Three encrypted newspaper advertisements from 1879 are still unsolved. Can you decipher them?

The book The Agony Column Codes & Ciphers by Jean Palmer (i.e., Tony Gaffney, a reader of this blog) is a treasure trove for everybody interested in old cryptograms.

Agony-Column

Tony’s book presents over a thousand encrypted newspaper advertisements from Victorian England. Tony, who is an excellent codebreaker, has long solved most of these cryptograms, but some still wait to be deciphered. On Klausis Krypto Kolumne I have published many an article about these.

Many of the encrypted ads covered in Tony’s book contain love messages. Others were placed by business people in order to send news to partners and customers. Ignatius Pollaky, a private investigator of the Victorian era, communicated via newspaper ads, too. As far as I know, Pollaky’s encrypted messages have never been broken.

Another series of encrypted newspaper advertisements that are still unsolved were published in the Evening Standard in 1879. All of these ads start with the words “FACT or FICTION”. Here they are:

 

March 25th, 1879

Fact-or-Fiction-1

FACT OR FICTION? – T E T S D Y N T R L N S N M D E M Y G M D E E R M E M Y M C N M N Y S L D R Y M T N E.

 

April 25th, 1879

Fact-or-Fiction-2

FACT or FICTION? – A simple impossibility.

 

June 11th, 1879

Fact-or-Fiction-3

FACT or FICTION: A P C W M B B I M B I G W W R C W H K W R C W R W G E T W F H W E S B W I H B O A W B F I R G I S

 

June 13th, 1879

Fact-or-Fiction-4

FACT or FICTION: A P C W M B B J M B J G W W R C W H K W R C W R W G E T W F H W E S B W J H B O A W B. F J R M. H L F.

 

Analysis

Three of these four advertisements are encrypted, one is in the clear. The fourth message repeats almost half of the third one.

Using CrypTool 2, I created the following frequency analysis of the encrypted parts (omitting the “FACT or FICTION” and the second advertisement):

Fact-or-Fiction-Frequency-Analysis

This frequency distribution doesn’t look exactly like English language (e.g., there is no letter in the English language that has a frequency of over 15 percent). However, considering that we have only little text to analyze and that there are some repetitions, a one-to-one substitution (MASC) still seems possible. Of course, there is no guarantee that we deal with English plaintext – the language might as well be French or German.

As the second advertisement of this series is not encrypted, it might contain the key used to encipher the other three.

If you can find out more about these newspaper advertisements, please let me know.


Further reading: Who can decipher this Pitman letter from the US Civil War?

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Kommentare (9)

  1. #1 Thomas Ernst
    26. Juli 2018

    The ad from June 13, 1879, appears to be nothing but a correction of the one from two days earlier: additional “M” near the end, different last three letters, added punctuation marks for clarification where the “M” belongs. “I” and “J” appear to be interchangeable. – No ad in May?? – If these are paired texts, like the ads from 1875 in the “Evening Standard”, then it would be worthwhile to look for more of these ads. There MUST be more of them. The punctiliousness of correcting one ad with another indicates a lack of urgency but attention to correctness. Makes me think of Lewis Carroll – again …

  2. #2 Thomas Ernst
    26. Juli 2018

    If June 13 is a correction of June 11, we are looking at only two cryptograms:

    1) T E T S D Y N T R L N S N M D E M Y G M D E E R M E M Y M C N M N Y S L D R Y M T N E.

    2) A P C W M B B J M B J G W W R C W H K W R C W R W G E T W F H W E S B W J H B O A W B. F J R M. H L F.

    They don’t appear to use the same substitution. The periods in #2 may indicate word-division. Very tempting to read the finish of #2 as WITH HIM or WITH HER. However, then we’d have a polyalphabet because of the “H”.

  3. #3 Thomas Ernst
    26. Juli 2018

    Afterthought to the above: if the end of #2 is WITH HIM or WITH HER, we could be looking at a partial substitution, the rule being that one letter of each word remains plain.

  4. #4 Thomas Ernst
    26. Juli 2018

    Following my previous intuition, I suggest for beginning of #1 HE HAD […], and end of #2 […] WAS GOING WITH HER. – Could this one actually be EASY for a change???

  5. #5 Thomas Ernst
    26. Juli 2018

    EE, BB, WW probably are consonants, since I doubt our writer would have left doubles as plains, which means the following R and I (EER, BBI, WWR) are vowels, the I perhaps a plain. – The WITH HER will need to be changed because of the cipher-F. Our writer may have used different substitutions in #1 and #2, but it is doubtful that he used different alphabets in one message. So it’s a matter of figuring the plain letters, and making the substitution fit the whole segment. The concept of a letter being plain and being something else in the same sentence is quite Carrollian. – Incidentally, “a simple impossibility” occurs in ch. 16 of Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer”, which appeared in 1876. This book would not have escaped Lewis Carroll’s attention (the contents of his library is available online somewhere). Thus – a far fetched idea – perhaps LC is entertaining his readers – or mostly himself – with an encrypted passage from “Tom Sawyer”. Just a GUESS …

  6. #6 Thomas Ernst
    27. Juli 2018

    In #1, total 43, there are 10 different letters: C [1], D [4], E [6], L [2], M [8], N [6], R [3], S [3], T [4], Y [5].

