Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » “The Qmlbwpnygax Eujugec Have Not the Power to Ktgjie the Wzznlhmpygtg”: Codes and Ciphers in Mormon History (part 2)
 


“The Qmlbwpnygax Eujugec Have Not the Power to Ktgjie the Wzznlhmpygtg”: Codes and Ciphers in Mormon History (part 2)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 10, 2008

Other Coded Names (“Our Friend”)

A later instance of a code name began with a simple exchange of letters in 1851. “To Our Dear Friend, Colonel Kane,” began Brigham Young. “Our Friend, a title, than which we can give no greater; … we received it with pleasure, we impart [it] with delight.” “Our friend Colonel Kane” quickly became “our friend” in correspondence; eventually, “Our Friend” was used specifically to conceal Kane’s identity. Cannon’s letter cited in my introduction, for instance, describes his 1872 visit to “Our Friend,” and this 1860 letter from Utah Territorial Delegate William H. Hooper refers cryptically to “our Friend at P—.”

 

In part because Kane was so often consulted for sensitive political advice, and in part because his correspondence had to pass through many unknown and mistrusted hands, a number of codes are associated with him:

Kane is named on a list of those possessing a cipher by which church leaders could communicate by telegraph or letter. This was a simple substitution cipher, meaning that every “A” in a message was replaced by Q; every “B” by U, and so on. Such ciphers are easily broken with a large enough sample: when you know that “E” is the most frequently used letter in written English, and when O appears most frequently in a coded message, you are on your way to breaking the code. To guard against clues based on word length, users of this cipher were taught: “[I]t can be made … more effective if two or more short words are … run together, so as to make them appear as one … and all long words divided and made to appear as two … .”

Mormon substitution cipher:

A = Q
B = U
C = J
D = N
E = O
F = A
G = Y
H = R
I = K
J = C
K = B
L = W
M = E
N = F
O = H
P = I
Q = T
R = D
S = L
T = X
U = M
V = Z
W = G
X = S
Y = P
Z = V
& = Q

“Send John W. to Washington” became LOFN CHRF G XH GQLRKFYXHN or LOFNCHRF GXH GQLRF FYXHN

Kane used a far more elaborate cipher in 1858. Kane’s father suggested its use, saying that he had received it from “old Dr. Patterson, and I am the only living person who has the key.” Robert Patterson, a relative of Kane’s mother and a mathematician who had provided a code for use on the Lewis & Clark expedition, was well equipped as a cryptographer. Clues suggest that this code was similar to one used by Cannon in the 1870s; we will return to it in part 3.

Because of its complexities, the Kanes had difficulty using the Patterson cipher. Elizabeth Kane’s journal is dotted with these statements: “There is a letter in cipher to make out, … I worked till ten vainly trying to make out that cipher” and “Rose early, heard that Johnny had worked 4 hours at the cipher. I had made out one word, he none. … After dinner … I set to work again, … till half past ten. This made me dream of the cipher and made me wake often … with fragments of words tormenting me.” Despite its difficulties, Elizabeth did succeed in deciphering messages of some interest: “Brigham Young intends to take the guns. I shall probably be too late to make peace but not too late to prevent the spring massacre” was one such message.

Kane continued to depend on codes. In 1871 he wrote, “Be guarded in the extreme in your communications with me. … Such unworthy means have been used by your enemies … that I do not think they would scruple to waylay or arrest and search a person supposed to be bearing secret despatches … .” “Let me have … two ciphers, both private, but one for your eye alone,” he pleaded, to which John W. Young, as his father’s emissary, replied, “I appreciate your reasons for refusing to write my father …, unless by using a cipher furnished by him.”

Masonic or Pigpen Code

Kane’s codes always used roman letters. Many people associate “secret codes” not with such familiar letters but with mysterious-looking symbols; Mormonism has a taste of that, as well. One type is commonly called “Masonic” (because it appears in 18th century Masonic records), or “pigpen” code (because it looks something like a crude log pigpen). Here is one version provided to Brigham Young by Samuel W. Richards.

