Can you Crack the Cipher?

By Jeremy Dibbell

One of the items in our collections I find most intriguing is the “Anonymous cipher diary, 1776-1845” (known by its call number, Ms. Sbd-133). It is a small bound volume containing ciphered or shorthand notations broken down by years, months, and days, with long entries on one side of the sheets and shorter entries on the opposite side. The writer used Arabic numerals, so tracking years and dates is possible, and the notations for each month are evident from the entries. Beyond that, the contents are almost a complete mystery (and since the years covered by the diary are of some considerable interest, I’ve long thought it would be fascinating to try and puzzle this out).

The diary was given to MHS member (and former president) Judge John Davis in 1841 by Theophilus Parsons [Jr.] (1797-1882), a legal scholar and longtime Dane Professor of Law at Harvard. A note on the first pages of the diary, written on 27 March 1845 by Davis, reads:

“This book, probably a Diary, I received from Theophilus Parsons, Esq. in the year 1841. It was found in his father’s Library after his decease, its origin and contents unknown. I hoped to find some person of sufficient skill in stenography, to decipher the pages. But it is still, to me & those whom I have consulted, a Sealed Book. With the consent of my friend from whom I rec’d [the] Book, it is now offered to the acceptance of the Mass. Hist’l Society. The late B.L. Oliver who had some skill in stenography, tho’ unacquainted with the characters in this volume, expressed to me an opinion that it was a diary of a Clerygman, perhaps as has been conjectured, of Rev. Moses Parsons of Byfield. But the entries extend to 1799 – sixteen years after the death of that gentleman. J. Davis.”

Theophilus Parsons [Sr.] (1749-1813), a well-known Massachusetts politician (of the Federalist persuasion), jurist and the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court from 1806 to 1813, left an extensive library at his death; when it was sold at auction in 1814, the catalog ran to twenty-three printed pages. Among the volumes in his collection, and apparently retained for a time by the Parsons family, was this curious little book. The man consulted by Davis about the diary was Benjamin Lynde Oliver, Jr., (1788-1843), a legal author (and noted chess player). In his diary (which is held at MHS as part of the Oliver Family Papers), Oliver writes on Saturday, 13 August 1842 “Go to see Judge Davis & get of him his treatise on shorthand, which is supposed to be the one used in the Mss. Book he lent me to decipher.” Over the next several months, Oliver reports additional visits with Davis, but does not mention the manuscript again (so far as I have been able to determine).

In his note, Davis records the “conjecture” that perhaps the diary had been written by Rev. Moses Parsons (1716-1783), the father of Theophilus. But, as he helpfully points out, Moses died well before the diary entries stop. Perhaps there is another clergyman member of the Parsons family who might have kept a ciphered diary? I’ll examine a possible (and potentially really fascinating) contender in a future post. In the meantime, if anyone out there recognizes this method of shorthand, I’d certainly be fascinated to hear any insight you can provide.