With a little help from Edgar Allan Poe

With a little help from Edgar Allan Poe

With a little help from Edgar Allan Poe

The decipherment of a cryptographic text produced by a Modern Greek writer

When I was fourteen years old I discovered the American Center in Nicosia. It is in an old building surrounded by a garden, near the archaeological Museum of Cyprus. Its library is rich in books by American authors written in English. There was however only a poor section of books on American history and American literature translated into Greek in a far away corner. It was then that I began to study American literature. I have read virtually all the Greek section of the American Center. It was also there and then that I read books by Edgar Allan Poe for the first time in my life. One of his books, The Gold-Bug, amazed me when I was fifteen years old. I was amazed then and still I am  now because of his other books. After so many years, I still admire this great man. He remains one of my favorite writers.

The following quotation of a critic speaks of Poe’s talent and importance: “The 1830s and the 1840s American literary world that he inhabited was at once genteel and rough-and-tumble, and Poe was its enfant terrible, a prolific but unpredictable talent of distinctive opinions and little restraint”[1]

For Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe was “a fallen angel who remembered heaven”. Whereas Emerson looked down upon that “jingle man” who shook his bells and called their sound poetry, Tennyson admired him as an equal and Yeats (on an official occasion, however), proclaimed that he was “so certainly the greatest of American poets, and always, and for all lands, a great lyric poet.”[2]

In 1843, Poe published his famous tale The Gold-Bug and won a prize of one hundred dollars offered by the Dollar Newspaper. This brought him belated fame.[3]  Poe’s tale was a popular success. One newspaper reviewer called The Gold-Bug the most remarkable American work of fiction in the past fifteen years. The Gold-Bug became famous world-wide and one of the most popular stories ever written.

The Gold-Bug is a treasure – hunting tale. William Legrand, the hero of this tale, discovered, by accident, a scrap of parchment containing a cryptographic message. Cryptography deals directly with secrets. It’s the medium through which secrets are hidden. In this tale, if Legrand manages to decipher the message he will be the owner of the secret, which, in The Gold-Bug, means a pirate’s treasure.

“Later, in anonymous review of himself, Poe attributed the popularity of his tale The Gold-Bug to the same materialistic predictions of the American mass audience: money, and the finding of money being chosen as the most popular thesis”. A similar desire to exploit or control the mass audience underlies Poe’s great innovations in literary form, such as the tale of “ratiocination” or, more, specifically, the detective story (which Poe is credited with inventing). An attentiveness to an emerging mass market even informs Poe’s aesthetic writings, for his is perpetually investigating the possibility of creating a single literary text capable of satisfying both “the popular and the critical taste”.[4]

Poe was very interested in cryptography and had written texts on the subject (e.g. “A few words on Secret Writing”).[5] As the Reverend Mr. Cudworth claimed: “The most profound and skilful cryptographer who ever lived was undoubtedly Edgar Allan Poe.” Poe, with his belief that no cipher devised by the human mind could go unresolved by human examination, himself claimed he would solve any cryptogram sent to him in challenges published in both Alexander’s Weekly Messenger and Craham’s Magazine. In his own words, Poe’s challenge is stated as follows:

“It would be by no means a labor lost to show how great a degree of rigid method enters into enigma-guessing. This may sound oddly; but it is not more strange than the well fact that rules really exist, by means of which it is easy to decipher any species of hieroglyphical writing –that is to say writing here, in a place of alphabetical letters, any kind of marks are made use of at random. For example, in place of A put % or any arbitrary character –in place of B, a *, etc., etc. Let an entire alphabet be made in his manner, and then let this alphabet be used in any piece of writing. This writing can be read by means of a proper method. Let this be put to the test. Let anyone address us a letter in this way, and we pledge  ourselves to read it forthwith-however unusual or arbitrary may be the characters employed.”[6]

The challenge initiated numerous responses. Edgar Allan Poe found the solutions of all the ciphers that fall into the sample substitution category that Poe  gave as a condition for the challenge.

Back to The Gold-Bug again. The cryptographic message about the pirate’s treasure was the following:

William Legrand, the hero of this tale, with unusual powers of mind, tried to break the code of this cryptographic text. The first step was to ascertain the predominant letters, as well as the least frequent. Counting all, he constructed a table with the cryptographic characters and the frequency of them. In the first position was one cryptographic character like the number 8, it was written in the text 33 times. The most frequent letter in the English language is “E”. So the first cryptographic letter had been recognized. The symbol 8 represents the letter e. Second step: Of all the words in the English language “the” is the most usual. So he recognized  two other cryptographic characters that represented the letters t and h. In this way he managed to decipher the cryptographic text.

This is the deciphered text:

“A good glass in the Bishop’s hostel in the devil’s forty – one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north main branch seventh limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death’s –head a bee-line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out”

After the decipherment the discovery of the location of the treasure was very easy. Gold, coins, diamonds. Worth one and a half million dollars in those days.

Let us proceed to the second cryptographic text.

