The Cipher File and How to Decipher
by Katherine Yurica
A Story by Rosetta Sherwood Stone
Instructions and Tips On How to Decipher
To the Cipher File:
"The Game's A Foot Watson!"
How the Cipher File Came About
When I was very young, seven to nine, or around that age, I found myself getting bored when I ate alone. So I would grab any reading material I could find. It didnt matter what it wasbecause I had started on a quest to find out what letter in the alphabet was used more often than any other letter. I developed a game of sorts with an imaginary opponent. The idea was to guess which letter would appear most in any given writing. I would always chose E and my opponents chose other letters, like A or O. My preference for E paid off because I always won. Later in life, the knowledge about the letter E came in handy when I started deciphering cryptograms. But first, I learned to write them.
When I was a teen, I started making secret messages in cipher. The problem was, no one could figure out how to decipher any message I sent. I had never heard the word cipher or cryptogram, but there was a mysterious attraction to writing in code. Indeed, Leonardo Da Vinci used a mirror to learn looking-glass writingwriting that was reversed and backwards from normal writing. (His use of the mirror has implications for all artists and in fact Ive written about the use of a mirror in art.) But what Da Vinci did was extraordinary; he compiled more than 5,000 manuscript sheets written in reverse!
My own adventure in ciphers came when I discovered The Saturday Review of Literature edited by Norman Cousins. As I recall, it came out weekly, and in each issue there was a cryptogram to solve: it was usually a quote from a famous writerand it fed the soul. It made one feel as if the words were more important because they were earned by the reader by deciphering them! Finally, in 1971 I decided to create a series of ciphers that quoted from the great minds of the ages, but with one difference. I would write a story as an introduction and I would include images from the greatest artists of the world. I was trying to create a link between art and literature that would teach youngsters (or people of any age) about art and about literature but without seeming like a text book. So I made a game of it! Thats how The Cipher File came into existence. The drawings were created at top speed, in order to match the conditions set by the story as best I could. Of course the story is fiction, but the art and the ciphered quotes are presented here for your enjoyment and achievement. The drawings are often from details of great paintings hung in the great art museums of the world. Most are from Italy and France and most are from the Renaissance. Bon voyage!
By the way, we've decided to give $100 to the first person who solves all the cryptograms and $100 to the first person who identifies all the original artists in each of the forty drawings. And on January 29, 2007, we declared a winner in the deciphering contest. However, decoding a ciphered message has its own rewards! See the rules.
The Cipher File Story
By Rosetta Sherwood Stone
The story that I am about to tell is true. At the very outset, however, I am inclined to warn the reader of the unusual aspects that he will be confronted with. But I reassure you that despite certain peculiarities interspersed throughout, there is a thread, albeit ever so small, which takes the reader far beyond the boundaries of this short tale. To say that, perhaps, makes me appear the boaster, however, I assure you that I approach this tale with the greatest of humility.
This amazing story began on a Wednesday night in September. I had spent the evening at a friends home on a small island off the coast of California, approximately fifty miles from my home. Because the conversation had been one of keen interest and exciting philosophical exploration, the hour of my departure was extremely late. I found myself ill equipped for the task of driving home. For to describe the night as dark and eerie is inadequate since the phrase barely begins to set the atmosphere. My car was the only car on the road; indeed, it was the only thing moving in a world of blue-black silhouettes. I must have fallen asleep for a moment or two for I cannot explain the sudden shift of scenery and road signs. I was suddenly driving along a narrow lane, lined with giant eucalyptus trees. The blackness of that road was indeed black. Presently my headlights outlined a sign which read: Road ends 500 feet.
To be an adult and be completely lost is an embarrassing situation. People expect adults to refrain from getting lost, although, they frequently make allowances for the very old people, the very young, and women on occasion. It is because this policy is held prevalent within our society that I usually refrain from asking directions. I have, on occasion, wandered for hours, preferring to find my own way than to stopfollow the arrows, then bear leftonly to find that it is the wrong freeway going in the wrong direction.
