The new year begins with six encrypted postcards from the 19th century. They were provided to me by the National Cryptologic Museum. Can a reader decipher them?

The National Cryptologic Museum operated by the NSA once in a while receives enquiries from people asking for help in deciphering encrypted documents. There’s no doubt that the NSA has excellent codebreakers on its payroll, who could do such a job, but of course these experts have other things to do. This is why the National Cryptologic Museum sometimes forwards help enquiries to me. Of course, I’m very happy about this, as I  write about unsolved cryptograms quite often.

The latest decryption inquiry I received from the NSA museum is about a series of six encrypted postcards from around 1880. Frequent readers of this blog certainly know that encrypted postcards are nothing unusual. I have intoduced dozens of them on Klausis Krypto Kolumne. My readers solved almost all of them.

Most encrypted postcards I am aware of were written in the early 20th century. The ones I’m presenting today are older than most others I know. Usually, an encrypted postcard was sent by a young man to his spouse. The receiver address of the six cards I’m presenting today suggests that this is the case here, too. All cards are adressed to a woman named Alice G. Barnard living in Springfield, Vermont. Before you ask: No, this woman has got nothing to do with the Alice used to explain crypto protocols. And no, there’s no direct connection to the famous Springfield effect. And no, I don’t know whether Ms. Barnard was related to the famous cardiac surgeon Christiaan Barnard.

Here’s the first card:


Here’s card number 2:


Number 3:


Here’s card number 4:


Postcard number 5:


And finally card number 6:


The encryption does not look very difficult at first view. The periods probably are word separators. However, the alphabet used looks pretty small (the digits from 0 to 9 and the plus sign), which suggests a cipher that is more complex than a simple letter substitution.

Can somebody break these six encrypted postcards? The owner, the NSA museum and I would be very pleased to learn the solution.


Further reading: Historical Ciphers Colloquium 2017: Save the date and hand in a presentation!

Kommentare (29)

  1. #1 David Allen Wilson
    1. Januar 2017

    I immediately recognize “1879” at the top of the first two letters. This is most likely the date.

  2. #2 Thomas
    1. Januar 2017

    The underscored numbers represent a plaintext number, hence the date of the day. Therefore the first number(s) in these lines should represent the month (american date).

  3. #3 Norbert
    1. Januar 2017

    Yep, simple substitution. The first card starts like this:

    AUG 4 1879

  4. #4 Thomas
    1. Januar 2017

    It seeems to me that the words aren’t separated with periods but with +/-.

  5. #5 Thomas
    1. Januar 2017

    Happy New Year!
    I don’t yet see how you get “Salt Lake City” from the first line if it is a simple substitution.

  6. #6 Gerry
    1. Januar 2017

    The + sign seems to be the word delimiter, and = a paragraph.
    2.29 in the date is “Dec” for December
    2.219. and could be “Dear Alice”
    8459. may be “your” and 8459.0 “yours”
    and finally 6. 3. 1. in the last line are the three initials of the sender of the letter

  7. #7 Norbert
    1. Januar 2017

    A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  K  L  M  N 
    1  1. 9  2. 2  3. 4. 6  3  1- 5. 6. 7.

    O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z
    4  8. ?  9. 0. 0  5  2- 7  ?  8= ?

  8. #8 Norbert
    1. Januar 2017

    Z is 3-

  9. #9 Norbert
    1. Januar 2017

    The Sender (“H. F. B.”) appears to be Alice’s brother

    Henry F. Barnard, born 22 Jan 1857 in Springfield


  10. #10 Norbert
    1. Januar 2017

    Gerry is right:
    = is a period, Y is simply 8.

  11. #11 Norbert
    1. Januar 2017

    First card (with a few corrections):

    Salt Lake City.
    Aug 4 1879

    Since I last wrote home
    have come from Boze-
    man nearly three hun-
    dred miles of the way
    in an open wagon.
    This is a beautiful city.
    Went to Mormon Taberna-
    cle yesterday. Have
    been bathing in the
    lake. Weather has been
    very hot and is now
    sultry. Think I shall
    Regards to all the
    family. Yours

    H. F. B.

  12. #12 Gerry
    1. Januar 2017

    Cool, Norbert! So 2.219. and is “Dear Sister”

  13. #13 Norbert
    1. Januar 2017

    Second card, also with a few corrections. (I suppose that “2-” stands for V and Q as well as “3-” stands for Z and J.)

    Mammoth Hot Springs
    July 6, 1879

    Dear sister,
    we are having clear
    weather at last. Tho, still
    quite cool. There was
    horseracing here on
    the 4th and a row at
    eve in which several
    shots were fired. No one
    was hit but one man was
    pounded up badly and he
    being the one who commenced
    the shooting the col[onel?] has
    sent him into Bozeman.
    I have been rather unwell
    with a cold for a few days
    but hope to be all right
    With regards. H. F. B.

  14. #14 Klaus Schmeh
    1. Januar 2017

    @Norbert, Thomas, David, Gerry: Thank you very much, great job!
    Is the receiver really a sister of the sender? The Mormon Tabernacle mentioned on the frist card suggests that the two are Mormons. Mormons are known to call themselves “sister” or “brother”.

