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.

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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 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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Hidden in a crossword!

[A grid from BeekeeperLabs.com.]

Everyone loves a little something extra, and that goes double for puzzle fans.

Whether it’s a hidden quote or a secret theme lurking in plain sight, a bonus answer revealed after a tough solve or a final twist that wows you with a constructor’s cleverness and skill, these little surprises are gifts every solver can appreciate.

In Sunday’s New York Times Crossword, what appears at first blush to be a simple themed puzzle — with poet WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS paired with his poem THE LOCUST TREE IN FLOWER — turns out to be much more, as the entire poem is concealed within the grid!

[Image sourced from Amy Reynaldo’s Diary of a Crossword Fiend.]

While this is a particularly ambitious example, this is not an uncommon challenge for a constructor to tackle.

Sometimes, the bonus is announced upfront, as it was in Merl Reagle’s puzzle for the 100th anniversary of the crossword a few years ago. His puzzle was converted into a solvable Google Doodle, and Merl added a crafty word search element by hiding the word FUN multiple times in the grid.

Why “fun,” you ask? Because that was the set word in Arthur Wynne’s original “word-cross” puzzle over one hundred years ago!

[Click here if you haven’t tackled Merl’s marvelous puzzle.]

Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have a recurring crossword variant, Revelation, which conceals a quotation in a standard crossword grid, using the same letters-in-circles technique as Jacob Stulberg did in his poem puzzle.

And, of course, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention the secret message reading out in both a New York Times crossword and a puzzle featured on The Simpsons, wherein Homer conceals an apology to Lisa inside a crossword with the help of Will Shortz.

[Check out the full puzzle by clicking here.]

So, crossword fans, be vigilant! You never know what hidden treats are lurking inside seemingly innocuous puzzles.

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