Just as we all are still waiting for our letter from Hogwarts, life would be a little less full if Nicolas Cage didn't ask us to join him on a treasure hunt filled with outrageous heists, guns-blazing chase scenes, and tear-inducing speeches honoring America and Founding Father-rhetoric. While there probably isn't a giant stockpile of treasure hidden beneath Trinity Church or a Native American city of gold underneath Mount Rushmore, important political figures like President Abraham Lincoln did send cryptic messages.
On April 12, 1865—three days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox and two days before President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated—the president sent a telegram to Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, whose Union forces were occupying Richmond, Va., the former Confederate capital. The message alluded to some of the issues faced by the conquerors. Would churches in the defeated city be permitted to open that Sunday? Would they be required to offer the customary prayer for the president—now of a newly reunited nation? Lincoln’s telegram begins: “Whats next news I the prayers I to while coming star what you you mean dispatch zebra I you spirit there understanding any if the piloted your offer there such of any and have was I to Emma never seen of of no toby Zodiac…”
Coded in case of Confederate interception, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens have launched a crowdsourcing project in order to decipher various Civil War telegrams, including some belonging to President Lincoln. The Wall Street Journal briefly details the "laborious" effort of coding a Union message.
It would first be written out in a grid with dimensions specified by the code, one word per box. The code book would also list two possible substitutes for each important word or person. In the Weitzel telegram, for example, “President of the United States” could have been replaced by either “Bologna” or “Bolivia.” In the text the time “9 AM” is coded as “Emma,” “Richmond” as “Galway” and “Rebel as “Walnut.” Punctuation is also replaced: a period becomes “Zodiac.” This new grid of words—all of them real (thus minimizing typos)—would then be reordered by moving along columns and rows according to rules in the code book.
Head over to the Wall Street Journal to read more about how you can get involved in the project.
Feature image via the Huntington Library