The Friedmans’ Crypto Dinner Parties

Several years ago, I read William and Elizebeth Friedman’s The Shakespeare Ciphers Examined and had a blast. Two crypto experts, in their spare time from beating the Nazis, wrote a witty, elegant guide to why most conspiracy theories about Shakespeare’s true identity are wrong (and they teach you a lot of the logic of crypto along the way). Two highlights from that book:

To an ordinary person the resultant message would be enough to prove there is no cipher being used. The difference between the ordinary person and the Baconian is, shall we say, one of degrees of persistence and ingenuity…

Other variations of differing degrees of ingenuity by other writers have appeared from time to time. Some anagrams are in English; for example. one version (Baconiana, April 1902) runs: ‘But thus I told Franciiiiii Bacon’. The last word but one, it is explained, is Fran followed by iiiiii, or 6 in Roman numerals: adopting the French pronunciation, Fran-6 yields Francis, and voilà!

It was a pleasure to read a biography of Elizebeth (The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone) and to discover much more about her work in the World Wars and her strange history with Baconist believers. And here’s one particularly delightful story:

Some of these “cipher parties” were scavenger hunts that sent guests winging through the city. Elizebeth handing you a small white envelope. You tore it open to find a cryptogram. The solution was the address of a restaurant. When you arrived, you ate the salad course, then solved a second cryptogram to discover the location of the entrée. Other parties were hosted at the Friedmans’ home with food cooked by Elizebeth. A shy arm wife arrived at 3932 Military Road one evening with her husband and panicked when the Friedmans handed her a menu in code. “The first item was a series of dots done with a blue pen,” she later recalled. “The ‘brains’ at the party worked over the number of dots in a group when it occurred to me it had to be ‘blue points’—oysters—and it was!”