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“The Qmlbwpnygax Eujugec Have Not the Power to Ktgjie the Wzznlhmpygtg”: Codes and Ciphers in Mormon History (part 1)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 09, 2008

I delivered this paper at the 2006 meeting of the Mormon History Association in Casper, Wyoming. Because that was an oral presentation, which I haven’t converted to one intended to be read, the quotations below are filled with ellipses. I find that annoying as a reader, and I apologize for that. I promise, though, that the sense of the quotations hasn’t been changed; they are only streamlined to make it easier for listeners to grasp easily at the speed of the spoken word.

Introduction

LDS Apostle George Q. Cannon went to Washington in 1872 to assist with yet another bid for Utah statehood. If history proved any guide, failure would have consequences. Cannon wrote:

[T]he application for admission as a State … in 1856 … was followed by the sending of an army to wipe us out. The application for admission … in 1862, was followed by the passage of the anti-polygamy law. What will follow this application?

Seeking confidential political advice from long-time ally Thomas L. Kane, Cannon went to rural Pennsylvania. His written report does not mention Kane by name, nor the location of his meeting – no destination, not even the direction or means of travel or time necessary to reach the spot are given. The report refers vaguely to unnamed “parties” and unspecified “terms.” “[W]ritten communications on such subjects are dangerous,” Cannon noted.

His caution was more than affectation or paranoia. The very day that Cannon wrote his report, a correspondent for the New York Herald penned his own account of Mormon affairs in Washington:

The apostle … has just returned from a visit to McKean county, Pennsylvania, where he saw General Thomas L. Kane, the intimate friend and supporter of Brigham Young. General Kane is very feeble, … He will, doubtless, do his utmost, but the apostle was unable to report to the Utah representative anything very favorable …

That issue of the Herald came to Cannon’s notice while he was again writing to Brigham Young:

I never was more surprised in my life … than I was just now at perusing the enclosed correspondence from the N.Y. Herald … I know I have spoken to no one … , or dropped a word that would be a clue. … Yet read this Washington correspondence, written the day after my return … !

The probable solution is that Cannon’s Washington movements were watched. When Cannon boarded a train for Pennsylvania, someone – likely T.B.H. Stenhouse, once a Mormon but now working with anti-Mormon interests in the east – deduced Cannon’s mission. But while this covert activity was not exposed through intercepted mail, the incident illustrates how and why Mormon leaders guarded their correspondence.

This paper will look at occasions when 19th century Mormon communications were masked by code, cipher, or other protective screens. We will look at conditions that motivated concealment, examine how each code worked, and in the process remember something about who we were as a people in the 19th century.

Coded Names in Doctrine and Covenants

Probably the most widely known example of 19th century Mormon code is the so-called “unusual names” in the Doctrine and Covenants – Gazelam for Joseph Smith, Shalemanasseh for William W. Phelps, and so on.

Doctrine and Covenants 86:4, 1835 edition. The verse is now numbered 82:11.

The seven sections containing these names were written in Kirtland, and deal with people, places, and properties connected with the Law of Consecration. Orson Pratt reported the genesis of these names:

We often had access to the manuscripts … ; and it was our delight to read them over and over again … When … the time arrived to print [them], it was thought best not to publish them all, on account of our enemies, who were seeking every means to destroy the Prophet and the Church. On account, however, of the great anxiety of the church to see them in print, it was concluded … that by altering the real names …, and substituting fictitious ones …, they might … safely appear in print . …

The need for concealing Kirtland’s financial affairs had long passed by 1854, when Pratt published an explanatory article in The Seer. This reminded Phelps of his own concealed name, and he wrote to Brigham Young – a letter that would become valuable in our day.

Doctrine and Covenants 82:11, 1880 edition.

But except for the article in The Seer and discussion in General Conferences at ten-year intervals, the Saints had no ready reference for understanding the mysterious verses. Beginning with the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, the real names, so far as they were remembered, were printed alongside the code names, a practice which continued through 1981. With that edition code names were omitted, except for four that could not be identified.


