One thing that annoyed me about the Ohio Cipher was that the quality of the newsprint scan of the original 3rd July 1916 article was simply terrible.


Yes, it really was exactly that bad. Having said that, the version of the same cipher in the follow-up 7th July 1916 article was, comparatively speaking, in excellent shape:


But… which was the correct version of the cryptogram? What’s worse, both of these differed again from the one that ended up in the Futility Closet nearly a century later. So will the real Ohio Cipher now please stand up, please stand up? (…so that we can give it a proper go at solving it, at least partially).

Anyway, a little earlier this year I had a good idea as to how to resolve this: why not find a list of newspaper archives that might possible hold a physical copy of the Lima Times-Democrat from that particular day (3rd July 1916), and see if I could get a fresh scan of it from there? There must, I reasoned, surely be more than a single extant copy of that particular edition, and in all probability they can’t all be as bad as the online one I’d been working with, surely?!?

Hence I contacted the Ohio Historical Society to see if they had a list of such archives, and yesterday got an unexpectedly positive response from this via Tom Rieder of the Ohio History Connection, Columbus OH. He very kindly scanned two different copies of the same article and sent them through to me (they’re at higher resolution than they appear within the blog post body, so feel free to click through to them in all their fuzzy monochromatic glory):-



So, thanks to Tom Rieder’s help, I think we can now say with a reasonable amount of certainty that the Ohio Cipher’s ciphertext was similar but not quite identical to the second version given above, and should read:-

Was nvlvaft by aakat txpxsck upbk txphn ohay ybtx cpt mxhg wae sxfp zavfz ack there first txlk week wayx za with thx

What does this mean? Here we go (at last)… 🙂

If you try to read this off the page as a normal monoalphabetic cipher, the fact that “txp” occurs twice and “tx” occurs four times (and that “TH” is the most common letter-pair in English) would probably make you strongly suspect that “txp” = “THE”. Further you’d probably like to hazard a guess at this point that “txlk” = “THIS” and that “ybtx” = “WITH”. (“aakat” I don’t believe is correct, so let’s skip past that that for the moment.)

But… this approach simply doesn’t work. Even putting only the cipher-like words into CryptoCrack as a patristocrat yields gibberish-like plaintext (such as “fmomewseenesstaturngainstalfpleddistrasktlycebutwahemwhernstoncedthe”, which isn’t particularly close to anything anyone apart from a statistical linguist might describe as a normal language).

There also seems to be some kind of odd-even pattern to the letters, in that ZA appears three times all on even letter boundaries. So my suspicion is that what we’re looking at here is something like a Frankenmixture of plaintext and Polybius ciphertext (but indexed with letters rather than numbers), i.e. with (say) [ A P S U X ] on one side and [ T H K M Z ] across the top, plus other stuff (such as spelling mistakes, transmission errors and possibly extra letters coded as themselves) to confuse the picture. *sigh*

I’m sorry if that’s not as robust a decryption-style reading as you’d like to be getting from Cipher Mysteries, but it is what it is, and please feel entirely free to see if you can do better yourself, ain’t nothin’ stoppin’ ya. 🙂

Yes, we’re back in Ohio again, for the third post in a row. Bear with me, though, because I think you’ll quite like the ride… 🙂


The 28th June 1916 evening edition of the Lima Times-Democrat has a dramatic story about a Western Ohio Railway ticket agent being robbed. My guess is that this is the incident that the Ohio Cipher was to do with, although quite how (or why) is another matter entirely. This is what it said:-


Follows Ticket Agent Shaw to Safe and Secures $265.

Walks Calmly Out of Office and Disappears on Elisabeth Street.

Local police so far have been unable get any trace of the bold robber who held up Harvey Shaw, ticket agent of the Western Ohio railroad, last night, and made away with the contents of the cash drawer, which contained $265. Although a good description of the thief was given [to] the police department, a careful search of the city has failed to reveal the fugitive.

So carefully was the robbery perpetrated, that not even the numerous employes and persons waiting for the last train were aware of the trouble, until Shaw ran out the front door of the station shortly after the departure of the thief and gave the alarm.

Persons who saw the man walk out of the station state that he did not seem to hurry. He went west on Market until he reached Elizabeth street and turned south. Immediately after the alarm pedestrians and persons in the waiting room assisted in searching for the thief in the rear of the Wheeler block. Police who responded to the call searched all the alleys and lots in the neighbourhood, but their efforts were unsuccessful.

According to Shaw he checked up the receipts of the day about 11:20 p.m. and placing the money in a tin box started downstairs to the basement where the safe is located. He claims that he was unaware that he was being followed until he heard footsteps behind him. On looking around he was confronted by a well-dressed stranger, who had been sitting in the waiting room.

The stranger told him not to make any out-cry and ordered that he continue on his way to the basement, using a large revolver to convince him that he meant business.

Shaw complied with the request, the thief following with the revolver pressed against the agent’s back.

When they reached the safe, Shaw was ordered to set the cash box down. The robber held his revolver in his right hand and transferred the cash to his pockets with his left hand. While performing the operation he did not take his eyes off the agent.

As the eyes of the thief were trailed along the barrel of the gun he was unable to see the denomination of the coins and paper money. When his fingers touched a coin that, from the size, appeared to be a penny, he remarked, “What kind of small change is this?” Without taking his eyes off the agent, he brought his hand up within range of his vision and seeing that it was a $5 gold piece he placed the remainder of the money in his pocket. With a curt order to Shaw to remain quiet, he backed up the stairway and walked quietly out of the door.

