Here’s something a little unusual for you all – a feature-length 1971 episode of a Sci-Fi series called “Name of the Game” on YouTube, and set in “A.D. 2017” (also the name of the episode):

Interestingly, the director was a young Stephen Spielberg (it was one of his earliest pieces of work); while its author was American writer Philip Wylie, whose career moved from screenplays to slushy novels to non-fiction to dystopian fiction (and then dotted around between them for several decades).

But more about Wylie (and his connection to a cipher mystery) in a separate post. For now, on with the show! Enjoy! 🙂

Here’s a partial update on the Paul Emanual Rubin cipher mystery for you, followed by my updated thoughts on the ciphertext, and then finishing with my current best guess as to what happened. But… please don’t build your hopes up too high, there’s no sign of hugely happy ending to it all just yet. 🙁

The Update Part

After my recent post on the Paul Rubin cipher, I discovered that Craig Bauer (whose long-standing interest in the case was the starting point for that post) is currently planning to write and publish a Cryptologia article on it.

Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to his article: and I really hope that he gets to peek just a little behind the veil of the scanty external documentation to reveal the real secret history just behind it. There’s certainly very little of substance currently in the public domain: yet there’s a good chance that many of Rubin’s friends – if Bauer could manage to identify them – may well still be alive. I’m sure that they would be very happy to help Bauer get closer to the truth, even at this distance in time.

At the same time, I’m assuming that the FBI – which was so clearly involved right from the start of this case – will likely not be contributing to the picture Bauer will build up. As a matter of general policy, the Bureau seems uninterested in contributing or collaborating with external codebreakers (and don’t get me started on the Ricky McCormick case), so the FBI side of things seems to be an avenue that will remain blocked for many years yet.

The Cipher Part

Doubtless Craig Bauer will have his own conclusions about the ciphers used (and he may even have access to enough primary material to be able to break the ciphertext). But here are mine.

rubin-newspaper-cutting-annotated

Even on the low resolution photo of the cipher note, we can see “PER” at the bottom right, which is surely Paul Emanuel Rubin’s typewritten signature. Hence there is no real doubt that this whole thing was made directly by him.

I also have no real doubt about the section with the numbers on (outlined in blue above): that this is a home-brewed Morse Code variant. Only an amateur / kid code-maker would use something like this: while visually impressive, it’s hugely long-winded and impractical.

Finally, I have very little doubt about the section that seems to have “Conant” and “Dulles” in the clear: there is only one cipher system that has sufficient latitude to achieve this, and that is where a plaintext message (or a simple substitution cipher message) gets interspersed with euphonic or orthographically pleasing nulls to generate a covertext. Trithemius proposed this 500 years ago, and I feel certain that this is what is being used here.

e.g. the underlying cipher message might say “C.N.N”, but after nulls get added, the cover message becomes “C.o.N.a.N.t”.

As a more general observation, though, I suspect that each line of the text uses a separate code-table, because there seems to be very little consistency from line to line, even if you take every other letter of each line. But that fits with the whole amateur code-maker thing: it’s almost impossible to break extremely short ciphertexts, unless you have a lot of a priori knowledge about what was going on in context (which seems not to be the case here).

Finally, the other short patches of text seem likely to me to be code-table references or offsets etc. When Rubin’s friend said at the time that he (I presume he) would be able to decrypt it in a few hours if he had access to Rubin’s code-tables, this is without much doubt what he meant. Hence my prediction is that each code-table is relatively simple in itself, but that each one is used only in short bursts, to make it nearly impervious to codebreakers.

The Secret History Part

As to what was going on Rubin’s life and head in the days and weeks up until his death, I don’t honestly know: as I mentioned before, I strongly suspect that he may have been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia (for surely only someone in a distressingly paranoid place would even consider taping a coded message to their abdomen), but many other causes and rationales are still in play.

But I do have a guess about what went wrong after his death.

