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?

If you know a bit about the history of cryptography, then you’ll probably know that the first well-known modern story about ciphers was Edgar Allan Poe’s (1843) “The Gold-Bug“. Poe explicitly built his narrative around the legend of Captain Kidd’s treasure, so in many ways it forms a kind of literary bridge between the worlds of buried treasure and ciphers. Of course, he was writing some 80 years before the Kidd-Palmer treasure maps and La Buse cryptograms surfaced (and long before “Treasure Island”, which appeared in 1881), so his story is unaffected by any of these.

Just so you know, the (simple substitution) cipher he devised looks a lot like this:-

53‡‡†305))6*;4826)4‡.)4‡);806*;48†8
¶60))85;1‡(;:‡*8†83(88)5*†;46(;88*96
*?;8)*‡(;485);5*†2:*‡(;4956*2(5*—4)8
¶8*;4069285);)6†8)4‡‡;1(‡9;48081;8:8‡
1;48†85;4)485†528806*81(‡9;48;(88;4
(‡?34;48)4‡;161;:188;‡?;

Previously (in 1840), Poe had challenged readers of “Alexander’s Weekly Messenger” to send in simple substitution ciphers for him to crack in print, and so had for some time been aware of a widespread public interest in cryptography. “The Gold-Bug”, then, was written to capitalize on this interest: and won a $100 prize. Later, many readers were inspired by “The Gold Bug” to develop an interest in codebreaking, most notably a young William Friedman of whom you may have heard…

However, when reading about “The Gold-Bug” the other day, my eye was drawn to one aspect to the whole affair that I found intriguing. At the time, newspaper editor John Du Solle made the suggestion (though one he quickly retracted) that Poe may have drawn inspiration from the 1839 “Imogine; or the Pirate’s Treasure“, written by 13-year-old girl George Ann Humphreys Sherburne.

It’s true that the two tales do share key elements: but as is so often the case, those ideas were without doubt very much ‘in the air’ at the time. Rather, the two stories seem related in the same way that Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” drew ideas from numerous earlier books, but had an entirely new style of presenting them that made it feel fresh and appealing. Basically, in both cases I’m quite sure that Poe or Stevenson weren’t (literary) pirates, but simply well-read writers with a zingy contemporary geometry to add shape and style to the narrative building blocks that they found around them.

But ever since Du Solle’s speedily retracted comparison, it seemed to me that hardly anybody had actually bothered to read Sherburne’s story (mainly because almost everyone mis-spells its protagonist’s name, *sigh*). I did, though: and I found something a little unexpected…

imogine-cover

Having trawled past all the girlish swooning chapters and then the unexpected (but unconvincing) chapter with a death, in Chapter VIII the reader finally gets to the climax of the piece where (to almost nobody’s great surprise) the pirate treasure is finally found along with a skeleton…

“Yes”, said Imogine, “and just as you came up, I was about turning over that piece of old iron near the bones.”

“Ah! I see it,” replied her father, “and it looks to me like the top of a ship’s iron pot;” and turning it over with his cane, saw under it white sea sand, [in] which, on stirring about, gold and silver pieces were seen sparkling, which caused an exclamation from all.

“What a great discovery is this!” said Mr Belmont, turning and looking with surprise at Imogine and Cornelia;

[…]

After placing the skeleton in a box, and interring it, they removed the treasure, and in doing so, discovered another similar pot to the first under it, but more valuable, which was all moved safely to the house.”

What’s so unusual about this? Well… according to near-legendary metal-detectorist Charles Garrett, it has often been the case that a large treasure cache is buried immediately below a small treasure cache. Garrett post-rationalizes / explains this as a kind of ‘trap’ for treasure hunters, i.e. for them to be satisfied with robbing out the (small) topmost treasure, while leaving the (big) treasure underneath intact for the original owner. (Though personally, I suspect it’s just as likely that they couldn’t be bothered to dig a bigger hole.)

