Introduction: In this article, Mary Harrell-Sesniak provides some fun for Valentine’s Day by searching old newspapers for Valentine ciphers and puzzles. Mary is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background.
Nowadays the word of the day seems to be cyber, as in cybersecurity – but back in the day (by that I mean over 100 years ago), the word of the day was cipher. Although they have different meanings, both have to do with security and secrecy.
Anyone wishing to keep something secret would create a cipher code, whether it was for criminal purposes or to dodge the watchful eyes of a chaperon.
A Cipher Valentine Encounter
Can you figure out the secret message in this notice from the Evening Nonpareil of 11 February 1911?
Clever girl! On the one hand, the message says the young lady wished to borrow one of the eight volumes of the Spectator – but on the other hand, she very clearly is giving a message to her sweetheart. Though her parents failed to see it, her sharp-eyes beau realized the only important part of the message were the words in all caps: “I shall be alone at eight this evening. Don’t fail to come.”
The Story of Edward’s Cipher Valentine
Perhaps one of the more famous accounts was a Valentine story written in 1901, about Edward Weld’s Valentine cipher.
Edward’s sister Alice had married John Shepard, who was careless with the couple’s money, made bad investments, and nearly ruined them. Edward came visiting to bail his sister out by giving her $6,250 – a large sum in 1901. However, Alice wasn’t home, and while John was occupied in the barn, Edward disappeared in the house presumably to hide the money where John couldn’t find it.
Edward left two envelopes for his sister so that she could find the money. One had a note, and the other was a Valentine with a message scrawled on the back. Sadly, both Edward and Alice died before she could read the messages and recover the money. Although the house was searched 50 times, the money was never found.
Fourteen years later, Edward’s son Frank finally solved the mystery and found the money. Can you solve Edward’s cipher?
Here is the note Edward left in the first envelope:
“Dear Alice – Your business done. Money put away in this house. Writing hastily at desk in library. Uncle’s waiting in barn for me. Cipher in valentine tells you the place. The same trick we have used several times before. –Edward.”
The Valentine in the other envelope had this message written on the back, including this strange numbering system:
“(1) Flash of gold in Cupid’s eye
(2) Sends his sharpest darts awry
(3) In these modern days.
(4) He doth know where dollars bide
(5) Better than where true hearts hide;
Sad these modern ways. (6)
There’s a love that’s new and old, (1)
(2) Takes no thought of minted gold
E’enin these bad days; (3)
Trust a brother’s steadfast faith (4)
(5) Dear as life and strong as death;
Guide in troublous ways.”
Curious? Look up the article in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to solve the mystery. Or, if you’re determined to figure it out yourself, here’s a clue: the Valentine message is a red herring. The real cipher is in the note; therein lies the mystery of where the money was hidden.
Ideas for Valentine’s Day
Make the old new again by using old newspapers to inspire this year’s Valentine’s Day gifts.
- I suggest for fun, print the cipher Valentine story and share it with your Valentine.
- Write your own cipher Valentine!
- Look up puzzles from earlier days – or find old pictures in the press and cut them into puzzle shapes.
- Look up fun quotes or love poems.
- Have the children colorize Valentine graphics found in newspapers.
Please let me know in the comments section what Valentine ideas you found inspired by newspapers.