The gravestone of William and Elizebeth Friedman in Washington, DC, bears a hidden message. A few days ago I had the chance to go on site and take a look at it. Here’s my report, including a video that shows Elonka Dunin explaining the code.
Gravestones bearing an encrypted message are rare. I know only about ten of them. Steganographic messages on gravestones appear to be even more uncommon – only two of them are mentioned in the literature I know. Over the last few days I had the chance to visit both of them. So, I decided to write a two part report about my expeditions to steganographic gravestones. Here is part 1.
The grave of William and Elizebeth Friedman
The less known of the two gravestones bearing a hidden message is located in the Arlington Cemetery in Washington, DC. This cemetery can be regarded as a tourist attraction – with visitor shuttles, guided tours and many places of interest.
In the Arlington Cemetery, I saw, among other things, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (including an impressive changing of the guards), the grave of John F. Kennedy, and the one of Robert Peary (allegedly the first person to reach the North Pole – a claim that is doubted by many historians). I want to express my thanks to Elonka Dunin (Kryptos expert, who inspired Dan Brown to create the character Nola Kaye for his novel The Lost Symbol), who took me to all these interesting places.
The grave Elonka and I mainly came for was the one of William and Elizebeth Friedman.
William Friedman (1891-1969) is considered the most successful codebreaker in history. In his long career he broke over 1000 ciphers, including the Kryha cryptograph, Edward Hebern’s rotor machine, and the Japanese Purple. William Friedman’s wife Elizebeth (1892-1980) was a notable codebreaker, too. Among other things, she solved numerous rum runner codes during the prohibition era.
The Friedmans had a strong interest in crypto puzzles and crypto mysteries. They examined the Voynich Manuscript and published a critical book about the Shakespeare Bacon code debate (I recently blogged about a message hidden in this book). Many of their Christmas cards contained funny crypto challenges, as can be seen in this blog post I published last December. In another post I introduced a few steganographic codes William Friedman created.
The hidden message
It was Elonka herself who discovered that on the gravestone of the Friedmans a message is hidden. This message is confirmed in a handwritten note found by journalist Jason Fagone, who recently published an Elizebeth Friedman biography titled The Woman Who Smached Codes (I have started reading it, it’s very interesting).
The message was created by Elizebeth Friedman after her husband had died in 1969. Elizebeth designed a gravestone inscription with William’s name and life data, a blank space for her own record, and the phrase KNOWLEDGE IS POWER. When Elizebeth Friedman died in 1980, her name and life data were added.
As Elonka found out, the message on the gravestone is coded in the Bacon cipher. This is not surprising, as William Friedman used this method in some of his cryptographic puzzles (e.g., the message in the castle picture is encoded this way). The Bacon cipher can be used to hide a message in an arbitrary text or picture (“anything can be made to signify anything”). In order to use it with a text, we need two different typesets (“a type” and “b type”). In the following I will use ordinary letters as type a and italic bold letters as type b. With these two types we can encode all letters of the alphabet (Bacon used a 25 letter alphabet) as follows:
A: SONNE B : SONNE C: SONNE D: SONNE
E: SONNE F : SONNE G: SONNE H: SONNE
I: SONNE K : SONNE L: SONNE M: SONNE
N: SONNE O : SONNE P: SONNE Q: SONNE
R: SONNE S : SONNE T: SONNE U: SONNE
W: SONNE X : SONNE Y: SONNE Z: SONNE
With the Bacon cipher the word CRYPTOLOG is encoded as follows: “This is an ordinary Text containing a hidden message!”
The Bacon cipher is one of the earliest binary codes in history, predating the Morse code by over 300 years and the ASCII code by over 400 years. Here’s an English version of Bacon’s book chapter about it.
Elonka found Elizebeth Friedman’s Bacon message in the words KNOWLEDGE IS POWER. Some of the letters spelling out this sentence have serifs, some do not (e.g., look at the capital E’s). If we write each letter that is with serif in italic bold letters, we get the following:
KNOWL EDGEI SPOWE R
This encodes the following three letters: WFF. These are the initials of William Frederick Friedman. A brief message, to be sure, but it is a nice dalliance and very typical for the Friedmans.
You want to watch and listen to Elonka explaining the message she has found? Here she is on a video I made at the grave: