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?

The NSA’s 2011 Cryptologic History Symposium (held in Johns Hopkins) ran yesterday and today, and had plenty of names long-suffering Cipher Mysteries readers will doubtless recognize in a flash:-

* Dr. Jim Reeds, Institute for Defense Analyses: “Editing the ‘General Report on TUNNY’”
* Dr. Benedek Lang, Budapest University of Technology and Economics: “Towards a Social History of Early Modern Cryptography”
* Elonka Dunin, Independent Scholar: “Kryptos–The Decades-Old Enigma at Langley”

(Personally, I’d also love to have heard this presentation:-
* Erin Higgins, Department of Defense: “Humanism, Magic, and Cryptology in the Renaissance”)

However, arguably the big cipher mystery story of the conference was the fact that Panel session 4B, moderated by David C. Cooley from the NSA/CSS Center for Cryptologic History, was devoted to “Investigating the Voynich Manuscript” and with two Voynich speakers well-known from recent talks and results (respectively):-
* Klaus Schmeh, Independent Scholar: “New Research on the Voynich Manuscript”
* Dr. Greg Hodgins, University of Arizona: “Radiocarbon Dating and the Voynich Manuscript”

Could I perhaps tempt any attendee to email me a short description of the conference that I can put up here as a guest post? Cheers!

With my book publisher hat on, I’d guess that the pitch for this book probably said: “Codes! Ciphers! Cryptograms! Masonic stuff! For Dummies!” And yes, the authors (Denise Sutherland and Mark E. Koltko-Rivera) pretty much seem to have delivered on that basic promise. But… is it any good?

Bear with me while I sketch out a triangle in idea-space. On the first vertex, I’ll put recreational code-breakers – the Sunday supplement sudoku crowd. On the second vertex, hardcore cipher history buffs – David Kahn groupies. On the last vertex, historical mystery / conspiracy fans – Templars, Masons, Turin Shroud, HBHG, Voynich Manuscript etc.

“Cracking Codes & Cryptograms for Dummies” sits firmly on the triangle’s first vertex, but I have to reaches out only fairly lamely (I think) to the other two vertices. Structurally, its innovation is to tell three stories where you need to solve a long sequence (100, 80, and 55 respectively) of individual cryptograms to find out what happened. Quite a few of the ciphers use well-known cipher alphabets, such as Malachim, Enochian, and various Masonic pigpens: there are also a few trendy puzzle ciphers (such as predictive texting ciphers formed just of numbers).

Compare this to its big competitor (Elonka Dunin’s “Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms”) which sits on the same first vertex. Elonka’s book has quite a few more puzzles, is structured both thematically and by ascending difficulty, and sticks to plaintext: it also has a 40-page section on unsolved ciphers (the VMs, the Dorabella Cipher, Phaistos Disk, etc), but with no real pretense at trying to precis Kahn’s “The Codebreakers”.

For me, Cipher Mysteries sits on the opposite edge of the triangle (i.e. between hardcore cipher history and, errm, softcore cipher mysteries) to both of these, so I’m probably not the right person to judge which of the two puzzle books is better. Elonka’s book is easy to work your way through (but feels a bit more old-fashioned): while Sutherland & Koltko-Rivera’s book is lithe and up-to-the-minute (but feels less substantial, in almost every sense). OK, the first is more cryptologic, the second more puzzle-y: but ultimately they’re doing the same thing and talking to the same basic audience.

Really, I guess puzzle book buyers would do well to buy both and make up their own mind which of the two they prefer: but sadly I have to say that most Cipher Mysteries readers might prefer to buy neither. But you never know!

It’s not widely known that the US National Security Agency has a small section at Fort Meade devoted to the history of code-breaking: The Center for Cryptologic History. As well as making scans of a number of useful documents available on its website (most notably Mary D’Imperio’s “An Elegant Enigma”), the CCH convenes its own history of cryptology event every two years: the 2009 conference had David Kahn, Elonka Dunin, Whitfield Diffie and loads of other well-known crypto people both attending and giving talks. Though the focus was mainly 20th century, the two notable exceptions were…

  • Kathryn Schwartz, Harvard University – “The Academic, Poetic and Militarised Impetuses behind Medieval Arabic Cryptology’s Development
  • Richard Belfield, Fulcrum TV – “The Story Behind the Shepherd’s Monument Inscription at Shugborough Hall

Note that though I didn’t rate Richard Belfield’s “Six Unsolved Ciphers” book very highly when I reviewed it here, the Shepherd’s Monument chapter was by far its best section, so his lecture on that same subject would probably have been well worth catching.

And now we have a new reason to be interested in the CCH: its 2010 calendar contains several pictures of the Voynich Manuscript, which is an especially good reason for Cipher Mysteries readers to want their own copy. But you can’t buy this in the shops (except on eBay, where you can buy pretty much everything that isn’t actually thermonuclear): according to the CCH’s Barry Carleen…

If any of your subscribers would like to order calendars, they can send an e-mail to history@nsa.gov and we’ll be glad to provide them as long as supplies last.