    In #2, total 52, there are 15 different letters: A [2], B [6], C [3], E [2], F [3], G [2], H [4], K [1], I [4], l [1], M [3], O [1], P [1], R [4], S [1], W [11].

    Given that out of the fifty-two letters of #2 W occurs eleven times (21%), it is likely that the pair WW does not constitute double consonants, but rather one a real W, the other an E, i. e. […]EW or WE. – In #1, M appears to be a good candidate for both M and E. Strangely, the most frequent letter in #2 does not show at all in #1. For whatever that’s worth …

  7. #7 Thomas Ernst
    27. Juli 2018

    Here is the Twain-passage surrounding “a simple impossibility” (a phrase which is not as common as I thought). I put a more extensive chunk here because there must be more cryptos than just the three found by Tony (no disrespect: but when picking cryptos from serial publications, it is always wise to check for the whole thread, as with the 1875 ciphers):

    “[…] As the sun began to steal in upon the boys, drowsiness came over them, and they went out on the sandbar and lay down to sleep. They got scorched out by and by, and drearily set about getting breakfast. After the meal they felt rusty, and stiff–jointed, and a little homesick once more. Tom saw the signs, and fell to cheering up the pirates as well as he could. But they cared nothing for marbles, or circus, or swimming, or anything. He reminded them of the imposing secret, and raised a ray of cheer. While it lasted, he got them interested in a new device. This was to knock off being pirates, for a while, and be Indians for a change. They were attracted by this idea; so it was not long before they were stripped, and striped from head to heel with black mud, like so many zebras—all of them chiefs, of course—and then they went tearing through the woods to attack an English settlement.
    By and by they separated into three hostile tribes, and darted upon each other from ambush with dreadful war–whoops, and killed and scalped each other by thousands. It was a gory day. Consequently it was an extremely satisfactory one.
    They assembled in camp toward supper–time, hungry and happy; but now a difficulty arose—hostile Indians could not break the bread of hospitality together without first making peace, and this was A SIMPLE IMPOSSIBILITY without smoking a pipe of peace. There was no other process that ever they had heard of. Two of the savages almost wished they had remained pirates. However, there was no other way; so with such show of cheerfulness as they could muster they called for the pipe and took their whiff as it passed, in due form.
    And behold, they were glad they had gone into savagery, for they had gained something; they found that they could now smoke a little without having to go and hunt for a lost knife; they did not get sick enough to be seriously uncomfortable. They were not likely to fool away this high promise for lack of effort. No, they practised cautiously, after supper, with right fair success, and so they spent a jubilant evening. They were prouder and happier in their new acquirement than they would have been in the scalping and skinning of the Six Nations. We will leave them to smoke and chatter and brag, since we have no further use for them at present. […]”

    I never cared for Twain’s ponderous “humor”. But he was a cat-man: “When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.” I subscribe to that!

  8. #8 Thomas Ernst
    27. Juli 2018

    I have double-checked the “Fact or Fiction” passages, and they are all correct. However, for the ad from 11 June 1879, an important sentence was left out, which I have added in my summary of all four ads. All the “FACT or FICTION”-ads appear in the same space as the 1875 “Catokwacopa”-ciphers: “The Standard” (as the paper was titled back then), p. 1, column 2, top rows. Their placement, as well as the note appended to the June 11 ad convince me that the ads from 1875 and 1879 were posted by the same person. Absolutely no doubt about it! – Here are the o-texts of the four ads:

    25 March 1879, p. 1, col. 2, row 6:
    FACT OR FICTION ?–T E T S D Y N T R L N S N M D E M Y G M D E E R M E M Y M C N M N Y S L D R Y M T N E.

    25. April 1879, p. 1. col. 2, row 4:
    FACT or FICTION ?–A simple impossibility.

    11. June 1879, p. 1, col. 2, row 8:
    FACT or FICTION ?–A P C W M B B I M B I G W W R C W H K W R C W R W G E T W F H W E S B W I H B O A W B F I R G I S. See advertisement under same heading in “The Standard” of 25th April.

    13. June 1879, p. 1, col. 2, row 3:
    FACT or FICTION ?–A P C W M B B J M B J G W W R C W H K W R C W R W G E T W F H W E S B W J H B O A W B. F J R M. H L F.

  9. #9 Thomas Ernst
    28. Juli 2018

    An additional find: the ad from 25 March 1879 also appears in the “Standard” of the following day, 26 March, with unchanged letters. Perhaps a mistake by the “Standard” to run the same ad twice on consecutive days?