Despite Richards’ belief that “only one or two others have any knowledge of the system,” it is a simple variation of the Masonic code: a letter is represented by the shape of the cell to which it is assigned, modified by the addition of one or two dots as appropriate. Brigham Young’s name, as drawn by Richards, is so represented here.

 The advantage of such a cipher is that as long as a user remembers the diagram, he can reconstruct it at will without having to memorize 26 letter substitutions. Disadvantages are that the cipher calls attention to itself; cannot be sent by telegraph; and is as susceptible to decoding as any other cipher: an “E” is still an “E,” whether it is represented by a Q or by a box with a dot.

I have discovered no instance where Richards’s pigpen code was actually used, although Brigham Young used a similar system in 1842 to record a plural marriage he had witnessed.

Deseret Alphabet

Most students of Mormon history are familiar with another mysterious-looking writing system, the Deseret Alphabet. Despite revisionist claims, it seems clear from contemporary sources that the Alphabet’s sole original purpose was to increase Mormon literacy by simplifying the task of learning to read. To that end, the key to the Deseret characters was widely published – a practice that would seemingly destroy any possibility of the Alphabet’s being used as a secret code.

Yet I have in fact found two instances where the Deseret Alphabet was used to conceal, in exactly the same way as any other code might have been used:

Eleanor McComb became a plural wife of Parley P. Pratt in 1855. In 1856, Pratt went to the States as a missionary, and Eleanor traveled to New Orleans to reclaim her children from the family where her former husband had placed them. Eleanor gained possession of her children, but then entered a period of concealment and flight, never more than a step ahead of her enraged former husband. During one hairbreadth escape Eleanor left behind letters written by Pratt, addressed to her as “Lucy R. Parker” and signed by “P. Parker.” Some of these letters were written

in the characters which the Mormons have invented … to … conceal their meaning, should their letters ever happen to fall into the hands of “Gentiles.” The letters thus written are as perfectly incomprehensible to us as they would be if written in Chinese.

One of the letters, apparently written in roman letters, explained some alterations to the Deseret Alphabet. Either through his familiarity with Mormonism while in San Francisco, or through the agency of apostate Mormons who were helping him trace Eleanor’s movements, Hector McLean recognized the writing as Deseret, obtained a key, read the letters, and caught up with the Pratts in Van Buren, Arkansas, where Parley was murdered and the children wrested from Eleanor’s control.

The second use of the Deseret Alphabet as a code of concealment occurred following the Utah War. Judge Cradlebaugh convened his court at Provo in 1859. Observers were stationed to report to Brigham Young on the progress of the inquiries, the temperament of the judge, and sometimes on the going rate for purchased testimony. These letters were written in plain roman characters – except when the reporter concealed the names of suborned witnesses with the use of Deseret characters.

 

This letter names two Mormon men offering their testimony for sale: The first was Alfred Nethercot, who “has been offered a span of Mules, Carriage, Provisions and Money to take him to California if he would come out and tell something against the leading men of Provo and Springville;” a week later, the judge “dismissed Mr. Nethercot, saying that he was a damned fool and did not know enough.” Nevertheless, Nethercot fled to California. In 1890 he returned to Utah and made peace with his brethren, ending his long life in 1905 as a Latter-day Saint in Salt Lake City.

The second man concealed behind an encrypted name here was Leonard Phillips. Whether his testimony was purchased cannot be known, but Phillips did prove abundantly willing to testify in high profile matters, including the Parrish-Potter murder inquiry of 1859 and the trial of Howard Spencer for the 1860 murder of Sgt. Ralph Pike. Phillips had sworn in an affidavit that his life was “in imminent peril from the Mormon community” as a result of his testimony; be that as it may, Phillips remained safely in Utah until his death in 1897.

Part 1, Part 3



28 Comments »

  1. Ardis, the Deseret Alphabet is currently being used by the folks behind A Motley Vision to “non-advertise” their blog on T-shirts.

