Another Grandparent's coded ramblings
June 16, 2014 9:35 PM   Subscribe

I read news coverage about metafilter members helping to solve the "Decoding Cancer-addled Ramblings" and thought I should give it a shot for coded messages we found in my Grandfather's posessions after his passing. Although my Grandfather did not have cancer and was of sound mind at the time these documents were sent (circa 1921), he and his brother sent some coded messages to one another for some reason. My family has tried to figure out the messages, but to no avail. Some think the coding was simply used to save money on the cablegrams/telegraphs, others think it was because the text was being sent to Germany during WWII time frame, and others think it was because there was some suspicion about co-workers who may try to access or read the cablegrams/telegraphs.

There is an interesting backstory behind my Grandfather and his brother which I will share after we crack the code. My Grandfather signed off his letters with "Your Affectionate Bro." which is why I chose the username I am using. Photos of cablegrams/telegraphs are linked to below.

1, 2, 3
posted by AffectionateBro to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Very cool. Where there any books that were kept with the papers that could have been used a shared key? This looks very much like a one-time pad use.
posted by Brent Parker at 9:53 PM on June 16, 2014

I tried rot-13'ing it all with offsets from -13 to +13, and didn't see anything intelligible reading across or down. The checkmarks and dividing lines in the second picture do make it seem it's supposed to be decoded as groups of 5, somehow.
posted by booksherpa at 9:58 PM on June 16, 2014

Was one of them named John? I noticed two of them end with those four letters, and was wondering if that part was left uncyphered.
posted by fings at 9:59 PM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think names haven't been ciphered. The second card includes 'BENTLEY' and "HILLIARD" (twice), as well as ending in 'JOHN".
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:06 PM on June 16, 2014

There is an interesting backstory

It might help with the deciphering if we knew more about this.
posted by Night_owl at 10:09 PM on June 16, 2014 [10 favorites]

Also, "Hilliard" and "Miller" appear to be in plaintext in picture 2, and "Bentley" and "Hilliard" appear to be plaintext in picture 3.

I think Fings is right, John might be plaintext as well.

Picture 2 has some code groups that are not 10 letters.
posted by booksherpa at 10:10 PM on June 16, 2014

I think that's probably a commercial code. There were a lot of those back then, mainly intended to save money on telegraphic fees.

Unfortunately, there is nowhere near enough material here to crack them by analysis -- you'd need a thousand times as much, because analysis would depend on finding multiple instances of the same code group and trying to determine any commonality of context.

By the way, the reason proper names aren't coded is that those codes didn't typically include code groups for proper names.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:20 PM on June 16, 2014 [9 favorites]

I think that's probably a telegraphic code. There were a lot of those back then, mainly intended to save money on telegraphic fees.

You may have cracked it. Bentley's Second Phrase Code was a common telegraphic code, according to your wiki link. BENTLEY being the first word in image 3 may indicate that the message is encoded as per that code.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:24 PM on June 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Here's the Bentley's full text.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:26 PM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Or, scanned, without the OCR issues of that last link...

Bentley's Complete Phrase Code

Bentley's Second Phrase Code
posted by Shmuel510 at 10:30 PM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

One of the pictures contains the word BENTLEY.

There was a commercial code book called 'Bentley's Second Phrase Code'.

Maybe that was the signal to look up the codes in that particular book?
posted by spinifex23 at 10:30 PM on June 16, 2014

Confirmed! Image 3 uses Bentley's!

The first code group in that image is is ADBASKOKIV

Bentley's uses 5 letter code groups - ADBAS is 'account'. KOKIV is 'my'.

I'll let others do the rest of the decrypting... I should get back to work.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:31 PM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Beaten, but yeah. Seems like a lead.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:31 PM on June 16, 2014

Commercial codes weren't used for secrecy, although they did have the benefit of preventing the morse code operators from knowing what the message was about. The codes were published and anyone with access to one of the books could read the message. The purpose of commercial codes was to reduce the length of the message in order to save money.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:32 PM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also came in to say Bentleys when "KOKIV" (which appeared enough times that I wondered if it was a name) was found to map to "my."

