back to article Unlocked: The hidden love note on the grave of America's first crypto power-couple

Among the 400,000 graves at the Arlington National Cemetery – a solemn US military graveyard in Virginia – lies the final resting place of cryptography pioneers William and Elizebeth Friedman. And hidden in code on their tombstone is a touching tribute from a wife to her husband. A code that's only now just been cracked, …

  1. Mage Silver badge



    1. chelonautical

      Re: Awwww...

      Thanks for a really nice article. A good mixture of technology, history and some interesting people.

      Also I find it fascinating to note how far back in time some of these ideas originate. I'd heard of the ancient Caesar cipher but Baconian ciphers had passed me by. I for one would welcome a few more articles about the history of cryptography (or indeed the history of other technologies for that matter).

  2. jake Silver badge

    Seems to me that a letter to the editor of ...

    ... Omni magazine pointed this out in roughly 1982 ... although it might have been in Martin Gardner's Mathematical Games in Scientific American in the same time frame. (I don't think it would have been as late as Hofstadter's newfangled Metamagical Themas.)

    Anybody else remember this? Better, do you have a dead-tree copy to verify my memory? I know I read it somewhere, because I knew the details of the story before I clicked on the headline ...

    1. J. R. Hartley

      Re: Seems to me that a letter to the editor of ...

      Would you like an ice-cream, Doc?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Seems to me that a letter to the editor of ...

      I can verify it.

      I have the entire OMNI collection as PDFs ....

      I torrented it for free. Which highlights how licensing and lawyers are getting it wrong, because I would have happily paid for it.

      1. Paul Kinsler

        Re: I can verify it.

        ... but what is the volume, issue, page number(s) and year of publication..?

  3. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    A love that lasted a life time.

    How many couples truly have that.

    1. Carlo C.

      Re: A love that lasted a life time.

      Ask my ex-wife

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

  4. DavCrav

    "developed by the British Elizabethan cryptographer Sir Francis Bacon"

    I think that's doing rather a disservice to Bacon, who was the originator of the scientific method, was the Attorney General and also Lord Chancellor of England, wrote a dozen books, somehow found time to be an MP for seven different constituencies at various stages, and produced the foundations of the Napoleonic Code.

    It's rather like saying that Isaac Newton was a British Master of the Royal Mint. True, but somewhat misleading.

    1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

      "British Elizabethan cryptographer Sir Francis Bacon"

      If he was an Elizabethan cryptographer he was English not British.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Do you really think conspiracy theorists care about facts?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      He was also banged up for taking bribes, which was quite unusual in those days (the being locked up that is). Nowadays nobody would notice.

    3. ThatOne Silver badge

      > Newton was a British Master of the Royal Mint

      The question is what did he do after eight...

      1. jake Silver badge

        After eight? Now, now.

        No pillow talk here.

    4. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

      ...I think that's doing rather a disservice to Bacon, who was the originator of the scientific method...

      To a point, Lord Copper.

      There are TWO Bacons who were involved in the early development of the scientific method - Sir Francis (around 1600) and Roger (around 1250). Roger Bacon, the Franciscan monk, is 350 years before Sir Francis, who is 400 years before us.

      If you read their works, Novum Organum and the Opus Maius, for example, I think you will come to the conclusion that Roger produced a more complete, coherent and workable proposal for scientific endevour, and, moreover, did it 350 years earlier than Francis, in an age distinctly hostile to the idea that knowledge could be gathered in any way apart from reading the Bible....

  5. Christoph

    That picture with people facing in different directions reminds me of the cryptographic encoding of the William Tell Overture.

    Eight women, facing towards the camera, away from the camera, towards, away, towards, away, away, away.

    Titty bum, titty bum, titty bum bum bum.

  6. Tom 7

    Bacon Cipher all wrong

    mMmMM mMmMM mMmMM! shirley!

  7. I Am Spartacus



    1. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: Enigma?

      A/B headline testing?

  8. Solo Owl

    So Sir Francis Bacon invented a 5-bit binary code 400 years ago ... nothing new under the sun

    1. TRT Silver badge

      They're known as Bacon bits.

  9. Baggypants

    What's the message in the title?

