What I have long tried to do with this blog is to genuinely advance our collective knowledge about unbroken historical ciphers, not by speculating loosely or wildly (as seems to be the norm these days) but instead by trying to reason under conditions of uncertainty. That is: I try to use each post as an opportunity to think logically about multiple types of historical evidence that often coincide or overlap yet are individually hard to work with – ciphers, cryptograms, drawings, treasure maps, stories, legends, claims, beliefs, mysteries.

The world of cipher mysteries, then, is a world both of uncertain evidence and also of uncertain history built on top of that uncertain evidence – perpetually thin ice to be skating on, to be sure.

A skills void?

It is entirely true that all historical evidence is inherently uncertain: people lie, groups have agendas, listeners misunderstand, language misleads, copyists misread, propagandists appropriate, historians overselect, forgers fake, etc. All the same, seeing past/through the textual uncertainties these kinds of behaviours can leave embedded in evidence is the bread and butter of modern historians, who are now trained to be adept both in close reading and critical thinking.

However, what I am arguing here is that though History-as-text – i.e. history viewed as primarily an exercise in textual literature analysis – managed to win the historical high ground, it did so at the cost of supplanting almost all non-textual historical disciplines. To my eyes, the slow grinding deaths of codicology, palaeography and even dear old iconography (now more visible in Dan Brown film adaptations than in bibliographies) along with what I think is the increasing marginalization of Art History far from the historical mainstream have collectively left a huge gap at the heart of the subject.

This isn’t merely a focus void, it’s also centrally a skills void – the main missing skill being the ability to reason under conditions where the evidence’s textual dimension is missing or sharply limited.

In short, I would argue that because historians are now trained to deal primarily with textual uncertainties, the ability to reason effectively with other less compliant types of evidence is a skill few now seem to have to any significant degree. In my opinion, this aspect of text-centrism is a key structural weakness of history as now taught.

In my experience, almost nothing exposes this weakness more than the writing done on the subject of historical cipher mysteries. There it is absolutely the norm to see otherwise clever people make fools of themselves, and moreover in thousands of different ways: surely in few other subject domains has so much ink have been spilled to so little effect. In Rene Zandbergen’s opinion, probably the most difficult thing about Voynich research is avoiding big mistakes: sadly, few seem able to achieve this.

“The Journal of Uncertain History”

Yet a key problem I face is that when it comes to presenting or publishing, the kind of fascinating historical mysteries I research are plainly a bad fit for the current academic landscape. This is because what I’m trying to develop and exercise there is a kind of multi-disciplinary / cross-disciplinary analytical historical skill (specifically: historical reasoning under uncertainty) that has quite different aims and success criteria from mainstream historical reasoning.

On the one hand, this “Uncertain History” is very much like Intellectual History, in that it is a meta-historical approach that freely crosses domain boundaries while relying heavily on the careful application of logic in order to make progress. And yet I would argue that Intellectual History as currently practised is heavily reliant on the universality of text and classical logic to build its chains of reasoning. In that sense, Intellectual History is a close cousin to the text-walled world of MBA courses, where all statements in case studies are deemed to be both true and given in good faith.

By way of contrast, Uncertain History turns its face primarily to those historical conundrums and mysteries where text falls short, where good faith can very often be lacking, and where strict Aristotelian logic can prove more of a hindrance than a help (here I’m thinking specifically about the Law of the Excluded Middle).

And so I propose launching a new open-source historical journal (Creative Commons BY-NC Licence), with the provisional name of “The Journal of Uncertain History“, and with the aim of providing a home for Uncertain History research of all types.

To be considered for the JoUH, papers should (also provisionally) be tackling research areas where:

* the historical evidence itself is problematic and/or uncertain;
* there is a problematic interplay between the types of evidence;
* to make genuine progress, non-trivial reasoning is required, not just for thinking but also for explanation;
* historical speculations made within the paper are both proposed and tested; and
* future tests (preferably empirical) and/or research leads are proposed.

I welcome all your comments, thoughts, and suggestions for possible submissions, authors, collaborators and/or editors; and especially reasons why existing journals X, Y and Z would all be better homes for this kind of research than the JoUH. 🙂

Though originally published in 1998 and 2003, and most recently published in three volumes in 2013-2014, “Maps, Mystery and Interpretation” is in reality a single (very large) book, the fruits of Geoff Bath’s vast sustained effort to till Oak Island’s unproductive historical soil.

The overall title broadly suggests its three constituent sections, in that Part 1 covers (possibly pirate) treasure maps (“Maps”); Part 2 examines the evidential haze surrounding the Oak Island “Money Pit” mystery (“Mystery”); while Part 3 attempts to put the myriad of pieces together to make sense of them all (“Interpretation”). Simples.

If only the Oak Island mystery itself were as straightforward…

Part 1: Maps

Here, Geoff presents all the “Kidd” maps that Hubert Palmer ended up with, and compares Howlett’s account of them with Wilkins’ account, as well as – and this is the good bit – lots of letters written and received by both Wilkins and Palmer.

I can’t be the only reader to find himself or herself surprised by Bath’s conclusion – that Wilkins essentially got it all just about right, while Howlett got a great deal of it wrong.

All the same, as far as reconstructing the modern history of the Palmer-Kidd maps goes, Geoff’s reasoning here seems very much on the money. I’d say his account gets far closer to what happened than even George Edmunds’ account (stripping both authors’ conclusions out of the picture first).

