The Code Breakers


By Ian A. Stewart

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Brent Morris eagerly studied the figures. Rows and rows of neatly arranged, entirely indecipherable markings, like hieroglyphs or Chinese hanzi, only written in Greek or Latin or Hebrew. In the center, a pyramid made of 14 rows of blocks encased the letter S with a horizontal line above it. Elsewhere on the page, which was taken from an obscure 19th-century text, appeared other illustrations: in one corner, an open book adorned with strange lettering; in another, a scroll surrounded by a skull, stars, and a crescent moon.

Other people had puzzled over the page before, reproduced in a volume titled A History of Royal Arch Masonry. And yet to Morris, it wasn’t bewilderment or frustration that seized him when he looked over the mysterious passage in the late 1970s. It was exhilaration.

No wonder: By day, Morris worked as a mathematical cryptologist for the National Security Agency, studying, developing, and breaking codes for secret government communications. In his free time, Morris was—and still remains—an active Freemason, a 33rd degree in the Scottish Rite, an editor of the Scottish Rite Journal, a former master of the Quatuor Coronati research lodge, and an affiliate of dozens of lodges and concordant bodies. So the case of the Masonic cipher spoke to both sides of his brain.

Of course, it wasn’t the first time Morris had encountered secret Masonic writings. For hundreds of years and across many countries, Masons have used codes to mask communications of various kinds. According to Masonic lore, the first such cipher was cut with a mallet and chisel and used by Hiram, the king of Tyre; Hiram Abif; and Solomon, the king of Israel. By the 17th century, references abounded to the “Masonic word” known only to members. “By the 1700s, this arcane knowledge was part of the mystique of the Masons,” Morris says.

French Masons in the 18th century further popularized this sort of clandestine writing, including use of the Pigpen cipher, which came to be known as the Masonic cipher and drew characters based on a tic-tac-toe or X-shaped grid. These simple substitution codes, in which a new figure or character replaces each letter of the alphabet, are crude and easy to break, Morris explains. Yet they provide just enough of a barrier to the noninitiate to safeguard a message—at least for a while. “It’s somewhat useful in that it lets you preserve secret information, but more important, it becomes a symbol of secrecy,” Morris says. “It’s like when you get the key to a city: It doesn’t really unlock anything.”

Such substitution ciphers proliferated through various grand lodges in the 19th and 20th centuries, and keys to many were even sold in guidebooks by Masonic publishers. Today the use of Masonic codes remains common, although in place of formal ciphers, ritual training manuals are often written in a sort of shorthand, or what Morris describes as an “aide-memoir.” “It provides a sort of casual security,” he says. “So if you left it on a coffee table or an airplane seat, anyone who picked it up would go, ‘Huh, what’s this?’” Morris explains their use this way: “Think about the lock on a door. Sometimes it’s not that strong, but all you need is something to keep the dog in the house.”

The cipher Morris encountered in A History of Royal Arch Masonry, part of a manuscript belonging to a Dr. Robert Folger of New York dated 1827, was altogether different. Where other Masonic ciphers used simple, mono-alphabetic substitutions, the Folger manuscript was far more complex. Each figure, or hieroglyph, seemed to be composed of several characters nestled into groups. Morris puzzled over the enigma, using his usual code-breaking techniques, but without luck. He referenced the Folger cipher in an article on fraternal cryptography he wrote for the summer 1978 issue of the NSA’s internal journal, Cryptolog, and at the same time shared it with a fellow cryptanalyst named Donald Bennett.

Cracking the Code

Bennett attacked the cipher with zeal—and a lot of patience. He started out by scanning the document for clues related to frequency. For instance, among characters grouped together inside a box, 42 percent included a horizontal line near the top. Surmising that the box stood for the first letter of the word and the line for the second, Bennett hypothesized that the line stood for the letter E, the most common letter in English (and the letter most frequently appearing as the second letter of a word). Then he searched for repeating digraphs, or pairs of strokes appearing together. In English, a common example is Q-U. That turned up a distinctive pairing in the text: a crescent-moon shape followed by a backward gamma figure. It couldn’t be Q-U, however, because in several instances it appeared at what Bennett determined must be the end of a word. (No English words end with Q-U.) But it did suggest another common pairing: T-H. By focusing on figures containing the likely T-H digraph, Bennett was able to zero in on what he believed was a four-letter word that read TH_T. The only possible word it could be was THAT. Armed with this knowledge, he now knew the symbol for the letter A—a single dot. Having shaken loose the letters T, H, A, and E, he was able to hunt for longer words.

Here, Bennett relied on Morris for additional hints.

In any text, there’s a coded element hiding in plain sight: the language itself. “There’s specialized terminology in just about everything,” Morris says. For instance, in an academic setting, correspondence is likely to contain references to semesters, adjuncts, symposia, or deans—all familiar enough English words, but rarely used outside a collegiate environment. For anyone who’s read through an uncoded Masonic writing, the experience of feeling overwhelmed by the lexicon is all too familiar. Words like brethren, ashlar, and cowan occur far more frequently within Freemasonry than outside it. Armed with a list of common Masonic terms, Bennett inferred that, for example, the frequently occurring figure he interpreted as T_ _TH was more likely to be TRUTH than, say, TENTH.