And this is based on cryptanalysis: that if “Conant” and “Dulles” were, as I believe, both part of a covertext created by filling between genuine cipher letters with nice-looking Trithemian nulls to form additional words, then I don’t honestly believe that the plaintext will ultimately have anything remotely to do with “Conant” and “Dulles” at all. In short, if you were paranoid about Conant and Dulles, you really wouldn’t leave them in plain sight.

But this was the diametric opposite of the assumption that the FBI seemed to be working on in this case. This was 1953, after all, the height of the HUAC and Cold War era, and Reds were perceived to be under every goshdarned Bed. And Rubin was a student, and therefore – so the mythology goes – could well have been exposed to one of numerous radicalizing factors and ideologies. So in fact it seems to me that poor Mr Rubin may not even have been the most paranoid element in the whole setup: by which I mean that the FBI seems to have been institutionally paranoid at that time, paranoia on an almost industrial scale.

Personally, I believe that Rubin’s friends – with whom he had exchanged numerous coded notes, according to various newspaper accounts, and doubtless knew most of his Trithemian tricks well – could easily have broken the heterogeneous set of micro-ciphers that made up his final essage, had they been given access to his code-tables.

However, my suspicion (as things stand) is that Rubin’s friends never got to see the message. Instead, I suspect that the FBI collected up all Rubin’s code-tables and documentation, tried to break them (and failed), and then – because they perceived that National Security was somehow at stake, even if they couldn’t prove it – kept everything quiet. The paranoid logic being, of course, that if Rubin was a goddamn Commie, then all his code-breaking chums were probably all the same distressing shade of Red, and therefore not to be trusted anywhere near his note.

(To my eyes, there are institutional echoes of the way the Ricky McCormick case was later handled, with the (minor) difference being that the institutional paranoia at play there was a weed (ha!) that grew vigorously on top of America’s civil War On Drugs.)

If I’m right, all Rubin’s code-tables are probably still sitting in an FBI archive, having never been shown to the very people who could have helped crack it without much trouble: and if so, what a sad waste of time the whole affair was.

Let’s hope Craig Bauer gets to tell us the whole story.

I’ve been trying to post about the cipher that was attached to Paul Emanuel Rubin’s stomach for over a year now: so it’s about time I pushed what I’ve found out onto the web, to see if anyone else has more luck.

The story starts with a pair of 35-minute videos of a 2013 talk on unsolved ciphers given by Craig Bauer, managing editor of Cryptologia. Part 1 covers the usual suspects (Voynich, Beale, Dorabella, Somerton Man, etc), while Part 2 moves on to largely American cipher mysteries (Zodiac, Kryptos, etc). The slides are also available here.

One American cipher that has long fascinated Bauer (right at the start of Part 2) is the case of Paul Emanuel Rubin, who on the morning of 20th January 1953 was found dead (from cyanide poisoning) with a cipher taped to his stomach. Bauer showed a picture of the cipher taken from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin:-

rubin-newspaper-cutting

Newspaper Accounts

The best newspaper account I found was from the Schenectady Gazette, Friday 23rd January 1953:-

Dead Youth Sent Friends Coded Notes

The parents of a chemistry student who was found dead of cyanide poisoning with a coded letter taped to his stomach told police today that the youth had the curious habit of sending coded letters to friends.

One unidentified friend in Paul Rubin’s Brooklyn neighborhood told police he might be able to decipher the typewritten note that has baffled the FBI. Two words in it were recognizable – “Dulles” and “Conant”.

But these developments only heightened the puzzle for Coroner Joseph Ominsky. “I am keeping in my mind the opinion that this is no suicide,” he said. Yesterday Ominsky said there was a possibility it was murder.

The body of the 18-year-old New York University student was sent home to Brooklyn today for an Orthodox Jewish burial while local and federal authorities tried to learn how he came to die Tuesday in a ditch at International airport.

Ominsky said the FBI should explore contacts the victim had in New York and here to determine if he had been a messenger for some unusual activity.

“Until this question is answered,” the coroner said, “I cannot set a time for an inquest.”