However, Bath gets himself in something of a tangle trying to make sense of the various maps Wilkins originated (both in Part 1 and in Part 3). Was Wilkins adapting maps or documents otherwise unseen, using them as templates for his own creations, or trolling his readers to help him identify mysterious islands? Too often Bath seems content to speculate in a way that paints Wilkins in an almost Svengali-like way, a kind of Andy Warhol of treasure maps.

In reality, I’m far from sure that Wilkins was any closer to historical clarity than we are now. Given that I can’t read more than a handful of pages of his “A Modern Treasure Hunter” without feeling nauseous (the fumes! the bad accents! the ghosts!), I just can’t see Wilkins as anything like a consistently reliable source, even about himself.

Yet one of the most specifically insightful things that emerges from Part One is Bath’s observation that it isn’t necessary for these maps to actually be Kidd’s for them to be independently genuine. That is, the set of maps’ whole association with Kidd might be something that was overlaid onto a (non-Kidd) set of maps: the supposed Kidd link might easily have been added to the mix as a way of “bigging up” someone else’s maps. If this is true (and you don’t have to believe that these are Oak Island maps for it to be so), many of the difficulties that arise when you try to link them to Kidd (e.g. dating, language, etc) disappear.

It’s still hellishly difficult to make sense of these maps, for sure, but Geoff is right to point out that Kidd may well turn out to be part of the problem here, rather than part of the solution or explanation. Something to think about, for certain.

Part 2: Mystery

In my opinion, Oak Island is a wretched, wretched subject, filled with all the slugs and snails of cipher mysteries and not the vaguest flicker of any of the good stuff. It’s a bleak, barren evidential landscape, filled with unconfirmed micro-features briefly noted by a long series of individual investigators, before being quickly razed from the face of the earth by gung-ho treasure hunters. There seems little genuine hope that any faint trace of anything historical or sensible still remains.

Putting the speculative sacred geometry and shapes picked on maps to one side, there are some (though not many) good things in Part Two I didn’t previously know about. Specifically, the idea that tunnels and features might have been dug aligned with the local magnetic compass at that time is quite cool, though obviously something that has been much discussed over the decades.

So I’m terribly sad to have to say that even a perceptive and diligent researcher such as Geoff Bath can make no real difference to this long-standing disaster area. His Part 2 is therefore little more than a Ozymandian monument to the effort and greed sunk in the pursuit of the Money Pit (not that a brass farthing or even so much as a period button has come of it to date).

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Part 3: Interpretation

Having struggled through the unpromising desert of the previous part, my expectations as to what Part 3 might bring were fairly low. But as Bath works his way through his interpretation section (repeatedly railing against the pox of untestable hypotheses), something actually rather odd happens.

All of a sudden, he mentions the Venatores (a early 20th century treasure hunting group) and the Particulars (a set of treasure hunting documents collected together by the Venatores). As this enters the picture, it’s as if a curious wave ripples through the whole research fabric: that, contrary to what you might have thought from the two previous books, it’s all not about whether Wilkins was credible or incredible, or whether Hill Cutler was stone cold serious or laughing all the way to the Terminus Road Lloyds Bank in Eastbourne, but instead that there might actually be something behind it all.

That is to say, what emerges – though all too briefly – is a frisson of that wonderfully engaging secret history paranoia where you can just sense stuff going on behind the scenes but which you know you probably won’t ever gain access to.

In the end, Bath’s well-researched and well-written books didn’t manage to persuade me of the existence of a link between the various treasure maps and the Oak Island mystery (and that, indeed, is a hypothesis that would seem to be politically untestable) nor of any kind of geometric cartography plan driving it all. However, it did manage to convince me that the whole Money Pit enterprise might possibly be built not on a vast hole, but instead on a history whose fragmentary parts have been scattered on the winds, and yet which might possibly be reassembled in the future.

It probably won’t happen but… who can say?

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a website called The Great Lost Treasure: across its sequentially-numbered twenty-four pages, it builds up a case for arguably the most audacious (and certainly the most all-encompassing) cipher history / mystery theory I’ve yet seen.

The person behind this website is Ron Justron, who sees his over-arching theory as falling somewhere between [inconveniently true] and [a thorn in nearly every other cipher theorist’s side]. It’s not hard to see why such people get so annoyed by him: his cipher mega-theory aspires not only to disprove almost all the cipher theories out there, but also to replace them, insofar as – to him – they (pretty much) all are trapped within the explanatory cage of his mega-theory.

How should I try to do justice to this awesomely epic construction? I’ll try to start at the beginning…

The Great Lost Treasure

Justron’s starting point is a treasure mystery associated with (the very real) Admiral Lord George Anson (1697-1762), and (apparently) described in Andrew Westcott’s (1999) book “El Tesoro de Lord Anson”. (If I mentioned that George Anson was born in Shugborough Hall, you might be able to guess part of where this is going).

According to Justron’s account, a treasure horde was entrusted to a certain Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla at the end of the Spanish War of Succession in 1714: the Spanish Hapsburgs, having lost their ownership of the Spanish Crown to the French House of Bourbon, passed it to Ubilla for him to secrete in South America for safety.

