Spies, Crosswords, and Secret Messages!

secret message

There are loads of ways to hide secret messages in puzzles. The field of cryptography is built around it. Many meta puzzles have a special secret lurking inside their clever constructions. Heck, our friends at Penny Press even have an entire word seek called Secret Message.

But have you ever noticed that there’s a strange fascination in pop culture with secret messages in crosswords?

No, I don’t mean constructors hiding quotations, poems, or word seeks in their crosswords, though those are impressive feats of cruciverbalism.

I’m talking about stories about actual secret messages concealed in crossword grids, meant to be hidden from even the most diligent solvers, only a special few possessing the keys to finding the hidden words.

Oh, believe me, it’s definitely a thing.

Look no further than the first Crossword Mysteries movie. The film opens with a murdered art gallery owner with a crossword in his pocket. And it turns out that a devilish criminal mastermind was submitting puzzles to Tess’s daily crossword that contained hidden instructions for robberies to be conducted that day. Diabolical!

You might laugh, but this is hardly the only time we’ve seen crime, secret messages, and crosswords combined. It was a plotline in the radio show The Adventures of Superman, and Lois Lane’s life once depended on Superman’s ability to solve a crossword puzzle.

There are any number of mystery novels, cozy and otherwise, that contain hidden messages in crosswords. Nero Blanc’s Anatomy of a Crossword and Corpus de Crossword come to mind, as do any number of murder mysteries where a strange message scribbled on a crossword grid turn out to be a pivotal clue to catch the killer.

And there’s an even more curious subset of this in pop culture: crosswords and spycraft.

I could give you a simple example, like Bernie Mac’s character in the Ocean’s 11 remake pretending to solve a crossword, but actually writing down key information about the casino for the upcoming heist.

But that’s not really a secret message IN a crossword. No, it’s more of a secret message ON a crossword, though it is a bit of decent spycraft.

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[From Spy vs. Guy.]

Let’s talk about spies and their crosswords, then.

In the TV show Burn Notice, former (and occasionally current) spy Michael Weston sometimes received hidden messages from his previous spy organization through the crossword, though we’re not given much info on how this is achieved.

In the James Bond prequel novel Double or Die, it’s actually the young Bond’s teacher who sneaks a secret message into a puzzle. He’s also a cryptic crossword editor, and he convinces his kidnappers to allow him to submit a crossword to the newspaper, because if he didn’t, it would let people know all was not well.

Naturally, the kidnappers didn’t spot the clues to his current location that the teacher had hidden in the puzzle. Bond, even in his youth, manages to do so with ease.

Rubicon-008

In the short-lived TV show Rubicon, crosswords are at the center of a fascinating unsolved mystery. An intelligence agent named Will finds out his mentor committed suicide after seeing a four-leaf clover.

He then finds a pattern across several crosswords that leads him to believe his mentor’s death is somehow connected to the pattern in the crosswords, and he tells his superior about it.

And soon after investigating it himself, Will’s superior is also found dead. Unfortunately, we never get a resolution for this story, but it certainly fits the bill.

So yes, the curious connection between secret messages and crosswords in pop culture is definitely a thing.

But did you know it also extends beyond fiction? Yup, I’ve got some real-world examples for you too.

Back in June of 1944, physics teacher and crossword constructor Leonard Dawe was questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph.

The words Omaha (codename for one of Normandy’s beaches), Utah (another Normandy beach codename), Overlord (the name for the plan to land at Normandy on June 6th), mulberry (nickname for a portable harbor built for D-Day), and Neptune (name for the naval portion of the invasion) all appeared in Daily Telegraph crosswords during the month preceding the D-Day landing.

So it was possible (though highly improbable) that Dawe was purposely trying to inform the enemy of Allied plans, and the powers that be acted accordingly. In the end, no definitive link could be found, and consensus is that Dawe either overheard these words himself or was told them by his students — possibly slipped by soldiers stationed nearby — and placed them into his grids unwittingly.

