The tell-tale cipher

Could a mysterious cryptograph be a final message from Edgar Allan Poe?

Topics: Edgar Allan Poe, Books,

For Edgar Allan Poe, dying did not necessarily leave a person speechless. Take “The Case of M. Valdemar.” The title character, his body decomposing into “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putrescence,” still manages enough tongue to beg the narrator, a mesmerist, to stop messing with him.

“‘For God’s sake! — quick! — quick! — put me to sleep — or, quick! — waken me! — quick! — I say to you that I am dead!’”

To say that speaking from beyond the grave was a Poe obsession would be understating the case. Some scholars believe he is trying to speak to us still by way of cryptography, a system of secret writings based on a predetermined set of symbols. Poe left behind one cryptograph that has remained unsolved for more than 150 years, waiting like a corked time capsule for someone to unlock its tangle of symbols.

Whether the cryptograph in question was written by Poe remains a mystery, perhaps the last involving an author whose “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is considered the first modern detective story. As that sagacious inquisitor, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, would say, “Let us enter into some examinations for ourselves, before we make up an opinion respecting them. An inquiry will afford us amusement.” The details are as follows.

Poe, who lived from 1809 to 1849, was fascinated by cryptography and made several references to such secret writings in his poems and stories. The solving of a cryptograph is the pivotal moment in “The Gold Bug.” At the end of 1839, while working as a freelance writer for Alexander’s Weekly Messenger in Philadelphia, Poe invited his readers to send cryptographs to him, boasting that he would solve them all. Until he stopped working for the Messenger in May 1840, Poe published his solutions to the ciphers and offered his thoughts on cryptography.

A year later, writing for Graham’s Magazine, Poe claimed in an article titled “A Few Words on Secret Writing” to have solved all 100 of the cryptographs sent to him by the Messenger’s readers. While he was writing for Graham’s, Poe received a letter from someone named W.B. Tyler that contained two cryptographs. Poe published the cryptographs for his readers to solve, but never published the solutions. He claimed he was wasting time on such puzzles, time that could be better spent writing stories and earning money, something he had trouble doing for his entire writing career. The Tyler ciphers languished, neglected like yesterday’s newspaper.

In a 1985 essay called “Poe’s Secret Autobiography,” Louis A. Renza, an English professor at Dartmouth College, suggested that Tyler was Poe’s nom de plume. Renza sees Poe’s fiction “as containing not readily apparent anagrams as well as thinly disguised allegories of his process of composing his tales — often the very tale one is reading.” He felt Poe’s cryptography articles shared this approach. “So when I read the Tyler letter, with its tease of an insoluble cryptogram, I naturally suspected that this was Poe entertaining the possibility himself.”

Renza asked a Dartmouth reference librarian to search for W.B. Tyler in the city directories of the major cities where Poe had lived or that he had been familiar with, including Washington, Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. The absence of Tyler in those lists was, as Renza admits, “thin evidence, to be sure, but enough for me to venture my guess.”

That left the evidence of the ciphers themselves. The shorter of the two was solved by way of procrastination. In 1992, looking for a way to avoid working on his dissertation, Terence Whalen, now an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, solved the first cipher in just a few afternoons of noodling. What started as a diversion became a significant part of his dissertation, now a book titled “Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America.” At first, Whalen believed he had uncovered an original Poe text. While the syntax was unlike Poe’s, the message — the survival of the soul when confronted by material decay — had a common Poe theme:

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The soul secure in her existence smiles at the drawn dagger and defies its point. The stars shall fade away, the sun himself grow dim with age and nature sink in years, but thou shall flourish in immortal youth, unhurt amid the war of elements, the wreck of matter and the crush of worlds.

It turns out that the lines are not Poe’s, but from the 1713 play “Cato,” by Joseph Addison, an English essayist, poet and statesman. But that does not rule out Poe as the originator of the cryptograph. At the time the cipher was published, Poe was trying to get a job in the administration of President John Tyler. Many of the readers intrigued enough by his challenge to send cryptographs to Poe were government employees (apparently with a lot of time on their hands). Tyler, who succeeded to the presidency following the death of William Henry Harrison, had a most troubled term in office. His cabinet resigned. The Whig Party disowned him in 1841 and two years later introduced impeachment resolutions. Quoting from a play named for a political enemy of Caesar, Whalen suggests, could have been a kind of inside joke on the part of Poe, who was an acquaintance of Tyler’s son, Robert. W.B., muses Whalen, could stand for “Wanted By” Tyler.

In any case, there remains the unsolved cryptograph. Whalen has been stymied in his efforts to decode the cipher, which contains about 150 words and very little character repetition. Once Whalen recognized that the three-character pattern of “comma-dagger-section symbol,” repeated seven times, represented the word “the” in the first cryptograph, the remainder of the decoding followed fairly easily. The second cipher involves more complicated alphabetic correlations, says Whalen, making it far more challenging.

Hoping to settle the question of whether Tyler was Poe, Shawn Rosenheim, who teaches at Williams College in Massachusetts, is offering $2,500 to anyone who solves the second Tyler cryptograph. “It’s very likely that if it’s solved we’ll be able to argue convincingly that it is or isn’t Poe,” says Rosenheim, author of “The Cryptographic Imagination: Secret Writing From Edgar Poe to the Internet.”

If the decoded text falls short of containing the words “I, Edgar Allan Poe,” theme and syntax could still indicate Poe is the author. “It’s like a fact in a court case,” says Whalen. “It would have to be argued.” The cryptograph and details about the contest are available on the Web site of Bokler Software Corp., a Huntsville, Ala., company that specializes in encryption software.

If the text turns out to be by Poe, it would fit into his grand scheme of speaking from the dead and be the final message from one of the greatest authors in American literature, a writer obsessed with the macabre and the transcendent power of words. “It’s the ultimately condensed detective story,” offers Rosenheim. “You have to be clever enough to see that there’s even a story. Poe is playing a game with all his readers and so far his readers aren’t winning.”

Or, as Poe, in the beginning of his “Shadow — A Parable,” put it:

Ye who read are still among the living; but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows. For indeed strange things shall happen, and secret things be known, and many centuries shall pass away, ere these memorials be seen of men. And, when seen, there will be some to disbelieve, and some to doubt, and yet a few who will find much to ponder upon in the characters here graven with a stylus of iron.

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