Note that Captain-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla definitely existed. In 1715 when the convoy of treasure ships he was commanding on the way back from Havana to Spain was hit by a hurricane close to the Bahamas, over a thousand people lost their lives, including Ubilla himself. Only one ship, the Grifon, managed to avoid catastrophe.

One treasure site recounts the story that the Capitana went down with the jewels Philip V had been required to provide as a dowry for his new wife, the Duchess of Parma: these included “a heart delicately crafted of 130 pearls, a 74 carat emerald ring, a pair of pearl earrings-each complemented with a 14 carat pearl, and a rosary of pure coral the size of small marbles“. This much-searched-for royal trove was used as a plot device in films such as The Deep (the 1977 Peter Benchley-written film, not the 2013 Icelandic film) and Fools Gold (which I thought was a bit pants, though not offensively so).

So is this Justron’s “Great Lost Treasure”? Actually no – for once, it is nothing so boringly mundane as gold, silver or diamonds: far more audaciously, Justron asserts that it is the “set of vessels, items and furnishings for the Tabernacle in the Wilderness” that Moses had had constructed, and which came to be housed in the Temple of Jerusalem. And then Justron raises the stakes yet higher, by asserting that the “Holy Grail” has been mistranslated, and that what we call the Holy Grail was actually part of the Davidic Temple trove.

The Über-Map

According to Justron’s narrative, once Ubilla had concealed this heavenly stash in South America, he somehow managed to convey a map of where he hidden it to the Royal Society in London, which (he says) “then became the reluctant stewards of what was considered to be God’s own treasure”.

According to Justron, the list of things that Ubilla passed across included (though note that many of the details come from a separate cipher mystery, courtesy of Richard Latcham, which I’ll cover in Cipher Mysteries when my brain has stopped hurting from this one):

1. A chart of the region.
2. A reference to latitude and longitude using the alchemically themed colours of the fixed stars known as the Tetramorphs and their zodiacal associated constellations.
3. A series of consecutive and geographically descriptive codewords in Spanish;
* Trinidad (Trinity)
* Herradura (Horseshoe)
* Pan da Azucar (Sugarloaf). This is a ‘sailing mark’, a distinctive rock to identify the island and the pass through the surrounding reef.
* Playa Blanca (White Beach)
* Aguada (Water)
* Ebanin (Marked rock)
4. The ‘Cero tres Puntas’: literally the ‘Zero (cipher) of the longitude for the Three Points’.

Justron also asserts that Ubilla also managed to convey a copy of the map to Spain, which was used for a later treasure hunt (Diego Alverez, Luke Barrett, Archer Brown and Killorain: ‘The Treasure of the Tuamotus’ or ‘The Bosun Bird Treasure’).

As you’d perhaps expect, Justron has decrypted the map’s subtleties: he used the Shugborough monument letters, an simple substitution cipher key used by “a lawyer names Zwack in 1786 during a political raid in England of a secret society called ‘The Illuminated Ones’, the magic number 19, the Golden Section, and a map of some South Sea islands.

The trail, then, leads to Mururoa Atoll (where some atomic tests were famously carried out): if you suddenly feel the urge to book your flight there, rest assured I won’t be offended if you open another tab in your browser. 🙂

The Cornelius Patrick Webb Letter

Justron also points to an odd letter dated to later in the 18th century:

I, Cornelius Patrick Webb, Captain of his Majesty’s Navy, Master of the Unicorn, only survivor of the Horseshoe Expedition depute this account to my Lord George Anson First Lord of the Admiralty (courtisualy) because I judgeth malady which ailleth me will not permit to wait. Departure Unicorn June nineteen crossed Cap Horn December six arrived at position lat thirty D eight M. January thirteenth opened royal orders, located secret entrance, translated Crown’s belongings, located eight hundred sixty four bags gold. Two hundred bars gold, twenty one barrels precious stones and jewellery one golden trunk containing rose of gold and emeralds, two foot high, one hundred and sixty chests with gold and silver coins. January twenty four fortress destroyed. When returning the twenty-eight of January before a violent storm, the ship suffered serious damage and lost a mast. We were forced to shelter on an island; the third of February found us at Longitude … Latitude… and it was impossible to carry out repairs for the safe transportation of the treasure; transferred to a new hiding place valley of Anson a cable length from the observation point in direction great yellow stone depth fifteen feet. Unicorn repaired for emergency crossing course Valparaiso; informed of plans for mutiny while the ship was becalmed to the West of Valparaiso I made use of the auxiliary boat (Pinnace). Unicorn blown up by me with all on board, six loyal men sacrificed for the cause of the Crown, I arrived at Valparaiso. 1761

Now, the problem for Justron is that even if this letter is genuine (and personally I’m still struggling to get to the stage where I believe that it is), its contents doesn’t quite fit his über-narrative. However, his resolution is to infer from internal evidence that the letter was originally written in Latin and then mistranslated into English.

Anson’s Papers

When Lord Anson dies in 1762, his papers were (says Justron) found to contain a file containing enciphered or coded details of something that was called the “Horseshoe expedition”, which was presumed to refer to the Webb Letter above. Justron continues:

“As the Webb report mentioned the ‘Valley of Anson’ and with Lord George Anson having published a book [“A Voyage around the World”, 1748] with a map of Juan Fernandez Island, anyone with a modicum of imagination would have recognised the similarity in shape between the robes of the Shepherdess on the monument and the island of Juan Fernandez. From that day copies of the Shepherdess’ shape were made and circulated as a ‘treasure map’.