Yes, this was just a big misunderstanding. But sometimes, accusations like this have real-world consequences.

In Venezuela, a newspaper has been accused multiple times of hiding encrypted messages within their daily crossword puzzles in order to incite revolt against the government.

Another Venezuelan newspaper was accused of concealing messages ordering the assassination of a public official named Adan, the brother of President Hugo Chavez!

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Some of the answers considered suspicious in the grid included “Adan,” “asesinen” (meaning “kill”), and “rafaga” (which can mean either a burst of gunfire, or a gust of wind).

Apparently this confluence was considered enough to warrant a half-dozen members of the intelligence service visiting the newspaper’s editorial office.

Now, were these cases of genuine secret messages being passed through the crossword, or were these coincidental events that appeared credible because the crossword/secret message concept has been part of pop culture for decades?

I leave that question to you, fellow puzzlers.

Can you think of any examples of crosswords with secret messages in pop culture or intersections of crosswords and spycraft that weren’t mentioned here? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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The D’Agapeyeff Cipher, Unsolved for 80 Years!

[Image courtesy of Derek Bruff.org.]

One of my all-time favorite cryptography stories comes from the book The Spy That Couldn’t Spell, a true-life espionage story about a dyslexic man who hid, then encrypted the locations of, thousands of pages of sensitive documents he had stolen from the U.S government.

Why is it one of my favorite stories? Well, because the man in question FORGOT one of the cipher words he used to encrypt the location of his caches.

And it sort of unravels your master plan when you can’t remember a key element of it.

Amazingly enough, this isn’t the only example of a self-trained cryptographer who forgot how to solve his own creation. In fact, one example of this very dilemma remains one of the most famous unsolved codes and ciphers in the world:

The D’Agapeyeff Cipher.

daga

This is the D’Agapeyeff Cipher. This seemingly simple list of numbers contains a secret message. The only problem is… the creator, Alexander D’Agapeyeff, can’t remember how to decrypt it.

When he published a starter book on cryptography — Codes and Ciphers, first edition — D’Agapeyeff included this chain of 5-digit number bundles as a final challenge for the readers to unravel.

One of the first steps many aspiring cryptographers take is to break the numbers down into pairs instead of groups of five:

daga 2

One result of this is the pattern that every pair has 6, 7, 8, 9, or 0 in the tens column and 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 in the ones column, which doesn’t seem like a coincidence.

And see those sequences where the same number appears three times in a row? Some cryptographers believe that is also not a coincidence.

Then, they cut off the two double-zero pairings at the end — because they believe they were nulls, empty space-filling characters simply designed to fit the 5-letter groupings pattern of the original code as a way to throw off codecrackers. (And, to be fair, D’Agapeyeff himself wrote about null entries in the book Codes and Ciphers.)

If you remove those double-zero pairings, you can arrange the numbers into a 14×14 pairing grid, like so:

daga 3

See those sequences where the same number appears three times in a row? More of them now.

Many cryptographers consider this to be the true starting point of cracking the D’Agapeyeff Cipher.

But then what?

Some believe that the key to solving the grid lies in the Polybius Square, another encryption device mentioned by D’Agapeyeff.

Essentially, you place the alphabet into a 5×5 grid, and use those numbers to encrypt the letters. Here’s a straightforward example:

daga 4

In this case, the word PUZZLE would be 35 45 55 55 31 15.

Another way to use the cipher is to pick a keyword to start it. For instance, if you chose POLYBIUS as the key word, then you go across, then down, writing POLYBIUS and then the rest of the unused letters of the alphabet in order, like so:

daga 5

Instead of 1-5 both across and down, you could do 1-5 across the top and 6-0 across the side, reflecting the pairings in the D’Agapeyeff Cipher.

Or, as someone pointed out, perhaps we’re thinking in the wrong language. Triple-letters are uncommon in English words, but more common in Russian words, and D’Agapeyeff was Russian born.

Overlooking simple things like that can make you miss crucial ways into an encrypted message.

