The Edgar Allan Poe Code?

Edgar Allan Poe is one of America’s best known writers. He was well-known for his heart-rending mysteries and is considered the inventor of the detective novel. But Poe is known for something else…two ciphers that eluded all efforts to solve them for over 150 years. What was the Poe Code?

Edgar Allan Poe (November 9, 1848)
Daguerreotype by W.S. Hartshorn
Photograph of Daguerreotype by C.T. Tatman (1904)
Source: Library of Congress

Edgar Allan Poe’s Cryptographic Challenge

During the mid-1800s, the practice of cryptography was held in high esteem and code-breakers were praised for their abilities. In December 1839, Edgar Allan Poe began publishing a “cryptographic challenge” in the Philadelphia-based Alexander’s Weekly Messenger. In a series of articles, he challenged his readers to stump him with their ciphers. And over a six month period, he published solutions to all of the ciphers as well as sharing much of his knowledge on cryptography.

A year or so after his series ended, he went to the pages of Graham’s Magazine to publish one last article on the subject. In A Few Words on Secret Writing, Poe included two cryptographs supposedly sent to him by a “gentleman whose abilities we highly respect” named W.B. Tyler. Poe went on to claim that he didn’t have time to solve these last two ciphers but that his readers should give them a shot. Apparently, they remained unsolved for over a century.

The Second Edgar Allan Poe Cipher (December 1841)
Created by “W.B. Tyler” (Possibly Edgar Allan Poe writing under a pseudonym)
Source: The Edgar Allan Poe Cryptographic Challenge

Breaking Edgar Allan Poe’s Code?

In 1985, Professor Louis Renza came across the ciphers and proposed that W.B. Tyler was none other than Poe himself. This theory grew in prominence when Shawn Rosenheim added some circumstantial evidence in The Cryptographic Imagination: Secret Writing from Edgar Poe to the Internet.

In 1992, Professor Terence Whalen solved the first of the mysterious ciphers. After decoding the mono-alphabetic substitution code, he discovered the following message:

“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.”

Much to his disappointment, the passage could not be claimed as original to Poe. Instead, it was traced to Joseph Addison’s 1713 play Cato. In order to solve the second cipher, Rosenheim created the “Edgar Allan Poe Cryptographic Challenge” and offered $2,500 to the first person to decode the cipher.

“The contest was an avenue of last resort. Because the second cipher uses six separate alphabets to encode its text, it’s several orders of magnitude harder than the first. I tried to solve it myself and failed. I also sent it to various cryptographers, from the editor of The Cryptogram magazine to professionals at Bell Labs, but no one was able to help me.” ~ Shawn Rosenheim

In July 2000, the contest came to an end when Gil Bronza submitted the correct answer. It turned out that the cipher was a poly-alphabetic substitution cipher and contained “over two dozen mistakes.” And what was the answer to this masterful, albeit flawed puzzle?

“It was early spring, warm and sultry glowed the afternoon. The very breezes seemed to share the delicious langour of universal nature, are laden the various and mingled perfumes of the rose and the –essaerne (?), the woodbine and its wildflower. They slowly wafted their fragrant offering to the open window where sat the lovers. The ardent sun shoot fell upon her blushing face and its gentle beauty was more like the creation of romance or the fair inspiration of a dream than the actual reality on earth. Tenderly her lover gazed upon her as the clusterous ringlets were edged (?) by amorous and sportive zephyrs and when he perceived (?) the rude intrusion of the sunlight he sprang to draw the curtain but softly she stayed him. ‘No, no, dear Charles,’ she softly said, ‘much rather you’ld I have a little sun than no air at all.’”

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Strange…very strange indeed. So, who wrote the cipher? And what does it mean? Rosenheim believes that the cipher was still written by Poe but admits that “the text is clearly not by Poe, but from some unidentified novel or story of the period.”

We may never know for sure whether or not Poe encoded the two ciphers and published them under the name of W.B. Tyler. And at the end of the day, that’s probably the way Poe would’ve preferred 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.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe, Shadow – A Parable

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