Justron also observes that “An interesting modification that occurs for each region where the story is retold is to give the ‘dying sailor’ a local sounding name or the name of a person known to the inhabitants.” For him, the prototypical “dying sailor” was Cornelius Webb, and every one of the numerous ones ones thereafter were merely story-telling clones of Webb.

And this tweak helps him build two additional storeys to the top of his argumentary tower: that not only are all treasure maps ever made little more than variations on Anson’s original treasure map hidden in plain sight on the Shepherd’s Monument at Shugborough, but also all “a dying sailor bequeathed me this treasure map” stories are variations of a single meta-story.

Oak Island and Beale Papers

Justron then takes a long digression into the murky tunnels and waters of Oak Island. And then into the Beale Papers, which he says were written by some Freemasons in an attempt “to alert other Freemasons they had found the Cerro tres Puntas”.

Harold T. Wilkins and Fake Maps

Ron Justron’s next target is the wonderfully frustrating set of maps found in the 1930s: he asserts that nutty proto-Fortean hack Harold T. Wilkins had found Lord Anson’s Papers in the 1920s, and so decided to construct a long series of maps in some kind of homage to the Anson über-map. These then (so the story goes) were inserted into oldish items of furniture, which then all came into the possession of collectors Guy and Hubert Palmer in Eastbourne between 1929 and 1942.

After Hubert Palmer’s demise, the maps passed to his nurse (Mrs Dick), who then sold them all off to a mysterious Canadian/American syndicate in 1957: they have never been since since.

For Justron, however, Wilkins was pulling everyone’s legs, because he clearly (writes Justron) knew that the location referred to by Anson, Webb and Ubilla lay somewhere else entirely. And this is because – asserts Justron – it was also Wilkins and Latcham who were behind Latcham’s fake cipher / treasure maps at Guayacan.

After a digression on the Tokugawa treasure, Justron then starts to get to what I can only describe as the real meat of his argument (yes, there is in indeed more to go yet). Which links Harold T. Wilkins to…

Rennes-le-Chateau and the Priory of Sion

[Wilkins] decided to leave for posterity the final part to the grand riddle. This part would be the direct pointers to Lord George Anson and his map. […] Unfortunately Harold T Wilkins selected a right bunch for his chosen dupes; rather than just carry the clues for others to find they goofed the whole thing up completely.

In the mess that the myth of Rennes le Chateau has become one could dismiss the whole thing as a fraud perpetrated by a group of French associates in the 1950s for their own gain.

In reality the story of Rennes le Chateau is that of it being just another Masonic hoax/riddle in which the real codes have to be identified and decrypted.

Yes: just when you thought there were no more cipher-related mysteries to throw into the same bubbling pot, the Priory of Sion appears. Justron’s long argument that accompanies this claim reduces to: Wilkins was the Svengali who set the whole thing up (apparently with Anson’s Great Lost Treasure in mind), but with Wilkins’ death in 1960 everyone involved seemed to lose the plot.

The Secret of the Unicorn?

But Justron has left the best to last – and it is so stunning that he hasn’t even put it on his website yet. Which is that the Tintin adventure The Secret of the Unicorn (published in Le Soir in serial form between 1942 and 1943) contains embedded clues to much of the above.


Justron writes:

“Unfortunately the main part missed too was the hint given in Tintin, that is by assembling the (RLC) parchments, you’ll be led to the ancestral hall of a famous mariner where you will learn the Secret of the Unicorn.”

Of course, for Justron the ancestral hall of a famous mariner being referred to is not Hergé’s fictional Marlinspike Hall of his fictional Sir Francis Haddock, but without any shadow of a doubt Shugborough Hall, birthplace of George Anson. And the Unicorn is, well, the Unicorn (of course).

The Great Lost Treasure, Really?

For me, there’s something endearingly syncretic – almost Rastafarian, with their “Truth of All Truths” – about Justron’s sprawlingly all-encompassing cryptophily. For him, the whole cipher/treasure endeavour appeals to an Ur-story lurking beneath the suburban drear of mere data, much like Joseph Campbell inferred a single story laying beneath all myth.

Naturally, I don’t believe it for a minute: but I wouldn’t, would I? I’m a getting-the-details-really-properly-right kind of guy who likes to understand the arguments and evidence behind each cipher/treasure/history/mystery, one at a time. Which means that I don’t really believe that Justron has sufficient evidence to prove any single one of his claims about these historical mysteries, even though he is convinced all his conclusions holistically support one another.

All the same, Justron’s mega-narrative steamrollers its way through a whole load of cipher mysteries in (what, to me at least, comes across as) a fresh new way, and I can honestly say that it has helped make me look afresh at a lot of the ground he has covered over the last decade.

The problems Cipher Mysteries recently had with its last web hosting supplier were all logical consequences of scale: not only had the blog got larger and the number of comments shot up, but also WordPress (and all those ‘must-have’ caching and security plugins) had got larger (and slower) as well.

I genuinely thought that moving the site to a WordPress multisite installation on a far more heavyweight hosting account would be (despite the inevitable hassle the transition involved) a great technical fix for all those scaling issues. And in many ways, it was: Cipher Mysteries now seems (touch wood) to be working better than it has done for a long time (though I’m still looking for a good multisite redirection plugin, bah).

