The Puzzly Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe

[Image courtesy of the Poetry Foundation.]

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most influential writers in all of American literature. Not only did he come to epitomize all things ghastly and unnerving in Gothic horror with chillers like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” but he also trailblazed the detective fiction genre with his character C. Auguste Dupin.

He also made an impact on the world of puzzles.

[Image courtesy of the National Cryptologic Museum Foundation.]

Those familiar with Poe’s works of fiction probably think I’m referring to his story “The Gold-Bug,” one of, if not the first, stories to not only mention cryptography, but to include a substitution cipher (a cipher where each letter in the alphabet is represented by a different letter, number, or symbol).

In “The Gold-Bug,” an unnamed narrator meets the unusual William Legrand, a man obsessed with restoring his family’s lost fortune. Legrand shows off a large scarab-like insect, the titular gold bug. A month later, the narrator and Legrand are reunited when the obsessed Legrand (along with his servant Jupiter) goes off on a expedition to discover the location of the buried treasure of the legendary Captain Kidd.

As it turns out, a piece of paper Jupiter used to collect the gold bug had traces of invisible ink on it, revealing a cipher containing instructions for how to find Kidd’s gold.

[Image courtesy of Bookriot.]

But this was far from Poe’s only dalliance with codebreaking. In fact, he helped popularize the art and science of cryptography with a series of articles in a Philadelphia publication called Alexander’s Weekly Messenger.

In December of 1839, he laid out a challenge to his readers, boasting that he could crack any substitution cipher that readers submitted:

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 know fact that rules really exist, by means of which it is easy to decipher any species of hieroglyphical writing — that is to say writing where, in place of alphabetical letters, any kind of marks are made use of at random. For example, in place of A put % or any other arbitrary character –in place of B, a *, etc., etc.

Let an entire alphabet be made in this 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 any one address us a letter in this way, and we pledge ourselves to read it forthwith–however unusual or arbitrary may be the characters employed.

For the next six months, Poe tackled every cipher sent to Alexander’s. According to Poe, he received around a hundred ciphers, though historians have stated that only 36 distinct ciphers appeared in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, 15 of which had solutions or partial solutions printed.

Nonetheless, it’s believed that Poe solved each of those 36 ciphers.

[Image courtesy of Awesome Stories.]

He followed up this impressive feat with an essay about cryptography in July of 1841 for Graham’s Magazine, “A Few Words on Secret Writing,” in which he discussed ancient methods of encryption and decryption, name-dropping codebreaking icons like Trithemius, Vigenere, and others.

He also published two cryptograms for the readers to solve, both submitted by a man named W.B. Tyler, “a gentleman whose abilities we highly respect.” Poe claimed he didn’t have time to solve either cryptogram, leaving them to the readers to crack. (Naturally, some scholars theorize that W.B. Tyler was none other than Poe himself.)

It would be over a century before the first verifiable solution to a W.B. Tyler cryptogram appeared. Professor Terence Whalen published his solution to the first Tyler cryptogram in 1992, and even offered a $2500 prize to whomever could solve the remaining Tyler cryptogram.

[Image courtesy of Cryptiana.web.]

That prize was claimed 8 years later by a Canadian software expert named Gil Broza, who cracked what turned out to be a polyalphabetic cipher, one in which several substitution alphabets are used.

Naturally, Poe’s interest in secret messages and codebreaking has led some to suspect that secret messages are lurking in his poetry and works of fiction. (Similar conspiracy theories abound regarding the works of Shakespeare.)

To be fair, there is something to this theory.

In a manner similar to Lewis Carroll hiding Alice Liddell’s name in an acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass, Poe dedicated a poem to friend and poet Sarah Anna Lewis by hiding her name, one letter per line, in the poem itself.

[Image courtesy of The Baltimore Post Examiner.]

Of course, Poe’s method was more intricate than Carroll’s. The S in Sarah was the first letter on the first line, the A was the second letter on the second line, the R was the third letter on the third line, and so on. (Hiding coded messages in plain sight in this manner is known as steganography.)

And to this day, the hunt is on for secret messages in Poe’s works, particularly his more esoteric and oddly worded pieces. For instance, his prose poem “Eureka” — a musing on the nature of the universe itself, which actually proposed a Big Bang-like theory for the birth of the universe well before scientists offered the same theory — is believed to contain some sort of secret message or code.

