Secret codes we still haven't cracked

Some coded messages from history have thwarted even the most advanced code-breaking sciences. Many of them are still actively looking for investigators to step up and figure them out, and a few have a pretty significant reward attached. Who knows—maybe one of our readers can clear things up.

The Beale Cipher

The story behind this one spans nearly 200 years of baffling cryptographers. So put on your hilariously charming old-timey tall-brimmed thinking hats while we tell the tale.

The owner of Lynchburg, Virginia's Washington Hotel, Robert Morriss, vividly recalled the day he was visited by treasure hunter Thomas Jefferson Beale in January 1820. He describes him as "tall, dark, and swarthy," "extremely popular, especially with the ladies," and "the handsomest man" he had ever seen, which you may recognize as the way you'd describe the protagonist of a paperback novel with a shirtless painting of Fabio on the cover.

Beale left as mysteriously as he'd arrived, which surely must have broken the heart of the clearly smitten Morriss. Two years later, the musky, beautiful man returned, left behind a mysterious locked box, and disappeared again, this time for good. Twenty-three years later, assuming the gorgeous stranger was probably dead, Morriss opened the box and found a plain English letter and three encoded documents leading to a treasure now assumed to be worth around $65 million dollars.

Morriss himself puzzled out the cryptic document for the remainder of his life but ultimately failed to find answers. A friend, to whom Morriss had confided his story, published a pamphlet with the encoded documents in it, hoping to find someone that could solve the riddle. This same friend also managed to decode one of the documents, realizing the substitution cipher worked with the Declaration of Independence. The pamphlet in question was published in 1885, but to this day, the other two documents and the location of the treasure, remain as unsolved as a landfill full of Rubik's cubes.


English classical composer Edward Elgar was a pretty eccentric person, even by classical composer standards. He was self-taught, and his interest in music was equaled by a fascination with riddles, codes, and other means to make the benign mysterious. His later works included hidden references to people in his life, and one piece in particular, "The Enigma Variations," inspired the name of the German coding device Enigma.

This particular unsolved riddle is a letter sent from Elgar to Dora Penny, the daughter of one of his friends. It's particularly infuriating to attempted puzzle solvers because it is so short, which is also compounded by the alphabet used having around 87 characters, increasing the difficulty of finding repeating word or character blocks that professional cryptographers typically work off of. Perhaps the biggest mystery is investing so much time wondering what a 40-year-old married man would possibly have to say to a 20-something-year-old woman when you can just ask a millennial friend with an OkCupid profile and get a pretty good idea.

The D'Agapeyeff Cipher

In 1939, Alexander D'Agapeyeff trolled the entire cryptographer community with the publishing of his book Codes and Ciphers. D'Agapeyeff is mostly known for writing layman-level research books. The previous year, he wrote a book for the same publisher on cartography. Codes and Ciphers was intended to be an elementary introduction to the subject, yet nearly 80 years later, an exercise in the back of the book continues to stump codebreaking experts.

Cryptographers suspect the solution probably lies in forming a Polybius Square, which totally isn't a special move in a certain urban legend mind-control arcade game as far as we know. Even so, the code is nowhere closer to being figured out.

The Blitz Ciphers

The Blitz Ciphers came to light fairly recently, but they go back further than many of the entries on this list. The backstory of them is that the documents were discovered hidden in the wall of an East London cellar damaged by bombs during World War II. The person who discovered them handed them down from generation to generation, and the current owner finally went public with the discovery in 2011, wondering if they could find anyone to help decipher them.

The documents themselves appear to be from as far back as the 16th or 17th century and are all written in a squiggly Tolkien elf language that many believe to be of Freemason origin. However, specific details about dating and source remain unclear. It's been established that there are two different forms of handwriting in the documents, one of presentation, and the other of annotation. The presentation hand lays out the bulk of the text and the annotation hand covers what seem to be expository footnotes. Other than that, attempts to decode it have been as fruitless as asking Steve Miller to explain what a "pompatus" is.