But having now sat down to start posting again after my enforced break, I realise that I had overlooked a quite different scaling problem, and the effects that has been having on Cipher Mysteries. And this turns out to be something I don’t yet have a fix for, technical or otherwise.

Small Blog, Big Stories?

Over the last year or so, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to write blog posts on unbroken historical ciphers, and for one simple reason: that, having researched all the major ones in great detail over the last decade, a thousand words or so is too small a space to fit even a preamble to a new angle, let alone the new angle itself.

In practice, this is having the effect of dissuading me from writing anything about anything: inside the WordPress editor, I have thirty or more draft posts started that I just can’t find the energy to complete – in each case, having written a page or two or three, I can already tell that they’re all going to be too long.

In short: without really realising it, I’ve silently undergone a transition from medium-form to long-form, to the point that I can’t sensibly fit what I want to write into blog posts. And I don’t know what to do about it.

Schmeh For Two?

At the same time, Klaus Schmeh has arrived on the scene with his (entirely sensible, though occasionally Lego-minifigure-abusing) Krypto Kolumne, which covers a diverse collection of crypto stuff (particularly enciphered German postcards).

Klaus has a good presentation schtick, a nicely dry sense of humour, and a loyal online audience that relishes being fed unsolved cryptograms that it can (and often does) actually solve. He has taken what I would categorize as a more journalistic angle on historical ciphers: he seems less interested in solving or researching them himself than in enabling other people to grow them into a more substantial story.

By comparison, my own research interests have become far narrower and far more specific as time has gone by. This has been the perhaps inevitable result of exploring and testing the outer limits of knowledge of the “big” unsolved historical ciphers – the Voynich Manuscript, the Rohonc Codex, the Beale Papers, the Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat Page, the WW2 Pigeon Cipher, the Dorabella cipher, La Buse, Le Butin, etc. It’s a list whose elements were all individually well-worn by the time Elonka Dunin put them together and posted it on the Internet.

“Opinions Are Like…”

But this process of knowledge exploration has also meant that I have developed strong technical opinions: these are not only about the range of possible decryptions, but also about the limits of what can and can’t be known about a given artefact – i.e. what evidence we do have, and what we can infer from that evidence.

And expressing such technical opinions have, of late, brought me into repeated conflict with various people on the Internet: for example, I think that there is no evidence of “microwriting” in the Tamam Shud page whatsoever that could not similarly be drawn out from almost any digital image whatsoever – I continue to receive online abuse (and indeed accusations of mental disorders) for saying this. Which is the kind of thing only libel lawyers find enjoyable reading (simply because it pays their mortgages).

It has got to the point where I’m utterly bored of moderating snarky comments written by people who want to take a cheap shot at me: being ghastly to me has become a kind of initiatory hazing ritual for cipher nutters.

The Mainstream Arriveth

Another thing that’s going on is that, thanks to what looks like extended Turing Mania, historical ciphers have moved into the mainstream. Even today’s announcement that a teleprinter for a Lorenz SZ42 machine was bought on eBay for £9.50 (which is a nice little story, but far from cryptologically earth-shaking) emerged not via (say) the CryptoCollector mailing list, but via the BBC.

Even Kernel Magazine devoted its last issue to Codes and Ciphers: though this actually turned out to have only micro-interviews with Zodiac Killer Cipher researchers and a largely unrevealing summary of the A858 (ok, “r/A858DE45F56D9BC9” in full) subreddit code thing.

Yet arguably the only good mainstream article on cipher mysteries in the last decade has been Christopher Tritto’s excellent Code Dead on Ricky McCormick: and even that barely touched the nature of those pages.

And so even though codes and ciphers are now officially “cool”, there’s almost no good writing on them out there at all: and where Cipher Mysteries fits into the overall landscape any more is something I’m struggling to see.

Finally, Nick Gets To The ‘Focus’ Bit

So what will Cipher Mysteries’ focus be, going forward?

Right now, I don’t honestly know. But what I do know is that things have to change…

Klaus Schmeh has just published a page on a previously unknown “Eliza” Masonic grave slab somewhere in Ohio, courtesy of Craig Bauer (Editor of Cryptologia, and who has a book on unsolved ciphers coming out next year).

Klaus’s commenters quickly worked out that it was actually the grave of Eliza Biehl (born 27th May 1862, died 2nd September 1915) buried in the Amboy Township Cemetery in Fulton, OH. It looks like this:


Klaus’s commenters quickly pointed out that the “John 3 – 16” on the left almost certainly refers to John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life“.

The right hand side is a Masonic pigpen cipher (obviously), but with a twist: it is actually enciphered from right-to-left, and so reads:


It was actually a very nice piece of tag-team code-breaking, well done to everyone involved. 🙂

I’ve mentioned one particular Masonic gravestone back in 2008: but it turns out there are plenty of others out there, a few of which Klaus covers in this post on his site.

But here’s one he missed: that of John Farmer Dakin:-


Here’s the plaintext if you’re too bone idle to work it out for yourself (it’s not hard, go on):


Full bonus marks if you notice why this might give computer solvers a minor headache. 🙂

There are also various acrostic Masonic grave markings that occasionally turn up, such as FNDOZBTKC (which stands for “Fear Not, Daughter of Zion: Behold, The King Cometh”), and AHRHPCASDE (“And He reached her parched corn, and she did eat”).

