Knowing Poe: The Literature, Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe... In Baltimore and Beyond

Maryland Public Television
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4. Old cryptogram, new solution

No one paid much attention to the cryptograms for many years. In 1992, Terrence Whalen cracked the first Tyler puzzle. He was at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and wanted to take a break from his school work. He turned his attention to the cryptogram. His big break came when he figured out a three-character pattern that seemed to stand for "the." The rest was easy. That left just one cryptogram to be solved-the one you see here.

Shawn Rosenheim, a Williams College professor, had spent a long time struggling to solve this cryptogram. He and others thought that Poe himself may have written it. He had explored this topic and others related to Poe and his cryptograms in a book called The Cryptographic Imagination: Secret Writing from Poe to the Internet.

Despite his best efforts, he just couldn't solve the puzzle. But someone could, he thought. He decided to hold a contest, with a prize of $2500 going to the person who could make sense of the cryptogram. His college guaranteed the prize money.

The cryptogram was published on the Internet, and hundreds of people tried to find out what it meant. No one succeeded until 2000, when a Toronto software engineer took up the challenge. In July of that year, Gil Broza cracked the mystery. Using his cryptographic talent-and a computer-Broza found this solution:

It was early spring, warm and sultry glowed the afternoon. The very breezes seemed to share the delicious langour of universal nature, are laden the various and mingled perfumes of the rose and the -essaerne (?), the woodbine and its wildflower. They slowly wafted their fragrant offering to the open window where sat the lovers. The ardent sun shoot fell upon her blushing face and its gentle beauty was more like the creation of romance or the fair inspiration of a dream than the actual reality on earth. Tenderly her lover gazed upon her as the clusterous ringlets were edged (?) by amorous and sportive zephyrs and when he perceived (?) the rude intrusion of the sunlight he sprang to draw the curtain but softly she stayed him. "No, no, dear Charles," she softly said, "much rather you'ld I have a little sun than no air at all."

It wasn't an easy task. Broza started his work by assuming the plaintext was in English, because he knew Poe spoke English, and presumed Tyler did as well. He also assumed that the cryptogram was broken down into words. But, eventually, he turned to his computer. Through this process, he discovered that the puzzling paragraph contained more than twenty mistakes. Perhaps these may have come from the person who set the type for the cryptogram when it appeared in the magazine. Perhaps its author made a few mistakes. Despite all this work, no one knows if Poe actually wrote the cryptogram — or if there really was a very cryptographically gifted W.B. Tyler. What do you think?


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