So the reader will understand my hesitation as I sat looking at a house, not more than fifty feet away from me that was entirely lighted. I surmised that the occupants were having a social gathering of some kind, because I could detect that there were a number of people inside and a great deal of activity. I overcame my backwardness and walked toward the house, seeking information.
The house was an old Victorian mansion. It must have had thirty windows plus peristyles and cochleate shapes and pinnacles and cornice and lace-like crocheted decorations. It was, to say the least, quaint, and I instinctively liked the place. But what is more significant, I was suddenly drawn to it to the tune of tinkling bells and off-rhythmed piano melodies. Above the door hung a sign reading:
Vocatus atque non
Vocatus Deus aderit.
(Being translated: Summoned and not summoned, God will be there.)
I rang the doorbell and quelled all the sounds that had been rising within me. An old man came to the door and invited me in. Yes, he would get the best of directions for me, and in the meantime a cup of Irish coffee would do the soul well. The old man returned with the coffee and a card.
Is this your name? he asked as he pushed the card in front of me.
The reader will remember that I am a sensible person and before discrediting my story altogether will allow me to reassure you that I am telling you exactly what happened. I replied to the old man, that yes, that was my exact name. He replied, You know, we have been waiting a very long time for you. Now that you are here, you surely wont run off. Nothing could be more important to you.
He left me in the old-fashioned drawing room. Painted on the wall in ancient script read the lines: Ask and it shall be given unto you; knock and it shall be opened; seek and ye shall find. I sipped my coffee and began to analyze my situation and surroundings. I, being a sensible person and an educated one, took the path of mind which openly discredited the mysterious. I will not advise the reader to follow that course for as you shall see, I clearly had encountered the inexplicable. I will also confess to you that before I relinquished my doubts, I seriously entertained the thought that I had succumbed to a mental disorder.
Notwithstanding the state of my mental turmoil, I proceeded at that point to investigate my surroundings. I have a propensity toward the examination of books. Whenever I enter a home I immediately search for the bookcase, and at the very first opportunity, I race to it and quickly search its titles and in this way judge the character and intelligence of my host. If there are no booksI straight away take my leave of the house. And so it was that as I searched around the room that I came upon one of the strangest books that I have ever seen. I cannot now remember the publisher or the place of publication, and even the year escapes me. The title read: The Death of the Soul of Man in the Twentieth Century. And I remember clearly that there was definitely no authors name. The entire book was beautifully bound, yet consisted of only two pages. In heavy black lettering the first page read:
HEREIN LIES A MYSTERY:
THAT THE ROCKS OF THE EARTH
CONTAIN THE SOULS OF THE
MEN OF THE EARTH, AND ARE
A SHELTER IN A WEARY LAND.
HE THAT HATH UNDERSTANDING
LET HIM UNDERSTAND:
SELL NOT THY SOUL
NEITHER DESPISE IT
NOR DESTROY IT
FOR IF YOU SELL THY SOUL
OR DESPISE IT OR DESTROY IT,
THOU SHALT BE UTTERLY CONDEMNED
AND SHALL SURELY DIE.
On the opposite page and facing the inscription was an elaborate drawing showing what appeared to be the masses of every nation and race, every size and shape, every professional group, every vocation, and every age. Some were using great machines to transport and hammer and explode the millions of rocks that had been gathered there. Others were less skilled with the highly developed machines shown and were using hammers and sledge hammers to burst the smallest of rocks, even little stones and pebbles.
