Secret Writing 01

Graham’s Magazine, August, 1841, 19:96  

OUR remarks on this head, in the July number, have excited much interest. The subject is unquestionably one of importance, when we regard cryptography as an exercise for the analytical faculties. In this view, men of the finest abilities have given it much of their attention; and the invention of a perfect cipher was a point to which Lord Chancellor Bacon devoted many months; — devoted them in vain, for the cryptograph which he has thought worthy a place in his De Augmentis, is one which can be solved.

Just as we were going to press with the last sheet of this number, we received the following letter from F. W. Thomas, Esq., (of Washington,) the well-known author of “Clinton Bradshawe,” “Howard Pinckney,” &c. &c.

MY DEAR SIR: — The enclosed cryptograph is from a friend of mine (Dr. Frailey,) who thinks he can puzzle you. If you decipher it, then are you a magician, for he has used, as I think, the greatest art in making it.

Your friend,


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This cipher is printed precisely as we received it, with the exception that we have substituted, for convenience sake, in some instances, characters that we have in the office, for others that we have not. Of course, as these characters are substituted throughout, the cryptograph is not affected.

By return of mail we sent the solution to Mr. Thomas; but as the cipher is an exceedingly ingenious one, we forbear publishing its translation here, and prefer testing the ability of our readers to solve it. We will give a year’s subscription to the Magazine, and also a year’s subscription to the Saturday Evening Post, to any person, or rather to the first person who shall read us this riddle. We have no expectation that it will be read; and, therefore, should the month pass without an answer forthcoming, we will furnish the key to the cipher, and again offer a year’s subscription to the Magazine, to any person who shall solve it with the key.

Lest the tenor of our observations on Cryptography should be misunderstood, and especially lest the nature of our challenge should be misconceived, we take occasion to refer to our Review of Mr. Walsh’s “Sketches of Conspicuous Living Characters of France,” published in the April number of the Magazine. M. Berryer, the French Minister, is there said to have displayed the highest ingenuity in the solution of a cipher addressed by the Duchess of Berri to the legitimists of Paris, but of which she had neglected to furnish the key. Berryer discovered this to be the phrase “Le gouvernement provisoire.” Beneath this sentence the alphabet had been placed, letter for letter; and thus when a was intended l was written, when b was meant e was substituted, and so on throughout. This species of cryptograph is justly considered very difficult. We remarked, however, that we would engage to read any one of the kind; and to this limit our correspondents must confine themselves. To be sure, we said, in our last number that “human ingenuity could not construct a cipher which human ingenuity could not resolve” — but then we do not propose, just now, to make ourselves individually the test of “human ingenuity” in general. We do not propose to solve all ciphers. Whether we can or cannot do this is a question for another day — a day when we have more leisure than at present we have any hope of enjoying. The most simple cryptograph requires, in its solution, labor, patience, and much time. We therefore abide by the limits of our cartel. It is true that in attempting the perusal of Dr. Frailey’s we have exceeded these limits by very much; but we were seduced into the endeavor to read it by the decided manner in which an opinion was expressed that we could not.

E. St. J. will observe that his cipher includes every letter of the natural alphabet. Then (admitting it to be a cipher of the kind proposed) his key-phrase must contain every letter of the natural alphabet. In such case no letter of the phrase can stand for more than one of the alphabet, and the whole would be nothing more than a simple cipher, where the natural characters are represented, invariably and respectively, by arbitrary ones. But in this supposition there could be no such words as ll, &c. — words seen in the cryptograph. Therefore, his cipher is not within the limits prescribed — Q. E. D. We do not say that we cannot solve it, but that we will not make the attempt. This for the obvious reasons above assigned.

P. S. We have just received the annexed letter from Mr. Thomas, enclosing one from Dr. Frailey:

WASHINGTON, July 6th, 1841.


This morning I received yours of yesterday, deciphering the “cryptograph” which I sent you last week, from my friend, Doctor Frailey. You request that I would obtain the Doctor’s acknowledgment of your solution. I have just received the enclosed from him.

Doctor Frailey had heard me speak of your having deciphered a letter which our mutual friend, Dow, wrote upon a challenge from you last year, at my lodgings in your city, when Aaron Burr’s correspondence in cipher was the subject of our conversation. You laughed at what you termed Burr’s shallow artifice, and said you could decipher any such cryptography easily. To test you on the spot, Dow withdrew to the corner of the room, and wrote a letter in cipher, which you solved in a much shorter time than it took him to indite it.

As Doctor Frailey seemed to doubt your skill to the extent of my belief in it, when your article on “Secret Writing” appeared in the last number of your Magazine, I showed it to him. After reading it, he remarked that he thought he could puzzle you, and the next day he handed me the cryptograph which I transmitted to you. He did not tell me the key. The uncommon nature of this article, of which I gave you not the slightest hint, made me express to you my strong doubts of your ability to make the solution. I confess that your solution, so speedily and correctly made, surprised me. I congratulate myself that I do not live in an age when the black art is believed in, for, innocent as I am of all knowledge of cryptography, I should be arrested as an accessory before the fact, and, though I escaped, it is certain that you would have to die the death, and alas! I fear upon my testimony.

Your friend,


Edgar A. Poe, Esq.

WASHINGTON, July 6th, 1841.


It gives me pleasure to state that the reading, by Mr. Poe, of the cryptograph which I gave you a few days since for transmission to him, is correct. I am the more astonished at this since — — [We omit the remainder of the letter, since it enters into details which would give our readers some clue to the cipher.]

As ever, yours, &c.,


F. W. Thomas, Esq.