So there you go – a happy 2010 to you all! 🙂

I’m getting a bit cheesed off with the Internet: every time I do a search for anything Cipher Mysteries-ish, it seems that half Google’s hits are for ghastly sites listing “Top 10 Unsolved Mysteries” or “10 Most Bizarre Uncracked Codes“. Still, perhaps I should be more grateful to the GooglePlex that I’m not getting “Top 10 Paris Hilton Modesty Tips” and its tawdry ilk.

Realistically, there is only one uncracked code/cipher listing on the web from which all the rest get cut-and-pasted: Elonka’s list of famous unsolved codes and ciphers. But Elonka Dunin has long since moved on (coincidentally, she went from cryptography into computer game production at about the same time that I made the reverse journey), which is perhaps why all of these lists look a bit dated. Perhaps I should do my own list soon (maybe, if I had the time).

Happily, Elonka did manage to nail most of the usual suspects: the Beale Papers, the Voynich Manuscript, Dorabella, Zodiac Killer, d’Agapeyeff, Phaistos Disk, and so on… each typically a piece of ciphertext which we would like to decipher in order to crack a historical mystery. However, one of the items on her list stands out as something of an exception.

For John F. Byrne’s 1918 “Chaocipher”, we have a description of his device (the prototype fitted in a cigar box, and allegedly contained two wheels with scrambled letters), and a fair few examples of both Chaocipher ciphertext and the matching plaintext. So, the mystery isn’t so much a whodunnit as a howdunnit. Though a small number of people are in on the secret mechanism (Lou Kruh, for one), Byrne himself is long dead: and the details of how his box of tricks worked have never been released into the public domain.

Was Byrne’s Chaocipher truly as unbreakable as he believed, or was it no more than the grand delusion of an inspired cryptographic outsider? This, really, is the mystery here – the everything-or-nothing “hero-or-zero” dramatic tension that makes it a good story. Yet hardly anybody knows about it: whereas “Voynich” gets 242,000 hits, “Chaocipher” only merits 546 hits (i.e. 0.0022% as much).

Well, now you know as well: and if you want to know a little more about its cryptography, I’ve added a Chaocipher page here. But the real site to go to is Moshe Rubin’s “The Chaocipher Clearing House“, which is so new that even Google hasn’t yet found it (Moshe emailed me to tell me about it, thanks!) Exemplary, fascinating, splendid – highly recommended. 🙂

OK, enough of the raw factuality, time for the obligatory historical riff. 🙂

I’m struck by the parallels between John Byrne’s device and Leon Battista Alberti’s cipher wheel. Both men seem to have caught the leading edge of a wave and tried to harness its power for cryptography, and made high-falutin’ claims as to their respective cipher systems’ unbreakability: whereas Alberti’s wave was mathematical abstraction, Byrne’s wave was (very probably) algorithmic computing.

Circa 1920, this was very much in the air: when J. Lyons & Co. hired the mathematician J.R.M. Simmons in 1923, the company was thinking about machines, systems, and operational management: mathematical calculators were absolutely de rigeur for them. The first Enigma machines were constructed in the early 1920s (and used in a commercial environment), and there were doubtless many other broadly similar machines being invented at the same time.

Do I think that there was anything unbreakable in Byrne’s box? No, not really: the real magic in there was most likely a programmatic mindset that was cutting-edge in 1918, but might well look somewhat simplistic nearly a century later. But I could be wrong! 😉

A few days ago, chess-playing crypto guy Tony Gaffney emailed Cipher Mysteries about “The Subtelty Of Witches” in the British Library: I also blogged about his attempted solution to the Dorabella Cipher and the (not-very-)Ancient Cryptography forum where he often posts on historical ciphers. Since then, the copy of his 2005 book “The Agony Column Codes & Ciphers” (which he wrote under the byline “Jean Palmer”) I ordered has arrived… but is it any good?

(Incidentally, “agony columns”  in Victorian newspapers were originally for readers to post personal announcements and messages about/for missing friends and relatives: while “advice columns” (which became popular in the 1950s) were actually a continuation of an eighteenth century newspaper feature known as “letters to the lovelorn“, as well as the advice column in popular magazine “The Lady’s Monthly Museum”. All of which means that the phrase “agony aunt” is a kind of uneasy linguistic marriage between two quite different types of newspaper column.)

People liked the ability to leave messages in agony columns: but some,  wishing to remain anonymous, submitted their messages in code, in cipher, or in some other cryptic manner. Tony’s book collects together 1000 of these (simultaneously public and private) messages.

On the one hand, I can well appreciate the compositional agony of transcribing so many ciphertexts (which themselves may well have been scrambled by harried typesetters) and then trying to decipher them (which may not always be possible). I can also appreciate that a collection of these could well offer a nice commuter alternative to the sheer maddening pointlessness of Sudoku (oh look, all the numbers add up… and here’s my station).

On the other hand, who (apart from cipher history junkies such as me) would really connect with the content of such a project? Stripped of background, context, and outcome, the results are – if you go through your own agony of deciphering them – typically no more than fleeting half-scenes from lost Victorian soap operas, full of thwarted & hopeful love and clandestine meetings.

