How Victorian Explorers and Pining Lovers Used Coded Newspaper Ads to Communicate

"Let me get my quill."
"Let me get my quill." / benoitb/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

On October 1, 1851, a paragraph of utter nonsense appeared in the classifieds section of London’s The Times

“No. 16th.—S. lkqo. C. hgo & Tatty. F. kmn at npkl F,” it began, followed by several lines of similar gibberish.

It wasn’t the first ad of its kind. Between 1850 and 1855, the paper published more than four dozen comparable notices, always near the first of the month. Who wrote the cryptic messages, and to whom? Did the intended recipient ever actually see them? And, most importantly, what on Earth do they mean?

Answers to all these questions were already out there for anyone who hunted hard enough. As Vice reports, cryptologist Elonka Dunin—co-author of Codebreaking: A Practical Guide with Cipherbrain founder Klaus Schmeh—did just that as part of a recent project to spotlight encrypted Victorian newspaper ads. She, Schmeh, and The Puzzler author (and Mental Floss contributor) A.J. Jacobs presented their findings at last month’s Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) conference.

The ad above and others in that series were meant for one Richard Collinson, who at the time was gallivanting around the Canadian Arctic trying to solve one of the mid-19th century’s most captivating mysteries: What happened to the Franklin expedition?

The Hapless Captain

richard collinson circa 1877
Richard Collinson circa 1877. / National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In late 1849, the British Admiralty tasked Collinson with sailing through the Bering Strait from the west in search of Sir John Franklin and his two missing ships, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. They’d disappeared during their 1845 endeavor to locate a Northwest Passage, and a parade of subsequent expeditions had tried and failed to learn their fate.

So, too, would Collinson’s. The 39-year-old set sail from England in January 1850 with two ships under his command; he captained the HMS Enterprise, while his second-in-command Robert McClure helmed the HMS Investigator. The vessels got separated around Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and never reconvened, which proved frustrating for Collinson partly because he was repeatedly covering ground that McClure got to first. 

McClure's Investigator also had the expedition’s only translator, making it difficult for Collinson to communicate with Inuit who were trying to direct him to King William Island, where he would have found ample evidence of the Franklin expedition. In the end, Collinson opted to send search parties along Victoria Island’s eastern coast—on the side of Victoria Strait opposite King William Island—where they came upon a note recently left by explorer John Rae. Again, they’d landed in already-charted territory. 

hms enterprise and investigator illustration
An illustration of the Enterprise and Investigator from an 1848 Arctic expedition. / National Maritime Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Throughout the five-year mission, the Enterprise also had major personnel problems, and Collinson frequently ordered disgruntled crew members into solitary confinement for vague violations like making offensive remarks. Though sailors would later laud Collinson for his comprehensive surveys of difficult waterways, his attempt to locate the Franklin expedition was completely unsuccessful. Rae and subsequent explorers would help prove that everyone eventually perished after the Terror and Erebus got stuck in ice (but not before some resorted to cannibalism).

During his Arctic escapade, Collinson had received no news from his family back in England. That wasn't unusual during a long expedition in the remote region. But it wasn’t for lack of trying—and here’s where the coded classifieds come in.

A Sign of The Times

In 1889, six years after Collinson’s death, his brother Thomas Bernard Collinson published the Journal of H.M.S. Enterprise, an annotated edition of Collinson’s account of the 1850 expedition. In it, Thomas Bernard mentioned that Collinson had devised a cipher “using the ordinary signal-book of the Royal Navy, substituting letters of the alphabet for the numbers,” which his family used to post an encrypted monthly message in The Times throughout Collinson’s absence. 

Due to Britain’s imperialistic reach, the newspaper’s circulation stretched far beyond the UK, meaning Collinson could hypothetically get his hands on a copy at many a foreign port. But the Arctic was still out of range, and Collinson didn’t lay eyes on a single coded ad until he landed in Banyuwangi, Indonesia, en route to England in late 1854. “[T]here he found four advertisements at once,” his brother wrote.

