Thursday, March 15, 2012


This postcard of the Connecticut River at Greenfield, Massachusetts was postmarked in nearby Turners Falls on January 29, 1909 and sent to a Miss Ruth L. Smith at the Northfield Seminary in East Northfield a few miles away. Founded by the noted evangelist Dwight Lyman Moody in 1879, Northfield was an all-girls school, religious in orientation, though it doesn't appear to have been intended to train clergy in the way that the word "seminary" is usually understood. Moody also founded a school for boys not far away and the two eventually merged. The combined institution still exists but the former Northfield Seminary campus is currently unoccupied.

The inscription on the front is an example of a Masonic or "pigpen" cypher, in which the symbols are obtained by the use of two pairs of grids, one dotted and the other undotted. In the example below, for instance, which is taken from Wikipedia, the letter A would be represented by something like a backwards letter L, while the sign for the letter Z would resemble an upside-down V with a dot in the center.

The above assumes that one begins the grid with the letter "A" and continues in an orderly progression, but there's no reason why one need stick to that arrangement; you could assign the letters randomly as long as both sender and recipient know the key. Even then, in principle the cipher should be readily crackable by the same techniques used to solve newspaper cryptograms, at least if one is sure which language is being represented and that there are no additional levels of trickery involved. So far, however, I haven't managed to decipher this one.

At first glance it shouldn't be difficult to solve. There are some one- and two-letter words, a sequence of repeated words, and some double letters, all of which should be helpful, but there are also some puzzling features. Of the first 20 characters in the inscription, only two appear more than once, as if the writer had deliberately chosen words that contained as many different letters as possible. There are several signs that incorporate a tiny "x" instead of a dot, and I don't know whether or not they should be regarded as distinct letters.

Feel free to take a crack at it and let me know if you come up with anything. In he meantime, below is a roughly contemporary view, complete with piano or portable organ, of another Moody-founded institution, Camp Northfield, which also still exists.

The card was addressed to Gillio Cassari of North Haven, Connecticut, and signed by Coriena [Cassari], both of whom, if my identifications are correct, were born in the 1890s. Gillio died in 1975; Coriena in North Haven in 1985 at the age of 94.

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