5 Historic Codes Yet to Be Cracked

Voynich Manuscript, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Voynich Manuscript, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Edgar Allan Poe, in a July 1841 article for Graham's Magazine, wrote that while people tend to think it's a relatively simple thing to create an uncrackable secret code, in fact "it may be roundly asserted that human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve." That was easy for him to say. Shortly after his premature death, Poe's friend the Rev. Warren H. Cudworth recalled that the author's ability to "unravel the most dark and perplexing ciphers was really supernatural." The rest of us get stumped sometimes. Here are five codes and ciphers that have stymied human ingenuity for decades, centuries, even millennia.

1. THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT

The Voynich Manuscript has been puzzling emperors, antiquarians and cryptologists for at least 400 years. It's an illuminated manuscript of 240 vellum pages written by an unknown author in an unknown language. Vibrant illustrations of plants and astronomical and astrological charts suggest the volume may be an alchemical, magical, or scientific text. The calfskin pages were radiocarbon dated to between 1404 and 1438. While the iron gall ink has not been dated, since there is no erased earlier writing on the pages, it's likely the manuscript was written around the same time.

Researchers believe Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (1576-1612) acquired the manuscript in the late 16th century and gave it to his personal physician and pharmacologist Jacobus Sinapius to see if he could make heads or tails of it. He couldn't. Neither could Czech alchemist Georg Baresch, Bohemian physician Johannes Marcus Marci and Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher. After Kircher got the book from Marci in 1665, the manuscript disappears from the historical record until 1912 when antique book dealer Wilfrid Voynich found it in a chest of books the Jesuits were trying to sell at the Villa Mondragone in Frascati, Italy. Voynich would dedicate the rest of his life to deciphering the manuscript. Although he failed, at least his efforts secured him the naming rights.

They also garnered him posthumous accusations of fraud as some people believed the whole book was a hoax devised by Voynich himself. Radiocarbon dating put paid to that theory, as the odds of anyone finding that much fresh, unused 15th century vellum to cover with fantastical writing and drawing are slim to none. Professional codebreakers in both World Wars and one Cold one tried their hand at cracking the Voynich code without success. (You can read mental_floss's story about recent attempts to crack it here.)

It's not just the writing that has proven impossible to crack: some of the drawings are ciphers too. There are 113 unidentified plant species depicted in the manuscript, and nobody knows what the female nudes striking curious poses in bodies of water or with odd pipe systems are supposed to mean.

Do you think you're better than the imperial court of Rudolf II, the greatest cryptographers of the 20th century and pretty much everyone else? You can try your hand at cracking the Voynich Manuscript on the website of Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

2. PAPYRUS OXYRHYNCHUS 90

PapyrusOxyrhynchus 90. "The Oxyrhynchus Papyri," Grenfell and Hunt, 1898.

In 1896, archaeologists Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt discovered thousands of papyrus fragments in a garbage dump outside Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Preserved by the dry desert heat, the papyri recorded details of daily life (receipts, insurance claims, loan notes, personal letters), fine literature (large sections of lost Euripides plays, summaries of seven lost books by Livy, a poem by Sappho), and scriptures—gospels both canonical and apocryphal—from the 1st to the 6th century CE.

Papyrus 90 is one of the mundane daily life records, a receipt for a deposit of wheat in the public granary dating to 179-80 CE. What makes it not mundane are the last two lines. They're written in Greek characters like the rest of the papyrus, but they're not Greek words. Grenfell and Hunt noted when they published the papyrus that it wasn't a Graecized version of Demotic script (the Egyptian "document writing" language) either. It appears to be a cryptogram, some wheat deposit intelligence that demanded secrecy.

A transcription of the text is available for the intrepid Greek scholar/cryptographer here.

3. KING CHARLES I AND QUEEN HENRIETTA-MARIA'S LETTER

King Charles I of England had many secrets to keep and many enemies to keep out of his secrets. Much of his correspondence was peppered with ciphers to keep prying Parliamentarian eyes out of his business. Charles's ciphers kept some secrets so ably that historians didn't realize until a few years ago that a) he ever talked dirty, and b) he planned "a swiving" (an obscene word for sex) with the redheaded stepdaughter of one of his courtiers while imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle in 1648.

During the First English Civil War (1642–1646), he and his beloved wife Henrietta-Maria were apart for long stretches. In the beginning she was in The Hague trying to drum up political support for the Royalist cause and to hock the Crown Jewels to fund her perpetually-broke husband's war. By March of 1645, with the tides of war having turned against them, Henrietta-Maria was back in her hometown of Paris.