Giorgos Ioannou (1927 – 1985), the famous Greek prose writer of the post war period, started, when he was sixteen years old, during the period of the Nazi occupation of Greece, writing a diary about his every day life (hunger, oppression and other problems of the occupation, the progress of  the Second World War, the weather, the situation at home, his personal thoughts and experiences). The future author stopped writing his diary after four months. In ten pages of this diary some sentences had been written in a cryptographic way by means of a symbolic alphabet created by this young man himself. He did that in order to hide some personal experiences and thoughts he did not want to share with anybody. At the beginning of his Diary he had written his self created alphabet with the explanation for every symbol but he destroyed that first page because he was afraid that somebody might find out what he had written. The author himself, Giorgos Ioannou, admitted that even he himself hadn’t been able to decipher the cryptographic texts in his diary written such a long time before.[7] The Diary of the Greek writer was published  many years ago, when Giorgos Ioannou was alive.[8] In this edition a photo of one of his cryptographic texts was included. This is the following, dated 13 December 1943:

When I saw it I was reminded of the decipherment in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold Bug and I wondered if I could decipher this text. I read  The Gold Bug again to remember the method and I started working. After many hours of hard work and following Poe’s guidelines I managed to decipher the first word and then with more ease the first sentence: “[They behave to me] in a cruel way, my mother hit me”, this was the first sentence.

I was in tears, I realized that I was possibly the first man in the world to read this personal and cryptographic text. My favorite writer, Giorgos Ioannou, expressed himself in this text in 1943, when he was sixteen years old, and after 57 years, in 2000, I was the first to receive his message. I continued and deciphered  the whole message, which goes as following: “[They behave to me] in a cruel way, my mother hit me. I pray to God to help me and save me. I wish I could find a job to be able to have even only bread but to be saved from these people’s hands. I remember the fat grandmother and my heart wants to live with her. All those in the house, I loath them, I am disgusted.”[9]

The subject is not yet finished. The novelist Giorgos Ioannou visited Kalavryta in 1963. There, thirty years before, on 13 – 12 – 1943  the Nazi troops of Germany executed all the men of Kalavryta, 1200 victims aging from sixteen years and upwards. During his visit, the brother and the sister of one of the victims, who was sixteen years old on the day of the execution, came to have his bones exhumed. In this place of martyrdom Giorgos Ioannou was curious to find out what was written in his Diary on that very date, December 13th 1943, promising  himself to check the Diary entry when he returned home. This visit and his subsequent intention to check his diary is referred in a  short story written by Giorgos Ioannou himself entitled: “13 – 12 – 43.”

It is unbelievable! In his Diary, on December 13th, 1943, Giorgos Ioannou wrote the cryptographic text that in 2000 I, myself, deciphered.

So in Kalavryta a sixteen-year-old boy was faced with an execution squad of the Nazi troops and at the same time, on the same day, another boy of the same age, in Salonica, confronted hell in his home. It is important to understand that the major tragedies of a people and a nation go side by side with the tragedies of ordinary people; the tragedies of every day life. The latter must not be ignored if we want to understand our society and our environment.

I am about to finish now. So, we have examined the decipherment of a literary text by Edgar Allan Poe and a diary text by the Greek writer Giorgos Ioannou. This happened at a time when scientists have  deciphered the human genetic code, with telescopes and  radio scopes we try to understand the evolution of the Universe from the Big Bang to the present day. I believe that the liberation process of  humanity is a process of  decipherment. To decipher ourselves, to decipher  society and nature, to decipher the universe.


A. The cryptographic text in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold-Bug

B. The cryptographic text in Giorgos Ioannou The occupation Time Diary

[1] ) Leonardo Cassuto, Beyond Originality: Edgar Allan Poe the Critic. (in the edition: Edgar Allan Poe Literary theory and Criticism, edition by Leonard Cassuto, USA 1999, p.V.

[2] ) American Writers A collection of Literary Biographies, Leonard Unger Editor in Chief, Volume III, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, p. 409.

[3] ) A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 49.

[4] ) A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 67.

[5]) Daniel Hoffman, Poe Poe Poe, Luisiana University Press, 1972, p. 99.

[6] ) C. S. Brigham, Edgar Allan Poe’s contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, American Antiquarian Society, 1943.

[7]) Γιώργος Ιωάννου, Το κατοχικό Ημερολόγιο χωρίς περικοπές, Εκδ. Βιβλιοπωλείον της «Εστίας», Αθήνα 2000, σ. 28 [= Giorgos Ioannou, To Katochikon Imerologion, Estia, Athens 2000, p. 28].

[8] ) περ. Φυλλάδιο, Αθήνα 1978, αρ. 1, σ. 8 [= Fylladio, Athens 1978, n. 1, p. 8].

[9] ) Σάββας Παύλου, Βάναυσα με δέρνει η μάνα μου, εφ. H Καθημερινή, Αθήνα, 17 /12 /2000, σ. 58 [= Savvas Pavlou, Vanavsa me dernei I mana mou,I Kathimerini, Athens, 17 /12 /2000, p. 58].


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