Text: Rev. Warren H. Cudworth, “Cryptography — Mr. Poe as a Cryptographer,” Lowell Weekly Journal, April 19, 1850, p. 2.


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Cryptography — Mr Poe as a Cryptographer.

The art of cryptography, or secret writing, is more than 400 years old. The hieroglyphs on the monuments of Ancient Egypt remain to this day a wonder and a puzzle to all travelers in that celebrated land. As we can scarcely imagine a time when there did not exist a desire of transmitting information in such a manner as to elude general comprehension, so we may reasonably conclude that when written or engraved characters were first invented, there were also made rude attempts at secret writing. We have, indeed, direct proof that such was the case. — The scytalæ or wooden cylinders used by the Ancient Lacedemons in communicating with their generals, were a species of secret cypher fully answering the purpose for which they were designed. A piece of parchment was carefully rolled round a cylinder, like the thread of a screw, and then the communication written upon it longitudinally. This was dispatches by a messenger to the general, who had another cylinder precisely corresponding with the former, and the missive being rolled round this by him, was very easily deciphered. If the messenger had been captured by the enemy and the epistle taken from him, noting of course could be made of it, as the manner of its inditement remained a secret between the general and his government. Although the art of cryptography is but very little understood in our day, and good cryptographists are exceedingly rare, yet it has by no means passed out of use entirely. In diplomatic transactions it is still commonly practised, and there are even now, in various foreign governments, individually holding office, whose real business is that of deciphering. No mental employment, perhaps, so strengthens and increases the analytic ability, as the solution of cryptographical problems; and if a superior power of analysis were not a very rare endowment, cryptography would doubtless have long since been introduced into our academical institutions as a means of giving tone to what is really the most important power of the mind.

The most profound and skilful cryptographer who ever lived was undoubtedly Edgar A. Poe, Esq. It was a favorite theory of his, that human ingenuity could not concoct a cipher, which human ingenuity could not resolve. The facility with which he would unravel the most dark and perplexing ciphers, was really supernatural. Out of a most confused medley of letters, figures and cabalistic characters, in any of the seven different languages, the English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, and Greek, his superhuman power of analysis would almost at once evolve sense, order and beauty; and of the hundreds of crypographs which he received while editor of one of our popular periodicals, he never failed to solve one unless it was illegitimate, that is, unless its author put it together not intending to have it make sense. — During a visit which he paid to Lowell in the spring of 1849, designing to test his cryptographical skill, I wrote a short paragraph somewhat in the following fashion. After writing down the first thirteen under them in this manner:

a b c d e f g h i j k l m
n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Then, having written my sentence in plain English, where a occurred I would put n, wherever b occurred I would put o, and so on; likewise wherever n occurred I would put a, wherever o occurred I would put b, and so on. The sentence was this:

“The patient was severely attacked with spasms and acute pain in the hypogastric region; remedial agents were employed, but without effect, and death soon ensued.”

This rendered into cipher in the manner shown above would be: — Gur cngvrag jnf frireryl nggnpxrg jigu fenfzf naq nqhgr cnva va gur ulebtnfgevp ertvba erzrqray ntragf jrer rzcyrirq ohg jigubhg rsarpg naq qrugu fbba rafrq [next column:]

Mr Poe solved this cipher, in one-fifth of the time it took me to write it. This, however is one of the most simple forms of cryptography.