Throughout their separation they wrote to each other assiduously, and they weren't whispering sweet nothings. Henrietta was deeply involved in her husband's governance and for all intents and purposes was a continental branch of Charles I's court. These letters were replete with political machinations, military plans, and perhaps most relevantly for a Protestant England that was deeply suspicious of the Catholic Henrietta-Maria, promises to liberalize England's anti-Catholic laws.

On March 5, 1645, Charles sent a new cipher to Henrietta-Maria via a trusted courier named Pooly. A month later in a letter to his wife dated April 8, he used the cipher:

In a word, when I know none better (I speak not now in relation to business), then 3 9 8 270 55 5 7 67 18 294 35 69 16 54 6 38 1 67 68 9 66: thou mayest easily judge how thy conversation pleased me.

[note] The little that is here in cipher is in that which I sent to thee by Pooly.

After the Battle of Naseby on June 14, 1645, Charles and Henrietta's correspondence was confiscated and published by the Parliamentarians. His letter of March 5 was revealed to be something of a bombshell: He authorized her to promise in his name to anyone useful that "I will take away all the penal laws against the Roman Catholicks in England as soon as God shall enable me to do it so al by their means I may have so powerful assistance as may deserve so great a favour and enable me to do it."

So that April cipher could be an expression of affection or intimacy (he probably wasn't talking about swiving her, though), or it could have been a whole other kind of conversation, like some payoff from that promise, that pleased King Charles. We won't know until someone cracks it.

4. THE DORABELLA CIPHER

The Dorabella Cipher in Elgar's own hand. (The History Blog)

Composer Edward Elgar may be best known today as the accompaniment to every graduation ceremony with Pomp and Circumstance, but he was also a fan of cryptographic arts. He expressed his ciphering talent in an addendum to a letter his wife wrote on July 14, 1897. The letter was a thank you note to the Penny family at whose home the Elgars had just spent a convivial few days. Elgar had struck up a friendship with the daughter of the family, Dora Penny, and he added a postscript to his wife's letter directed to Dora.

At first glance it looks like group of squiggles at different angles reminiscent of the universal comic book symbol for dizziness, but each character is actually composed of one, two, or three semicircles tilted in eight different directions. Dora couldn't crack it, so she put the letter in a drawer for the next 40 years until she published it in her memoirs in 1937. Since then, people have tried to solve the Dorabella Cipher with some pretty wacky results.

Tim S. Roberts thinks he's cracked it with a simple substitution cipher (you can find a PDF explaining his solution here):

"P.S. Now droop beige weeds set in it – pure idiocy – one entire bed! Luigi Ccibunud luv'ngly tuned liuto studio two."

The subject, Roberts believes, refers to an earlier letter or conversation in which Edward and Dora discussed his excessive pruning of his garden. Without this extremely obscure conversation, the solution makes no sense at all, and frankly, even with it only the first sentence makes sense. He also had to jiggle things to make them fit. Some parts are straight substitution, others require letters to be switched or added. He only glosses over what "Ccibunud" might mean, saying that Elgar loved the Italian composer Luigi Cherubini growing up, and Dora Penny was said to have had a stutter, so Elgar was teasing her over her pronunciation of an Italian composer that apparently she introduced a random d into. There's also no character for the i in studio. He just put that in to make it form a word.

When the Elgar Society held a Dorabella Cipher Competition in 2007 to celebrate Elgar's 150th birthday (and again the next year), none of the solutions were accepted because although several seemed to be very well reasoned, in the end, "the results read as a disconnected chain of bizarre utterances, such as an imaginative mind could conjure up from any group of random letters." So far all the proposed solutions seem to fall into this category. And there's one final twist: A key created by Elgar in the 1920s—which, according to New Scientist, appeared in an exercise book and "listed the symbols used in the Dorabella cipher matched against the letters of the alphabet"—doesn't yield anything that makes sense.

5. CARRIER PIGEON NURP 40 TW 194'S FINAL MESSAGE

In 1982, David and Anne Martin found the remains of a bird during renovation of the fireplace of their home in Bletchingley, Surrey. One of its skeletonized legs had a red plastic capsule attached to it, marking it as a World War II military carrier pigeon that picked the wrong roost on its way to deliver a message and died in the chimney. Inside the capsule was the original coded message—27 groups of five letters with some numerals at the end—written on a scroll the size of a rolling paper.

