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  • Unriddled:The Stonington Cipher Mystery and Who Is S. D. L.?
  • Michael J. Bielawa (bio)

After nearly two centuries a long-standing Poe-related riddle has finally been resolved. The secret identity of the only person in America willing to accept Edgar Allan Poe's first Graham's Magazine cryptography challenge has been unmasked. Perhaps it is a minor mystery—but it's a Poe mystery nonetheless, and one that Poe personally had hoped to solve during his lifetime. Today its solution provides a modicum of pride for a small New England town.

The exuberance in which our social media-driven culture now tackles sudoku puzzles and video games should not be considered a new phenomenon. Poe, and indeed antebellum America, cultivated a passion for solving secret messages—or, as they were then commonly dubbed, ciphers. Merriam- Webster defines the word "cipher" as "a.) a method of transforming a text in order to conceal its meaning" and "b.) a message in code." In his writings Poe discusses simple substitution codes (with the twenty-six letters of the alphabet represented by an assortment of fixed letters/symbols) and key phrase codes (in which a particular word/quote is used to determine letters employed within a cryptogram). Poe's approach to ciphers can be cryptic in itself. Whalen examines Poe's diametric approach to cryptography as both "a democratic art" and a craft that only "a few elite intellectuals were capable of" accomplishing (Terrance Whalen, "The Code for Gold: Edgar Allan Poe and Cryptography," Representations 46, Spring, 1994, p. 39). Poe's first use of these devices appears in his 1837 short story "Mystification." The popularity of cryptograms becomes evident when, two years later, in December 1839 Poe contributed an anonymous essay to the Philadelphia newspaper Alexander's Weekly Messenger. In this piece, "Enigmatical and Conundrum-cal," Poe proffered his very first public cipher challenge. Calling readers to stump him with their own cryptograms Poe stated, "Let any one address [Alexander's] a letter in this way [with a substitution cipher alphabet], and we pledge ourselves to read it forthwith—however unusual or arbitrary may be the characters employed" (Clarence S. Brigham, Edgar Allan Poe's Contributions to Alexander's Weekly Messenger, Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1943, p. 16).

Poe's editorial connection with Alexander's lasted from December 1839 through the first week of May 1840 (Charles F. Heartman and James R. Canny, A Bibliography of First Printings of the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Hattiesburg, Miss.: The Book Farm, 1943, p. 140). During that time Poe states that "perhaps, one hundred ciphers" were received (H p. 14:120). Wimsatt counts thirty-six [End Page 144] ciphers "being published or alluded to" by Poe while he was with Alexander's between January 15 and April 18, 1840 (W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., "What Poe Knew about Cryptography," PMLA, vol. 583, Sept. 1943, p. 755).

Poe felt compelled to boast in the March 25, 1840, issue of Alexander's, "We assert roundly, and in general terms, that human ingenuity cannot concoct a proper cypher which we cannot resolve." Poe would lament his hubris. The avalanche of encrypted notes addressed to the newspaper (and in subsequent years directly to Poe) necessitated an inordinate amount of effort spent in dissecting each puzzle, thus subtracting from the time and energy he could have dedicated to writing. In Poe's letter to John Tomlin, dated August 28, 1843, he explained:

Some months ago, I was obliged to make a vow that I would engage in the solution of no more cryptographs. The reason of my making this vow will be readily understood. Much curiosity was excited throughout the country by my solutions of these cyphers, and a great number of persons felt a desire to test my powers individually—so that I was at one time absolutely overwhelmed; and this placed me in a dilemma; for I had either to devote my whole time to the solutions, or the correspondents would suppose me a mere boaster, incapable of fulfilling my promises. I had no alternative but to solve all; but to each correspondent I made known my intensions to solve no more. You will hardly believe...


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pp. 144-150
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