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Researcher breaks old code to find surprising messages

Researcher breaks old code to find surprising messages

Bill Hoyt, a PSU employee, alumnus and current graduate student has found the key to some mysterious Civil-War era coded letters. What the letters revealed surprised not only him, but also officials at the Kansas State Historical Society, who have decided to restrict access to the contents of the letters to adults only.

Hoyt, an employee in PSU's Advancement Services Office, said he came across the coded letters, written by John Brown, Jr., son of the famous abolitionist, while doing research for his master's thesis in history.

"I was researching one of John Brown, Junior's, lieutenants, George Hoyt (no relation), who was also an attorney for the elder John Brown at Harpers Ferry," Hoyt said. "Documentation is rather scarce. The newspapers are both selective and partisan, and the best surviving diary of one of the soldiers doesn't contain much from these months that helps. Therefore, I was going through the personal correspondence of a few members of the Kansas Seventh Cavalry, like Brown and Daniel Anthony (brother of Susan B. Anthony) when I hit on the Brown coded letters, which had recently been acquired by the Kansas State Historical Society."

The letters, from John Brown, Jr., to his wife, Wealthy, are written in a numerical code and appear as columns of numbers. Hoyt said the coded letters had all been written around the time period in which he was interested, which motivated him to try to crack the code.

Hoyt insists that finding the key to the 150-year-old mystery wasn't as difficult as he expected it might be and he essentially had the solution after an evening's work.

"The code is a simple letter/number replacement system based on descending even and ascending odd numbers," Hoyt explained. "Start with A=24, B=22, C=20, and continue to L=2. Then go upwards with odd numbers. M=1, N=3, O=5, etc. 00 is a space filler to hide the existence of one-letter words."

Hoyt said each page begins in the bottom right-hand corner, goes up to the top of the page and then begins again at the bottom of the next column to the left.

Hoyt was definitely surprised by what the key revealed.

"What I was hoping to find was information about George Hoyt," Hoyt said. "Wealthy Brown and George Hoyt knew each other and corresponded on occasion, so it would not have been out of place for John Brown, Jr., to mention Hoyt to his wife."

Instead, what Hoyt found were missives between John Brown, Jr., and his wife that Hoyt describes as "fiercely intimate."

"People who go looking for dirty words (in the letters) are going to be disappointed," Hoyt said. "By today's standards, the letters don't contain anything one might not hear on TV. Rather, I think the letters are better described as fiercely intimate, maybe even the 19th-century version of sexting."

The letters are graphic enough, however, that the Kansas State Historical Society decided against posting Hoyt's key on its website in order to keep it out of the hands of school-age youngsters without their parents' consent. Patrons 18 and older may access the key and the letters at the Historical Society's reading room, however.

Hoyt said the letters didn't provide much help with his thesis research, but he's not disappointed.

"It's exciting to solve a mystery this old and it does add to what we know about some significant historical characters," Hoyt said. "The letters illustrate how much Brown missed his wife, and how hard it was for soldiers to be away from loved ones in the Civil War, even when they thought the war was really important. That (the letters) were considered inappropriate is a reflection of the ferocity of feeling and the intense desire for intimacy that Brown coded in the letters to his wife."

Dr. Mike Kelley, chairman of the Department of History, Philosophy and Social Sciences, said research often takes people in directions they didn't expect.

"Original research gets the blood pumping," Kelley said.