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.