Edgar Allan Poe's Cipher Challenge

Edgar Allan Poe loved a good puzzle.
Edgar Allan Poe loved a good puzzle. / ivan-96 (Poe), atiatiati (puzzle) // iStock via Getty Images Plus

Mental Floss columnist A.J. Jacobs has written a fascinating book called The Puzzler that will be released on April 26, 2022. The book is an exploration of the history, science, and joy of all kinds of puzzles, from crosswords to jigsaws to the meaning of life. In anticipation of publication, Mental Floss is offering some historical tidbits inspired by the book. Here’s the third installment, on Edgar Allan Poe and his love of puzzles; you can read previous installments here.

Among his many interests (death, murder, people trapped in small places), Edgar Allan Poe was a fan of wordplay. He liked anagrams and went on the record defending puns, writing, “Of puns it has been said that those who most dislike [them] are the least able to utter them.”

But perhaps Poe’s favorite form of verbal puzzle was the cipher, a message in which the letters are substituted to hide the meaning. He made his own, incorporated the puzzles into his writing—in his short story, “The Gold-Bug,” the location of a buried treasure is written in cipher on a parchment in invisible ink—and even issued cipher-related challenges to the readers of two magazines.

The Cipher Challenge

The simplest cipher is called a Caesar cipher, where letters are shifted a predetermined amount: For instance, you can shift it two letters so that A becomes C, B becomes D, and so on. (In this example, “EDGAR” would be written “GFICT.”) But there are many different types of ciphers, and Poe preferred those that were more complex, including puzzles that used multiple letters to represent a single letter, or ciphers that required a secret keyword to unlock.

While working at Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, Poe wrote in an article that there were rules to solving ciphers, adding, “Let this be put to the test. Let any one address us a letter in this way, and we pledge ourselves to read it forthwith—however unusual or arbitrary may be the characters employed.”

People began to send in puzzles, and Poe solved them—often writing with hilarious cockiness and dismissiveness. One, he wrote, gave him “no trouble whatever” before pointing out various errors the writer had made. He would later claim that out of approximately 100 ciphers he received, there was just one that he couldn’t figure out. (Poe dismissed it as “a jargon of random characters, having no meaning whatever,” but in this case he was wrong; the cipher was finally solved in 1977.)

Poe eventually left Alexander’s and wound up at Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine, where he started talking more about solving ciphers and issued another challenge, that “any one who will take the trouble may address us a note . . . and we pledge ourselves for the solution of the riddle.”

People took him up on this as well—and Poe decided to up the stakes. One puzzle from a friend of a friend proved so ingenious that after Poe solved it, he reprinted it with the prize of a year’s subscription for both Graham’s and The Saturday Evening Post to the first person who could solve it. Poe set the challenge in August; in October, he proclaimed that none of the magazine's many readers could figure it out, so he published the solution. (Poe would later admit that someone had solved the puzzle, but he was convinced the man had cheated. According to historian Jill Lepore, however, it's more likely that Poe “couldn’t bear the thought that someone else could solve the cipher.”)

Here’s the first cipher that Poe solved at Alexander’s so you can take a whack at it yourself; the solution can be found at the bottom of the article (note: we actually corrected some of the mistakes in the cipher to make it more approachable):

The first cipher Poe solved at Alexander's
Try solving Poe's cipher for yourself. / Mental Floss

Of course, this wouldn’t be Poe-ish if his cipher story didn’t have a surprise twist. 

Poe’s Puzzling Puzzles

After the content was finished, Poe published two ciphers that he claimed were solvable—but he never printed the solutions. The ciphers, he said, were sent to him by a “Mr. W.B. Tyler,” but some scholars believe it was Poe himself who wrote them.

For decades, the ciphers remained unsolved. Then, in 1991, Terence Whalen, now an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois Chicago, cracked one of the codes. The text turned out to be a passage from the 1713 play Cato by Joseph Addison. 

The second cipher wasn’t decoded for another nine years, and not until a professor and Poe fan at Williams College offered a $2500 prize. In 2000, Toronto resident Gil Broza, who was working as a software engineer at the time, finally sent in the correct answer.

Broza said it took him several months of scrutinizing the blurry print after work before he had the aha moment. There were several challenges: Each letter was encrypted with several symbols, sometimes as many as 14, and there were dozens of mistakes introduced by either the printer or the cipher creator. Broza’s method was to first crack the three-letter words (such as the and and) and then move onto the longer words, such as afternoon, which has an unusual letter pattern.

When he unlocked the passage, Broza was both excited to have solved it, and unimpressed with it. “To my untrained eye, it looked too flowery and kitschy to be written by Poe himself,” Broza told me. Indeed, the passage reads (with mistakes fixed), “It was early spring. Warm and sultry glowed the afternoon. The very breezes seemed to share the delicious languor of universal nature …” It goes on like that. Not a corpse or a spooky talking bird in sight!

The cover of A.J. Jacobs's new book, The Puzzler

For more history and puzzles like these, check out A.J. Jacobs’s upcoming book The Puzzler, out from Crown Publishing on April 26, 2022. You can pre-order here. Copyright A.J. Jacobs. All rights reserved.

The Solution to Poe's Cipher

When deciphered, the passage is actually a type of riddle often called an enigma (though annoyingly, in the 19th century, many types of puzzle had that name). Enigmas were a popular 19th century puzzle where, according to IsabellaAlden.com, "First, readers had to solve individual word clues that tested their knowledge and cleverness before they could solve the overall puzzle.” In other words, you’d solve a riddle and that would give you letters, and then you’d put the letters in order to make the word. Here’s the solution:

I am a word of ten letters. My first, second, seventh, and third is useful to farmers; my sixth, seventh, and first is a mischievous animal; my ninth, seventh, and first is the latter’s enemy; my tenth, seventh, and first supports life; my fourth, fifth, seventh, and sixth is a fruit; my fourth, fifth, and eighth is a powerful implement; my whole indicates a wise man.”

The answer is “Temperance.”

The words indicated in the riddle include “team,” “rat,” “cat,” “eat,” and “pear.”

The code for the cipher is below:

A 9 / C 6 / D: / E 8 / F s / G; / H 7 / I o / L n / M? / N 5 / O a / P! / R d / S—/ T 3 / U h / V x / W 2 / X g / Y †