So, do you have any thoughts on how to solve this 80-year-old encrypted challenge, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Does the History of Cryptography Begin in Ancient Egypt?

Puzzles in various forms have been with us for thousands of years.

We can look back at examples like riddles from ancient Greece and Sumeria, the Smyrna word square from 79 AD, or inscriptions from New Kingdom-era Egypt between the 16th and 11th centuries BC, which can be read both across the rows and down the columns. (These are informally referred to as “Egyptian crossword puzzles.”)

As it turns out, if we turn our attention to ancient Egypt, we may just find the earliest known example of an encrypted message as well.

If you go hunting on the Internet for the earliest examples of cryptography or encryption, you pretty much get one of three results:

  • The ancient Greek scytale
  • The Caesar cipher
  • The Tomb of Khnumhotep II

Naturally, as someone who fancies himself a puzzle historian, I’ve heard of the first two entries on that list.

The scytale is an encryption method where a piece of leather, hide, or parchment (let’s say leather for this example) is wound around a wooden cylinder of a certain width and length. A message is then written on the wound piece of leather. When removed from the cylinder, the message disappears, leaving only a strip of leather with what looks like a jumble of letters on it. Only someone with an identical cylinder can wrap the piece of leather around it and read the intended message. Our earliest verifiable reference to the scytale is from the Greek poet Archilochus in the 7th century BC.

The Caesar cipher is the most famous example of a letter-shifting substitution code where numbers or other letters represent the letters in your message. For example, if B is K in your cipher, then C is L and D is M, as if the alphabet has shifted. See? Simple. Your average cryptogram puzzle is more complex because you’re not simply shifting your letter choices, you’re randomizing them. The Roman historian Suetonius references Caesar’s use of the cipher in his writings during the rule of Hadrian in the second century AD.

But what about this Egyptian tomb?

The tomb in question was built for Khnumhotep II, a nobleman who lived in the twentieth century BC. He carried many impressive titles, including Great Chief of the Oryx nome, hereditary prince and count, foremost of actions, royal sealer, and overseer of the Eastern Desert. (Seriously, with titles like this around, modern companies can clearly do better than manager, CEO, or senior editor. But I digress.)

The main chamber of his tomb features an inscription carved around 1900 BC. This inscription features some strange hieroglyphics. What makes them strange is that they’re in places where you would expect more common hieroglyphs, and it’s believed by some Egyptologists that these substitutions are no accident.

Some do pass it off as an intentional effort to describe the life of Khnumhotep II in more glowing or dignified terms, utilizing loftier verbiage that would be uncommon to any commonfolk readers, similar to how legalese is used today to impress others or intimidate readers.

But others believe it to be the earliest known example of a substitution cipher, utilizing hieroglyphs rather than letters or numbers. For what reason, you ask? To preserve the sacred nature of their religious rituals from the common people.

Unfortunately, this disagreement among scholars makes it hard to point definitively at the tomb of Khnumhotep II as the first written evidence of cryptography.

I guess this falls into the same black hole as the first bit of wordplay, the first anagram, the first pun, or the first riddle. We’ll never know, because the first examples of all of these would most likely be spoken, not written. It’s not until someone decides to record it — in pictograph form, in a carving, in a bit of ancient graffiti to be discovered centuries later — that it becomes evidence to be discovered centuries later.

And who’s to say that the linguists and cryptography believers aren’t both correct? A substitution cipher is, at heart, simply an agreed-upon way to say one thing represents or means another thing. A euphemism, an idiom, a common slang word… heck, a word you say in front of your kids instead of a swear. These are all very simple substitution ciphers.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

What we do know is that there was some wordplay afoot in the tomb of Khnumhotep II, even if we can’t be sure if the history of ciphers and codes started there.


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Musical Cryptography: Hiding Messages in the Music!

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In previous posts, we’ve explored many ways that messages can be encrypted or hidden. We’ve talked about legendary encryption methods like Caesar ciphers and Vigenere ciphers, as well as simpler auditory ones like Morse code and tap codes. We’ve seen encryptions through blinking lights, woven through crossword grids, and even knitted into scarves.