Structurally, the book comprises a series of dated cipher fragments sorted into chapters according to the newspaper in which they appeared (The Times, The Morning Chronicle/Observer, etc) and sorted by date, with a cipher key listed at the end for most (but not all) of the enciphered ones. All very logical and sequential as a reference work: but does it really work as a piece of cipher solving entertainment?

With my historical cryptography hat on, I’d say yes: the reader is presented with a cleaned up set of cipher transcriptions, with exactly as much information as a curious newspaper reader of the day would have had. It’s straightforward and clear, a nice little slice of cipher history.

But with my publisher hat on, I’d say no: as an editor, I would have discarded the merely cryptic, and rearranged the same material as a series of enciphered threads graded by difficulty, so that a commuter could engage with it as if it were a cipher puzzle-book. I’d also have opted for a larger page size, and included pre-printed solving grids and a sorted frequency count for all monoalphabetic ciphers.

(A fine example of this kind of cipher puzzle book is Elonka Dunin’s (2006) “The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms”, which also briefly describes the Voynich Manuscript on pp. 489-493, as well as the Beale Papers, the Dorabella Cipher, the Zodiac Ciphers, and the Phaistos Disk).

I would also have moved all the (currently) unsolved ciphers to an end chapter, together with brief failed solving notes.

On balance, then, I’d say that the cipher historian side of me enjoyed the book, but the cipher puzzler side of me felt frustrated by its structure. However, because I would guess that cipher puzzlers outnumber cipher historians 100:1, perhaps it might be an idea for Tony to revisit this project, to Elonka-ify it?

…or, in all its prolixitous glory, “The Six Unsolved Ciphers: Inside the Mysterious Codes That Have Confounded the World’s Greatest Cryptographers“, by Richard Belfield (2007). It was previously published by Orion in the UK as “Can You Crack the Enigma Code?” in 2006.

You’d have thought I’d be delighted by this offering: after all, it covers the Voynich Manuscript, the Beale Papers, Elgar’s “Dorabella” cipher, the CIA’s Kryptos sculpture, the Shepherd’s Monument at Shugborough, and the “Zodiac Killer” ciphers, all things that a Cipher Mysteries blogger ought to get excited about. But there was something oddly disconsonant about it all for me: and working out quite why proved quite difficult…

For a start, if I were compiling a top six list of uncracked historical ciphers, only the Voynich Manuscript and the Beale Papers would have made the cut from Belfield’s set – I don’t think anyone out there could (unless they happened to have cracked either of the two) sensibly nitpick about these being included.

Yet as far the other four go, it’s not nearly so clear. I’ve always thought that the Dorabella cipher was a minor jeu d’esprit on Elgar’s part in a note to a dear friend, and most likely to be something like an enciphered tune. The Kryptos sculpture was intended to bamboozle the CIA and NSA’s crypto squads: and though it relies on classical cryptographic techniques, there’s something a bit too self-consciously knowing about it (its appropriation by The Da Vinci Code cover doesn’t help in this regard). And while the Shugborough Shepherd’s Monument (Belfield’s best chapter by far) indeed has hidden writing, placing its ten brief letters into the category of cipher or code is perhaps a bit strong.

Finally: the Zodiac Killer ciphers, which I know have occupied my old friend Glen Claston in the past, forms just about the only borderline case: its place in the top six is arguable (and it has a good procedural police yarn accompanying it), so I’d kind of grudgingly accept that (at gunpoint, if you will). Regardless, I’d still want to place the Codex Seraphinianus above it, for example.

Belfield’s book reminds me a lot of Kennedy & Churchill’s book on the Voynich Manuscript: even though it is a good, solid, journalistic take on some intriguing cipher stories, I’m not convinced by the choice of the six, and in only one (the Shugborough Shepherd’s Monument) do I think Belfield really gets under the skin of the subject matter. While he musters a lot of interest in the whole subject, it rarely amounts to what you might call passion: and that is really what this kind of mystery-themed book needs to enliven its basically dry subject matter.

It’s hard to fault it as an introduction to six interesting unbroken historical codes and ciphers (it does indeed cover exactly what it says on the tin), and perhaps I’m unfair to judge it against the kind of quality bar I try to apply to my own writing: but try as I may, I can’t quite bring myself to recommend it over (for example) Simon Singh’s “The Code Book” (for all its faults!) as a readable introduction to historical cryptography.

PS: my personal “top six” unsolved historical codes/ciphers would be:-

  1. The Voynich Manuscript (the granddaddy of them all)
  2. The Beale Papers (might be a fake, but it’s a great story)
  3. The Rohonc Codex (too little known, but a fascinating object all the same)
  4. John Dee’s “Enochian” texts (in fact, everything written by John Dee)
  5. William Shakespeare’s work (there’s a massive literature on this, why ignore it?)
  6. Bellaso’s ciphers (but more on this in a later post…)

Feel free to agree or disagree! 😉