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Author challenges readers to uncover Mrs. Greenhow’s secret

Rose Greenhow's coded messageDetective Allan Pinkerton, working under his wartime pseudonym Major E. J. Allen, and Pinkerton’s agents tried for months to decipher Rose Greenhow’s secret dispatches, many of which they seized when she was arrested in her home on August 23, 1861. They pored over singed and torn scraps of paper that they recovered from her stove and compared copies of letters she kept with others they intercepted when she thought she had charmed her guards into getting messages out for her. Pinkerton, who had been a railway detective not a cryptographer, undoubtedly would have benefitted from Mrs. Greenhow’s cipher. It was given to her at the start of the war by Thomas Jordan, a U.S. army officer who resigned his commission to join the Confederate forces in his native Virginia. Jordan taught her what he described as a rudimentary cipher, and although she continued to get encrypted messages out after her arrest, he lost confidence in the security of the system and told his superiors some months later to ignore reports written in Mrs. Greenhow’s cipher because he feared it had been compromised. It is possible he was able to provide her a replacement during her imprisonment, but that is not clear.

When Mrs. Greenhow drowned near the end of the Civil War and her body washed up at Fort Fisher on what was then known as Smith’s Island, now Bald Head Island, North Carolina, a handwritten cipher was found on her body. The original is in the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh. The message shown above (click for enlargement) was among the documents seized at the time of Mrs. Greenhow’s arrest and preserved in the National Archives. Because some of it is not encrypted, the document probably is a draft of a message she had already dispatched or intended to send to her handler, Colonel Jordan, at Confederate headquarters in Manassas, Virginia.


Ms. Blackman awarded signed first edition copies of her book to the first five visitors to this site who cracked the code.* The winners of the Crack the Code Challenge are posted on this site.


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*Sticklers in the cryptographic community may note that, technically, Rose’s message was not in code but in cipher because each character was encrypted, not each word.


Wild Rose, Civil War Spy
Random House
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