The code itself apparently went uncracked outside of Collinson’s circle until 1947, when Franklin expedition scholar Richard J. Cyriax published an article explaining how Collinson had replaced the numbers of Frederick Marryat’s 1817 system of signal flags with letters. Though Cyriax confessed to hoping the ads would “contain private information of historical importance about Arctic expeditions,” all he really found were innocuous family updates about births, deaths, marriages, and so on.

marryat signal code circa 1879
A version of the Marryat signal code circa 1879. / National Maritime Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Apparently, this anticlimactic discovery was largely forgotten by 1980—the year The Times ran a contest asking people to decrypt an ad from April 1852. Some readers noticed that an unencrypted set of coordinates looked to match the area where explorers were searching for the Northwest Passage at the time, and a retired judge won the blue ribbon by theorizing a link to the Franklin expedition’s rescue missions. Nobody actually cracked the code, but it piqued the interest of John Rabson, who ended up doing so in a 1992 article published in the journal Cryptologia. Rabson didn’t know about Cyriax’s solution until coming up with his own. Their conclusions are pretty much identical, though Rabson goes into more detail about how he got there.

The crucial keys were what cryptologists call “cribs”—encrypted words you can guess based on plaintext in a cipher. For instance, the word born in one ad is preceded by the letters iqhl, which Rabson inferred to mean child, son, or daughter (or the pluralized versions). If you have a few cribs, you can cross-reference the letters and start to narrow down the possibilities.

It’s a painstaking process, to say the least. Elonka Dunin, who’s been working to decrypt the remaining ads, estimated that it might take a solid three hours to finish one. “A particular three-digit number might mean four different things, so you have to use some context as you’re trying to figure out what it says,” she tells Mental Floss. 

Context clues also helped in identifying typos. Dunin kept coming across the word echo, for example, and it was only after she decrypted the word home elsewhere in the ad that she realized echo—whose code is just one digit different from home’s—was a mistake.

collinson encrypted newspaper ad in 'the times'
One of the ads in the August 31, 1850 edition of 'The Times.' / The Times, // Public Domain

As Cyriax learned decades ago, the messages themselves aren’t exactly juicy. Someone named Margaret gave birth to her sixth son on September 13, 1851, and Lady Peel’s husband—the former prime minister, Sir Robert Peel—suffered a fatal fall from his horse the previous summer. Occasionally an ad would mention an update about another Arctic expedition (“Captain Penny arrived from Baffin Bay early in September”), but nothing that really qualified as top-secret.

So why go to the trouble of encryption? For one thing, as Dunin points out, “the Victorians were very privacy-conscious.” Personal goings-on of the kind you’d normally put in a sealed letter might have seemed ill-suited for publication in a wide-reaching newspaper. It also could have been a space-saving—thus, money-saving—tactic. 

“Using the flags was a way to cram more information into a classified ad, because one flag or one series of flags could mean a whole phrase or multiple phrases of information,” she says. And cram they did. “You can definitely get five years of personal information about these families, that’s for sure.”

Secret Ad-mirers

As far as we know, Collinson was the only person who co-opted the Marryat signal code for encrypted classifieds. But he wasn’t the only 19th-century innovator to use encrypted classifieds. Dunin, Schmeh, and Jacobs discussed a number of other instances in their talk, of which they gave a slightly longer version at the International Conference on Cryptologic History in July. Ransom notes for a German kidnapping and a still-unsolved ad involving a Denver snake oil company are just two examples. And then, of course, there were the love letters. These were one of Jacobs’s specialties.

“One big theme is: ‘WRITE ME BACK! Please! I haven’t heard from you and am freaking out,’” he tells Mental Floss. “It seems that in Victorian times, there was a lot of ghosting going on, as we’d say today.”

One (presumed) man who posted some two dozen ads over a two-year span went so far as to swear off further communication until the recipient responded. “He is laying down the law,” Jacobs explains. “Then literally one week later, he runs another ad begging her to say something, ‘anything.’ So he didn’t have great impulse control.”

victorian man tries to woo a woman
She's just not that into you. / duncan1890/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Similar to Collinson’s case, printing an amorous ad in code may have been a way for lovers to preserve their privacy beyond simply using pseudonyms. Or maybe they were just trying to be romantic. “I definitely think writing in code added to the romance. Secret communications are always more exciting. You have your own little language,” Jacobs says. 

But some people didn’t feel the need to rely on their own little language to impress a prospective paramour. One of Jacobs’s favorite ads isn’t even encrypted. “I have the most beautiful horse in England, but not the most beautiful lady,” it reads. “Your silence pains me deeply. I cannot forget you.”

“This Victorian gentleman had game! Not very good game, but he’s trying, I guess,” Jacobs says. “I’m curious as to whether this worked, whether comparing her to a horse was successful.” 

If England’s many lovelorn suitors had anything in common with the intrepid Captain Collinson, it was that they, too, endured icy conditions. But a woman’s frigid silence probably didn’t mean she just couldn’t find a copy of The Times.

[h/t Vice]