AOAKN HVPKD FNFJU YIDDC
RQXSR DJHFP GOVFN MIAPX
PABUZ WYYNP CMPNW HJRZH
NLXKG MEMKK ONOIB AKEEQ
UAOTA RBQRH DJOFM TPZEH
LKXGH RGGHT JRZCQ FNKTQ
KLDTS GQIRU AOAKN 27 1525/6

It took years before anyone in government could be persuaded to take a look at the cipher. In 2010, experts at Bletchley Park, a museum that was the headquarters of British Intelligence's codebreakers during World War II, finally checked it out. They were not able to crack it, but they did discover that it must have been an important missive. None of Bletchley Park's classified MI6 pigeons carried coded messages during the war. Given Bletchingley's location half way between Normandy and Bletchley Park and just five miles from Field Marshal Montgomery's headquarters at Reigate where the D-Day landings were planned, it's possible that Pigeon NURP 40 TW 194 was carrying very sensitive information indeed.

A few weeks after the story broke, the media reported that Ontario history buff Gord Young claimed to have cracked the code thanks to his great-uncle's World War I Royal Flying Corp aerial observers book. His solution was rough around the edges, however. He wasn't able to decipher some of it, and several of the 27 groups he interpreted as improvised acronyms with no antecedents in the military record. He may have misinterpreted some of the letters—mistaken a U for a W, for instance—and there are some painfully awkward, redundant phrases like "Determined where Jerry's headquarters front posts. Right battery headquarters right here. Found headquarters infantry right here. Final note, confirming, found Jerry's whereabouts." That's a lot of repetitive verbiage to take up space on a cigarette paper.

Bletchley Park didn't think the solution was the right one. Then, the cryptological world discovered that Young had never intended to present an actual answer—he was just trying to help move the process along. So until a World War II code book is found with a proper key, Bletchley Park doesn't think anyone is going to be able to crack the pigeon's code.

The Violent Shootout That Led to Daryl Hall and John Oates Joining Forces

Hall and Oates.
Hall and Oates.
Michael Putland, Getty Images

As songwriting partners, Daryl Hall (the blonde one) and John Oates (the mustachioed one) were tentpoles of the 1970s and 1980s music scene. Beginning with “She’s Gone” and continuing on through “Rich Girl,” “Kiss on My List,” “Private Eyes,” and “I Can’t Go For That,” they’re arguably one of the biggest pop act duos in history.

Unfortunately, it took a riot and some gunfire to bring them together.

Both Hall and Oates were raised in the Philadelphia suburbs in the late 1950s and 1960s. After high school, both went on to Temple University—Hall to study music and Oates to major in journalism. While in their late teens, the two each had a doo-wop group they belonged to. Hall was a member of The Temptones, a successful act that had recently earned a recording contract with a label called Arctic Records; Oates was part of the Masters, which had just released their first single, “I Need Your Love.”

In 1967, both bands were invited to perform at a dance event promoted by area disc jockey Jerry Bishop at the Adelphi Ballroom on North 52nd Street in Philadelphia. According to Oates, the concert was a professional obligation: Bishop had the ability to give songs airtime.

“When Jerry Bishop contacted you, you had to go,” Oates told Pennsylvania Heritage magazine in 2016. “If you didn’t, your record wouldn’t get played on the radio.”

That’s how Hall and Oates found themselves backstage at the Adelphi, each preparing to perform with their respective group. (Oates said Hall looked good in a sharkskin suit with the rest of his partners, whereas he felt more self-conscious in a “crappy houndstooth” suit.) While Oates had previously seen The Temptones perform, the two had never met nor spoken. It’s possible they never would have if it weren’t for what happened next.

Before either one of them had even made it onto the stage, they heard gunshots. A riot had broken out between two rival factions of high school fraternities. They “really were just gangs with Greek letters,” Hall later told the Independent. Peering out from behind the curtain, Hall saw a fight involving chains and knives. Someone had fired a weapon.

“We were all getting ready for the show to start when we heard screams—and then gunshots,” Oates said in 2016. “It seemed a full-scale riot had erupted out in the theater, not a shocker given the times. Like a lot of other cities around the country, Philly was a city where racial tensions had begun to boil over.”

Worse, the performances were being held on an upper floor of the Adelphi. No one backstage could just rush out an exit. They all had to cram into a service elevator—which is where Hall and Oates came nose-to-nose for the first time.

“Oh, well, you didn’t get to go on, either,” Hall said. “How ya doin’?”

After acknowledging they both went to Temple, the two went their separate ways. But fate was not done with them.