    Interesting stuff, as I deal with cryptography on a pretty basic level with my work in high tech. One of the old schemes to help conceal the length of words in a substitution cipher like you describe is to perform the substitution,

    thena rrang eallt hewor dsin5 lette rbloc ksli kethi s

    with no punctuation.

    Kane’s wife describes the problem with manual encryption and decryption. To make a code difficult to break, the mathematics become more complex, and without some sort of mechanical calculator, increasingly difficult to perform. Others in the 19th Century used “one time pads”, which were pre-arranged sets of letters to be used based on position in the encrypted text, so Q may not always equal E, for example, making it more difficult to break. Both the sender and the receiver each had to have the code, and once it was used, had to be discarded and not used again. That led to the use of “keys” or an identifying phrase to indicate which pad was to be used.

    “Keys” are now integral parts of all computer-based encryption schemes, and generally depend on a pair of keys, one private, and one shared or “public”, to facilitate the decryption process.

    Sorry if that is TMI, but you really prompted one of my ADD related tangents.

    Comment by kevinf — December 10, 2008 @ 11:43 am

  2. There’s no such thing as TMI here, kevinf; thank you. One of the codes that we’ll talk about in part 3 — in fact, the code that generated the gibberish of this post title — is one that depends on a key, so that Q is not always equal to E. It’ll be a balancing act to show enough illustration so that everybody gets the idea, without making that part a mile long with tedious illustrations. Maybe you would stay handy to help with any questions that might come up from other readers.

    Didn’t you want to be a spy or at least a code breaker when you were a kid? I sure did.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 10, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

  3. I’ll have to admit that since about 1989, one of our family’s favorite movies has been “A Christmas Story”, where a decoder ring plays a vital plot point. I’ve actually been surprised that one of the secret codes I came up with as a kid actually was more complex and secure than I realized at the time.

    Looking forward to part 3.

    Comment by kevinf — December 10, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

  4. Didn’t you want to be a spy or at least a code breaker when you were a kid? I sure did.

    For me, this fascination didn’t die until my cryptography course during my senior year in college.

    Given their strength — if you use a random pad and the decoder doesn’t have access to the pad, there’s literally no possibility of decryption — and relative simplicity, I’m surprised that so many ciphers that were either weak or very complex were evidently used in Mormon correspondence. Ardis, what is your sense regarding the reasons for the weak ciphers? Is it perhaps that the authors of the correspondence didn’t expect anyone to make a serious effort at decryption, so they simply wanted to keep names hidden from casual readers? I suppose one might posit as an alternative that Mormons were incredibly naive about the possibility of decryption, but that strikes me as seriously unlikely.

    Comment by J. Nelson-Seawright — December 10, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

  5. Cryptonomicon

    Ok if we recommend books here that have as much sex and violence as the Old Testament, but in racier language?

    It’s great fun (the book, I mean) and has some interesting stuff about cryptography.

    Besides, what’s not to like about a book with a paragraph like this?

    The sun is going down and the rats are waking up. The major has been clambering over docks all day long. He has seen enough of war and the military to know that what he is looking for will be found on the last pier that he searches, which happens to be this one. If he begins searching that pier at the near end, what he is looking for will be at the far end, and vice versa. All the more reason to stay sharp as he works his way along. After casting an eye around to make sure there are no leaking stacks of drums of aviation fuel nearby, he lights up a cigarette. War is hell, but smoking cigarettes makes it all worthwhile.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 10, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

  6. Frustrated because I’m at work and the server blocks pictures, so I can’t see the Pigpen code… but based on the description, hasn’t that one appeared in the Friend more than a time or two? (Maybe I should just hold off on commenting until I’m home…)

    Comment by Coffinberry — December 10, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

  7. Who are the revisionists on the Deseret Alphabet? I thought the only potentially controversial question was its relation to masonic cyphers.