The big question, then, is this: how would a 13-year-old girl writing in 1839 know to describe such an arrangement… except if she had been party to the ins and outs of an actual treasure dig? I’m not suggesting that recovered pirate treasure is the true secret of the Astor family fortune (mainly because that particular joke’s already been done to death)… but maybe there’s a touch more truth in Sherburne’s story than might at first be thought.

Perhaps the real giveaway in the whole thing is the curious tag-line on “Imogine”‘s cover: “This is all as true as it is strange“. What do you think?

PS: another mystery to ponder is who “George Ann Humphreys Sherburne” was? Apart from her presumed birth in 1825, there appears to be no other information on her anywhere at all. Unless you happen to know better, of course… please leave a comment if you do! 🙂

To summarize Part 1, an ex-pirate known as ‘Le Butin’ left a will, two letters, and an enciphered note describing where he had buried treasure on Île de France (the former French name for Mauritius). But even though this is widely referred to as the “La Buse Cryptogram”, I can’t see any obvious reason to connect the pirate Olivier Levasseur (‘La Buse’) with it. Anyway, our story continues…

The documents were retrieved from the Archives Nationales de la Réunion in 1923 for a lady from the Seychelles called Rose Savy(who was descended from Le Butin’s family): she to flew to Paris with it to try to solve its mysteries. In 1934, the eminent French librarian Charles de La Roncière at the Bibliothèque National de France wrote a book about the affair called “Le Flibustier mystérieux, histoire d’un trésor caché“.

LeFlibustierMysterieux

Spurred on by the promise of gold-gold-gold, numerous treasure hunters have poured decades of their lives into this whole, ummm, ‘hopeful enterprise’. Savy herself believed that the answer was somehow connected with some strange carvings that she found on her property, depicting “chiens, serpents, tortues, chevaux“, as well as “une urne, des coeurs, une figure de jeune femme, une tête d’homme et un oeil monstrueusement ouvert“. [Do I need to translate those for you? I don’t think so!]

Reginald Cruise-Wilkins (1913-1977) “had done code-breaking work with the British forces and he found references to Andromeda in Levasseur’s enigma”, says John Cruise-Wilkins, who even today continues searching for the treasure that so obsessed his father from 1949 onwards. Just so you know, John C-W himself “believes [Levasseur] buried the bounty according to a complex riddle inspired by the 12 labors of Hercules”, ten of which he believes he has solved.

Well… another famous Levasseur story goes that as he was crossing a bridge over what was known as “la ravine à Malheur”, he said “Avec ce que j’ai caché ici, je pourrais acheter l’île” – ‘with what I’ve hidden here, I could buy the whole island‘. So perhaps it’s no wonder that people desperately want to believe that there’s pirate gold in (or perhaps under) them thar island hills. [Though as I say, I’m fairly unconvinced that this cryptogram has anything to do with La Buse. But perhaps that’s just me.]

Another famous La Buse treasure hunter was called Bibique (real name Joseph Tipveau, he wrote a book called “Sur la piste des Frères de la Côte”), but who shot himself in 31st March 1995, I’m sorry to say.

But with my crypto hat back firmly on, I have to say that the cipher system ascertained by de La Roncière could barely be more straightforward: a pigpen cipher, with letters of the alphabet arranged in a very simple manner, and with some of the shapes also used to represent digits (AEIOU=12345, LMNR=6789). Arranged in traditional pigpen style, the key looks like this…

Alphabet_de_la_buse-white

…while the cryptogram itself looks like this (click on it to see a larger image)…

la-buse-le-butin-cryptogram-small

And yet despite all that clarity, the cipher mystery remains, because if you use the above key to decipher the above ciphertext, what you get is an extremely confusing cleartext, to the point that perhaps “clearasmudtext” would frankly be a better word for it. Here’s one version from the Internet with spaces added in for marginal extra clarity:-

aprè jmez une paire de pijon tiresket
2 doeurs sqeseaj tête cheral funekort
filttinshientecu prenez une cullière
de mielle ef ovtre fous en faites une ongat
mettez sur ke patai de la pertotitousn
vpulezolvs prenez 2 let cassé sur le che
min il faut qoe ut toit a noitie couue
povr en pecger une femme dhrengt vous n ave
eua vous serer la dobaucfea et pour ve
ngraai et por epingle oueiuileturlor
eiljn our la ire piter un chien tupqun
lenen de la mer de bien tecjeet sur ru
nvovl en quilnise iudf kuue femm rq
i veut se faire dun hmetsedete s/u dre
dans duui ooun dormir un homm r
esscfvmm / pl faut n rendre udlq
u un diffur qecieefurtetlesl

