Archive for Friday, December 1, 2000

Poe mystery deciphered at last

After 159 years, author’s code is cracked

December 1, 2000


— Edgar Allan Poe, master of the mysterious and the macabre, may have uttered his last words from beyond the grave.

A coded message published by Poe in 1841 in a magazine where he worked as editor has been deciphered with the help of modern computing and the intuition of a young puzzle solver, 151 years after Poe's death.

As it turns out, the translated passage wasn't Poe's message for readers yet unborn or a key to comprehending his enigmatic stories. In fact, the passage is so inept and sentimental he probably didn't write it all. But the mystery of whether he selected and encoded the passage remains.

It was one of two encoded texts that Poe presented as the work of a "Mr. W.B. Tyler," challenging readers to break their codes. No one did maybe no one cared to until scholars, in recent years, began embracing the theory that Poe himself came up with the messages and devised the codes.

The theory holds that Poe, obsessed with death and premature burial in "The Tell-tale Heart" and other stories, would have encrypted his own words in nearly impenetrable code meant to be pried open only long after his death.

In 1992, Duke University doctoral student Terence Whalen, while procrastinating on his dissertation, finally decoded the first message. It was a passage from the 1713 play "Cato" by English writer Joseph Addison. But it took computer power and more time to fathom the second.

"I can't really say if I cared what it would say, one way or the other. But I was curious to see what it would yield," said Gil Broza, a 27-year-old computer programmer from Toronto who cracked the code. For his solution, he was awarded $2,500 in October by Williams College, in Williamstown. Shawn Rosenheim, a Poe scholar there who had pondered the problem for years, established the contest in 1996.

The first cipher put the original message backward. But its solution took just a few days, because each letter in the original message matches just one other letter in the code. The second cipher is far more complex. Each letter in the original has multiple variants. The letter "e," for example, has 14. The code freely mixes upper and lower case and turns some characters upside down.

It is also maddeningly brief fewer than 150 words and so a discovered letter may provide clues to few words. It is also littered with what appear to be typographical errors.

Rosenheim and many others tried to solve it and failed. The breakthrough came when Broza decided, in traditional deciphering technique, to assume that each three-letter code word could represent "the," "and," or "not" and to play with the possibilities. With a computer program of his own design, he scanned lists of phrases showing the same patterns of letters.

He finally identified four letters in one word and conjectured correctly, like a contestant on "Wheel of Fortune," that it was "afternoon." That gave him yet more letters to decode more words and ultimately the whole text, within two months of work.

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