Æneas Tacticus, about two thousand years ago, detailed some twenty modes of secret writing, and modern ingenuity has invented many more. From a survey of the above, however, one can easily see what profound analytic powers it demands to solve even the most simple of these; what shall we say, then, of the mind that could solve them all, even the most complex and difficult? Yet such a mind was Mr Poe’s, and he actually proved this to be the case in 1839, while a resident in N. York. Discussion in one of the weekly papers of that city the application of a rigorous method to all forms of thought, and the advantages which would accrue therefrom, he ventured to assert that no cipher could be sent to him which he would not be able to resolve. This assertion was considered as a sort of challenge by crytograph lovers throughout the country, and there straightway poured in upon him a continued stream of letters in the wildest chirography that ever mortal imagined. Words and sentences were promiscuously run together without any interval, several different alphabets were sometimes used in the same letter, and in fine every means taken to puzzle and perplex this daring knight of the pen, who so dauntlessly had thrown down his mental gauntlet before the world. But of one hundred ciphers received, all were resolved but one, and that one was demonstrated to be an imposition, a mere jumble of pot-hooks and hangers, which had no meaning at all. I will copy a small portion from one of the easiest of these cryptographs, and from that it can be judged how difficult the others were. The English sentence is, “We must see you immediately upon a matter of great importance:” the cipher, this, $.0£][].¡†£?00.*?)]&¡£‡†’)0)☞†’;☞.)[?0‡†☞[)‘ — By a little practice and a thorough knowledge of the cipher used, one in a very short time can write as readily with the above characters as with English letters; but Mr Poe needed not to know the cipher or the key phrase, but from his own intuitive powers of perception and analysis, would read any legitimate cryptograph much sooner than its author could indite it!

The cryptograph which Dr Frailey sent to Mr Poe, was by far the most difficult one received by him, for besides being made from a key phrase, and not from the entire alphabet, it contained many signs of abbreviation which were entirely arbitrary. Dr Frailey was very confident that he should puzzle Mr Poe, but a solution of his cryptograph was sent him by the latter in the return mail. This specimen of the cryptographical art began thus: £ 7i A itagi niinbiit thitouiaib9 g h auehbiif b iviht itau ☞ gvuiitiif 4 t$bt2ihtbo £iiiiadby iignit £d i2 ta5t a whbo ttbibtii † iit9 A iti if X hti 4 ithtt ☞.

The key phrase is, “But find this out and I Give it up.” And the solution is so singular and whimsical that I will give nearly the whole of it. “In one of those peripatetic circumrotations I obviated a rustic whom I subjected to catachetical interrogation respecting the nosocomical characteristics of the edifice to which I was approximate. With a volubility uncongealed by the frigorific powers of villatic bashfulness, he ejaculated a voluminous replication from the universal tenor of whose contents I deduce the subsequent amalgamation of heterogenous facts. Without dubiety incipient pretension is apt to terminate in final vulgarity, as parturient mountains have been fabulated to produce muscupular abortions.”

Mr. Poe has developed and exemplified this wonderful analytic power of his in some of his stories, and in all of his criticisms. “The gold bug,” “The murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The mystery of Marie Roget,” are astonishing instances of his ability to fathom the springs of human action; and some of his criticisms show a depth of penetration before which literary dwarfs may well shrink and cry for mercy. As a critic he has been called severe. If he was so, it was because, on account of his deep insight [next column:] into the very heart of literary production he saw more to condemn than did others, and at the same time, more to condemn than did others, and at the same time, more to approve. He had placed his standard of criticism, high indeed — but little short of perfection — and whoever on account of sloth or inability did not reach it, was apt to be reminded of his short coming. And this was the case, whether the writer was a friend or not; for he was always strictly impartial and did not find fault for the mere pleasure of fault finding. One amusing instance of his penetration and foresight too place upon the publication of ‘Barnaby Rudge,’ by ‘Dickens.’ upon receiving the first number of this novel, Mr Poe sat down and wrote a criticism upon the whole book, which ‘Boz’ had not yet completed, and sent this criticism over to the author! Dickens wrote back an answer to Mr Poe telling him that he had divined rightly, and asking him if he had dealings with the Devil, manifesting at the same time, no small amount of astonishment at the accuracy and truth of his review of a book which was not yet finished, except in his own mind.



Cudworth was a friend of Poe’s beloved “Annie,” Mrs. A. L. Richmond.


[S:0 - LWJ, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Mr. Poe as a Cryptographer (W. H. Cudworth, 1850)