Films and TV typically depict code-breakers as genius mathematicians running clever programmes on the fastest computers of their day – but for the kind of code-breaking I do, putting it into a computer is almost always the last step, not the first step.

In fact, there are close to a hundred things historical code-breakers like to try to work out first, such as:
* Who owns it?
* Who owned it in the past?
* Does it look genuine?
* Is there anything that might prove that it’s a fake?
* Was the code connected to any other documents?
* Are there references to the code in other documents?
* Is there any extra writing directly linked to the code?
* Do we know who the code-maker was?
* What was the code-maker’s situation?
* Who was supposed to be able to read the code?
* Are there any other documents written using the same letter shapes?
* Why was there any need for a code at all?
* Is it a code, or a cipher, or something in-between?
* Was each line of text written left-to-right or right-to-left?
* What language was the hidden message probably written in?
* Does the code’s text have any unusual features?
…and so on.

In short, if you ask your computer to work out what a message says in English when it’s actually written in German, it’s never going to find an answer, is it?

And the more that you can work out for certain before you try breaking the code, the greater the chance you will actually solve it.

Are Ricky McCormick’s Notes In Code?

Though I’ve covered Ricky McCormick’s mysterious notes here before, the short answer is…

No, they’re not.

When Ricky McCormick dropped out of school, he was barely able to read or write: the system had failed him completely – perhaps he was dyslexic, it’s hard to say. His parents “told investigators he sometimes jotted down nonsense he called writing“; that “the only thing he could write was his name“; and that Ricky “couldn’t spell anything, just scribble.”

The poor quality of the handwriting in his notes is completely consistent with the suggestion that he wrote them himself. And if he could barely write English, writing notes to himself in code seems extraordinarily unlikely.

So if you start off (as the Wikipedia “Ricky McCormick’s encrypted notes” page does) by assuming that Ricky McCormick’s notes are encrypted, I believe you have already doomed your code-breaking attempts to failure.

Personally, I can’t come up with even a single reason why the FBI ever thought that they might be in code (in the sense of a cryptographic code).

But we still might be able to read them…

Reading Ricky McCormick’s Notes

I think the most likely explanation for the notes is that they are written in (what is effectively) his own private language – notes to himself that nobody else needed to be able to read.

I’ve marked up the top few lines of the second note so that you can see some of the groups of letters (such as “WLD” and “NCBE”) that occur again and again:-


One mystery is why the “SE” pair occurs so often: perhaps that was related to a speech quirk he had.

Also: the bottom line of the first note has a sequence that seems to say “(194 WLD’S NCBE)”. This makes it look as though both “WLD” and “NCBE” are nouns, and that (whatever they actually are) a “WLD” can own a “NCBE”… but that’s as far as I can go.

When we read these notes, I think we’re hearing inside Ricky McCormick’s head. But until we talk with the people who knew him, know his speech patterns, know his world… we’ll probably never make sense of them.


The story of how Ricky McCormick was found dead with two (apparently enciphered) notes in his pocket hit the news a while back, but I hesitated to write it up as a cipher mystery at the time because I didn’t think the media coverage was even remotely reliable. But revisiting the whole affair recently, I found a simply splendid online article courtesy of the River Front Times called “Code Dead” (by Christopher Tritto), which turned my opinion of the whole case right round.

This revealed…
* that McCormick had just travelled back from Florida, from where he had allegedly brought back baseball-sized zip-lock bags of marijuana for Baha Hamdallah, brother of the owner of the gas station where McCormick worked.
* that he was closely associated with some violent (if not actually sociopathic) individuals, such as Gregory Knox
* that the stretch of road his body was found on was used for dumping dead bodies both before and after his death
* that the FBI’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit (CRRU) sat on the two mystifying notes for 12 years before announcing their existence
* that McCormick’s family knew nothing about the notes until they heard them mentioned on the news. (“Now, twelve years later, they come back with this chicken-scratch shit.”)

* McCormick fathered two children with a girl he called “Pretty Baby” before she was 14 (for which he went to prison)
* he experienced chest pains and shortage of breath the week before he died, severe enough for him to check into ER. (Though admittedly he had smoked “at least a pack of cigarettes a day” since he was ten, and typically drank “more than twenty caffeinated beverages a day”).
* McCormick could hardly read or write when he left school. (“The only thing he could write was his name”, and that Ricky “couldn’t spell anything, just scribble.”)

Coincidentally, everyone’s favourite crypto-gal Elonka Dunin lives close to where McCormick’s body was left, and she’s taken an interest in the cipher mystery aspect of the case, even doing a video interview for the River Front Times explaining how monoalphabetic substitution ciphers work (not that that’s what we’re looking at here, *sigh*). But having learnt more about McCormick’s background and situation, she concludes “I don’t think McCormick wrote these notes”, and that “[P]erhaps he was a courier.”

(If you haven’t seen the notes before, the two thumbnails below link to decent quality scans of them – well worth opening up in a browser to see what all the fuss is about.)



So, what *are* we looking at here? Well, the Internet (as always) has plenty of commentary to wade through. The CRRU’s Dan Olson points out that “There are many E’s… that could be used as a spacer”: while Elonka notes the plethora of patterns periodically peppering the pages (such as “WLD”, “NCBE”, “SE” etc). There are also lots of bracket pairs (which have somehow led to the suggestion that it may in part be lists) as well as punctuation marks, most notably an apostrophe, which would loosely imply that the word preceding it (“WLD”) may well be a noun.

Olson seems convinced that the writer of the notes was ingenious and calculating, while Elonka too appears to think that they are of a complexity that would have been beyond McCormick’s abilities. Respectfully, I have to disagree: for I suspect that the main key to the notes’ impenetrability lies not in paranoia or secrecy but in a probable explanation for why McCormick failed school (and, conversely, why school failed McCormick) – dyslexia.

Look again at three highly structured consecutive lines from the notes:

To me, this looks a lot like a mixed-up version of:-

Specifically, I think “NCB” will turn out to be a local address in St Louis (maybe even initials for Clinton Peabody?) – and if that’s right, why would the numbers not be the flat / house numbers of people buying drugs? McCormick preferred moving round at night (like “a vampire”), and he carried and held big bags of marijuana from Orlando for Baha Hamdallah (according to McCormick’s girlfriend), so the suggestion that he might have been some kind of small-time drug runner or dealer probably isn’t totally wild.

I don’t know, though: it’s all just awful. Victorian-era historians saw their job as weaving narratives around Events In History for the moral edification and correct instruction of Society In General, and even many moderns would find it journalistically tempting to take McCormick’s life of denial and ignominious death as launching pads for some glib commentary on a whole set of social macro-epidemics – guns, drugs, poverty, social inequality, education, dyslexia, whatevuh.

But all I’m actually left with is a feeling of deep sadness – that what we’re glimpsing into in these two notes is the life of a poor, illiterate guy who aspired to ride the horse of opportunity, but only ever got dragged behind it.

So, what strikes me most powerfully is that quite unlike other cipher mysteries, I don’t actually want to read what was written on McCormick’s two notes. I understand people often feel a deep-seated need for closure, but does any kind of (capital-j) Justice have the power to right the wrongs of these slow-motion train-wrecks?