In 1873, an unknown person published two encrypted advertisements in the Daily Telegraph. Can a reader break these cryptograms?

First of all, let me mention that the Call for Papers for HistoCrypt 2020 has been published today. I hope, there will be many interesting submissions.

At HistoCrypt 2019, which took place in Belgium, I presented a paper about Ernest Rinzi’s encrypted journal, co-authored by Tony Gaffney. Tony is not only an outstanding codebreaker, but has also written a great book titled The Agony Column Codes & Ciphers (under the pseudonym Jean Palmer).


Source: book cover

The Agony Column Codes & Ciphers is a treasure trove for everybody interested in old cryptograms. It introduces over a thousand encrypted newspaper advertisements from Victorian England. Tony has deciphered most of these, but some are still unsolved. On Klausis Krypto Kolumne I have published many an article about these advertisements.

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 or customers. Ignatius Pollaky, a private investigator of the Victorian era, communicated via encrypted newspaper ads, too.


Two ads from 1873

Some of the ads in the book make long series, the longest of which consist of over 50 parts. The advertisements I am going to introduce today form a series, too, but this one comprises only two ads. They were published in the Daily Telegraph in 1873. The first one is reproduced in the following:

Fri 7th Feb 1873

TOUJOURS BLEU. – 7.64. 13,141. 24.24. 18,299. 1,317 8,481X – 1,274. 32,561 29,375 13,127 28,801. 32,561. 21,8 21,221X 28,59. 39,629. 28,59 39,629 29,544 25,138 29,219 7,64X – 29,219 17,77 6,582 1,384 16,243 29,219 19,367 8,226 18,176 33,383X – 36,547. 8,39 2,379 2,4 27,609 32,561 9,324 21,367 9,629 28,59 12,361 32,104 6,381 1,268 38,498 25,411 32,561 2,140X – 1,268 14,527 33,212 38,616 8,335X – 2,495 3,379 20,320 32,561 29,422 1,257 24,24 24,485 40,618 1,268 40,338 15,198. 21,367X – 19,420 2,407X – 25,618 11,390 40,629 32,252 27,538X – 18,411 10,422 2,185X – 27,254 2,221X – 40,204 8,347 20,388 8,347 40,325 8,347 36,621 8,347 25,239 32,24 1,268 8,306 1,268 8,306 1,268 5,58 40,629 5,19 5,19 4,386X 22,451 29,329 22,451X – 12,262X 15,50 10,66X 13,572 32,561 1,384 12,579 12,194 40,325X 8,347 7,518 12,629 29,219 26,106 1,624 21,556X 40,238 16,438 2,555X.

“Toujours bleu” is French and means “always blue”. Here’s the second ad:

Thu 27th Feb 1873

ANTETYPE. – 8.347, 20.388X 1.317, 12.269, 20.28, 10.622, 15.50, 2.495 8.481. 32.561. 8.501X 1.268, 32,252, 12.455, 1.317, 8.226, 6.630 9.266, 2.4, 7.73X 24.627, 32.561, 27.556, 31.302. 28.185, 19.31X 25.264, 1.268, 32.252, 12.629, 29.219, 2.555X 21.367, 9.629, 12.361, 15.50, 25.138X 1.268, 13.572, 35.562, 2.555X 1.268, 8.306, 39.558, 11.606, 7.518X 40.204

“Antetype” is another word for “prototype”. I couldn’t find this expression in a French dictionary, so apparently we are dealing with an English word here.


A book cipher?

As can be seen, both ads mainly consist of number groups, each divideded into two parts by a period or a comma. The numbers before the period/comma are smaller than the ones behind.

It is clear that these number groups are consistent with a book cipher. An expression such as 12.269 might stand for the 269th letter on page 12 of a certain book. The X at the end of some groups might mean that instead of one letter the whole word is relevant.

As is well known, breaking a book cipher is difficult, if not impossible, without knowing the book that was used. To my regret, I have no idea which book the unknown creator of these two ads might have used. Considering that it is quite annoying to find out the, say, 555th letter on a page, the book in question might contain tables or some other kind of sorted information that makes it easier to find a letter at a certain position.

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Kommentare (9)

  1. #1 x3Ray
    30. September 2019

    Klaus, gibt es Orignal-Fotos der Anzeigen?

    Wenn ich derjenige wäre, der den Text verschlüsselt, wäre es mir auch viel zu fehleranfällig, einen Buchstaben einer dreistelligen Position zu suchen, vom unsinnigen Zählen ganz zu schweigen. Da denke ich mir doch, dass ich die dreistelligen Zahlen anderweitig aufdrösel und jede Ziffer für eine nähere Angabe steht, bspw: Absatz – Zeile – Zeichen; oder auch: Zeile – Wort – Zeichen.
    Die erste Zahl vor Punkt/Komma würde ich auch als S. verwenden.