Two More Masonic Gravestones…

But the real meat-and-two-veg of cryptic Masonic gravestones are pigpen cipher inscriptions: and so here are two more for you.

The first was from Dalkeith in Midlothian, and was cracked by amateur code-breaker Stuart Morrison. However, only really the headline of the story is on the web (i.e. no solution) and the image of the ciphertext isn’t really good enough to work with (in my opinion).

Dalkeith, St. Nicholas Buccleuch parish church. Stuart Morrison, who has cracked cipher on masonic gravestone.

If someone has access to a better quality image of this, that would be a good help. 🙂

And finally, a Freemason called Henry Harrison had some pigpen on his gravestone.


Can you crack either of these? 🙂

For me, the Internet is a truly fabulous thing: in little more than a generation, its rapid growth has transformed the way that people find and communicate with each other, and has erected what is effectively a single global stage for a staggering number of people to become actors upon simultaneously.

For arguably the first time in history, we Netizens are part of a global grouping that brings people together right in their own houses. Surrendering access to this has become unthinkable: WiFi / broadband has marched right up the list of human needs to the #4 position, just behind shelter, clean water, and food.

Yet what I love so much about the Internet is not just its freedom of expression but its tolerance of diversity – any web page can be visited by people from a vast set of nationalities, ages, religions, and opinions. To my mind, it should be a given that different people have different points of view: and that we therefore all need to learn not just to tolerate those differences, but by treating them with humour, dignity and respect, celebrate and integrate them in an overwhelmingly positive way.

Diversity and History

History, though, sits awkwardly with this worldview, because it is a discipline built on two opposing strategies. On the one hand, it would be a dull historian who did not have access to his/her widening, creative side to fill evidential gaps, using empathy and pragmatic common sense to suggest imaginative ways explanations. And yet on the other, it would be a foolish historian who did not also have a narrowing, logical side that uses disproof, deep reading, attention to detail and rigorous thought to close down foolishnesses.

This widening / narrowing duality sits, to my mind, at the core of what it means to be a good historian: tempering the fire of empathic imagination with the cold steel of historical logic is what it is all about.

On the Internet, though, History struggles to express this duality comfortably. Blogs and uncritical forums offer safe sandboxes for historical imaginations to run wild, proposing all manner of alt.history, counterfactual history, pseudohistory and pseudoscience: but without the narrowing faculty to counterbalance this widening, what gets posted can quickly degenerate into a one-sided caricature of History, rather than anything approaching a useful asset in getting to the truth of what happened.

In short, the “History” I see written on the Internet relating to the things I research and know about brooks no disagreement, let alone accepts any criticism: its authors see the whole idea of narrowing as an insult to their right to personal expression, and as such treat any form of questioning as if it were a personal attack on them, and in turn often respond disrespectfully and abusively.

“Internet History”, really?

But History is not a fiction to be written how you like. It is evidence-driven hypotheses about the past behaviour of real people who just happen, in most (but certainly not all) cases, to now be dead. My opinion – which sadly seems to be shared by few others – is that these real people have as much right to respect as living people, even if by dying they have inadvertently foregone their legal right to sue.

What all too often gets described as “Internet History”, then, is something formed into the general ‘shape’ of History but without logic (and hence without balance), and without respect for the dead (or even the living).

Even though the authors of these pages would like to pass them off as History, the point I am trying to make is that this is the one thing that they are not – for without logic, without balance, and without respect, I think they have moved sideways into a completely different area altogether.

The problem is that we lack a word to describe this other area: it’s not History, and it’s not even “faction” (fiction threaded around a densely factual backdrop) because the authors typically do not consider it fictional at all. What should we call it? “Junk History” (a term used ironically to describe Gavin Menzies’ Chinese fantasy concoctions) is just about as close as I personally can get.


You may well have your own words. 😐

The Difference…

My suspicion is that the explanatory diversity of Internet historical theories that spring up is misread by many as an parallel expression of the cultural diversity of the Internet: and that we should (so the theory goes) therefore just leave them be – let a thousand (diverse) flowers bloom, no matter how wonky or twisted their stems.

However, the explanatory diversity of different proposed “Histories” (where usually at most one of them can be right, hence they are all in competition with each other) is not at all similar to cultural diversity (where each culture has found its own way of living simultaneously with all the other cultures).

What is missing from “Internet History” is (a) the ability to disagree with people amicably; (b) the ability to accept that there is a greater-than-90% chance that any given theory is wrong; and (c) the ability to face up to evidential problems in any given theory.

In short:
* It’s OK to be different – diversity isn’t an optional extra, it’s part of the whole Internet package.
* It’s OK to disagree – it’s a natural consequence of being different.
* It’s also OK to be proved wrong – better that than waste years of your life on something which was broken from the start, surely?

Here’s a book I wrote back in 2012 that reveals The Secret History of the Rosicrucians: what the people behind it were aiming at, and what the mysterious “Book M” really is.

(I mentioned a few days ago that I would be doing this to celebrate Cipher Mysteries’ having just reached its million-visit milestone, so thank you all for that once more.)

