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An old dress kept secret: a coded message from 1888

Written by The Anand Market

Updated on:

Sara Rivers Cofield was on her usual search for interesting period clothing about a decade ago when she noticed what appeared to be a “classic” silk dress from the 1800s at an antique mall in Maine.

The bronze-colored dress was in good condition, with a draped skirt, puffed bustle, and metal buttons that appeared to depict a Shakespearean motif. Mrs. Rivers Cofield, an archaeologist, bought it for $100. Little did she know that the garment also contained a mystery: a secret pocket with an enigmatic note.

Part of the message, written on two crumpled sheets of translucent paper, read: “Bismark Omit leafage buck bank / Paul Ramify loamy event false new event. »

Mrs. Rivers Cofield was perplexed. Was it a writing exercise? A list? A code? “What the…?”, she wrote on his blog in 2014. “I’m putting it here in case there’s a decoding prodigy looking for a project.”

Wayne Chan, a data analyst at the University of Manitoba, finally solved the case. The note, he wrote in a recent studycontained codes used to telegraph condensed weather observations to stations in the United States and Canada in 1888. Each message began with the location of a station, followed by code words for temperature and pressure, the point of dew, precipitation and wind direction, cloud observations, wind speed. and sunset observations, Mr. Chan wrote.


“Bismark Omit leafage buck bank / Paul Ramify loamy event false new event” were some of the lines found in the papers found in the dress pocket.Credit…Sara Rivers Cofield

In the late 1800s, weather observations were condensed into codes sent by telegraph.Credit…Sara Rivers Cofield

“For the first time in history, observations from distant locations could be quickly disseminated, collated and analyzed to provide insight into the weather state of an entire nation,” he added. These observations, however, had to be condensed – just like the other telegrams – into codes.

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Mr. Chan’s findings brought determination to a community of online sleuths who for years had speculated whether the dress’s owner was a spy, a romantic sending coded love notes or a committed risk-taker in illegal games. A cryptologist declared it among the “top 50 unresolved encrypted messages”; another wrote that even the “most voracious deciphering teeth” had been unable to decipher the messages, known as the “cryptogram of the silk robe.”

Mr. Chan, the analyst, said in an interview that he first worked on the code in the summer of 2018, but gave up after a few months of getting nowhere. At the end of 2022, he revisited it, going through some 170 books of telegraph codes to try to find the answer, in vain. . Another book, with a section detailing signals used by the US Army Signal Corps, appeared to contain examples similar to the note found in the dress. After further research, he was finally able to decode it.

Lo and behold, it was a weather report.

“When I first thought I had succeeded, I felt really excited,” Mr Chan said, noting that it took some time to gather enough evidence to confirm his theory was correct . “It’s probably one of the most complex telegraph codes I’ve ever seen,” he said.

For example, “Bismark Omit leafage buck bank” indicated that the reading was taken at Bismarck Station, Dakota Territory. “Omit” was for an air temperature of 56 degrees and a pressure of 0.08 inches of mercury, although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the true reading could have been higher. “Foliage” for a dew point of 32 degrees, observed at 10 p.m. “Buck”, clear weather, no precipitation and north wind. “Bank,” a wind speed of 12 miles per hour and a clear sunset.

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Old maps helped Mr Chan determine the exact date of the sightings: May 27, 1888.

Some mysteries surrounding the dress remain, however, including who it belonged to and why she would have put the weather codes in a secret pocket.

“It’s enticing,” said Ms. Rivers Cofield, who found the dress, noting that a name, “Bennet,” was written on a paper tag sewn into the garment.

“Presumably whoever did this is the last person to own the dress, and probably the last person to own the dress,” she added, “put the code in the pocket.”