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10 Fascinating Code Breaker Stories

by Matt Garrow
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

In the course of our history, many different codes and ciphers have been discovered by humans. Many times these codes are cracked; other times, they are not. Our list today includes cases when our ingenuity has led us to amazing discoveries of wealth or in deceiving our enemies with hidden meanings behind secret codes. Unfortunately, our list also shows the futility of trying to decipher the meaning of codes written in forgotten languages. Read on to find 10 fascinating code-breaker stories.

Related: 10 Alleged Ultra Top Secret Shadow Government Projects

10 Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party

Cracking the NAZI Enigma Code Machine

In 1938, a group of intelligence officers spent a month at Bletchley Park in England. The group acted using the cover of a shooting party referred to as “Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party.”‘ Few would know at that time that Bletchley Park was about to become a pivotal momentum shifter for the Allies. According to estimates, the work conducted at Bletchley Park caused the war to be two years shorter and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Unscrambling the German ENIGMA codes was tasked to the ingenious and hardworking members of Bletchley Park. The Allies also used Bletchley to confuse the Germans prior to the D-Day landings. The Allies sent false codes which said the main invasion at Normandy was incorrect and the actual attack would be at Pas-de-Calais.

This deception meant many Wehrmacht and Panzer reserves were nowhere near Normandy on the day of the landings. After visiting Bletchley Park in 2011, the Queen remarked, “It is impossible to overstate the deep sense of admiration, gratitude, and national debt that we owe to all those men and, especially, women.”[1]

9 Zodiac

Zodiac killer code cracked by Australian mathematician 50 years after first murder | ABC News

During the late 1960s in the San Francisco Bay area, the Zodiac Killer terrorized people and police with his murder spree, killing at least five victims but potentially killing more. He sent a 340-word letter
to the San Francisco Chronicle, which consisted of a scrambled assortment of unreadable symbols to the police. The letter remained a mystery for over 50 years. Countless documentaries, books, and articles have been written about them, with many suggestions about what the hidden text would reveal.

In December 2020, a private investigation team of three managed to successfully decipher the symbols, revealing nothing more than ramblings from the Zodiac killer. He boasted, “I am not afraid of the gas chamber because it will send me to paradise all the sooner because I now have enough slaves to work for me.” However, the cracking of the code meant the victims’ families had a small sense of closure.[2]

8 Anne Lister

The Anne Lister Story by Helena Whitbread

During the 19th century, a man named John Lister found a strange code in the diaries of his aunt, Anne Lister. The code encrypted the text of the diary and hid secrets behind its true meaning. The code revealed that Lister had created her own language, allowing her to write freely within the strict societal pressures in which she lived. It is clear from the code that Lister was gay and used her code to detail many of her innermost thoughts and feelings at the time.

Her code was a mixture of ancient Greek and other symbols, which Lister referred to as her “crypt hand.” Lister used this code in her diaries which consist of over 7,000 pages of free-hand, with sections entirely written in crypt hand. The code was easier to crack than many of our codes featured on the list, but this would be expected, considering it was created and used by only Lister herself. The diaries and a guide to the code can be found online. Readers can discover the very significant history of what author Emma Donoghue called “the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history. They change everything.” [3]

7 Somerton Man

Why Can Nobody Solve the Mystery of the Man in the Suit?

The mystery of the Somerton Man is one of the strangest unsolved cases from the 20th century. Just how and why his deceased body came to be on Somerton beach had investigators puzzled at the time. Police discovered a folded note inside the man’s trouser pocket with the words “Tamam Shud” written on it. These words, meaning “the end,” came from a popular book of verse. A copy of this book had been discarded into a stranger’s car near Somerton around the time of the disappearance and was later handed over to the police.

According to the owner of the car, his window had been left open slightly, and the book must have been pushed through the gap. Upon opening the book, a handwritten note was discovered on the last page. The handwritten note has code that has never been broken, despite the efforts of some of the leading code breakers in the world.

Some suggest deciphering the code will lead to further clues which may help identify the Somerton man. Somehow, theorists say, the note in the man’s pocket is linked to the discarded book, which is then linked to the code written inside, and by cracking it, more will be revealed.

The Somerton man’s body was exhumed in May 2021, and scientists are using the technology at their disposal, so they can hopefully shed some light on the mystery once and for all. Although some have claimed they have solved the unknown identity of the Somerton man and cracked the code, the authorities are still hesitant to officially back these findings.[4]

6 Nurp 40 TW Pigeon

NURP 40 TW 194: The WW2 Pigeon with a Secret Code

In 2015, a resident of Surrey, England, found the remains of a pigeon in his chimney while cleaning, noticing that the leg had a red canister still attached to its leg bone. Upon opening the canister, the container had a secret code of 27 different five-letter words, which obviously meant something to the original sender.

During World War II, pigeons were used as a means of communicating secret code from mainland Europe to the UK, and this message was never received. But what did the code mean? First, the identification of the bird is not clear, as two identification numbers were found: NURP.40.TW.194 and NURP.37.OK.76.