The best single page presentation of it I’ve found comes from this French site that tries to colour-code the letters. Certainly, there are indeed errors in the text: but I don’t personally think that throwing your hands up and guessing at the correct plaintext values (which is what most treasure hunters seem to do) is methodologically sound.

Far less cryptographically naive would be to try to classify many of the errors as probable pigpen enciphering errors (where, for example, the difference between A and B is simply a dot). The fact that the ‘Z’ shape apparently occurs both with and without a dot implies (to me, at least) that a number of dots may well have slipped in (or out) during the writing. Moreover, there is no suggestion as to which of the ciphertext letters might be enciphering numbers (the two instances of “2” given are actual ‘2’ digits, not carefully interpreted ‘e’ ciphers), and aren’t pirates always pacing out distances from curious rocks etc?

For example, “doeurs” is a mere dot away from “coeurs”; while mysterious non-words such as “filttinshientecu” might actually start “fils…” rather than “filt…”. Might it be that (Voynich researchers will perhaps groan at this point, but…) some of these were emended by a later owner?

Or might it be that the image we’re looking at is actually a tidy copy of an earlier, far scrappier cryptogram, and what we’re most plagued by here is copying errors? I would say that the presence of some composite letters in the text is a reasonably strong indication that this is a copy of a cryptogram, rather than the original cryptogram itself.

Hence I suspect that properly decrypting this will be an exercise rich in cryptology, French patois, and codicological logic. Good luck, and let me know how you get on! 🙂

But after all this time, is there any Le Butin booty left? I read an online claim that several of Le Butin’s treasures have already been found:-
* one allegedly found in 1916 on Pemba Island (part of the Zanzibar Archipelago), allegedly marked with his initial “BN” (Bernardin Nageon)
* one allegedly in Belmont on Mauritius in a cave near the river La Chaux
* one possibly found on Rodrigues (is this the one mentioned in the letter?)
* one allegedly found at a cemetery on Mauritius in 2004, though I found no mention of it in the archives of the weekly Mauritian Sunday newspaper 5-Plus Dimanche.

However, I haven’t yet found any independent verification of any of these claims, so each story might separately be true, false, embellished, misheard or merely mangled in the telling. Please leave a comment below if you happen to stumble upon actual evidence for any of these!

Now here’s something that’s a bit unusual: “Rebel Gold” by Warren Getler and Bob Brewer (originally titled “Shadows of the Sentinel”) is a book about codes and buried treasure with basically no actual codes and pretty much zero treasure. Yet at the same time, there’s so much (alleged) secret American history and related odd stuff bubbling from nearly every page that I found it hard to mind very much.

At its core, the book is no more than a loose record of Bob Brewer’s treasure-huntin’ exploits in them thar woods, an’ yuh’d have to say he sure ain’t foun’ hisself a whole lot of gold. Yet the real gold he seems to have uncovered is the mostly-secret history of what are essentially the book’s real heroes (or antiheroes, depending on how you look at it) – the Knights of the Golden Circle (AKA the “KGC”).

The way I read it, the KGC was merely one of several haphazardly-run pro-slavery activist wings of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. The Wikipedia KGC page asserts that it somehow morphed into the “Order of American Knights” and then again in 1864 when it became “the Order of the Sons of Liberty”, but these could just as easily have been parallel wings, sharing a handful of key people.

What emerges from Brewer’s book is a rather deeper & broader conspiracy, with the KGC ending up with a number of concealed gold-stuffed stockpiles which its loyal descendants (including some in Brewer’s own family) apparently continue to guard even now. These modern-day sentinels stay loyal to the cause just in case the people of the South are ever to rise again and need financial supportin’ for their insurrection (and what with the price of gold bein’ at such a crazily high level, whose to say it wouldn’t be a help).