In the book, I reveal not only what I conclude was going on behind the Rosicrucians’ curtain (i.e. that a small group of German literati was trying, in the dying days of Rudolf II’s Court, to gain the Emperor’s patronage for their idealistic but far-from-ancient secret fraternity), but also its extremely surprising link with the Voynich Manuscript (i.e. that they were hoping to use the Voynich Manuscript as their leverage to persuade Rudolf II).

The Rosicrucians wanted Rudolf II's patronage

Rosicrucians: decrypted or debunked?

A bit of both, I’d say.

In many ways, my little book is like a cipher theory in reverse… by which I mean: rather than claiming to have decrypted the Voynich Manuscript, I think I may have glimpsed how the ‘Rosicrucian’ group were trying to use a fake cipher theory (i.e. ‘only our fraternity can read Book M, which you – the Emperor – have a copy of”) to convince Rudolf to back them. Hence my book is perhaps closer to an “anti-cipher-theory”, because it tries to strip away the confusing topmost layers of the Rosicrucian enigma to get closer to what really happened.

I still have work to do on it (in particular to put together a bibliography of the sources I used, such as Tobias Churton’s (2009) “Invisibles : The True History of the Rosicrucians”, etc) and it’s not quite as polished as I would make it if I were to publish it (which might happen in the future), so it’s perhaps best read as a work-in-progress.

Finally, I have formatted its ten chapters across ten webpages so that people can leave comments that relate specifically to each chapter. (I didn’t want to be in the situation where I had a single page with a thousand comments sprawling off into the distance.)

Will this turn out to be just another Rosicrucian-themed 21st Century virtual pamphlet to add to a future Carlos Gilly’s Cimelia Rhodostaurotica Redux? Perhaps… but even so, I really do think I’ve made a good amount of progress in getting to the heart of this long-standing mystery. Have a read, see what you think. 🙂

I’ve just had a day at the London Library, thanks to a £15 Day Pass scheme they offer (though note you have to bring various forms of current ID with you, and to let them know in advance – you can’t just turn up).

The main reason I went there was to have a look at the only copy of Charles de la Roncière’s 1934 “Le Flibustier Mysterieux” that WorldCat knows of in the UK (much more on that another day), but in the meantime there’s a lot more to be said about London Library.

For a start, I have to say it’s maddeningly frustrating to the point of near impossibility to find your way around the place. Whereas full members get given a heavyweight induction (I suspect so that people don’t have the embarrassment of stumbling over a new member’s corpse, lying long-dead in a far unlit corner of History Level 6), day pass visitors get dumped in the deep end. Clearly, nobody cares if they live or die: so I’m just glad I got out alive. 🙂

As an aside, if you do want to find your way around London Library, my three top tips are:
(a) Because the building is in two halves (History/Science in one and Art/Language/Fiction in the other), the easiest / most reliable way to get from one to the other is all the way down to the reception area and back up again. Boring, but effective.
(b) Don’t be afraid to turn lights on yourself (most seem to be off, but you turn them on via pull-cords that are usually at the far end of the row of books you’re standing beside). Failing that, trace the wiring trunking above your head and you’ll find the cord about 50% of the time.
(c) If, like me, you want to look at the contents of “Philology, Cryptography” on the Mezzanine floor on the Arts half, ask someone to help you find it – I eventually stumbled upon it through sheer persistence (it’s shockingly similar to Platform 9¾ in Harry Potter), but that was definitely a poor choice on my part.

Speaking of “Philology, Cryptography”, the Library’s indexing scheme is just about as idiosyncratic as the Warburg Institute’s famously obtuse layout. The safest approach is to search the online catalogue to find at least one book you know is going to be there (say, David Kahn’s “The Codebreakers”, of which it actually has two copies), and work back to the book’s physical location from there. Once you’re in the stacks themselves, you’ll see all the other weird and wonderful books they have there, which is what using London Library is actually all about. (You can also do that virtually from the catalogue, though it’s not half as much fun).

Other nice things:
* If you bring along a USB stick, you can scan stuff on a funky-looking scanner for free (though it only let me store stuff as PDFs, and the adjustment roller on the left side was broken). But don’t forget to tap the on-screen SAVE button each time (easy to forget).
* If you don’t have a USB stick with you, Reception sells 2GB sticks in a range of colours for a very reasonable £2 each.
* If you’re scanning an oldish book, my advice would be to ask at the desk for a “snake” – a string containing a series of small leaded weights – to hold your book down nicely. Also: click the green horizontal bar to start a scan by squeezing it from above and below at the same time, or else your book may get disturbed.
* London Library has subscriptions to JSTOR, ProQuest and various other services; and even though the search PC itself is inaccessible, the trick is that the monitor has USB sockets on the side that you can plug your USB stick into (i.e. and save PDFs to, to read them at home).
* There’s a members lounge on the top floor of the Arts side… but I ran out of time before sampling its delights and rarified heights.

For me, probably the London Library’s nicest resources of all are its newspaper and journal archives. How extraordinarily splendid to have The Times, The Gentleman’s Magazine, and indeed Le Journal Des Savants all in one place, along with hundreds of others.

But… given that it’s a private library you have to subscribe to, would I really want to pay several hundred pounds a year for the privilege? Well… no. While it does have an excellent and properly eclectic collection of (over a million) books, I think being a member is far more about paying for serendipity: bumping into Stephen Poole’s “Unspeak”, or The BBC Guide to Radio Pronunciation for 1934 to 1937, etc etc etc. If you are a specialist researcher, it’s not so far across town to the British Library and its 170+ million items, a number which makes my jaw ache with droppingness every time I try to even think about it.

