Edgar Allan Poe had a fascination for cryptography. And he was certainly not the only one, because in his time cryptography played an important role in society. There was no internet or telephone, and plain letters could be dangerous and incriminating if they were found and read by others (‘The Purloined Letter’!), so many people used cryptography or ‘secret writing’ to convey messages to others. They also used announcements in newspapers, for a cipher in the newspaper advertisements is an ideal way of communication between secret lovers who want to make an appointment, or between businessmen or politicians who want to make secret deals: the message, the sender and the receiver(s) remain unknown, except to themselves.
Cryptography in Poe’s work
Secrets and mysteries always appealed to Poe, and his interest in cryptography was probably further enhanced during his years in the US army, where cryptography and ciphers are part of military routine. So it is no surprise that he used that knowledge and inclination when he became a writer and a magazine editor. His most famous accomplishment is the story ‘The Gold Bug’ (1843), in which the plot revolves around a cipher that contains information about a buried treasure. Even modern universities still use this story as instruction material for their classes on cryptography.
As a magazine editor, Poe also used cryptography. He asked his readers to submit ciphers which he would then publish as challenge to other readers and to himself. The solution would be given in the next issue of the magazine, and Poe claimed to have solved most of the submitted ciphers. One that he could not solve was finally solved in 2000 (!) by the Canadian software expert Gil Broza (for more information click here.)
In 1841 Poe published several articles on cryptography, under the title ‘A Few Words on Secret Writing’. Poe’s favorite system of cryptography was the use of a ‘key-phrase’. This is a sentence of 26 letters, which match the letters of the normal alphabet. Poe gave the Latin sentence ‘Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re’ (‘Gentle in manner, firm in deed’) as an example, which gives the following scheme for substitution:
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
s u a v i t e r i n m o d o f o r t i t e r i n r e
In this scheme, ‘Edgar Allan Poe‘ becomes ‘ivest sooso ofi’.
A key-phrase may also contain less than 26 letters, depending on the agreement between sender and receiver about the alphabet that they use. For instance, the v and the u can be made interchangeable, and the w can be replaced with vv or uu. In his articles on secret writing, Poe also gives an example of such a key-phrase of only 24 letters ‘Le gouvernement provisoire’. However, this is a poor example, because this sentence contains only 13 different letters that have to represent the full alphabet, while also the multiple ones (e, o, i, n, r and v) will give extra trouble, unless he sender and receiver have an agreement on how to solve such practical problems.
Poe’s articles were about cryptography in its most recognizable form, namely an incomprehensible string of letters or symbols that is clearly a cipher. But there is a more advanced form of cryptography in which the secret message is hidden inside an apparently clear and meaningful ‘cover’ text (or digital file, nowadays).
This system is called ‘steganography’, and it depends on an agreement between sender and receiver on how to insert and extract the hidden message. For instance: ‘take the first letter of each sentence’ (like in an acrostic), or any other of an unlimited number of conceivable schemes. The problem is that the ‘cover’ text has to be written ‘around’ the predetermined positions of the letters in the secret message. Such a very strict scheme can be a considerable problem for the sender.
Nevertheless, Poe knew how to use such clever and difficult schemes, for instance in the following poem that he wrote for a friend, the female poet Sarah Anna Lewis (take the first letter of the first line, followed by the second letter of the second line, etc):
“Half an idea in the profoundest sonnet.
Through all the flimsy things we see at once
As easily as through a Naples bonnet-
Trash of all trash! – how can a lady don it?
Yet heavier far than your Petrarchan stuff-
Owl-downy nonsense that the faintest puff
Twirls into trunk-paper the while you con it.”
And, veritably, Sol is right enough.
The general truckermanites are arrant
Bubbles – ephemeral and so transparent –
But this is, now – you may depend upon it-
Stable, opaque, immortal – all by dint
Of the dear names that lie concealed within ‘t.
Steganography in Poe’s stories
Poe was fascinated by cryptography; he wrote articles about it, he challenged his readers with it, he used it in one famous story and in a few poems. So it seems quite plausible that he also used it in his stories to record his innermost feelings and his thoughts and ideas that he did not want or dare to make public. And Poe certainly must have had ideas and thoughts that even went beyond the revolutionary ideas that he did dare to publish. A clear example is ‘Eureka’, whose ideas he knew for sure would bring him bitter criticism and enemies.
But the possibility of hidden messages in Poe’s work has never been investigated or even suggested. However, once one understands such a possibility, one can also see that some of Poe’s stories and essays contain references to cryptography and secrets that have to be deciphered. Like in ‘Eureka’, where Poe first mentions Champollion (who deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs), and then states that he himself has stolen a golden secret of the Egyptians.
And with the knowledge of hidden messages, it also becomes understandable and plausible why some stories contain subtle hints about hidden, ‘double’ or ‘deeper’ meanings, like the suggestion that ‘Eureka’ should be read like a poem after Poe’s death. And, quite often, such intriguing stories are preceded by a motto or introduction that has a suggestive sentence of 24, 25 or 26 letters that might be the key-phrase that has to be used in deciphering the secret message. This is the case with ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’; ‘The Assignation’; ‘The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade’; ‘The Unparalleled Adventure of one Hans Pfaall’; ‘How to write a Blackwood article’ and ‘The Business Man’.
Most probably there are more hints to be found upon a closer examination of other stories as well. In the case of ‘Eureka’ there are a few other indications for hidden messages. In the first place the often bad style and sometimes weird construction of paragraphs and sentences. And in the second place the fact that Poe left notes for many corrections in a second edition, but these notes show that he did not change a sentence or even a word of the original text, although ‘Eureka’ is his second longest work (only the novel ‘Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’ is a bit longer). Obviously Poe had to protect something, and it will be clear that, if ‘Eureka’ contains steganography, like in the above poem for Anna Sarah Lewis, such an intricate scheme will collapse immediately if even small changes in content are made.
It is my opinion that a serious search for hidden treasures or ‘golden bugs’ in Poe’s works will be of the greatest importance for a better understanding of Poe, his work and his era. However, crypto-analysis is a very complex science, so I hope that this challenge will be taken up by people who know how to search for secret codes, and how to crack them as well!
René van Slooten is a leading ‘Poe researcher’, who theorizes that Poe’s final treatise, ‘Eureka’, a response to the philosophical and religious questions of his time, was a forerunner to Einstein’s theory of relativity. He was born in 1944 in The Netherlands. He studied chemical engineering and science history and worked in the food industry in Europe, Africa and Asia.The past years he works in the production of bio-fuels from organic waste materials, especially in developing countries. His interest in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Eureka’ started in 1982, when he found an antiquarian edition and read the scientific and philosophical ideas that were unheard of in 1848. He became a member of the international ‘Edgar Allan Poe Studies Association’ and his first article about ‘Eureka’ appeared in 1986 in a major Dutch magazine. Since then he published numerous articles, essays and letters on Poe and ‘Eureka’ in Dutch magazines and newspapers, but also in the international magazines ‘Nature’, ‘NewScientist’ and TIME. He published the first Dutch ‘Eureka’ translation (2003) and presented two papers on ‘Eureka’ at the international Poe conferences in Baltimore (2002) and Philadelphia (2010). His main interest in ‘Eureka’ is its history and acceptance in Europe and its influence on philosophy and science during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.