Some of the machines were of the most intricate design and most advanced construction. There were machines creating new machines and it was clear to me that the science of cybernetics had been applied with intelligent industry. The viewer could easily tell that the men who had engineered the project were men of great genius and practicality. At the rate of industry applied, I reasoned that the earth would be made perfectly smooth and level within five years. It appeared to me that the project was creating hundreds of thousands of additional fertile acreage which would increase the food supply for the world. It occurred to me that perhaps the entire surface of the earth could be made fertile through this method. And then, as I lingered, I began to see other advantages involved in the uniformity of the earths surface. For example mountain ranges that are located near our great cities have trapped the air rising from the cities and have actually created vacuum areas in which the gases and smoke of our industries have been trapped, thus polluting our air. If we removed the mountains, we could be ensuring a cleaner atmosphere, I reasoned, for the dead air would be naturally blown away by the winds.
As I pondered over these things the old man returned.
Ah, he said, I see that you are interested in books.
Yes, I replied, Is it yours?
No, it was left here for the owner.
When I told him I thought he was the owner, he replied, much to my consternation that he did not even live in the house. He was merely a guide. After many protestations and my insistent urgings, he told me that his name was Dr. Young.
But when I questioned him upon the meaning of the book, he shrugged his shoulders as though he were appalled with my inquiry.
It was then that he told me that since my interest in books was so great, he would take me to the library and allow me to browse. He left me by saying that the collection of books contained ancient wisdom and the secrets of life as well as the key to my own destiny. The reader may well imagine my intense curiosity at these statements, and I made no hesitation whatsoever in following my guide to the library. The library itself was richly lined in dark mahogany, and the walls were lined on three sides with the most exquisitely carved shelves. The fourth side of the room was a large window through which the moon and stars poured in their voluminous light. The old man turned on the lights in the room and set me free to browse and read all that I wished until his return.
Somewhere in that library my sureness left me and I felt myself void of certain cliché answers that had stood my stead so well. To comprehend me fully, I must offer you an explanation. You see, my years of study at the university had equipped me admirably with isolated facts, phenomenon of all sorts and certain philosophies. But to know and be able to recognize a verb or a noun or an adjective or preposition is one form of mental exercise, but to place the words which represent those parts of speech into a sequence and order which form a sonnet of eloquence and beauty is far more than a mental exercise; and further, it represents a form of thought which is not introduced to the students because neither the professors nor the administration nor the State know the secrets of this process. And so it was that I had developed a form of rote thought which served me adequately and gained the approval of my professors and fellow students.
I tell you these things only because of their relationship with those wonderful books that I found in that library. The palpitations that I still feel as I bring to mind the touch and smell of those ancient and wise sayings take my very breath! Shelf after shelf held books so rare that it was incredible to behold. The smoothness of the suede and the richness of the gold embossed titles led me to believe that the knowledge contained therein was too beautiful for me. And I tell the reader that those ancient pages disappointed not one bit of my inquiry. I poured over those pages with complete delight; such was the height of joy that I received there.
I was only able to read a few lines, a few paragraphs, in each book as I hurried in an attempt to cover the scope, subject matter, and breadth of the volumes. And it is because of my unwarranted haste that I am now able to produce only a few lines of those pages of reading. I was amazed at the beautiful art work. And, reader, you will be surprised with me, when I tell you that there were several scrolls and books of antique value that were done completely by hand. The most exquisite script enhanced the most eloquent pages that I have ever seen. As I neared the end of the last shelf, I became aware that the volumes had a more modern luster about them. At the end of that shelf, I found a magnificently carved box about the size of an ordinary notebook sheet paper. Carved onto the side of the box was the inscription: Not Yet A Book. And inside lay forty sheets of blank paper. As I stared at the paper, the old man appeared and invited me to keep the box and sheets and take them with me wherever I was bound to go. He stated that I should record from memory, the forty most important secrets that I had learned this night on the forty sheets and distribute the knowledge to whomever would work to achieve it.
The reader therefore will easily see how I have carried out the old mans instructions. Alas, my poor eye could never reproduce the great art that I beheld, but my training in rote memory, served me well, and not a comma is missing from those sayings. I leave it to the reader to decide the meanings and importance of all that I found and which is contained herein.
Instructions and Tips on Deciphering
Mystery and secrets intrigue almost everyone. And what is more mysterious than a secret message sent in cipher?