    Comment by Clark — December 10, 2008 @ 1:12 pm

  8. I second Clark’s question. I’ve heard two dubious theories about the Deseret Alphabet: 1) that it was intended to keep Mormon writings secret from Gentiles, and 2) that it was intended to replace the English alphabet to keep Mormons from reading Gentile books. But I’ve only ever heard these theories sort of second-hand, and I don’t know sources. I’m guessing Ardis does, and I’d love specifics!

    Comment by J. Nelson-Seawright — December 10, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

  9. This is all just so dang cool. Mormon spies. Love it.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 10, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

  10. BTW – so far as I know there’s not masonic-related script similar to the Deseret Alphabet. (I may be wrong in that but I’m not aware of any) So I’m not making the connection as an argument.

    Interestingly someone has up the Book of Mormon in the Deseret Alphabet. Why, I’m not sure.

    Comment by Clark — December 10, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

  11. Regarding the Deseret Alphabet, Young’s 1858-1863 office journal had several references to it. Apparently Young was pretty involved with the project, e.g.,:

    Br T. W. Ellerbeck came into the office and discussed with the Prest the pronunciation of the word holiness, as pronounced in teh Deseret Alphabt. The President said he should like to have another meeting of the Board of Regents. Prest. observed that John Doltin who could not read in teh old system, can now read in teh Deseret Alphabet very well. (Collier, 30. See also pp. 15, 16, 40, 89, 103)

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 10, 2008 @ 1:34 pm

  12. Wow, a real conversation broke out while I was away …

    kevinf, I still have the notebook I put together in the summer before 6th grade when I wanted to be a cryptographer and think that one I came up with, although impossibly complex to memorize, was fairly secure, too, based as it was on an almost random combination of substitutions. I’d hate to have to try to use it, though.

    JNS, some of the codes in part 3 were more sophisticated. I think naivete was probably the reason for those, like the pigpen cipher (and yes, Coffinberry, that one may have been used in the Friend, since it has been used in Weekly Reader and Hilights and other kids’ publications), that relied more on the mysterious appearance than on any really secure feature to keep mail unread. Think of Sherlock Holmes, though, the story with the “dancing men” cipher — the idea of decoding even such simple codes was so far beyond the experience of Doyle’s readers that the great Sherlock is portrayed as a one-of-a-kind genius for figuring out how it was done. In other words, before the days of spy novels and movies, it probably wasn’t hard to throw most people for a loop by using even simple ciphers. I think.

    Clark and JNS, I run into revisionists at the library, and had one memorable and very unpleasant encounter with one at an MHA dinner last year. None of them have published, though, so far as I know. I just shrug when they get going on their pet idea of how BY was championing the DA in order to control what Mormons read and keep them in ignorant slavery. That so totally ignores the massive amounts of printed material that were being brought into the Territory at BY’s encouragement and with his blessing that only a fool who wilfully chooses to ignore all the contradictory evidence could believe that. There are a lot of them out there, though.

    J., there should be a considerable amount about the DA in Ron Watt’s biography of his ancestor Geo. D. Watt, due from USU Press next summer, because Geo. D., working with the University of Deseret regents and reporting directly to Brigham Young, was the prime developer of the alphabet, drawing on his understanding of phonetics through his shorthand skills.

    Mark B., the paragraph made me laugh. Anything that makes me laugh is fair game here.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 10, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

  13. Ardis, good point regarding the evident historical difficulty of even very simple ciphers. In addition to spy novels and movies, I tend to forget that very few people in the 19th century had what even we today would regard as a rudimentary mathematical education. Those symbol-manipulation skills are obviously central to what makes decryption comparatively easy today.

    Now that the conversation is going a bit off toward the DA, I wonder how much we know about whose pronunciations were captured by the DA’s spellings? To what extent were they Watt’s pronunciations, or as the journal entry J. cites above suggests Young’s pronunciations? Or did they represent some effort at capturing some vision of the “normal” speech patterns in Utah?

