J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Close Look at a Ciphered Diary

Jeremy Dibbell (of PhiloBiblos) has convinced his colleagues at the Massachusetts Historical Society to launch its own blog, the Beehive. One intriguing entry this week displays some pages from Manuscript Sbd-133: “Anonymous cipher diary, 1776-1795.” Jeremy explains:

It is a small bound volume containing ciphered or shorthand notations broken down by years, months, and days, with long entries on one side of the sheets and shorter entries on the opposite side. The writer used Arabic numerals, so tracking years and dates is possible, and the notations for each month are evident from the entries. Beyond that, the contents are almost a complete mystery (and since the years covered by the diary are of some considerable interest, I’ve long thought it would be fascinating to try and puzzle this out).
Samuel Pepys’s diary was once thought to be in an unbreakable cipher, but that turned out (after one scholar had spent years breaking it) to be a shorthand published at the time. So, Jeremy asks, is this code actually a standard eighteenth-century shorthand?

Which brings me to the Beehive’s next entry. Google Books strikes again. More will, no doubt, be revealed in the coming days. We just have to hope the entries say more than: October 5. Rainy. 6th. Rainy. 7th. Some sun, then rain. 8th. What news from the south! Rain.

Other examples of coded documents from the period include Dr. Benjamin Church’s secret letters into Boston; teams of Patriots cracked his simple substitution cipher in a few days. Then there’s the Rev. Jonathan Fisher (1767-1847), a Maine minister who devised his own phonetic code and recorded all his sermons and diaries in it.

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