Adventures in Cryptography
“The lanterns having been lit, we all fell to work with a zeal worthy a more rational cause …” When Poe, living in Philadelphia, won a $100 prize from the Dollar Newspaper for “The Gold-Bug” in 1843, he was trying to get financial backing for a new national literary journal, having resigned his “day job” at Graham's Magazine nearly a year before.
“Few persons can be made to believe that it is not quite an easy thing to invent a method of secret writing which shall baffle investigation. Yet it may be roundly asserted that human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve.”–Poe on secret writing, 1841
Like he did with “The Raven” a year later, Poe set out to write something with popular appeal without giving critics and reviewers anything to scoff at. He succeeded, bringing to his story set on Sullivan's Island, one of the sea islands off Charleston, South Carolina, (where he was stationed for a year at Fort Moultrie) elements that would sell. Like The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, it's a boy's adventure story, only more minimalist, with a hunt for Captain Kidd's buried treasure in a semi-exotic location. The eccentric treasure hunter, a freed slave, and the sidekick narrator conspire to figure out the clues. Parchments, invisible ink, cryptograms, skeletons, doubloons, and fabulous jewels—they're all here. In the following passage, the team sets off, much to the chagrin of the narrator, who doubts his treasure-hunting friend's sanity:
“With a heavy heart I accompanied my friend. We started about four o'clock—Legrand, Jupiter, the dog, and myself. Jupiter had with him the scythe and spades—the whole of which he insisted upon carrying—more through fear, it seemed to me, of trusting either of the implements within reach of his master, than from any excess of industry or complaisance. His demeanor was dogged in the extreme, and ‘dat deuced bug’ were the sole words which escaped his lips during the journey. For my own part, I had charge of a couple of dark lanterns, while Legrand contented himself with the scarabaeus, which he carried attached to the end of a bit of whip-cord; twirling it to and fro, with the air of a conjuror, as he went. When I observed this last, plain evidence of my friend's aberration of mind, I could scarcely refrain from tears. I thought it best, however, to humor his fancy, at least for the present, or until I could adopt some more energetic measures with a chance of success. In the mean time I endeavored, but all in vain, to sound him in regard to the object of the expedition. Having succeeded in inducing me to accompany him, he seemed unwilling to hold conversation upon any topic of minor importance, and to all my questions vouchsafed no other reply than ‘we shall see!’
“We crossed the creek at the head of the island by means of a skiff, and, ascending the high grounds on the shore of the main land, proceeded in a northwesterly direction, through a tract of country excessively wild and desolate, where no trace of a human footstep was to be seen. Legrand led the way with decision; pausing only for an instant, here and there, to consult what appeared to be certain landmarks of his own contrivance upon a former occasion.
“In this manner we journeyed for about two hours, and the sun was just setting when we entered a region infinitely more dreary than any yet seen. It was a species of table land, near the summit of an almost inaccessible hill, densely wooded from base to pinnacle, and interspersed with huge crags that appeared to lie loosely upon the soil, and in many cases were prevented from precipitating themselves into the valleys below, merely by the support of the trees against which they reclined. Deep ravines, in various directions, gave an air of still sterner solemnity to the scene.”
In a way, the puzzle of “The Gold-Bug” prefigures the more sophisticated criminal puzzle Poe grows into later with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and his other detective tales. “The Gold-Bug” was a warm-up for Poe, who discovered that his analytical mind and impressive puzzle-solving ability could find some action in the literary marketplace. Even before the popular success of “The Gold-Bug,” Poe promised a year's subscription to Graham's, where he was editor, to anyone who could solve one of his own cryptograms. But the response was so overwhelming, finally, that he had to withdraw the offer. Here again, because no copyright law yet existed to protect writers’ interests, Poe never made a cent beyond the $100 prize he was paid for “The Gold-Bug.” The story went on to sell 300,000 copies.