Doctrine and Covenants 82:11, 1982 edition,
last edition before the newly identified code names were dropped.

Then, in 1982, David J. Whittaker at BYU came across the Phelps’s 1854 letter, and recognized the identities of the last four substituted names.

Incidentally the head note to Section 82 still refers to unidentified code names, citing readers to verse 11, although all persons mentioned in that verse are now known:

Doctrine and Covenants 82:11, 2002 edition, with headnote.

Part 2, Part 3



16 Comments »

  1. Good post, Ardis. Do you have the text of Phelps’ 1854 letter?

    Any thoughts on the code name Baneemy? Here’s hoping you’ll address it in Part 2!

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — December 9, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

  2. Excellent stuff, Ardis. I so wanted to go to Casper. I can’t wait to read the forthcoming installments!

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 9, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

  3. Very cool, Ardis. I love it when history and detictive work almost merge together.

    My current person of study, the transcendentalist Theodore Parker, often used code in his journals and letters, and it absolutely drives me crazy.

    I have also heard a funny story about William McClellin’s coded language in his early journals.

    Comment by Ben — December 9, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

  4. BiV, yes, I have the text of the letter; it’s in the Brigham Young Office Files (CR1234/1, box 40, folder 27) at LDS Archives. Phelps lists all the code names, his [fanciful?] interpretation of the meaning of the Hebrewish words (e.g., Oliver Cowdery’s code name of “Olihah” he says means “God Have Mercy”), and his identification of the person(s) or enterprise disguised behind those code names.

    He identified Baneemy (which he spells as “Banneemy”) as meaning “my sons” and standing in the revelations for “Mine Elders.” Although he is our only source for the meaning of several of these names, his interpretation of all of the other names is corroborated from other sources, so I don’t have any reason to doubt this one.

    I’m glad you find the topic interesting, BiV, and J., and Ben. And Ben, do tell the McClellin story, if you don’t mind — I don’t know it.

    There was a huge crowd for this paper in Casper — I’m sure it was the title that made that session irresistible.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 9, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

  5. #4: This is what I remember being told from a credible source up at the Church Office Building:

    If you look at pg. xix in Welch & Shipp’s publication of his journals, they include a facsimile of one of the journal’s pages. About ten lines down, the english text turns into what looks like a coded language. On the page facing this facsimile, the intro says: “Although these journals contain very little in the way of drawings or symbols, on one occasion in the fifth journal McLellin wrote half a line of characters which may be shorthand, cryptograms, or even attempts at writing reformed Egyptian [!] or some other language. Despite several efforts, we have not found anyone who can decipher these. We include here a facsimile of that page and welcome suggestions about the meaning of these characters.”

    Well, shortly after the book was published, LaJean Carruth was looking through it, realized it was Pittman shorthand, and emailed Welch to tell him that she had “cracked the code.” Welch of course was really excited and asked for the translation.

    Here is the gist of what it said, with the translation of the coded language in brackets. (Remember that this was one of his mission journals):

    “…and stayed with a Mr. Drue, a lame man who trusted us with the best that he had [and his wife was a good slut who treated us well].

    Comment by Ben — December 9, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

  6. Heh! I hadn’t heard that. (LaJean has been doing wonders, hasn’t she, in demystifying so many passages of Pitman!) Thanks for the story.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 10, 2008 @ 6:54 am

  7. This is very interesting.

    I was aware of the use of fake names in the D&C and the general sense of (justified) paranoia. I was not aware of the use of ciphers elsewhere.