But did you know that composers can encode messages in their music, and have done so for centuries?

No, we’re not talking about subliminal messaging or tales of backwards messages hidden in metal songs. We’re talking about musical cryptography, and it turns out there’s not just music between the notes, but messages among them as well.

haydn

Now, to be fair, there is no evidence that musical encryption has ever been used for spycraft. (Sorry, Outlander fans.) Most of the time, composers simply entertained themselves by hiding the letters of their name or the names of others into compositions just because they could.

This sort of musical wordplay appears in compositions by Ravel, Debussy, and Shostakovich among others. Johann Sebastian Bach did this often enough that the succession of notes B-A-C-H is now called a Bach motif.

According to Western Michigan University Music Professor David Loberg Code:

Sometimes a musical version of a name is a subtle reference in the piece of music… Often it is very prominent; it is the main theme of the piece and is heard over and over. In that case, whether or not you know exactly how the composer translated the name into musical pitches, it is obvious that it is meant to be heard… They were not secretive about it.

It even proved therapeutic for some composers.

Johannes Brahms incorporated the notes A-G-A-H-E in bars 162 to 168 of the first movement in his 1868 piece “String Sextet No. 2 in G major.” By doing so, he included the name of Agathe von Siebold, a young woman he had fallen in love with. He and Agathe made plans to wed, but he later broke off the engagement to focus on his musical career.

But, by encoding her name into one of his works, he both honored her and gave himself closure on a relationship that would never be.

notes

The musical nature of this encryption technique makes it effective — because casual listeners wouldn’t notice anything hidden — but it also means that longer messages are harder to include naturally.

You see, the “spelling” can affect the music. Obviously, the more complex the message, the more it interferes with the actual musical composition and flow of the piece. To the untrained ear, this wouldn’t necessarily jump out, but to a trained ear, or at least a person experienced in reading music, it would be fairly obvious that something was amiss.

Musical ciphers are attributed to various composers (like Haydn) and even to writers like Francis Bacon, but arguably the greatest success story in musical cryptography goes to French composer Olivier Messiaen.

messiaen

His cipher matched a different note to each of the 26 letters in the alphabet. Unlike many other composers, he managed to develop a cipher that closely mirrored his own compositional style. Because of the similarities between his cipher and his traditional musical works, there was less of a chance that listeners would detect anything was off.

He managed to translate the words of philosopher Thomas Aquinas into an organ piece called “Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité,” and cryptographers and musical historians alike praise him for doing so with complex rhythms and rich tones without spoiling his own works.

It’s clear that it takes both an artistic flair and a puzzler’s mind to make the most of musical cryptography. But then again, those two pursuits have crossed paths many times before, as evidenced by musically minded solvers like Dan Feyer, Patrick Blindauer, Jon Delfin, and friend of the blog Keith Yarbrough.

Perhaps the best of musical cryptography is yet to come.

[For more details on musical cryptography, check out this brilliant Atlas Obscura article by Christina Ayele Djossa.]


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Rock Your World With These Puzzly Mysteries!

Dighton_Rock-Davis_photograph

[Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura.]

We’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months discussing treasure hunts, but those are far from the only puzzly adventures that can send solvers out into nature. If you prefer your puzzling to have a codebreaking or cryptographic angle, we’ve got you covered there as well.

There are three mysterious stones in the United States alone that bear mysterious messages that have boggled the minds of puzzlers for decades upon decades.

In Massachusetts, an eponymous state park museum is the home of the Dighton Rock, a stone covered in petroglyphs that has baffled viewers for centuries. (The earliest writings about the rock date back to 1690!)

judaculla

[Images courtesy of Atlas Obscura. Look at the difference
between the two photos. Time is definitely running out…]

In the mountains of North Carolina, the petroglyphs of the Judaculla Rock defy decoding. Even dating the petroglyphs proves difficult, with estimates placing the origins of the rock’s message between 200 BC and 2000 BC. Sadly, efforts to solve the mystery of this former sacred site of the Cherokee people are fighting the forces of time itself, as erosion threatens the integrity of the glyphs.