From the quiet and systematic manner in which the holdup was perpetrated, police are of the opinion that it was the work of a professional. However, it is clear that the stranger in some manner was informed as the locality of the safe and condition that would confront him in pulling the job. A description of the fugitive was sent to police departments of surrounding cities and towns.

Well! They don’t write ’em like that any more, do they? 😉

Update: according to a newspaper search on, the same robbery story was covered in the Marion Daily Star (28th June 1916), the Sandusky Star Journal (28th June 1916) and the Lancaster Daily Gazette (29th June 1916), but so far I have found coverage of the mysterious cipher follow-up only in the Lima Times-Democrat. Still, lots to check just yet…

A quick update on the Ohio Cipher for you.

Firstly, while looking for more mentions of the story in other 1916 Ohio newspapers, I stumbled across an article in the 4th July 1916 edition of the Coshocton Morning Tribune, which said:-

The Eastern Puzzlers League, organized in 1883 for the construction, solving and exploitation of enigmas, met here [Warren, OH] today for its semi-annual convention.

As I understand it, the Eastern Puzzlers League grew into the National Puzzlers League, whose magazine “Enigma” was where the cryptogram later appeared. Might the Ohio Cipher have therefore been planted in an Ohio paper by a convention attendee simply for a bit of fun? If so, the NPL version of the ciphertext would probably be the correct one, rather than the one in the Lima Times-Democrat. All the same, Ohio is a big place, and Warren is the opposite side to Lima… so all this might just be a coincidence. Or perhaps the Ohio Cipher was the talk of the convention, and so it was natural to write it up in the newsletter?

Secondly, the National Puzzlers League version of the story says “The police department of Lima, O., is greatly puzzled over a cryptic message received in connection with the robbery of a Western Ohio ticket agent.” At first, I thought that “Western Ohio” was a rather imprecise description (as somebody once said, ‘Ohio is a big place’), until I realized that this was a reference to a railway.

Launched in 1903, the Western Ohio Railway was an electric railway based in Lima, known as the “Lima Route”. It was an interurban railway that had many stops around Lima, where its fierce competitor was Ohio Electric. 1916 arguably was during its golden age: the Railway collapsed in 1932, one of the many smaller railways to fail during the Great Depression.

Hence it seems likely that if the Ohio Cipher is genuine (and that the National Puzzlers League account is also essentially correct), it was indeed linked with an incident in Lima, OH. However, I haven’t been able to find any historical archives connected with Western Ohio Railway (reformed in 1928 as “Western Ohio Railway & Power Co”) at all… maybe there aren’t any to be found. If there is something to be found, I suspect it will be in court or police records.

Finally: “WAS NVKVAFT BY AAKAT TXPXSCK UPBK TXPHN OHAY YBTX CPT MXHG WAE SXFP ZAVFZ ACK THERE FIRST TXLK WEEK WAYX ZA WITH THX” looks to me to be a bit of an unusual ciphertext, in that it seems to mix up both enciphered and unenciphered words.

What’s more, various features of the enciphered words hint at a kind of verbose or Polybius square cipher:-
* X appears eight times, always on an even position inside a word
* T appears seven times, always on an odd position inside a word

What is going on here? I really don’t believe this is any kind of simple substitution cipher, but rather something more like the WW2 “Slidex” cipher which similarly mixed enciphered and unenciphered text. Might parts of it be some kind of low-level private telegraphic code?

Tipping my (virtual) hat frenetically in the direction of Zodiac Killer Cipher-meister Dave Oranchak yet again, it’s time to reveal one of the very few cipher mysteries from Ohio. (Might it be the only one? Let me know if it isn’t!)

Dave had found this story mentioned on the consistently curious (in a nice way) Futility Closet website, which itself had presumably found it from a 1916 edition of “Enigma”, the magazine of the National Puzzlers’ League (later reprinted here).

“The police department of Lima, O., is greatly puzzled over a cryptic message received in connection with the robbery of a Western Ohio ticket agent. Here it is: WAS NVKVAFT BY AAKAT TXPXSCK UPBK TXPHN OHAY YBTX CPT MXHG WAE SXFP ZAV FZ ACK THERE FIRST TXLK WEEK WAYZA WITH THX.”

As normal with such half-remembered stories, there’s no mention of anything specific that might actually help us track it down. But I decided to have a look anyway: and quickly found two mentions of it in the Lima Times-Democrat newspaper. The original mention was on the 3rd July 1916 (though the scan of it is barely readable)…



“At the request of a citizen of …… (we present?) a note written in cypher. As it is of the utmost importance that the contents of the note be ascertained. Any suggestions by readers of this paper which will …. assist in learning …. of the note will be … appreciated. The note is as follows: …”

…while there was a follow-up mention on the 7th July 1916 with a (probably spurious) guess as to the alphabet…


So the NPL transcript was nearly correct, except that it had split “ZAVFZ” into “ZAV FZ” (you can just about make out “zavfz” on the original Lima Times-Democrat report) and merged “WAYX ZA” to “WAYZA”. So, the correct “Ohio cipher” ciphertext should be:


Well… given that we still don’t know the exact town or date of the incident, and the Enigma retelling of the story seems not to have quite matched what the local newspaper actually said (e.g. it was reported by a “citizen”), we’re still left with plenty of mysteries. Perhaps other newspaper reports from the time will reveal more of the story… anyone who wants to take this on, please be my guest!

All the same, to me the ciphertext does look exactly like the kind of ad hoc partially-improvised agony column ciphers Tony Gaffney used to eat for breakfast, so maybe he’ll see straight through this particular visual trick and crack it quicker than you can say “vividly ovoviviparous”… 😉