    Comment by BruceC — December 10, 2008 @ 7:55 am

  8. Wow, Ardis. Are you auditioning for a spot on the PBS series, History Detectives? This is good stuff.

    Comment by Hunter — December 10, 2008 @ 10:02 am

  9. The shorthand in the McLellin journal is written in Taylor shorthand, which shorthand I identified as a graduate student working in the BYU Library Manuscripts Dept. in 1974. Taylor predates Pitman by 50 years, and, at first glance, looks very similar to it: the word “was” in Taylor shorthand is the same as the word “smoke” in Pitman. Wilford Woodruff, Thomas Bullock, William Clayton and Willard Richards all wrote Taylor shorthand; the first two later learned Pitman.
    The shorthand in the McLellin journal reads: “but his wife was a great slut, very nasty”. I learned of the shorthand from Jan Shipps.

    Comment by LaJean Carruth — December 23, 2008 @ 9:46 pm

  10. I am shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you, by such language here! /heh, heh, heh/

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 23, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

  11. […] Parshall’s 3 part “Codes and Cyphers in Mormon History” (also nominated “The Childless Ones,” “A Utah War Primer,” “Polynesians in the […]

    Pingback by Last Chance for Niblet Nominations at Mormon Matters — July 1, 2009 @ 5:33 pm

  12. […] Ardis Parshall’s 3 part “Codes and Cyphers in Mormon History” […]

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  13. Someone asked about baneemy:

    “Baneemy” appears to be an Old English (beneme) and Irish Gaelic (bainimdh) word meaning “to deprive of”, “to take away from”, “to remove”, or “to cut or strip off”.

    In the first reference to Lyman Wight in the Book of Commandments it reads (54:5-6,12):

    “5 And inasmuch as they are not faithful, they shall be cut off, even as I will, as seemeth me good. 6 And again, verily I say unto you, let my servant Lyman (W.,) and my servant John (C.,) take their journey speedily: 12 And let my servant Lyman beware, for satan desireth to sift him as chaff.”

    Chaucer wrote, “Ire . . . benimeth the man fro God.”

    Joseph Smith, Jr., had a habit of using Gaelic terms in his revelations, which is telling has he is descended from the bardic cast and ecclesiastical princes of Ireland, the ancient M’Gowan family (to which I am related through Magog’s Phœnician/Gadelian/Milesian House of Ir, Clanna-Rory, Clan King, and our common patriarch Conal Cearnach).

    For example, Master Mahan: Mahan is a Gaelic term meaning “wild beast of the field”. Mahan comes from Mathghabhuin — “magh”: Irish, a plain; “gabhuin”: a calf — “‘the bear of the plain’ or ‘a wild calf’; for a bear is strictly a kind of wild calf”.

    As for a Scriptural connection between Mahan and its Irish translation to “the wild beast of the field”, we need go no further than Genesis in Joseph Smith’s Translation (chapter V):

    16 And Cain said, Truly I am Mahan, the master of this great secret, that I may murder and get gain. Wherefore Cain was called Master Mahan; and he gloried in his wickedness.

    17 And Cain went into the field, and Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, that while they were in the field, Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.

    Comment by Derek P. Moore — July 18, 2009 @ 8:52 am

  14. PS: It was Lyman Wight who was codenamed Baneemy. I cited the Book of Commandments reference to Lyman to illustrate the connection between him and the translation of his codename (as I have with Mahan, its translation, and JST Genesis).

    Comment by Derek P. Moore — July 18, 2009 @ 9:52 am

  15. Um, okay. Thanks, I think. Yeah, thanks …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 18, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

  16. Wight claimed to be Baneemy, but he appears to have been fibbing. The publication of the manuscript revelation books in the Joseph Smith Papers confirms the Phelps interpretation “mine elders”.

    Ardis,

    I’m writing a paper on the D&C codenames, but I don’t live in SLC so I don’t have access to the archives. Is there any chance you’d be willing to email me the text of that Phelps letter? I’d of course credit you in a footnote as the transcriber. my email address is

    chris carroll smith at g mail dot com

    Without all those spaces, of course. Thanks!

    -Chris

    Comment by Christopher Smith — October 27, 2009 @ 11:30 pm

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