The two ran into each other at Temple University a few weeks later, where they began joking about their mutual brush with death. By that time, Oates’s group, the Masters, had broken up after two of its members were drafted for the Vietnam War. So Oates joined The Temptones as a guitarist.

When The Temptones later disbanded, Hall and Oates continued to collaborate, and even became roommates. Hall eventually dropped out of Temple just a few months before he was set to graduate; Oates went traveling in Europe for four months and sublet his apartment to Hall’s sister. When he returned, he discovered she hadn’t been paying the rent. The door was padlocked. Desperate, Oates showed up on Hall’s doorstep, where Hall offered him a place to sleep. There, they continued to collaborate.

“That was our true birth as a duo,” Oates said.

Hall and Oates released their first album, Whole Oats, in 1972. Using a folk sound, it wasn’t a hit, but the rest of their careers more than made up for it. More than 50 years after that chaotic first encounter, the two have a summer 2020 tour planned.

Why Isn't Fish Considered Meat During Lent?

AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images
AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images

For six Fridays each spring, Catholics observing Lent skip sirloin in favor of fish sticks and swap Big Macs for Filet-O-Fish. Why?

Legend has it that centuries ago a medieval pope with connections to Europe's fishing business banned red meat on Fridays to give his buddies' industry a boost. But that story isn't true. Sunday school teachers have a more theological answer: Jesus fasted for 40 days and died on a Friday. Catholics honor both occasions by making a small sacrifice: avoiding animal flesh one day out of the week. That explanation is dandy for a homily, but it doesn't explain why only red meat and poultry are targeted and seafood is fine.

For centuries, the reason evolved with the fast. In the beginning, some worshippers only ate bread. But by the Middle Ages, they were avoiding meat, eggs, and dairy. By the 13th century, the meat-fish divide was firmly established—and Saint Thomas Aquinas gave a lovely answer explaining why: sex, simplicity, and farts.

In Part II of his Summa Theologica, Aquinas wrote:

"Fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex. Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products."

Put differently, Aquinas thought fellow Catholics should abstain from eating land-locked animals because they were too darn tasty. Lent was a time for simplicity, and he suggested that everyone tone it down. It makes sense. In the 1200s, meat was a luxury. Eating something as decadent as beef was no way to celebrate a holiday centered on modesty. But Aquinas had another reason, too: He believed meat made you horny.

"For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust. Hence the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods."

There you have it. You can now blame those impure thoughts on a beef patty. (Aquinas might have had it backwards though. According to the American Dietetic Association, red meat doesn't boost "seminal matter." Men trying to increase their sperm count are generally advised to cut back on meat. However, red meat does improve testosterone levels, so it's give-and-take.)

Aquinas gave a third reason to avoid meat: it won't give you gas. "Those who fast," Aquinas wrote, "are forbidden the use of flesh meat rather than of wine or vegetables, which are flatulent foods." Aquinas argued that "flatulent foods" gave your "vital spirit" a quick pick-me-up. Meat, on the other hand, boosts the body's long-lasting, lustful humors—a religious no-no.

But why isn't fish considered meat?

The reason is foggy. Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, for one, has been used to justify fasting rules. Paul wrote, " … There is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fish, and another of birds" (15:39). That distinction was possibly taken from Judaism's own dietary restrictions, which separates fleishig (which includes land-locked mammals and fowl) from pareve (which includes fish). Neither the Torah, Talmud, or New Testament clearly explains the rationale behind the divide.

It's arbitrary, anyway. In the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec ruled that beavers were fish. In Latin America, it's OK to eat capybara, as the largest living rodent is apparently also a fish on Lenten Fridays. Churchgoers around Detroit can guiltlessly munch on muskrat every Friday. And in 2010, the Archbishop of New Orleans gave alligator the thumbs up when he declared, “Alligator is considered in the fish family."

Thanks to King Henry VIII and Martin Luther, Protestants don't have to worry about their diet. When Henry ruled, fish was one of England's most popular dishes. But when the Church refused to grant the King a divorce, he broke from the Church. Consuming fish became a pro-Catholic political statement. Anglicans and the King's sympathizers made it a point to eat meat on Fridays. Around that same time, Martin Luther declared that fasting was up to the individual, not the Church. Those attitudes hurt England's fishing industry so much that, in 1547, Henry's son King Edward VI—who was just 10 at the time—tried to reinstate the fast to improve the country's fishing economy. Some Anglicans picked the practice back up, but Protestants—who were strongest in Continental Europe—didn't need to take the bait.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story was updated in 2020.

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