Remember that a cipher is a method of writing secret messages in which letters or symbols are substituted for the normal alphabet. Every letter or symbol is held constant throughout the puzzle.
Does this mean a letter could be used to stand for itself? Yes, it does. And if anything, it makes the deciphering a little more difficult. The Cipher File contains no dummy groups (which are usually thrown in to confuse the analyst), and which are groups of nonsensical letters having no meaning, but letters do, on occasion, stand for themselves. Each of the cryptograms is numbered with a Roman Numeral in order to identify the page--that number is not part of the cryptogram.
One of the many ways to methodically decipher a message is to write all of the letters of the alphabet in their usual sequence in one column. Next, count the number of times each letter appears in the ciphered message and write this number down opposite the letters. For example, if Q appears more times than any other letter, you can be fairly certain it is a substitute for the letter E, since E is the most frequently used letter in English and several other languages.
The following frequency table will be an aid to you. Each letter is shown in the order it appears most frequently in English.
E, T, A, O, N, I, R, S, H, D, L, F, C, M, U, G, Y, P, W, B, V, K, X, J, Q, Z.
Additionally, it will help you to know that E, D, T, and S are the last letters of over fifty percent of all English words, and that an equal number of words start with A, O, S, T, or W. From experience, and the above frequency table, you will see that the letters X, J, Q, and Z seldom appear in words. So if a letter appears only once in a long cryptogram (the easiest to decipher), it is likely to represent a little used letter.
Separating out the two or three-letter words will tell you through trial and error that they are probably THE, AND, FOR, YOU, etc.
And of course, a single letter appearing in the cipher must be either an A or I.
In the English language, the letters most often paired together are AN, AT, ER, ES, OF, RE, TE and TH.
The most frequent double letter combinations in English are:
LL, EE, SS, OO, FF, TT, PP, NN, CC, GG, and MM.
Suppose that you are deciphering the following message:
Y JWYPV JWHJ Y MHP IHGYLS LIHDP JU TIMYNWID.
Count the frequency of the letters used and you will see that Y is used five times; H, I, and J four times each; P And W three times each; D, L, and M, two times, and G, N, S, T, U and V only once each.
But Y cannot be an E or a T, since it is standing alone; it can only be an A or an I. Our frequency table suggests that it would be an A. However, note that in the fifth group of letters, Y is followed by a three letter word, suggesting a verb rather than an object or noun, so we used Y = I.
I _ _ I_ _ _ _ _ _ I _ _ _ _ _ _ I_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ I _ _ _ _
Now suppose that the three letter word is WAS or CAN; in either case, we have a good possibility for the A. Note that the H has a frequency of four. Let us choose CAN as our first try:
I _ _ IN _ _ _ A_ I CAN _A _I _ _ _ _A _N _ _ _ _CI _ _ _ _ .
It does not take too long for us to try a TH for the second and third groups. Thus we get:
I THIN_ THAT I CAN _ A_I _ _ _ _A _ N _ _ _ _ CI _ H _ _.
The last word begins to look very much like the subject of our instructions: DECIPHER.
Thus the full message reads: I THINK THAT I CAN EASILY LEARN TO DECIPHER.
Note that the L stood for itself and was thus one of the most difficult letters to crack.
Use the frequency tables as guides, but remember logic and imagination must be called into play constantly.
It you get stuck on one cipher, go to another, or put it down for awhile and let your subconscious come up with the clue.
And lastly, if you really do get stuck and you simply cannot crack the cipher, send us an email, identifying the cipher by the Roman numeral. And well try to get the answer back to you promptly (or reasonably promptlyif not possibleand with our best wishes).
Send a letter
to the editor
about this article
To The Cipher File
"The Game's A Foot Watson!"
Click here to see Yurica's
Botticelli Cover of The Cipher File
Back to The Yurica Report Home Page
Copyright © 2005 Yurica Report. All rights reserved.