Poe stated on more than one occasion that “human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve.” So if there is a code lurking in his works, someone will surely find it.

And in the meantime, we can still enjoy the chills, the grand ideas, and the mysteries he left behind. That’s quite a puzzly legacy.

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The Great Puzzle Pursuit: Puzzle Hunting Across the U.S.!

Puzzle hunts are interactive solving experiences that often have you wandering around a certain area as you crack codes, unravel riddles, and conquer puzzles.

Whether you’re working alone or you’ve recruited a team to help with the hunt — perhaps solvers whose skills complement your own or fill a gap in your puzzling ability — it takes puzzles a step further, often making for a memorable puzzle experience, akin to Escape the Room challenges.

We’ve covered some puzzle hunts in the past, like BAPHL or the Trials Evolution hunt. We’ve also explored puzzle hunts that combine aspects of scavenger hunts and physical challenges to create a more physically demanding solving experience, like the Great Urban Race.

But I don’t know that we’ve ever covered something quite on the scale of The Great Puzzle Pursuit.

Instead of one city, you have 15 possible cities to test you. Instead of racing other teams over the course of a day or a weekend, you have a seven-month window of opportunity to test your puzzly mettle.

Intrigued yet? I certainly was, so I reached out to the team behind The Great Puzzle Pursuit to find out more about this ambitious solving experience. Co-creator Jason was kind enough to answer my questions about the event.

What inspired the Great Puzzle Pursuit?

A little background about us first. My wife Amy and I have been frequent participants in events like Warrior Dash, Urban Dare, and various scavenger hunts for the last 10 years. Now that I am older I can tell you that breaking both of my ankles previously ensured that I just cannot run like I used to.

So my wife and I, who are enormous fans of puzzles and the outdoors, tried various geocaching activities. Which we loved, but that is more just hide and seek. Then we went on to try various scavenger hunts and found the challenges to generally be silly tasks as opposed to actual puzzles.

After much research, we just couldn’t find exactly what we were looking for so we decided to make it ourselves, launching in Pittsburgh, PA.

You have 15 cities listed as possible points of entry into this puzzle hunt. What are the logistics involved in creating something of this scope? How many team members do you have running GPP?

The logistics in running multiple simultaneous hunts is somewhat of a challenge. In each city, we choose 7 locations — generally monuments, statues, or unique features — and then weave puzzle elements into these locations. Essentially you will need to solve 7 location puzzles and 7 on-site puzzles to complete your city.

[Glenn’s note: Location puzzles lead you to a location, while on-site puzzles can only be solved once you reach a given location.]

The locations are different but the puzzle elements are identical between cities so we can ensure it is a fair competition. Assuming a team bests their city challenge, all teams across the country share one last Meta puzzle. To date only 4 teams have unlocked this final challenge and now qualify for the cash prize nearing $1,200.

My wife and I are the owners and operators and we have a team of 8 that helps us create the challenges, scope out future locations, etc.

How many groups/competitors are involved right now?

We are nearing 300 teams now, with 4 total finishers [people who have completed a city challenge and the meta puzzle]. Two for Pittsburgh, one from Buffalo, and one from Hartford. All teams have until September 15 to finish so we expect to see a few more by then.

What lessons did you learn from season 1 that have informed this season’s event?

What we learned from season 1 is that people want to be challenged. In season 1 we made a puzzle hunt that was difficult but 50% of all teams completed it.

The vast majority said they wanted it to be even harder! So this year we added that 15th and final national puzzle that only the best of the best will be able to unlock.

Thank you to Jason and Amy for taking the time out to talk to us today! You can find out more about the Great Puzzle Pursuit on their website here and on Twitter here!

And remember, there are 15 possible cities to conquer:

  • Austin, Texas
  • Baltimore, Maryland
  • Boise, Idaho
  • Buffalo, New York
  • Cleveland, Ohio
  • Columbus, Ohio
  • Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
  • Hartford, Connecticut
  • Indianapolis, Indiana
  • New York, New York
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • St. Augustine, Florida
  • Springfield, Massachusetts
  • Washington, D.C.

Let us know if you’re going to accept the Great Puzzle Pursuit challenge in the comments below!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!