    1. Donn Bly

      For those too hung over to decode it themselves, it reads "share on reddit"

      of course, don't take my word for it -- decode it yourself and see if I'm right....

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward



  11. Jaybee78

    The Friedmans were students of Ms Gallup, also a high ranking cryptographer for US Intelligence during WW1, who had written a 400 page discourse on her discovery of concealed codes in the works of Shakespeare and the St James Bible which she attributed to Francis Bacon the Tudor statesman and philosopher. The codes told the secret story of Bacon's life as the first son of Queen Elizabeth 1st of England and heir to the throne as well as the writer of all the Shakespeare works and Sonnets.

    This revelation was highly disruptive to the majority of academic opinion at the time and it is my belief that the Friedmans were asked and well paid to dispel Ms Gallup's findings and so to keep the status quo.

    Since that time the "who wrote Shakespeare" debate has continued furiously with Bacon as a main contender. It is my contention that if Bacon can be seen in the light of his true birth that the debate becomes much clearer as to his claim as Shakespeare. The whole story is told in my "faction" novel as a thrilling tale of conspiracy as The Royal Secret last published in 2016 and now on Amazon.

    John Bentley (Author).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @John Bentley

      "Since that time the "who wrote Shakespeare" debate has continued furiously with Bacon as a main contender."

      There are bonkers conspiracy theories and them there are raving loony conspiracy delusions, and the Bacon=Shakespeare is the latter.

      A five minute overview of Bacon's career and Shakespeare's will dispel it - Bacon was simply far too busy to write the plays as well, and in those days the playwright would need to be heavily involved in rehearsals. Bacon as Shakespeare is a simple fantasy of snobbery - of course some actor chappie from the sticks who hadn't been to Oxford couldn't have done it. It's as ridiculous as some minor journalist from Wiltshire being knighted for writing a hugely successful fantasy series or an obscure woman from Scotland making over a billion writing about wizards.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: @John Bentley

        To say nothing of the fact that contemporary reports state unequivocally that Bill the Bard was indeed the author.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: @John Bentley

          "To say nothing of the fact that contemporary reports state unequivocally that Bill the Bard was indeed the author."

          Oh, the Baco-shakespearians have #FAKENEWS explanations for that.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: @John Bentley

          I never understood how anyone that actually read both Bacon and Shakespeare could think one author wrote both.

      2. DavCrav

        Re: @John Bentley

        "or an obscure woman from Scotland making over a billion writing about wizards."

        Who's that then? J. Rowling (the K. is fake news!) is from Gloucestershire. According to Wikipedia (yes, I know), she had already written three chapters of Harry Potter when she moved to Scotland in 1993, aged 28.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: @John Bentley

          "when she moved to Scotland in 1993, aged 28."

          So, when HP1 was published, she was from Scotland, no?

          There's picky and there's excessive picky.

          1. Jonathan Richards 1

            OT: Re: @John Bentley

            > So, when HP1 was published, she was from Scotland, no?

            I think you underestimate the scale of parochialism that operates amongst the British. Clue: the scale is microscopic, and eternal. Someone born in Gloucestershire can never be said to "come from Scotland", indeed people in the same county will stoutly defend "coming from" individual towns and cities. This operates down to village level, and I can give you examples from within villages that you can, with a good arm, throw a stone clean across.

            The words "You aren't from round 'ere, are ye?" is not generally a perfectly friendly greeting :)

      3. Not That Andrew

        Re: @John Bentley

        I can't believe it's not Bacon!

      4. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

        Re: @John Bentley

        Terry Pratchett was born in Beaconsfield, which is in Buckinghamshire.......

        1. DropBear

          Re: @John Bentley

          I have it on good authority that the real person behind the works of Shakespeare was King Arthur...

      5. Stevie

        Re: @John Bentley (4 Vonya i Mor)

        I thought everybody knew that Shakespeare's plays were written by Ernie Wise.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    British Eizabethan

    Britain wasn't available when Sir Francis Bacon was alive. He was an English Elizabethan or as we like to say: Elizabethan.

    1. John H Woods Silver badge

      Re: British Eizabethan

      "Britain wasn't available when Sir Francis Bacon was alive."