Overall, my favourite part of the book is Chapter 7, “Jesse James, KGC field commander“, which builds up a beautiful alternate history for Jesse James as a KGC operative, whose stealin’ was an innately political act – and that there were simultaneously two Jesse James (Jesse Robert James and his first cousin Jesse Woodson James), both of whom also had a brother called Frank, and all four of whom were part of the KGC. (Are you following all this? See me after class if it’s not crystal clear.)

And really, what goes for chapter 7 holds for the whole book, in that I can’t possibly evaluate the whole, ummm, veridicality of this mess (“Jesse James Was One Of His Names”, really?), but I do know that I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. In my opinion, it’s definitely a must-read for lovers of tangled conspiratorial Americana. Just don’t expect to use it to guide yuh metal detectorin’, hoss! 🙂

There are colours in my eyes, history flickering and sputtering as a beautiful infinity reaches out to hold my bloodsoaked hand…

* * * * * *

The Brazilian girl’s plan is stone-cold in its vision, fractal in its detail, awesome in its thinking. Yes, the organizers have put the necessary overnight protection squad in place: but the two guards merely notice a curious mélange of hard-to-pin-down antique odours: spirit of hartshorn, hepatic air, green vitriol, all distinct yet merging awkwardly between one another, like jelly and ice cream in a child’s pudding bowl. They both feel the nausea slowly roll over them, but neither thinks to raise the alarm, as the aqua tofani weaves its dizzying, nauseous, near-fatal spell on them both. Of course, we don’t intend killing them: tonight’s sacred mission is one of life, not death.

Our filter masks firmly in place, we silently ease out of the concealed block behind the disabled toilets and past the sabotaged air-conditioning unit. The girl’s preparation has been good, for there is no klaxon, no lights, no alarm: following her confident lead, I guide the wheely bag carefully past the two tumbledown security-suit mannequins and onwards through the exhibition. Looking ahead, always ahead, we glide swiftly past countless Ouroubos-filled stands and up the wheelchair ramp to the locked glass plinth in the arena’s central raised area – yes, to the book. Or rather, to ‘The Book’.

She reaches into her pocket and pulls out the diamond-edged ring we made together over the shimmering orange dawn-lit fire on the mountainside: looking in her eyes, I take it and slide it quickly onto my middle finger. The girl – is she young, or old? Suddenly I can’t tell any more – nods, flicking her renegade, emptily-hungry eyes at me, and deftly touches my shoulder, her fingertip feeling for all the world like a butterfly landing and quickly gently launching itself away, far away into the curious half-light. On cue, I turn my attention to the security glass, and carefully use the hard-edged symbol of our union to etch its front face with four good-size concentric circles.

The hall is starting to fill, now: our small army of alchemists is emerging one by one from their hiding places behind occult bookstalls, beneath pagan stall covers and carefully-positioned wizard cloaks, each with a red or yellow hood and a surgical mask tightly fastened down, just as she had specified. As the last of the twelve completes the circle around us, I step sharply forward and punch the ring’s diamond tip right at the centre of the design. The glass buckles a little, yet doesn’t quite give way – No, I think, something is wrong, and for an instant a cloud of burnt cinnamon doubt swirls around me, enveloping me in the riptide of fears I’ve worked so hard to suppress these past three years.

Yet perhaps sensing my edginess, the alchemists start to clap and chant, and before long I feel their resolve coursing through my veins. The bull in my soul charges forward and I punch, punch, punch the toughened glass until it starts to yield to my attacks, and its etched central circle finally gives way. Impatiently, I widen the glassy gap with my bare hands just enough to remove the book and to raise it over my head in triumph, tersely spattering its centuries-rigid vellum cover with my blood as I do so. The alchemists swoop in too to hold it aloft and to turn it to The Page, that one, marvellous page we have been waiting to see all our lives.

