Articles for kids about math in everyday life, written by Ivars Peterson for Muse magazine.

May 7, 2007

Poe's Secrets

The writer Edgar Allan Poe is famous for his scary stories and poems, but he also loved secret messages. His mystery story "The Gold-Bug" is about a secret message written in invisible ink on a scrap of parchment. The deciphered message leads to a buried chest filled with fabulous treasure.

Here's the coded message that Poe included in his story:

It looks like a crazy math equation! How would you go about solving the puzzle?

The clever treasure seeker in "The Gold-Bug," William Legrand, assumed that symbols stood for letters of the alphabet, with no spaces left between the words of the message. He noticed that the character "8" appears 33 times, far more often than any other character. In the English language, the letter that occurs most often is "e." Starting with that clue, he went on to look for combinations of three characters that might represent "the"—a very common word in English. Legrand could then guess that the semicolon represents "t" and 4 represents "h."

Following such hints, Legrand deciphered the secret message (see end). Clues contained in the mysterious message eventually led him to a fortune in gold and jewels.

For a short time, Poe was also editor of a magazine. In a contest that lasted six months, he invited his readers to submit coded messages that they thought would stump him. Poe then published two puzzles of his own and challenged readers to solve them. The puzzles were so hard that the first one wasn't solved until 1992, and the second one wasn't solved until 2000—and then only with the help of computers.

Here is Poe's first puzzle (above).

The second message was tough to decipher because it used several different symbols for each letter. Moreover, the number of symbols for a given letter depended on how often that letter appears in English text. For example, there were fourteen symbols standing for "e" and just two symbols standing for "z."

Here is Poe's second puzzle (above).

Poe would have been delighted to know how long he had managed to mystify his readers!

What the Gold-Bug Message Said

A good glass in the bishop's hostel in the devil's seat twenty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast by north main branch seventh limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death's-head a bee line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out.

Roughly translated, the message means that if you sat in a scooped out hollow in a rock formation called the Bessop's Castle and looked northeast through a telescope you would see something in a distant tree. This turned out to be a skull nailed to the tree's seventh limb. Dropping a weight through one eye socket of the skull marked a point on the ground. If you drew a line through that point starting at the tree trunk, you'd find the treasure 50 feet away from the tree along that line.

Muse, January 2002, p. 44.

Poe's magazine puzzles are deciphered at

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