This carrier pigeon message even the British government can't decipher

One of the first things you should notice here is we're linking to an article on a British government website. So that says … something. At the very least, you'd have to out-think and out-resource the government that sent this message to figure it out. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Let's start from the beginning, when David Martin bought and tried to refurbish a Victorian fireplace in a house he purchased in the hilariously Britshly named town of Bletchingley, Surrey. Clearing the twigs and mess and probably the remains of some Mary Poppins–era chimney sweeps, he found the skeleton of a bird with a small cylindrical container attached to its leg. He wondered at first if there was a secret message inside, as though pigeons are famous for carrying other things besides secret messages and disease.

The container did contain a World War II–era secret message, which British government cryptographers have been trying to decode ever since. Maybe, um, don't tell them this, but whatever message that bird was carrying is probably a bit stale by now.

Talman Shud

In 1948, an unknown man was found dead on an Australian beach. This is in itself not too surprising, because any given stretch of Australian beach has a couple hundred fanged arthropods that could kill anyone dead. What was unusual was, among the aggressively boring contents of his pockets like gum and lint, police found a scrap of paper that just had the phrase "talman shud" on it. In Persian, the phrase means "finished." Ominous!

That phrase was the last two words of the 12th-century Persian poetry book Rubaiyat, by Omar Khayyam. After a nationwide search for the book, an anonymous source turned in the exact book with that phrase torn out. In the back of the book, police found an array of capitalized letters that have proved indecipherable. Even now, both the murder and the code remain unsolved.


The Chaocipher (which we are having a hard time not spelling as "Choco-cipher" because we are 12 and chocolate is delicious) is a mechanical encoding device invented by John F. Byrne. Byrne was a close friend of James Joyce, who also seemed to take perverse pleasure in writing the most indecipherable prose known to mankind.

Byrne tried to sell his device to various intelligence agencies but seemed to balk at the protocol expectations of said agencies, such as "hey, um, let us know how this thing works before we buy it." He insisted his machine was foolproof, and when he couldn't secure a contract, he simply made the cipher public by publishing a memoir because apparently you could just publish a book back then where half of it was a seemingly gibberish encoded message. Then again, this is the same era that published James Joyce.

The Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript is a book generally dated as being from the 1660s, but its origin date is unknown. Also unknown is … practically everything else about it. The whole thing is as indecipherable as those Peter Gabriel albums that happened between when he left Genesis and when he recorded Sledgehammer and that song people play with a boombox over their heads.

We know there is a section that is about plants that don't exist, two sections about stars, one that might be a recipe book, a section about naked women, and another about jars and spirals. Everything else is theoretical. Even now, at best, we have ten out of 38,000 words maybe figured out 350 years afterward, which is a pretty bad return rate so far.


There's a running theme in a few of these entries where the uncrackable code is composed by a non-cryptographer. The thing about amateurs is they aren't really limited by a rigid understanding of the rules of the game and take unusual leaps of logic that wouldn't naturally occur to professionals. Thus we have a giant sculpture literally sitting in the middle of CIA property that even they cannot figure out.

Kryptos is the work of eccentric sculptor James Sanborn. After getting the commission for the sculpture from the CIA, Sanborn consulted with the former CIA head of cryptography, Ed Scheidt, who gave Sanborn a crash course in Code Building 101. Of course, for national security reasons, Scheidt didn't give him hints of any modern techniques, just limiting it to information about techniques used up until World War II. This turned out even more humiliating as even using these archaic methods, Sanborn created a work that has baffled the greatest minds in codebreaking. Hubris!

The mysterious everything about Ricky McCormick

In 1999, at 41 years old, Ricky McCormick had reached a point where nobody seemed to know or care what happened to him, but it's possible someone still wanted him dead. Nobody called him in missing, nobody checked in with police the whole time, but when his body was found in the middle of a Missouri cornfield, it had decomposed to the point he was barely recognizable.

Even with all the forensic science the nu-metal era could provide, police are still unsure what happened to Ricky. The only thing close to a clue they found was a few crumpled notes in his pockets covered in oddly cropped capital letters occasionally bordered off in speech bubble–like shapes or in parentheses. Maybe they are video game passwords, maybe they are personal notes oddly encrypted for his own reasons. Nobody knows. Without other examples of this sort of writing to build off of, there's not much to work with. Maybe someone reading can step up and figure this out, gaining the bragging rights of out-thinking the FBI.