The FBI here, informed of Ominsky’s statement, said it had “no comment”.

A number of curious objects were found in Rubin’s pockets and the appearance of the words “Dulles” and “Conant” on the coded message lent a cloak-and-dagger air of mystery to his death by cyanide poisoning. It was assumed the names referred to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and James Bryant Conant, U.S. high commimissioner in West Germany.

The FBI here has sent the message to its cryptographers in Washington.

Neither the parents, who said Rubin left home last Monday morning ostensibly for classes, nor the friend, could see any motive for suicide.

Moreover, according to this report

Ominisky [sic] said that if the cyanide was self-administered, the body would not have been in its orderly position, with the youth’s thick lense [sic] glasses undisturbed. He pointed out that cyanide kills quickly, and no vial or other container was found at the scene.

However, the Shamokin News Dispatch reported the next day (23rd January 1953) that:-

Investigators disclosed today that a five-inch long test tube was found near the ditch where the body of a New York University chemistry student was discovered last Tuesday.

The vial was turned over to city toxicologists for tests to determine if it had contained the cyanide which killed 18-year-old Paul E. Rubin, of Brooklyn, N. Y., a sophomore at NYU.

Police said the test tube was found about five feet from the 12-foot deep embankment near the International Airport in which the body was spotted by a soldier en route to catch a plane.

A thorough search was made of the area, but nothing else was found, police reported.

[…]

Police reported that an unidentified friend of the victim said that he could probably decipher the message found on the body if he could find the proper code books, but it might take him a week.

“Curious Objects”

Bauer (who either has access to far more newspapers than me or has seen the Coroner’s Report) noted that the “curious objects” included:

* “an image of an airplane with a Nazi swastika on its tail assembly” in a wallet: on the photo’s rear was written “France Field, Panama”.
* Another picture in the same wallet was of “The Thinker”, Rodin’s well-known sculpture.
* “a plastic cylinder containing a signal fuse” (a magic prop)
* “the casing of a spent .38 caliber bullet (found in a pocket of his topcoat)”
* “a fountain pen gun”
* “forty-seven cents” (though he had started the day with a rather more substantial $15)
* the February 1953 issue of “Galaxy Science Fiction”

Attempted Followups

To me, this is an unsatisfactory cipher mystery because we can’t even see the cipher clearly. I asked the FBI if they would release a better quality scan of the cipher, but got no reply (which is a shame).

I also asked the Special Collections Research Center at Temple University (who have a large archive of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin’s photos, many of which won awards) about the photo. Unfortunately, the scan of it they very kindly sent me from their microfilm archives was slightly worse than the one we already had, so no luck there either.

Also, I should point out that William Friedman retired in 1956, and without any doubt would have been shown the cipher at the time: so perhaps there’s a mention of it in Friedman’s papers at the George C. Marshall Foundation. I’ve had no luck there (though the archive does have lots of great photographs, if that floats your boat), so feel free to pick up my Friedmanian dropped baton and carry it further yourself.

Any other suggestions?

So… What Do I Think?

Firstly, I have to say that I think anyone who types out a mysterious note and tapes it to their stomach to be found later must (a) be suffering from some complex mental illness and (b) be about to consciously embark on a pre-planned perilous action. I’m sure up-to-the-minute politically correct healthcare professionals have a whole wealth of ways of pussyfooting around the term, but to me this has plenty of features that suggest paranoid schizophrenia.

Secondly, looking at the cipher itself, it’s clearly a mess: or rather, it doesn’t appear to be the product of an ordered, controlled mind or even a single cryptographic system. There are fragments of binary 0s and 1s (interpersed with dots and x’es), German, made-up words, an odd-looking signature, all kinds of stuff.

As a result, my overall opinion is that what we are looking at here is probably a product of delusion and steganography in equal measures: and so it is probably a kind of unhappy cryptogram rather than a tricky ciphertext per se. Hence my conclusion: that even though I would very much like to see the note in its entirety, I don’t currently believe that we will ever solve it.

Some things are just lost to the world.