Just imagine you purchase a Victorian-era costume from a vintage clothing store, only to discover later that it conceals a secret message that is completely encrypted and unintelligible. I believe we’ve all been there.
For Sara Rivers-Cofield, an archaeological curator, this was, in fact, her reality when she purchased a 19th-century silk dress in 2013 from an antique mall in Maine. The code concealed in the dress eluded attempts to decipher it for a decade, but it has since been cracked, and a researcher has even determined the day it was most likely written.
The silk-dress cryptogram case
As per the blog post by Rivers-Cofield, it appears that the two-piece dress with a bronze color probably belongs to the mid-1880s. Although people who are looking for vintage clothing frequently find items like this, what she discovered inside the dress was extremely unusual. According to Rivers-Cofield, the dress featured a hidden pocket sewed into a difficult-to-reach area that could only be reached “through an inconspicuous slit in the overskirt.”
“You have to hike up the draped silk, expose the cotton underskirt, and generally disrupt the entire look to get at the pocket because it is completely concealed by the overskirt.”
There was a ball of crumpled paper inside the pocket containing about twenty lines of nonsensical writing. Phrases like “Paul Ramify loamy event false new event” and “Bismark Omit leafage buck bank” are examples of the text.
It was obvious the message was coded, but what did it mean?
Over ten years, numerous investigators, both novice and expert codebreakers, attempted to unravel this twisted enigma, but with no success. Known as the “silk-dress cryptogram,” the puzzling messages were so notorious that they were listed in the top 50 unsolved codes and ciphers in history. However, the fancy dress of this message has finally been pulled off by someone, revealing its secrets.
A mystery resolved
Computer analyst Wayne Chan of the University of Manitoba in Canada has deciphered the code and determined the day it was most likely created.
When the Silk Dress cryptogram was first made public online, there were many different theories as to what the enigmatic messages meant to say. Were they covert signals from spies? Were they connected to illegal gaming? Chan wrote in the recently released work.
Though the answer is admittedly more commonplace than any of the conjecture, it’s still kind of neat.
As it happens, the message hid meteorological observations that were captured in a telegraphic code that the Weather Bureau and the US Army were using at the time. Since each word in a Telegram message could cost several dollars, this was an economical way to share information about city forecasts without going over budget.
The telegraph was crucial in advancing the field of operational meteorology during the period depicted by the weather observations deciphered in the Silk Dress cryptogram, according to Chan.
“Observations from remote locations could be quickly distributed, compiled, and analyzed for the first time in history to provide a summary of the weather across an entire nation and to enable the creation of regional weather forecasts.”
It’s interesting to note that only a small number of government employees had access to this code, which they used to make national weather maps.
According to Chan, A.W. Greely, the Chief Signal Officer, created the code, which was adopted in 1887. Users could convey a complete report using the code in an average of six words, which was incredibly effective. Another change from earlier, more complicated codes was that this one could be read by someone who was trained to do so.
Every few years, Chan says, “new weather codebooks were published, sometimes with significant revisions.” “Versions were released in 1889, 1892, and 1896 between 1888 and 1900; the U.S. Weather Bureau, which had replaced the Signal Service in 1891, published the latter two codebooks.”
Those who want to solve the mystery on their own can get the codebook here.
In addition to revealing what the message says, Chan’s research has identified the day it was most likely written—May 27, 1888—by looking at national weather data from the US and Canada for the conditions mentioned. There are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding this tale, though.
Who, for example, was the author? Why was it necessary for them to conceal the information in such a complex manner? Did a dress the color of bronze go with their skin tone?
While there may never be an answer to the last two mysteries, Chan has made significant progress in trying to solve the first.
Every local forecast was probably gathered at a War Department telegraph room in Washington, DC, and its operators were all men. They did, however, work as book stitchers, clerks, copyists, and typists.
“It is therefore quite possible that the clerical staff may have handled the coded messages and that the owner of the dress could have been among them,” Chan explains.
“Bennett” is identified on a name tag attached to the dress. Thanks to the 1888 Signal Service annual report, we are aware that at the time, a “Miss Mary C. Bennett” was working in Fairview, Fulton County, Illinois, as a volunteer weather observer. So, might this be the enigmatic dress’s owner?
It’s still unclear for the time being, but Chan did notice something intriguing. In reality, Mary Bennett’s birthday fell on the day of the weather observations that were reported in the coded message. Just a coincidence? Most likely, but it’s still a lot of fun.