And for solvers in the Southwest, New Mexico has the Decalogue Stone, which bears an inscription that, depending on the language used to decode it, could be a record of the Ten Commandments or a report from a lost explorer or warrior. (The possibility that it’s a hoax has been floated by more than one investigator as well.)

rock-inscription

[Image courtesy of The Connexion.]

But for today’s mystery, we turn toward the country of France, more specifically the village of Plougastel-Daoulas in Brittany, the home of a rock that has baffled solvers for at least a century.

Unlike the Dighton Rock, which was moved from the waterline of the Taunton River, the inscription on this rock spends most of its time submerged in the Atlantic Ocean, revealing itself only at low tide. The 20-line inscription utilizes letters from the French alphabet, but the actual language used has eluded solvers. Suggestions include Basque and Old Breton. (There are also two dates on the rock: 1786 and 1787.)

Those dates lead some articles to estimate that the inscription’s origins date back as far as 250 years, but I think that’s unlikely. The rock was only discovered four or five years ago, so that’s a huge window wherein those dates could’ve been carved into the rock.

So, what makes this rock so interesting, given the examples we’ve shared above? Well, this rock inspired the village of Plougastel-Daoulas to host a contest last year to decipher it, offering a prize of 2000 Euros to anyone who could translate it.

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[Image courtesy of The Daily Mail.]

In February of this year, the prize was awarded to two solvers who pitched different solutions to the inscription:

The first hypothesis came from Noël René Toudic, professor of English, who has a degree in Celtic Studies. He said that the inscription was likely about a soldier, Serge Le Bris, who may have died at sea during a storm. Another soldier, Grégoire Haloteau, was then asked to engrave the rock in memory of the dead man.

The second hypothesis came from reporter and writer Roger Faligot, and comic book author and illustrator Alain Robert. They suggested that the inscription was by someone expressing their anger against those who caused the death of a friend.

Despite those pitches — and all of the headlines declaring the mystery solved — this case is not officially closed yet. Perhaps other towns will follow the Plougastel-Daoulas model to encourage both visitors and solvers.

It certainly couldn’t hurt.


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Kickstarter Roundup!

Oh yes, it’s that time again.

For years now, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have been hotbeds of innovative puzzle and game design, and I’m always happy to spread the word about worthy projects that I think will delight and intrigue my fellow PuzzleNationers.

So let’s take a look at some projects that are currently seeking funding and see if any pique your interest! (This time around, we’ve got twice as many recommendations as usual! So much puzzly potential!)


atoz crossword

The first is a project by Fireball Crosswords and Fireball Newsflash Crosswords constructor Peter Gordon, entitled A-to-Z Crosswords Volume 2: More Petite Pangram Puzzles.

The project is easy to explain, but mindblowing to think about. Every single day for 24 WEEKS, you get a 9×11 crossword puzzle that contains all 26 letters. The puzzles range from easy to medium in difficulty, arrive by email, and are constructed by Gordon and professional puzzler Frank Longo.

This is a very cool project that deserves your support — they’re a little more than a third of the way there, with 9 days to go — and you should definitely check it out!

puzzle postcard

The next project is Puzzle Postcards: Season Two by the Enigma Emporium.

Last year, Wish You Were Here was part of our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, and it’s fantastic to see that the Enigma Emporium is Kickstarting another puzzle postcard mystery this year.

Essentially, an entire mystery is concealed within a handful of postcards, challenging you to mine them for every scrap of information as you uncover a series of coded messages. It’s spycraft in an envelope, very clever stuff.

Already funded with 12 days to go — and carrying a solid track record of previous successful Kickstarter projects behind them — I cannot recommend this one highly enough. I loved Wish You Were Here, as well as the follow-up series.

fuzzies

For a change of pace, our next project is The Fuzzies.