At the same time, if I wanted to go through a particular journal or book that the London Library had that wasn’t otherwise digitized, I’d happily pay £15 for a day pass for sure (as was the case here). It’s a nice experience, too (if you don’t mind feeling lost for half the day).

For any bibliophile (or indeed bibliophage) who finds themselves in London for a few days, I’d suggest that a day pass to London Library (it’s not too far from the Ritz Hotel, by Green Park) would probably be £15 very well spent. Cheaper than the London Eye! 😉

A few weeks ago, an occasional email correspondent proposed in some depth that the Beale Ciphers were some kind of Masonic cipher, as Joe Nickell had famously claimed many years earlier.

One of the grounds my correspondent cited was that because Robert Morris’s (~1860) “Written Mnemonics” employed (what he, though not a cryptologist himself, thought was surely) a largely similar dictionary cipher, then it was surely no great stretch at all to see the Beale Ciphers also as a Masonic cipher, right?

I’d seen “Written Mnemonics” mentioned in a number of places (most notably in Klaus Schmeh’s online list of encrypted books), but had never seen it up close and personal, even though it was quite a well-known historical cryptogram. So I bought a copy to see it properly for myself. And, as Barry Norman was (and probably still occasionally is?) wont to say, why not?


Maybe one day I’ll also get round to buying myself a copy of the Oddfellows cryptogram booklet I cracked too. But my cipher book-buying account is none too flush right now, having just bought four Beale-related books this month. 🙂

Anyway, I posted a permanent webpage here for “Written Mnemonics” with some scans of its first few pages: but it seems highly unlikely to me that anyone would be able to crack it without the (separately published) cipher key document, of which I don’t currently have a copy. (Of course, if anyone happens to know how I can get a copy of that, please let me know!)

The historical background is that the book’s author, Robert Morris (no relation to the “Robert Morriss” mentioned in the Beale Papers, sorry if that’s inconvenient), produced these “Written Mnemonics” to try to preserve and distribute what he believed (from his own historical research) to be the oldest genuine forms of Masonic rites. Though this went against the letter of Masonic practice, he and a group of like-minded people known as the “Masonic Conservators” felt that the historical urge to conserve these rituals in written (albeit strongly enciphered) form outweighed the letter of the Law that said not to record them.

However, this was a controversial thing for him to do because when you signed up to be a Mason, you specifically swore never to write Masonic rituals down – they were necessarily supposed to be passed down orally, as part of an (allegedly) millennia-spanning tradition of passing secrets down orally (though whether this supposition is actually true or not is another matter entirely).

And so Morris’ publication in the 1860s of a 3000-copy print run of his “Written Mnemonics” book proved problematic for many Masons, particularly those of a more conservative disposition (of which there were more than a few). Unfortunately, there wasn’t really a middle ground to be had in the ensuing debate: and ultimately Morris came off the worse of most of the associated arguments, and so ended up being pushed to the movement’s periphery, if not the cold outside.

History hasn’t really remembered Morris well, but perhaps this is a little unfair: and this may also have been because Ray Vaughn Denslow’s (1931) book The Masonic Conservators covered the ground of what happened so well that there was little else of great interest for later historians to scratch through.


Might the Beale Ciphers be Masonic? Well, it’s entirely true that a fair few men of that era were Masons or Oddfellows or Sons of the Desert (or whatever), and so there was a reasonable statistical chance that the person who enciphered the Beale Ciphers was at least coincidentally a Mason: hence I can’t currently prove that the Beale Ciphers were not some kind of smartypants Masonic cipher of a previously unknown form.

But having gone over Denslow’s descriptions of Morris’s cipher key (which Denslow clearly had seen one or more copies of), I can say that there is clearly no connection whatsoever between the kind of code used by Morris and the kind of dictionary cipher used in B2, or indeed the (very probably) hybridized dictionary cipher used in B1 and B3.

So might the Beale Ciphers have anything at all to do with Morris’ “Written Mnemonics”? From what I can see so far, the answer is an emphatic no, sorry. As always, please feel free to point me towards other documents or evidence that suggests otherwise. 🙂

Every once in a while I set up an open-to-all Voynich pub meet in an historic London pub: and, prompted by the imminent visit of a German print journalist, the time has swung around for another one.

It’ll be on 28th September 2014 at 7pm onwards, and once again at the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping, an historic Thameside London pub with its own handy pirate gallows outside. (I’m told this is also useful for rapacious bankers, though sadly still rather underutilized in this respect.)

In case of reasonable weather, the chances are that we’ll be sitting in the beer garden / patio area – go through the pub, turn left just after the main bar, and continue through to an outside area. But in case of not-so-good weather, troll around the various floors of the pub until you find a table with a well-used copy of “Le Code Voynich” on it, that’ll almost certainly be the one. 🙂

Incidentally, another date for your diary this coming week is International Talk Like A Pirate Day (19th September). This is mainly useful for telling bad pirate jokes, e.g. what is a pirate’s favourite Star Wars character? Arrrgh2-D2. Or Jarrrgh Jarrrgh Binks. Or Queen Arrrghmidala. Or possibly even Darrrghth Vader. You choose!