I look over to the girl: she nods once again and I bring out the ceremonial firebowl from the bag. Adam – dear, ever-reliable Frater Adamus – deftly removes the page with his pocket knife, folds it to shape, fills it with regulus of antimony, and ties up its gathered top using aqua vitae-impregnated handmade blue twine from his workshop. We are all trembling now, for everyone (even Baresch) was right – the Philosophers’ Stone is indeed hidden inside The Book: yet this is neither a metaphorical truth nor a pharmacological truth, but instead a literal truth. For once you have – as we have, over so many decades – worked to decode its carefully layered and allusive visual symbolism, the Voynich’s pages form a map spiralling in on itself… all pointing to one place, the single slightly-thicker-than-average vellum herbal bifolio inside which the tiny fragments of Stone were sealed all those centuries ago. We, then, are its 21st century liberators, its alchemical revolutionary freedom front: all we have to do now is light the blue touchpaper, and see the long-promised fireworks. And this ceremony marks the end of alchemy’s epic struggle, the chequered flag at the finishing line of two millennia of The Work. My queen nods once more for me to step forward with my lit taper, so that we can all make the ultimate step – beyond History, beyond pain, beyond Time itself. And I do, but…

* * * * * *

There are colours in my eyes, history flickering and sputtering as a beautiful infinity reaches out to hold my bloodsoaked hand… In this moment, I don’t know if I’m living forever or dying forever, if the girl is really human or some selfish dark spirit that is guiding me I know not where. Am I releasing her or creating her? Is she part of me or am I part of her? A flash from the the burning vellum page suddenly lights up our faces and I lay down beside her on the floor, the alchemical king and queen finally together, just as the Ancients foretold. A fire alarm finally goes off, its sprinklers lurch into action with a indoor cloudburst, but it is all too late, far too late, the Stone is here, The Stone Is Here! For all the burning, twisting sensations, we know for certain that the Stone is merely giving us a taste of ultimate Death to deliver its promise of ultimate Life. Yet though the colours in its flames are more intense than ever now, so too is the agony: I turn to the girl and see the same things I’m feeling reflected in her sprinkler-soaked face, and as we hold each other tightly I know it is both the end and the beginning, and our eternal future together lies in and beyond the Stone…

* * * * * *

Why on earth, mused the firemen, policemen, and paramedics, would anyone have gone to the trouble of placing all those strangely-posed lifelike statues in the middle of the hall? And why was just a single page missing from the precious Voynich Manuscript, on a rare two-day loan to this alchemy conference? File it under ‘M’ for ‘mystery’…

Next Sunday (8th November 2009), $99 should get you into a one-day mini-conference in LA focusing on “hidden history, signs, symbols, and secrets”, hosted by Simon Cox, author of the brand new book “Decoding The Lost Symbol”…

OK, I’m sure you’ve rumbled the secret already: that it’s basically a one-day press launch for Simon Cox’s book, with a load of sort-of-relevant speakers doing their thing (and not a cipher mystery in sight, as far as I could see). I’m sure there are plenty of people who would enjoy this, but I personally won’t be red-eyeing over to the West Coast for this. (But please leave a comment here if you do happen to go.)

All of which does raise the question of whether I should organize my own proper cipher mysteries / secret histories conference (not to promote a book, but just to have some fun) and where. After all, there are plenty of nicely evocative places in Ye Quainte Olde Londonne Towne that I could hire for the day at less than staggering expense, and finding places to put speakers up should be straightforward. The kind of stuff I’d expect it to cover should come as no big surprise:-

  • The Voynich Manuscript
  • The Rohonc Codex
  • John Dee’s secret history (a perennial favourite!)
  • Rosicrucianism and Alchemy
  • Historical code-breaking – a practical guide
  • Armchair treasure-hunting / Treasure maps / The greatest (real) treasures never found
  • Panel: “Renaissance Symbolism – True or False?”
  • The Secret History of Renaissance Astrology
  • The Phaistos Disc (possibly)
  • (…and so on)

Would that be your idea of a perfect day out? Feel free to tell me what’s missing from the agenda!