Basically, this is a Jenga-style dexterity game, but made out of little fuzzy balls instead of pieces of wood. And instead of choosing which piece you remove and place on top, that is determined by a deck of cards instead.

I don’t know how it works — actually staying upright in the first place — but apparently it does.

This family-friendly game has already tripled its funding goal with 29 days to go, so it might be right up your alley.

enigmas

The next project we’re sharing today is the ENIGMAS deck of puzzle playing cards.

David Kwong — constructor, magician, and all-around puzzly fellow — has masterminded a puzzle mystery and a series of hidden messages and ciphers, all contained within a deck of cards.

ENIGMAS marries some of the ideas from his Enigmatist show — specifically the historical aspects — with an ingenious puzzle hunt to create an intriguing solving situation. Plus, once you’ve cracked all the puzzly elements, you’ve still got a beautiful deck of cards to enjoy.

This project has blasted well past its funding goal, and with 9 days to go, they’ve added a special limited-run deck of red cards (to compliment the standard blue deck) that will only be offered to Kickstarter backers and never sold in stores. With a pedigree like David’s, you can’t go wrong!

sherlock

Our next project is bigger and no less ambitious. It’s Sherlock’s Mysteries: An Interactive Puzzle Adventure (not to be confused with another Sherlock-based Kickstarter running right now).

Combining board game and escape room elements, this project contains 10 mysteries (described as chapters) that combine into one interwoven narrative where you try to save the life of Sherlock Holmes!

By combining murder mystery-style solving with puzzles like ciphers and deduction puzzles, this project definitely tries to encapsulate the experience of being the Great Detective from the comfort of your own home.

About halfway to its goal with 21 days left, this project isn’t a lock (given the price tag of $135 to experience the entire story), but it’s definitely worth a look. (I’m especially intrigued by the fact that certain levels offer “refill kits” that allow the experience to be played more than once!)

shivers

For something just as puzzly but more immersive from a roleplaying point of view, there’s The Shivers.

In this game, someone has gone missing in the house owned by the Shivers family, and you play one of the family members trying to solve the mystery and defeat dangerous foes at work in various sinister and creepy scenarios.

This gameplay is bolstered by pop-up 3-D models of the various rooms of the house, bringing the setting and different stories to life right before your eyes.

This is a very clever combination of puzzle hunt, roleplaying game, and pop-up book that I’ve never really seen before, and like some of these other projects, it has blown past its funding goal with strong support from interested gamers and puzzlers.

legacy

Following the escape room/puzzle mystery at home template, Legacy: Quest for a Family Treasure is our next project to discuss.

You receive a black box in the mail, and inside, you discover in your estranged father’s will that there is a family treasure hidden somewhere in Europe. And you’ll have to unravel secrets of the past in order to secure your future.

This immersive mystery involves audio and video clues, physical evidence to pore over, and even incorporates Internet searching into the gameplay. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the level of depth and attention to detail in this one, and clearly I’m not the only one, as the project has already met and surpassed its funding goal with 10 days to go.

The familial element adds a neat twist to the mystery-at-home genre, and I suspect this project will do very well.

labyrinth

The last project we’ll be sharing today is The Labyrinth: An Immersive Multi-Platform Puzzle Challenge.

There’s a lot of stuff included in this one: puzzle boxes, ciphers, maps, tools. They’re sending you a CRATE full of material here. The goal is to move through the various chambers of a labyrinth, solving puzzles as you go.

With 55 puzzles included — and an expected solve time of 8-10 hours — this is a breathtaking amount of puzzly paraphernalia. So there’s cost to consider here. The full puzzle costs $195 (there’s even a more expensive deluxe edition), so although that easily makes it the priciest project we’re discussing today, but also one of the most visually impressive.

And yet, with 14 days to go, they’ve already passed their funding goal nine times over. Check it out and see what you think of the expansive puzzle selection offered here.


Have any of these games or projects hooked you? Tell us which ones you’re supporting in the comments section below! And if there are any campaigns you’re supporting that we missed, let us know!

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