Edit to add NB: the link I give is the PDF, & it's huge -- mobile users beware. However, it's also easily searchable & doesn't have the OCR isses that the plaintext has.
posted by Westringia F. at 10:34 PM on June 16, 2014

A word search for the codes groups on the OCR of Bentley's suggests that images 1 and 2 are also based on Bentley's. Looks like this one is cracked, apart from the legwork of actually looking up what the code groups mean. Nice work, Chocolate Pickle!
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:39 PM on June 16, 2014

A partial completion of image 1: re: X letter, Under the circumstances, I will resign upon return STOP
posted by Brent Parker at 10:44 PM on June 16, 2014

Image 1:

Jelut / cefum
Replying to your private letter / Under the circumstances

hyalb/ pewgo
I will / Tender resignation

vesod / piovk
Upon / Return

tugny / rabzo
Stop / You may sell

hucof/ hosip
House / Send home

bourp/ gisal
car / formula (?)

ahzyk/ ocurk
All / Personal

gapob/ alavk
File(s) / and

ovkec / vuhho
record(s) / was our (my)

ifsbe / ufuth
income / tax(es)

nycid / john
paid / John.
posted by zamboni at 10:56 PM on June 16, 2014 [26 favorites]

It's panning out. From the 1st image:
JELUTCEFUM = replying to your private letter - under the circumstances
HYALBPWEGO = I will - tender resignation
VESODPIOVK = upon - return
TUGNYRABZO = stop - you may sell
HUCOFHOSIP = house(s) - send home
BOURPGISAL = car(s) - formula
AHZYKOCURK = all - personal
GAPOBALAVK = files - and
OVKECVUHHO = records of - was my/our
IFSBEUFUTH = income - taxes
NYCIDJOHN = paid - John

[Edit: Beaten. Shoulda previewed!]
posted by Westringia F. at 11:00 PM on June 16, 2014 [8 favorites]

Backstory please?
posted by PorcineWithMe at 5:52 AM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]


Annual / Stock(s)

Holder(s) / Meeting(s)

Acme / Called

16th January / Aaron

Office(s) / Aaron


C Randall (?)

Requesting / Proxy(ies)

Stock-owner(s) / Do you wish us (me) to

Vote(s) / For you

As / Directors(s)

STOP / Gibbs

? / Sign(s) (of)

Paper(s) / To

Cover(s) / Extension(s)

Your / ?

? Transaction(s) / With


Until / 1st July

Am / Keeping

Touch / With


Telegraph your wishes (re) / Emmet


* Somewhat illegible.
** Not in Bentley, but USSCE - Transaction(s)
posted by zamboni at 6:10 AM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

That was Image 2. I'm using Bentley's Complete Phrase Code.
posted by zamboni at 6:17 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great work everyone (particularly you Chocolate Pickle, His Thoughts Were Red Thoughts and Zamboni). I am sure the Bentley code is the answer.

The back story is that my Grandfather, J. Emmett Clair, and his brother, John Clair, left their Chicago-based meat packing business to run Acme Meat Packing Company in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Shortly after taking over the business the Clairs were asked by Curly Lambeau to sponsor a football team, which is why the first photo of the Green Bay Packers football team has ACME on their jerseys and why the team uses Acme Packers on throwback memorabilia to this day. My Grandfather obtained the first professional football franchise for the Packers in what was then called the American Professional Football Association and actually named them the "Packers". Due to some differences with other investors in Acme, my Grandfather left Acme and went back to Chicago to work in the meat packing industry until he retired some sixty years later. The Clairs stayed close to Lambeau and eventually sold a condo to him when he left Green Bay to coach the (then) Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) football team that played in Wrigley Field. The Bidwill family that still owns the Cardinals to this day summered in the same area as my Grandfather and his brother, so there may have been more to the Clair/Lambeau/Bidwill connection, but I'm not aware of anything sepecific.

Thank you all very much for your time and the Bentley code information.
posted by AffectionateBro at 11:50 AM on June 17, 2014 [11 favorites]

The New York Times obit says he went to Chicago to marry your grandmother.

If you have more stuff like this, it might be of interest to a big packer fan or something like the Packer Hall of Fame.
posted by empath at 1:47 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

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