Friday, October 7, 2011

Adventure classics -- Poe's cypher challenge

“The Gold Bug”

by Edgar Allan Poe


Which is the scariest thing about Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story, “The Gold-Bug?” Dropping a large beetle through a skeletal eye socket or his maddening use of dialect?

The nineteenth century was the high tide of phonetic writing in fiction. Not since Samuel Johnson standardized the spelling of the English language were there so many spelling variations writers hoped would approximate their fictional characters’ actual pronunciation.

The practice forced readers to sound individual letters aloud for clues to their meaning. Nicholas Carr, the subject of my August 10 post, might have said it threatened to return the art of reading to a medieval level.

The practice of writing nonstandard English for speakers of lower social classes, with the snobbery and racism that implied, further diminished the practice’s standing. Nowadays, writers from those despised races and social classes are moving to reclaim their versions of English, but in more imaginative ways than phonetic dialect.

But as I write about my twenty-first century prejudices, I can imagine Poe sneering, so I’ll move to what won “The Gold-Bug” the hundred dollar prize offered by the Dollar Newspaper in 1843 -- the cryptogram whose solution was a map to pirate treasure.

Poe prided himself on his ability to solve coded messages. During his editorship of Graham’s Magazine, he wrote an article, “A Few Words on Secret Writing,” offering a free subscription to anyone who sent him a code he couldn’t decipher. He ended the contest, saying he had solved all the legitimate ciphers he received. Poe published two, purportedly by a Mr. W.B. Tyler, challenging readers to solve them.

But although Poe claimed to have found their solutions, nobody else did -- for the next century and a half. In 1992, the first of Poe’s published cryptograms was solved. In an attempt to solve the second, as well as determine the originator -- strongly suspected to be Poe himself -- a college professor decided to seek help in a manner typical of Poe. He held a contest.

Israeli-Canadian software engineer Gil Broza won the contest in 2000. The solution, needless to say, was more difficult than the one Poe wrote about in “The Gold-Bug.”

Scary cryptograms are great. But it wasn’t those that made me afraid to go sleep after reading Poe’s story as a child. That was done by the answer protagonist William Legrand gave to the question of the story’s unnamed narrator:

“Now there is only one point which puzzles me. What are we to make of the skeletons found in the hole?”

Legrand answered: “. . .it is clear that (Captain Kidd) must have had some assistance in the labor. But this labor concluded, he may have thought it expedient to remove all participants in his secret. Perhaps a couple of blows with a mattock were sufficient, while his coadjutors were busy in the pit; perhaps it required a dozen -- who shall tell?”

No visible gore, but how would you top that ending?

If you’d like to learn more about the solving of the Poe cryptogram, see

(Next Friday’s classic horror -- Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.)


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