    Comment by J. Nelson-Seawright — December 10, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

  14. I’m no DA expert. I’ve heard but can’t cite a source (I hate references like that but here I go — ) that linguists can tell generally where a DA writer is from by how he spells in DA, that the choices of which vowel sounds to record is distinctive. DA wasn’t used enough, of course, for spellings to have become standardized, so anyone who tried to use it had to rely on his own ear.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 10, 2008 @ 2:44 pm

  15. Fascinating. I remember the first time I learned about the Deseret Alphabet, I wished that we still used it.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — December 10, 2008 @ 3:02 pm

  16. I’m very much looking forward to Ron’s book. Sorry about the transcription errors in the quote, as well.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 10, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

  17. J, How rewarding to find that I am not teh only person who types “the” that way when writing speedily (and I was half hoping the original read the same way).

    Ardis, what a wonderful series. I regrettably missed your session at Casper, but I am wondering if you presented a powerpoint (shudder) session there with these images, or do we get the benefit here for the first time?

    The comments about shorthand-as-code make me puzzle yet again over the few instances in JS’s Nauvoo journals where Willard Richards uses shorthand. I have been over each instance time and again, and have noticed some obvious patterns, but none that give a satisfactory explanation for his infrequent use. Clearly he doesn’t seem familiar enough with Taylor shorthand to record speech–at least all of his accounts of JS’s sermons, court decisions, etc. favor broken, choppy, and incomplete longhand. And yet, he does include these few instances of shorthand–tending in the later journals to use it more commonly in ordinance-related scenarios, but never more than a few words at a time, and sometimes side-by-side similar or even identical statements written out in full. In short, I can’t see that Richards uses shorthand for either efficiency or secrecy–and I echo the opinion that viewing shorthand as anything but the most cursory restriction on readership would not have been deemed valid then, as now. Anyway, sorry for the long rant and thank you for the great essay.

    Comment by Alex — December 10, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

  18. I’m with you, Michelle. The DA is one of those things that makes our heritage so cool.

    All is forgiven, J. All is always forgiven where you are concerned. :)

    Thanks, Alex. Yes, I did use a PowerPoint, which can be very effective, I think, when it’s used as a slide show and not just to project a bulleted summary of the talk. The screen is too crowded to use them all effectively here on Keepa, but they killed in Casper!

    The clerks recording the Historian’s Office Journal in Salt Lake used shorthand, kinda sorta, in the way that speedwriting is sometimes taught today — that is, they used shorthand characters for the most common, short English words, but they weren’t comfortable enough with it to use it for more than “the,” “of,” “and,” “with,” and similar words. That makes it very easy for a non-shorthand writer (or one like me, who used Gregg) to read today.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 10, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

  19. Mark B,

    One of my favorite parts in Cryptonomicon is the scene where the family of academics and mathematicians are dividing up the grandfather’s estate by stamping out a huge x/y axis in the snow of the yard, and then placing items in relation to their perceived emotional vs financial value.

    Um, slightly more sex and violence than the OT, IIRC. Really.

    Comment by kevinf — December 10, 2008 @ 4:34 pm

  20. Um, slightly more sex and violence than the OT, IIRC. Really.

    It’s just veiled in Jacobean English in the KJV, so maybe you missed it. :-)

    And that was a good scene. I’ll have to suggest it to some of my estate planning clients.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 10, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

  21. Regarding note 12 above, I was a participant in the “unpleasant conversation” at the MHA and am afraid that A.E.P., somehow, misunderstood my point of view.
    In my 2001 Stanford University master’s thesis (available at BYU, Stanford Libraries, the Church archives in SLC)”Of Two Minds: Language Reform and Millennialism in the Deseret Alphabet,” I offer not a “revision” but a new and more comprehensive understanding of the Alphabet’s essentially theological purpose, based on primary source material and analysis of previous scholarly research. (Papers based on that and further research are in preparation.)
    It is unfortunate when new ideas are found “unpleasant” but good that they are “memorable.”
    My interest is not in codes, but in understanding the more substantive issues that motivated the extraordinary Deseret Alphabet.