    Das macht es dann für mich leicht zum Finden/Zählen und derjenige, der den Schlüssel kennt, hat auch keine große Mühe. Ich meine, das ist doch ne Zumutung, einige hundert Zeichen abzuzählen, und dann stellt sich noch die Frage, ob Leerzeichen oder Satzzeichen mitgezählt werden oder nicht; von daher sehe ich die dreistellige Zahl nicht als konkrete Zahl.

    Die Begriff “Toujours bleu” und “antetype” würde ich als Schlüsselwörter verwenden, um dem Eingeweihten einen Hinweis auf das “Lösungsbuch” zu geben.

  2. #2 x3Ray
    30. September 2019

    Vielleicht noch ne Anmerkung:
    Die Texte enthalten beide dieselben Chiffren, die erste Zahl (vermeintliche Seitenangabe) geht nicht über 40 raus. Verschiedene Angaben kommen relativ häufig vor, bspw. 1,268 oder 32,561 oder 8,347

  3. #3 Gerry
    30. September 2019

    Maybe the book used for encryption was something like the King James Bible. There is a special version from 1873 which can be found at
    Maybe the numbers are in the form Psalm or Sentence on a page number, e.g. you find the number 1 on page 268. I tried my method with the second ad, but unfortunately I get nothing useful: The words there are: So then then and and and and blessed I for (psalm 32 is not on page 561 but later on 563) An. Maybe the book in question is another, older version of the bible?

  4. #4 Thomas
    1. Oktober 2019

    This seems to be a dictionary code, since the words are far easier to count in a dictionary than in a book with text. Each page (second number) has about 40 lines (first number) and two columns (X maybe standing for the right column). A very long shot: Might “Toujours bleu” hint at an English-French dictionary with a blue cover?

  5. #5 x3Ray
    1. Oktober 2019

    @Thomas #4
    So you would think of a book with many pages that are really small? More than 600 pages with only 40 lines per page – I am not quite sure if that would be useful (for a dictionary I would rather expect more lines per page and less pages).
    But who knows. 🙂

  6. #6 x3Ray
    1. Oktober 2019

    Well, didnt’ think of how small text sometimes is printed in dictionaries and how thin paper is. You could be on the right way, Thomas.

  7. #7 Klaus Schmeh
    1. Oktober 2019

    >Klaus, gibt es Orignal-Fotos der Anzeigen?
    Leider habe ich keine.

  8. #8 Klaus Schmeh
    1. Oktober 2019

    >Each page (second number) has about 40 lines
    >(first number) and two columns (X maybe
    >standing for the right column)
    You’re right, this is the most likely explanation.

  9. #9 Lance Estes
    5. Oktober 2019

    I like the idea of using a dictionary code where we have roughly 630 pages with 40 entries per page, so a dictionary of roughly 25,200 entries. (That would necessarily make one cipher group, “28,801” a mistake.) This would allow each cipher group to represent a single word.

    If that is correct, then the most frequently occurring cipher value “32,561”, would most likely represent the most common word in whatever language is used to encipher the message. French or English seem the most likely, and given that this comes from page 561 of 630, the English word “the” seems our best bet.

    While having the original source book would of course be ideal, I wonder if we could make a reasonable stab at this using a word list of ~25,000 English words combined with imagination?

    I did a little research and found an English word list with 24476 entries at The word “the” is on line 21752, so 88.8% of the way through the list. By comparison, page 561 of 630 is 89.0% of the way through the original source. Not too shabby!

    Going a step further I might guess that these ads are romantic in nature, and I particularly like the following area of cipher that struck me as odd due to its high rate of repeated values in close proximity.

    40,204 8,347 20,388 8,347 40,325 8,347 36,621 8,347 25,239 32.24 1,268 8,306 1,268 8,306 1,268 5,58 40,629 5.19 5.19 4,386

    If 8,347=MY, 1,268=I, 8,306=LOVE, and 40,629=YOU, all of which are at least consistent with a dictionary code, this passage would read “x MY x MY x MY x MY x x I LOVE I LOVE I LOVE YOU x x x”.

    Use a little imagination and some guess work and you might think that one person that is wooing another might say something like “x MY PASSION MY MEANING MY WORLD MY HEART I LOVE I LOVE I LOVE YOU x x x”.

    Food for thought…