Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Decoding Dr. Benjamin Church

Codes and ciphers have always attracted history buffs. As long as there has been valuable information out there, people have tried to hide it from unintended eyes. As some of the recent work of John Nagy has shown, codes and ciphers were used quite often during the American Revolution. A letter by Dr. Benjamin Church, who sold military secrets to the British during the war, was recovered and deciphered in 1777 by an old classmate of Church's, Samuel West. The odd thing about Church's letter though was that it contained an incredibly simplistic cipher, the kind of cipher you would probably not want to rely upon if you were committing treason.  Tracey Kry at Past is Present examined Church's letter and came to similar conclusions. Here is a taste:

I wonder why, when performing such a dangerous, treasonous act, Church didn’t take better care to disguise his secrets.  Why did he use such a simple code?  The code surely kept the message secret from casual readers or interceptors, so perhaps those were the only readers Church was worried about.  But anyone who really wanted to could easily break it.  If one is to go into the business of espionage, one best use a complex code.  As Church stated at the end of his letter – “Use every precaution or I perish –”.  He should have heeded his own advice.

Megan Piette contributed to this post