    Comment by Andrew J Grose, M.D. — December 11, 2008 @ 12:22 am

  22. The unpleasantness, sir, was not in the idea, but in your behavior. I was asking you questions about your ideas, the way one does at a social function, to draw you into conversation and to understand the direction of your research. Between one question and the next, with no warning, some sort of psychotic switch seemed to flip on in your mind. Your voice turned sarcastic and mocking, you said I was behaving “just like a woman,” and that a woman couldn’t possibly understand.

    You, sir, have no place attending polite functions, and are not welcome to comment on Keepa.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 11, 2008 @ 6:46 am

  23. I’ll not comment on what Dr. Grose said but I think I understand why you left it up. It and your response reveal volumes.

    As always, your post is wonderful and a pleasure to read. I too am looking forward to part 3.

    Comment by BruceC — December 11, 2008 @ 8:28 am

  24. Further to 21: Neither the archives nor the church history library has anything catalogued under the name “Grose” nor under the title cited. Either its author is mistaken about having sent a copy here, or else the archivists and librarians have found it of insufficient importance to catalog in the past seven years.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 11, 2008 @ 8:45 am

  25. Re ##8,12:

    I’ve come across a few relevant sources:

    Bigler’s Forgotten Kingdom:

    Aimed to reform the representation of the English language, not the language itself, the new phonetic system offered a number of advantages. First, it demonstrated cultural exclusivism, an important consideration. It also kept secrets from curious non-Mormons, controlled what children would be allowed to read, and in a largely unlettered society that included non-English speaking converts, eliminated the awkward problem of phonetic spelling. For such reasons, for nearly two decades Brigham Young pushed the new alphabet on reluctant followers.

    Bancroft’s History of Utah, 712:

    At a meeting of the board of regents, held in October 1853, Parley P. Pratt, Heber C. Kimball, and George D. Watt were appointed a committee to prepare a small school-book in characters founded on some new system of orthography, whereby the spelling and pronunciation of the English language might be made uniform and easily acquired. A further object was exclusiveness, a separate people wishing to have a separate language, and perhaps in time an independent literature.

    P. Lynott’s dissertation on Susa Young Gates quotes from an 1868 Deseret News article stating that a primary reason for the DA was “the weeding out of objectionable literature.” She states that church leaders believed that the DA would help unify a diverse set of colonists, including thousands of non-English speaking converts, and provide educational benefits. Finally, she argues that Mormons were isolated from the rest of society and deliberately chose to be isolated. Thus, a separate language would assist in ensuring their insularity.

    Comment by Justin — December 12, 2008 @ 10:38 am

  26. Thanks, Justin. None of those statements come from “insiders,” those that I would consider to have any inside knowledge of the purpose of the DA from the point of view of those who actually constructed and advocated the DA — would you?

    And even if I granted for the sake of discussion that such was BY’s intent, we’d have to account for the utter failure of BY to do anything — a single thing — to curb the importation of massive amounts of reading material in the form of books, newspapers, and magazines, at any time. (He did rail against dime novels and romances and lying journalism, but he didn’t lift a finger to interfere with its importation.)

    For me, the reality of the imports, with BY’s full support and encouragement, and to a great degree his financing (and we’re not even beginning to talk about his constant efforts to decrease isolation through improved mail and freighting and encouragement for railroads), so far outweighs the ideological theories advanced for isolation and insularity that I can’t take them seriously. At all.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 12, 2008 @ 10:51 am

  27. None of those statements come from “insiders,” those that I would consider to have any inside knowledge of the purpose of the DA from the point of view of those who actually constructed and advocated the DA — would you?

    I agree with you. BTW, I dropped the passage for reasons of length, but I found that B.H. Roberts, CHC 5:79-80, responded to the insularity claims, specifically addressing Bancroft.

    Comment by Justin — December 12, 2008 @ 10:58 am

  28. I haven’t read it, but I also noticed that Lynott has published an article entitled “Communicating Insularity: The Deseret Alphabet of Nineteenth-Century Mormon Education.”

    Comment by Justin — December 12, 2008 @ 11:03 am

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