From there, more coded terms could be pried open. Bennett hunted for two-letter possibilities like TO and OR. Then three-letter words like OUR were within his grasp. Next he searched for double letters, as in EFFORT. On and on he went, picking apart each graphic for clues, cautiously making assumptions, testing them, and swapping in letters as they were revealed. Before long, he had 15 characters deciphered, then 20. Finally, he’d recovered the entire alphabet, along with several figures that represented common words like AND, HIS, and THEY.

In relatively short order, Bennett produced a rough translation of the manuscript, which read like a homily on the importance of the Bible as a guidebook for living—possibly a speech to be delivered to initiates. While the excerpt was not familiar to Morris as being from a regular Masonic degree, it seemed clearly related to the craft. In fact, the word Masonry appeared on line three, and the phrase newly enrolled initiate was used several times throughout. Reviewing it, Morris determined that the lecture must come from a Master Mason degree in a French-style lodge—a strange possession for a 19th century American Mason in New York.

Even with the text deciphered, the mystery felt unsolved. The what of the cipher had been cracked. The why remained.

A Mystery, Wrapped in an Enigma

So Morris took up the case again, trying to piece together information about the text’s purpose and its author. He knew that the manuscript had been recovered from a journal kept by a Robert Benjamin Folger, a New York physician and Freemason. On the title page, the journal reads that it should be bequeathed to a Brother Dr. Hans B. Gram, and that if he’s unable to take possession of it, it should pass to a Mr. Ferdinand Halsey, “to preserve the substance in his mind while he [committed] the manuscript to the flames.”

Morris began to research the mysterious Dr. Folger, combing through Masonic records and meeting minutes. The picture the materials painted was one of an enthusiastic, if somewhat freewheeling, Freemason.

Folger was born in 1803 in Hudson, New York, and moved to New York City in 1817, where he apprenticed to become an apothecary. In 1824, he was initiated at Fireman’s Lodge No. 368, and he set out on a dizzying campaign of Masonic endeavors. Two years after his first initiation, he joined the Jerusalem Chapter of the Royal Arch, was received in a council of the Royal and Select Masters, and was dubbed a Knight Templar in Columbia Encampment No. 1. Soon after, he helped launch a new and short-lived chapter of the Royal Arch, received the fourth through 32nd degrees of the Scottish Rite, and joined the Lafayette Chapter of the Rose Croix. At the time he wrote his cipher, Folger was senior warden of the newly chartered Zerubabel Lodge No. 242.

From there, Folger rose—and fell—rapidly through the various appendant bodies. Partly that was a result of his own almost boundless zeal for Freemasonry, and partly it owed to the fractured nature of the craft in the middle of the 19th century.

Folger personally lived through at least six different grand lodges in New York State and 14 supreme councils of the Scottish Rite. He was twice suspended for non- Masonic conduct or writings, and was highly involved in a briefly active, and in retrospect illegitimate, branch of the Scottish Rite known as Cerneauism, a rival to the Supreme Councils. Later, he joined and participated in a revival of the separatist St. John’s Grand Lodge of New York. At every turn, it seems, he picked the losing side of internecine fraternal fights.

It’s possible, and entirely likely, that Folger’s coded manuscript was intended as part of a breakaway Masonic body Folger intended to found but never did. The frequent clashes with Grand Lodge didn’t necessarily indicate Folger was a malcontent, however. Rather, Morris determined, he was a product of a chaotic time for Freemasonry. “Throughout all of this,” Morris later wrote, Folger “was seldom an idle bystander, but was actively involved in many of the controversies. He is today viewed as a schismatic, a troublemaker … While his Masonic career is perhaps as checkered as the ground floor of King Solomon’s temple, one cannot study his life without feeling that he was a remarkable Freemason.”

In the scheme of things, the enigmatic Folger cipher didn’t contain much in the way of groundbreaking secrets. But its existence pointed to a long and profound history of secrecy and mystique within the fraternity. Folger was by no means the only 18th- or 19th-century Mason to develop his own code, and the Masons weren’t the only fraternity to use them. In fact, the period was practically overflowing with fraternal bodies that aimed to communicate covertly, or at least appear to. In 2011, an international team decoded the so-called Copiale cipher, another highly irregular code shrouding the initiation ritual of a Mason-like group of occultists who borrowed heavily from the language of optometry to perform a symbolic ritualized “surgery” on initiates’ eyes.

Today, in an era of supercomputing and digital encryption, such ciphers seem like a relic from a distant and exotic past. But to Morris, even if they’re not exactly cutting-edge security, they still serve a purpose. “It’s like a lot of other things about Freemasonry,” he says. “It’s only a secret from someone who’s not smart enough to do a Google search.

“The code is really a mark of acceptance in the society,” he continues. “We’re not just an evolved trade guild. We have these secrets going back 400 years. That’s kind of cool.”

Chen Design Associates

More from this issue:

The Mystery House

When a tiny apartment with a big-time literary past came up for rent, William Arney found himself walking in Sam Spade’s footsteps.

Read More

Main Menu


Browse Through