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Cryptography with Edgar Allan Poe

The well-known American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809 - 1849) has dealt with cryptological and cryptanalytic methods several times. When he was in Philadelphia from 1839-40 for the Alexander's Weekly Messenger wrote, he challenged readers in December 1839 by claiming that he could decipher any monoalphabetic substitution:

"It would be by no means a labor lost to show how great a degree of rigid method enters into enigma-guessing. This may sound oddly; but it is not more strange than the well know fact that rules really exist, by means of which it is easy to decipher any species of hieroglyphical writing - that is to say writing where, in place of alphabetical letters, any kind of marks are made use of at random. For example, in place of A put% or any other arbitrary character --in place of B, a *, etc., etc. Let an entire alphabet be made in this manner, and then let this alphabet be used in any piece of writing. This writing can be read by means of a proper method. Let this be put to the test. Let any one address us a letter in this way, and we pledge ourselves to read it forthwith-- however unusual or arbitrary may be the characters employed. " [1]

Since he uses the method of Frequency analysis knew (but did not reveal it at first), he said he was able to decrypt around a hundred cryptograms that were sent in. One of his admirers named him "the most profound and skilful cryptographer of all time".

For example, in the issue of the Messenger of March 4, 1840 to the reader T. S. from Bouquet, New York, only:

Your cypher is thus read:


When day declines, and sable night
Shall veil this hemisphere from sight,
I would, with no dull cares oppressed,
Spend each dark hour in quiet rest.
A rake and fool may drink and rove--
Night is the time which they improve
With such to walk I will refuse;
You are the company I choose.

So he immediately found the plaintext: a poem that in turn represents a small piece of steganography. Simon & Garfunkel then answered the hidden question (probably unintentionally) in their 1970 song "Cecilia".

Of course, Poe did not have any problems deciphering the following cryptogram, which he wrote on April 8, 1840 in Messenger together with the solution: 2 18.15.15 13 5. 3 15.
21. 14.20 25.116 189.12 1st 1840. 6.18. 15.13.
25 15 21. 18.6.18 25.14.4. 8 5 14. 18.25

If you first replace all the points interspersed at random by the typesetter with spaces, the result is the "cleaned up" cryptogram

2 9 14 7 8 1 13 20 15 14 2 18 15 15 13 5 3 15
21 14 20 25 1 16 189 12 1st 1840 6 18 15 13
25 15 21 18 6 18 25 14 4 8 5 14 18 25

Obviously there is a date "1st 1840" in the second line and the number 189 falls out of the range of the remaining numbers. If one assumes here that the typesetter has accidentally forgotten a space between 18 and 9, then except for the date there are only numbers between 1 and 25. It could therefore be a simple numbering of the letters. Either you try the simple decimal coding of the Latin alphabet, or you try to complete the date correctly. The date of publication of the cryptogram suggests that it was sent to Poe on April 1, 1840. Then the sequence of numbers "1 16 18 9 12" would stand for the word "APRIL", which also leads to the simple decimal coding of the letters. In any case, Poe should have been very pleased that the reader made it so easy for him. The plain text then reads:

"Binghamton, Broome county, April 1st 1840, from your frynd Henry"

Another cryptogram and its solution, which Poe had printed on January 15, 1840, can be found here.

In his article What Poe Knew About Cryptography (PMLA 58, No. 3 (1943), 754-779) W. K. Wimsatt has references to a total of 36 cryptograms in Alexander's weekly messenger found. Poe printed 9 cryptograms with their solutions[2], also gave the (partial) solutions of 15[3], and claimed that he had solved 3 more. With 6 cryptograms sent in, he found that they could not be simple substitutions or meaningful plaintexts. For another cryptogram he even gave arguments that the rules could not have been adhered to[4].

G. W. Kulp from Lewiston, Mifflin County, Pennsylvania had sent this cryptogram to Poe in 1840 and it was not solved until 1975 by Brian J. Winkel. Martin Gardner reported on this for the first time in Scientific American dated August 1977. More details on its solution can be found in Friedrich Bauer, Entzifferte Geheimnisse, pp. 316/317 and pp. 336-339.

"Ge Jeasgdxv,
Zij gl mw, laam, xzy zmlwhfzek
ejlvdxw kwke tx Ibr atgh Ibmx aanu
bai Vsmukkss pwn vlwk agh gnumk
wdlnzweg jnbxvv oaeg enwb zwmgy
mo mlw wnbx mw al pnfdcfpkh wzkex
hssf xkiyahul. Mk num yexdm wbxy
sbc hv wyx Phwkgnamcuk? "

As it turned out later, the typesetter contributed a number of printing errors, e.g. B. "q" read as "g" and omitted one letter. The corresponding plain text can be found here.

Furthermore, Poe solved the following cryptogram, printed on April 22, 1840 in Alexander's weekly messenger[5], in which some ciphertext letters even stand for different plaintext letters, which of course also cannot occur with correct encryption. If you want to see the solution directly, you can find it here.


Poe even managed to solve a polyalphabetic substitution that used no fewer than 7 different alphabets[6]. Since no ciphertext was printed for this, it is assumed that it was not a question of Vigenère encryption, but that a different ciphertext alphabet was used for each line of the plain text. However, since these are the first lines of the poem published in 1825 The Siege of Belgrade is about Alaric Alexander Watts, who Poe knew well, it should not have been difficult for him to identify the plaintext using the same first letters of the words in each line. This peculiarity is of course retained in the ciphertext. (If one uses a different suitable Caesar shift for each line, one can even achieve that each Word begins with the same letter.)

An Austrian army, awfully arrayed,
Boldly, by battery, defeated Belgrade;
Cossak commanders cannonading come,
Dealing destruction's desolation doom.
Every endeavor engineers essay,
For fame, for fortune, fighting furious fray;
Generals' gainst generals grapple gracious God![8]

The article appeared in 1841 A few words on secret writing[9] by Poe in Graham's Magazine. In it he also published two cryptograms that he had received from a Mr. W. B. Tyler. It is now believed that this was just a pseudonym of Poe himself. These two cryptograms were solved much later, the first by Terence Whalen in 1992[10], the second by Gil Broza in 2000.[11]

In 1843, Poe finally wrote his famous short story The gold beetle[12], in which he exemplarily explained the method of frequency analysis. This narrative is considered to be one of the best literary pieces on the subject of cryptography.

[7] Clarence S. Brigham, Edgar Allan Poes's contributions to Alexander's weekly messenger, American Antiquarian Society, 1943.

Author: Udo Hebisch
Date: 04/28/2011