The sender of the pigeon, “Sjt W Stot,” intended for the pigeon to be received at “X02.” If all this sounds confusing, then you are forgiven, as the code-breaking books used to decipher during the war are now likely destroyed. Therefore, the code may never be cracked. Investigators have appealed to the public to see if anyone has any information that may shed light on the curious cipher. But, so far, they have only received a response indicating the code may have been intended for Santa, based on the fact it was found inside a chimney. Thanks, very helpful![5]

5 Ricky McCormick’s Encrypted Notes

The Unsolved Mystery of Ricky McCormick

In June 1999, the body of a local man in West Alton, Missouri, was discovered in a cornfield by a woman driving along the road. The body had been there for a short while as it was still decomposing. The remains were identified through fingerprints as Ricky McCormick, a local unemployed man with a criminal record who lived at multiple addresses in his short life. However, McCormick’s death was a mystery.

His body was 15 miles (24 kilometers) away from where he had most recently lived, and he did not own a means of transportation. Further adding to the mystery was a set of notes found in his pockets which contained a code of unknown origin. The code, consisting of letters and numbers, is believed to be linked to his mysterious death. Unfortunately, both the FBI and the American Cryptogram Association failed to decipher the meaning of the notes, which led the case to hit a dead end.

Nobody had reported McCormick missing, nor did his body show any signs of homicide or violence—the only clue seemed to be the scramble of code in his pocket. McCormick’s family has said that he never practiced any form of code and doubt whether the code was written by him. The FBI has created a website for internet sleuths to try and crack the code, but so far, nothing definite has been found, and the case remains unsolved.[6]

4 Voynich Manuscript

This Artificial Intelligence Tried To Crack The Voynich Manuscript And This Is What It Found

One of the world’s most mysterious books, the Voynich manuscript, can be traced back to an alchemist in Prague named Georg Baresch. Baresch wrote that the book had been “taking up space uselessly in his library” and never disclosed how he had come to own it. The book contains around 240 pages, with some clearly missing, and it is full of fascinating code, symbols, and illustrations.

Some of the illustrations feature herbal medicine practices from Medieval times, volcanos, nude women with tubes, and astrology-related pictures. Others feature floating castles, disembodied heads, or strange creatures. The text is written in a “natural language” but has left some of the world’s brightest cryptologists puzzled about its true meaning.

Theories of what the manuscript could be about include suggestions that Leonardo da Vinci wrote it, it is a book written by aliens, or it is all a hoax. The ongoing research into the text suggests it may have been written in a Latin or Roman language that has since been lost to history, explaining why we cannot decipher it.[7]

3 Fenn Treasure

The Search for an Eccentric Millionaire’s Hidden Treasure Chest | The New Yorker Documentary

In 2010, author and art dealer Forrest Fenn released his memoirs which detailed to his readers that he had hidden a treasure chest “in the mountains somewhere north of Santa Fe.” The treasure was reportedly stashed in 1988 when Fenn was given the news he was terminally ill (which was later found to be incorrect), so he decided to publish his memoirs.

Within the memoirs were nine hidden clues as to the treasure’s whereabouts. Included in the hidden treasure were gold, rare jewels, and gemstones. Reportedly, these would be worth an estimated one to two million dollars. The cryptic clues tell readers to begin “where warm waters halt” and go somewhere “no place for the meek.”.

Over the years, many people followed the clues, and for some, it led to their death. In total, at least five different treasure hunters were found dead, supposedly searching for Fenn’s treasure. In 2010, the clues were followed, and an anonymous hunter located the gold in 2010 in Wyoming. In 2021, another hunter filed a lawsuit that contested Fenn had moved the treasure from Colorado during the pandemic as he knew it was near to being found.[8]

2 Dorabella Ciphers

The Dorabella Cipher: Proven to be a Friendly Joke

Composer Edward Elgar left an encrypted note to his friend, a Miss Dora Penny, in July of 1897, which has still yet to be deciphered. The note, which Elgar left inside a letter of thanks, was sent to Penny’s family with her name penciled on the front. Elgar clearly intended the letter for Miss Penny, but upon opening it, she was faced with an 87-character cipher consisting of symbols in confusing orientations.

Some have suggested it was an expression of Elgar’s love for Miss Penny, and he was known to have had a keen interest in ciphers. The note has been attempted to be deciphered by many experts over the years with a range of outcomes; most are difficult to understand the true meaning and raise doubts as to whether they are anywhere close to Elgar’s original meaning. In 2007, the Elgar Society held a competition for its members to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth. However, no entries were deemed to have deciphered the meaning. It is possible the code may never be broken.[9]

1 Beale Ciphers

In the early 1800s, a band of Virginians led by expeditioner Thomas Beale discovered a hoard of natural gold and silver in the Rocky Mountains, unable to believe their good fortune. The group mined the area for years to the extent that their hoard is estimated to be worth around 65 million U.S. dollars in today’s value.

To protect their treasure, Beale and the rest of the miners buried the treasure in an unknown location in Bedford, Virginia. Beale then created three letters that revealed the location of the spoils. They were passed on to an innkeeper who held on to them for decades without hearing again from Beale (who was later presumed dead). The letters could not be understood, consisting of numbers only in an apparently random assortment.

The innkeeper passed the ciphers on to a wealthy friend who managed to decipher the contents section of the cipher (revealing how much gold and silver was buried) but could not decode the remaining code. To this day, the original cipher has not been fully deciphered, and the whereabouts of the treasure remain unknown. Some consider the entire thing an elaborate hoax, but there exists a possibility that an incredible amount of wealth is buried in the mountains of Bedford.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen