Smith has transcribed these accurately as possible as characters, I’d much rather see the cipher-like sections for myself before forming an opinion. There must be a thousand ways of steganographically hiding short texts in plain sight (upside-down, left-right mirrored, different inks, embellishments, marks, dots, strokes, pinholes, etc), and my nagging suspicion is that Lady Magdalene may well have employed one such trick to highlight letters within the long random-looking sequences to form her (much shorter) secret message. Not sophisticated, but clever enough to get the point across to her beloved. Hopefully, we shall see… 🙂