  15. #15 Norbert
    1. Januar 2017

    @Klaus: Der von mir oben gegebene Link beschäftigt sich mit der Ahnenforschung zur Barnard-Familie. Als Kinder von Eliza und Henry Barnard in Springfield, Vermont, werden dort erwähnt:

    Alice Glover Barnard (* 3.10.1853 in Springfield, + 30.3.1939)
    Henry F. Barnard (* 22.1.1857 in Springfield)

    Das dürften mit an Sicherheit grenzender Wahrscheinlichkeit die Empfängerin (Alice G. Barnard) und der Sender (H. F. B.) sein.

  16. #16 Klaus Schmeh
    1. Januar 2017

    Michael Schroeder via Facebook:
    Maybe a book cipher? The decimal points suggest something along the lines of page.word and page.word.letter. Words are either taken directly from the text (2 numbers) or are spelled out (multiple 3 letter combos). Numbers may be passed without decimal points.

    Just a guess, probably wrong.

  17. #17 Thomas
    1. Januar 2017

    Henry F. (a lawyer) was Alice´s real brother.
    Here is provided more nformation about them and their siblings (and a picture of him):

  18. #18 Klaus Schmeh
    1. Januar 2017

    @Thomas, Norbert:
    Great, this makes sense. This is the first time I encounter an encrypted postcard written to the sister of the sender.

  19. #19 Gerry
    1. Januar 2017

    Postcard #5:

    dec 3, 1879
    Dear sister
    i would like to
    write you a letter
    but do not have time
    and opportunity
    tell Mary will try to
    write in answer to her
    letter one of these
    days // are well as usual
    weather is warm and
    raining today // have you
    heard from Julia or
    aunt Frank lately
    please direct until
    farther notice to me at
    (94 Lafayette Ave)
    do the laconia democrats
    still come // if so send me the
    last one // I hope you have saved
    them // yours // H.F.B.

  20. #20 Gerry
    1. Januar 2017

    @postcard #5:
    Mary may be their sister Mary Eliza Barnard

  21. #21 Norbert
    1. Januar 2017

    Card #3 is a poor scan, hard to read. Here is my guess for the first half of it – any help for the rest is much appreciated!

    Sep 7, 1879

    Dear Sister!
    I wrote Mary
    yesterday that I hoped
    she would come to De-
    troit this fall, by
    next week if conven-
    ient as the state fair
    is then be held
    here. I included you
    also but wrote to her
    as, you know, it sometimes
    requires considerable
    persuation to
    induce her.

  22. #22 Thomas
    1. Januar 2017

    No. 6

    Dear sister
    Your long and
    interesting letter
    was lately received.
    Am well and hope you
    are all the same.
    Weather colder here
    these last two days.
    Have lot of new board-
    ers here children …
    Heard Pentecost to-
    day. Operahouse jam-
    med full. Mrs. Whitcomb
    went back to S. and little
    boy died on the way.
    Bo. paper said. Sad, wasn’t
    Regards to all at home

  23. #23 Thomas
    1. Januar 2017

    “Pentecost”: Apparently Reverend George Frederick Pentecost who held a speech in the Detroit opera house.

  24. #24 Norbert
    1. Januar 2017

    Most of the remaining part of card #3 (and of course, Henry did not write “persuation”, so let me start there),

    persuasion to induce her.
    I am des????? ??? ???
    ??? greatly hope you will
    come if you have no more
    important or preferable
    plans. If you approve it
    please lend your efforts
    to have Mary come. H. F. B.

  25. #25 Norbert
    1. Januar 2017

    A look at the deciphering alphabet is interesting:

    1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  0
    A  E  I  O  U  H  W  Y  C  T

    1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 0. 
    B  D  F  G  L  M  N  P  R  S

    1- 2- 3- 4-
    K  QV JZ X

    The vowels A, E, I, O, U were set into the first positions of line one, whereas the six least frequent letters J, K, Q, V, X, Z went into the third line. Now the first line was filled with five arbitrarily chosen letters H, W, Y, C, T (maybe these letters were defined by a key phrase like “how you chat”). The remaining ten characters went in alphabetical order into the second line.

  26. #26 Norbert
    1. Januar 2017

    Card #4 (still from Detroit)

    Sept 15, 1879

    Dear sister! Your pos-
    tal is rec’d. I cannot
    well at this distance and
    time fix upon my price
    for the Newton farm.
    But if you will inform
    me first(?) what price father
    paid for each, then what
    value they were given
    by the appraisers of
    his estate, and also at
    what amount they are now
    rated in the tax list,
    I will try to answer
    both your questions.
    Hope you will conclude
    to come out here this
    year and Mary also.
    Yours H. F. B.

  27. #27 Norbert
    1. Januar 2017

    @Thomas – card #6
    The word after “children” is underlined, thus it should be plaintext. I read “&c”, etcetera.
    Instead of “Bo. paper said”, I would suggest “So paper said.”. And, before it’s too late: Happy New Year to everybody! :-)

  28. #28 Thomas
    2. Januar 2017

    No. 4

    Sept 15 1879
    Dear sister! Your pos-
    tal is recd. I cannot
    tell at this distance and
    time fir (?) upon my price
    for the Newton farm.
    But if you will inform
    me partt (?) what price father
    paid for each, then what
    value they were given
    by the appraisers of
    him, estate and also at
    what amount they are now
    rated in the tax list,
    I will try to answer
    both your questions.
    Hope you will conclude
    to come out here this
    year and Mary also.
    Yours H.F.B.

  29. #29 Thomas
    2. Januar 2017

    Sorry, I overlooked #26 on my mobile.