Cryptograms, or coded messages, have been around for millennia. They were originally used for communicating personal and military secrets. Julius Caesar used a form of cryptography, known as Caesar’s cipher, in some of his correspondence, and later, during the Middle Ages, word puzzles of various sorts were devised for entertainment to pass the time.
Figuring out anagrams, acrostics, enigmas, riddles, posers, conundrums, cryptograms, and other word puzzles became an especially popular form of entertainment for nineteenth century periodical readers in America. These were the types of people you see today in lunch rooms, on park benches, and riding city busses doing crossword puzzles in newspapers. Ordinary individuals find such employment a huge waste of time. But not Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe, of course, in many respects, was not an ordinary individual. Besides being a magazine editor, poet, and short story writer, he possessed a keenly analytical mind that relished brain-twisters. “[W]e have a penchant for riddles ourselves,” he told readers in a magazine article. “In spite of the anathemas of the over-wise, we regard a good enigma as a good thing. Their solution affords one of the best possible exercises of the analytical faculties, besides calling into play many other powers. We know of no truer test of general capacity than is to be found in the guessing of such puzzles.”
A rival periodical had long run a popular column featuring word puzzles, and Poe wanted to tap into the market. In an essay titled “Enigmatical and Conundrum-ical” he stated that enigmas, conundrums, and cryptograms might easily be solved by subjecting them to a rigid method. “So much is this the case,” he said, “that a set of rules might absolutely be given by which almost any (good) enigma in the world could be solved instantaneously.”
He hinted that he had devised such a set of rules whereby he could easily “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 * &c. &c.” To further create reader interest, Poe challenged his audience to test him. “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.”
Poe later claimed that out of approximately one hundred ciphers received, just one gave him difficulty and that was because it consisted of only random characters with no meaning attached. He printed many of the genuine cryptograms along with his solutions, sometimes adding comments like, “We assure him [the contributor] that it gave us no trouble whatever” and “We had no trouble reading the cypher sent us by H.C.A.”*
In addition to solving readers’ cryptograms, Poe published one of his own, offering a year’s magazine subscription to anyone who could decode it. But soon he became so overwhelmed with cryptograms to solve that he complained in one of his articles, “Do people really think we have nothing in the world to do but to read hieroglyphics? or that we are going to stop our ordinary business and set up for conjurers? Will any body tell us how to get out of this dilemma? If we don’t solve all the puzzles forwarded, their concocters will think it is because we cannot—when we can.”
He soon stopped accepting readers’ cryptograms. A close friend wrote to him, “I do not wonder that you have been annoyed by cryptographic connoisseurs. Your astonishing power of decyphering secret writing is to me a puzzle which I can’t solve. That’s a curious head-piece of yours, and I should like to know what phrenologists say about it. Did you ever have your head examined? And what said the examiner?”
Although Poe grew tired of deciphering cryptograms submitted by readers, his general interest in puzzle-solving through methodical, logical analysis led to the enrichment of popular literature. In 1841 he published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” thereby inventing the detective story. This was followed by other “tales of ratiocination” as he called them, including “The Gold Bug” in 1843, a tale of mystery and adventure, centering on the solution of an elaborate cryptogram. (The cryptogram in the title of this article, by the way, spells the name Edgar Allan Poe using the code featured in “The Gold Bug.”)
*Here is a complete entry from one of Poe’s articles:
J.H., of Philadelphia, who sent us “a poser” two weeks since, with the assurance that if we managed to read that (which we did) he would send us one hereafter which he would defy us to make out, has now forwarded us the following:
7 990¶21 70 62 8768 3: 6.2 ¶29¶
27¶56 5612265 3: 831525 2346¶2170† 63
9 912 75 6.2 317¶2 3: 17825?—a 7675 :62¶
9.212 3323 90¶871832569082?—966 39552¶
This is by far the most difficult cypher which we have received. Some of the words are crowded together, and the writer has taken other liberties which do not come within the conditions originally laid down. For example, in some cases the figure 3 stands for I, in others for O; in some cases the figure 6 stands for L, in others for T; while 2 stands for E and M indifferently, and 9 for both W and A. Some words, moreover, are mis-spelt. How much the difficulty of solution is increased in this way, may easily be conceived. The translation, however, is as follows:
I wander in the city of the dead
Midst streets of houses mouldering to decay.
Where is the pride of riches? it is fled.
Where pomp and circumstances? all passed away.