There are dozens of examples of unsolved codes and scripts spanning from earliest history to modern times. Linear A, Etruscan, the Pigeon Cipher, the fourth and final section of the Kryptos sculpture – the list of mysterious unsolved ciphers goes on and on. Many of these ciphers may never be cracked, if for no other reason than the limited sample size. For example, the ancient Greek writing system Linear A has over 1,400 existing specimens, but it all boils down to barely a couple pages' worth of content. That's not much for codebreakers to go on.
But what about unsolved codes that might mean nothing? There are cases out there that have raised more than a few eyebrows and, for various reasons, seem a bit off. Might some of them actually be tricks, hoaxes, or jokes that long-forgotten pranksters played on humanity?
The answer is most definitely yes, some of them might be exactly that. For all the effort people love to put into solving mysteries, there are always going to be those that simply don't have solutions. So, for anyone planning to head off into the hills to score some treasure or hunker down in a basement to unravel a baffling murder, here are some unsolved ciphers that might actually just be jokes on us all.
The Voynich Manuscript
The Voynich Manuscript is an undeciphered vellum codex that's had linguists and codebreakers scratching their heads for years. It originated in Central Europe, sometime in the late 15th or early 16th century, but the general public wasn't really aware of its existence until Polish-American book dealer Wilfrid Voynich acquired it in 1912.
The manuscript isn't just mysterious in meaning – it's also strangely beautiful to behold. Within its 240-odd surviving pages are hundreds of bizarre drawings of people, medicinal herbs, astrological signs, unidentified plants, and a whole lot more.
From 1912 on, experts generally agreed that the manuscript was not indecipherable; complicated, to be sure, but not uncrackable. Enter Gordon Rugg in 2004 with a new theory: it's a giant piece of hogwash. Rugg backed up his theory with some convincing research that proved one could produce a similarly complex piece of hogwash using a Cardan grille encipherment method paired with unintelligible gibberish. If Rugg is right, then the manuscript is just a hoax.
Ricky McCormick's Notes
Ricky McCormick was a 41-year-old misfit who had the bad luck of having his dead body dumped in a Missouri cornfield in June 1999. For the next 12 years, police classified his case as "suspicious," with no real leads discovered. Then, in 2011, the FBI tossed out another tidbit: they found a couple of encrypted codes in McCormick's pockets, and needed the public's help cracking them.
That's right, the FBI asked the public to solve the cold case of McCormick. Here's the online form for submitting answers. The bureau believes the coded notes might hold valuable information about who killed the oddball ex-felon.
So far, nobody has deciphered the code. Many people think it might be pointless, as there's a good chance the random jumbles of letters are just nonsense. Apparently, McCormick wasn't the brightest of light bulbs – his family testified that he could barely write his own name, much less coded letters. His aunt said he had a "brick wall in his mind." His own mother called him retarded. How could he have authored a code that totally stumped the FBI's best cryptanalysts – and, so far, everyone on the Internet?
If an old pamphlet from 1885 is to be trusted, there are millions of dollars' worth of silver and gold buried somewhere in Bedford County, VA. The pamphlet, published by James Ward, explains how Thomas Jefferson Beale gave an innkeeper named Robert Morriss a locked strongbox – and instructions to wait 10 years before opening it.
Morriss waited 23. When he finally opened the strongbox, he found a letter that spoke of an unbelievable treasure – and three additional letters, all encoded, that contained the location of the treasure, a description of the treasure, and a list of contact information for the 30 men who had removed it from Colorado to Virginia.
Morriss couldn't crack any of the coded letters, so he passed them along to Ward in the early 1860s. Ward managed to decipher the second letter using the Declaration of Independence as a codebook, but he couldn't figure out the other two. So, as the story goes, Ward made the mystery public in the hopes that someone else would find the treasure.
It's a fine story, though it's probably a waste of time to go on a Virginia digging spree anytime soon. Beale doesn't show up in any census records, and his first and middle names seem pretty convenient considering Thomas Jefferson's most famous work ended up being the codebook. The more you read about it, the more it seems like a hoax dreamed up by Ward.
The Blitz Ciphers
The papers containing the Blitz Ciphers turned up thanks to German bombs. During World War II, a blast tore apart a cellar wall in London, revealing hidden boxes where someone had stashed the mysterious papers. Nick Pelling – the cryptanalyst who runs CipherMysteries.com and CipherFoundation.org, and gave these ciphers their name – believes they're much older than the war.
The Blitz Ciphers feature around 60 distinct characters/glyphs in a mix of Greek letters, astrological symbols, alchemical symbols, and geometric shapes. The text is written in what Pelling calls a presentation hand and an annotation hand. It's quite pretty to look at, but it's also still a total mystery. Many people actually doubt its authenticity due to the appearance of the ink, writing, and the pages themselves. While there might be something here, Pelling's conclusion seems wise:
"What I personally have learned from the tragically fruitless, long-term debacle that is Voynich Manuscript research is that speculative theories are almost always a hopeless way of trying to decipher such objects. Hunches are cool and useful, but they need to stay restrained, or everything goes bad. Please, no theories, let’s try to crack these using the proper historical tools at our disposal!"