Thursday, October 5, 2023

"His Power of Unravelling Secret Writings Was Extraordinary"

"Edgar Allan Poe, the Cipher Wizard."
First appearance: T.P.'s Weekly, March 20, 1903.
Online at Hathi Trust (HERE and below).

In his comprehensive list of stories that involve codes and ciphers, computer scientist John Dooley gives his assessment of a classic story:

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Gold-Bug.” The Dollar Newspaper, 1843.
   The best and first of the classic cipher stories. Poe uses 
   punctuation symbols as cipher letters in his message. The 
   message is really a puzzle within a monoalphabetic substitution 
   cipher as William Legrand solves the cipher message and unravels 
   the resulting puzzle to find a pirate treasure. The highlight of 
   the story is Poe’s detailed description of how to cryptanalyze 
   a monoalphabetic substitution cipher.

Over the centuries (yes, centuries), fiction writers have been drawn to hidden messages as plot starters (i.e, maguffins) or plot carriers, Poe being one of the most famous authors to plump for the device. A British commentator weighs in on EAP's skills as a cipherist:
References and resources:
- "scytale of the Spartans":
  Tricky but not insoluble. (See Wikipedia HERE.)
- The text of "The Gold Bug" is at the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore (HERE).
- "'Secret Writing' in Graham's Magazine":
  The original is (HERE), Addendum I is (HERE), Addendum II is (HERE), and Addendum III is (HERE). A much later reprint called "Cryptography" is (HERE).
- You can find Prof. Dooley's list (HERE) and a couple of related ONTOS articles (HERE) and (HERE).
- A few years ago CrimeReads published an article outlining the history of codes and ciphers in crime fiction (HERE).
- And five years before that the Baltimore Post-Examiner printed an article expanding on Poe's use of cryptography (HERE).

Unless otherwise noted, all bibliographical data are derived from The FictionMags Index created by William G. Contento & edited by Phil Stephensen-Payne.

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