Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Poe's Cipher Fascination

Pen and ink by Gabriel Caprav
Today marks the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe's writing made a huge impression on me when I first discovered it in junior high, and has stayed with me ever since. His picture hung over my desk for years, which is pretty apt, since Poe was frequently hungover.

Poe had a madness for ciphers. This was most famously exhibited in "The Gold Bug," which includes a substitution cipher (and a lengthy explanation of its solution) as a key plot point.

That cipher reads as follows:
And is solved thus:
A good glass in the bishop's hostel in the devil's seat forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north main branch seventh limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death's-head a bee line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out.
Poe Cipher
But there was another Poe cipher mystery that was lost in the pages of Alexander's Weekly Messenger for almost 150 years. Poe had used the newspaper to challenge all comers to send him ciphers, and he would crack them all. He claims to have solved at least 100 of them, and then signed off with two new ciphers by a "Mr. W.B. Tyler." There is some convincing evidence that Tyler was Poe himself, and that these final ciphers were his parting mystery.

They remained forgotten and unsolved until Professor Louis Renza of Dartmouth College brought them to light in 1985. Prof. Renza subsequently established the Edgar Allan Poe Cryptographic Challenge, complete with a $2500 prize, to crack the codes. In 2000, Gil Broza managed to do it and claimed the prize

There was some hope that these ciphers would turn out to be new, previously unknown writing by Poe, but this is almost certainly not the case. One was a passage from Cato, by the English essayist Joseph Addison. The other remains unidentified, but is not in any style recognizable as Poe's.


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