      Glad I'm not the only one who thinks this way. I was skeptical of someone who said St George was Turkish for the same reason. To explain it I asked them if they thought Caesar would be best described as "Italian" --- but they did ("of course"), so that strategy went precisely nowhere.

    2. rmv

      Re: British Eizabethan

      People have been referring to the natives of the island group of Britain as British (or Brittani, Pretannoi etc) since about the 4th century BC, and I expect they will continue to do so long after England is eventually absorbed into Greater London.

  13. JimmyPage Silver badge
    Big Brother

    RIPA ?

    If this were in the UK, could plod seize the gravestone and require it be decrypted ?

    Or is that only for electronic communications ?

    1. ThatOne Silver badge

      Re: RIPA ?

      > could plod seize the gravestone and require it be decrypted ?

      Don't give them ideas! They could arrest and detain the Friedmans for contempt to court, indefinitely, since I'm pretty sure they won't speak. And what's next? Obviously FBI asking for backdoors on gravestones.

      See, this could get ugly pretty fast.

  14. Stjalodbaer

    Conspiracy theory

    I thought the codes proved Baco wrote Baa Baa black sheep.

    1. DavCrav

      Re: Conspiracy theory

      The latest thinking is that the codes proved he wrote the screenplays to Apollo 13 and Mystic River.

  15. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

    Clever. It also quite raises the bar for designing your own gravestone.

    Personally, my two favourites so far are

    1. "Hier liegen meine Gebeine. Ich wünschte, es wären deine." (Real, to be found at, where else, Zentralfriedhof Wien.)

    2. "Here lies Edmund Blackadder, and he's bloody annoyed!" (Fictional, but oh so very, very good.)

    1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

      That's all, folks!


      ...designing your own gravestone.

      'I told you I was ill' (Spike Milligan)

      "Please keep off the grass" (Peter Ustinov)

      "That's all, folks!" (Mel Blanc)

      There are some more gems here... (including ones from some well known people still alive on how they would like to be remembered)

      1. Pen-y-gors

        Re: That's all, folks!

        Omits one of my favourites, W C Fields who wanted " I would rather be living in Philadelphia"

      2. John H Woods Silver badge

        Re: That's all, folks!

        Edwina Currie thinks “She made a difference” would be an appropriate epitaph for herself?

        1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

          Re: That's all, folks!

          "I told you that egg tasted funny ..."

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I thought it said

    Get some milk

  17. Clive Harris

    Knowledge is Power

    Knowledge = Power

    Time = Money

    As engineers we know that Work = Power x Time

    Solving for constant value of Work, we find that as Knowledge tends to zero, Money tends to infinity

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nothing to fear, nothing to hide

    The lengths some people will go to like becoming dead then buried.

    These two must have been 'up to something'.

    Good job the NSA can spy on all US citizens these days.

  19. Tezfair
    Thumb Up

    I love these stories

    So many unsung heros to a handful of people now being told to the masses.

  20. hi_robb

    Loved this

    Please El Reg, more articles like this.

  21. Andy The Hat Silver badge

    Baa baa baa baa Barbara Ann ...

    Now if I do some Bacon bits on that whilst playing the single backwards at 78rpm what will I get ...?

    1. jake Silver badge

      C'mon down, Andy, and I'll tell you what you'll get!

      It's a screwed up cartridge and a scratched record!

      (For you kids in the audience, ask your (grand)parents.)

  22. Jacobean

    The Woman Who Smashed Codes

    There's a great book recently published on the Friedmans, principally about Elizebeth: "The Woman who Smashed Codes" (Jason Fagone). Containing sections on how jerks like J Edgar Hoover essentially stole her decrypts, and how the laws of the day prevented her from complaining.

    Interesting enough of a read to keep me going without interruptions! Recommended.

    FYI the Bacon/Shakespeare stuff was never her idea, but that of an early funder.

  23. Old Coot

    Edgar Allan Poe

    Wrote a story called "The Goldbug", featuring an encoded pirate treasure map that has to be decoded if the treasure is to be found. I'll say no more; it's a fun story.

    Friedman read this story as a child and got interested in ciphers.

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