Spycraft: Download the Original Culper Code Book

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abe code book
Abraham Woodhull flips through his new code book in Episode 7 of TURN: “Mercy Moment Murder Measure.” For the source of the episode title, look to page 2 of the Culper code book.

218 121, readers! With the debut of the (soon to be “Culper”) code book in last Sunday’s episode of TURN, we can now discuss the real code book here in the blog.  Best of all, we’ve got scans of an original copy for you to use for your own personal correspondence, passing of notes in class, Facebook status updates, and other highly important covert operations. (Can you tell I’ve been waiting for this day since early April?)

Thanks to the wonderful folks at the Library of Congress who have digitized a massive amount of George Washington’s papers, anyone can download an original copy of this particular code book and encrypt messages a la Culper to their heart’s content.

These four pages also provide a fascinating glimpse into 18th century American vocabulary. Obviously, the words included in the code book were words Tallmadge thought the spy ring would use most often in its correspondence. If you use the Culper code to encrypt your own 21st-century letters, you might be surprised at the amount of common words (common to us, anyway) that are not included.

This is just one of multiple original copies of the Culper code book, written in Benjamin Tallmadge’s hand.  I should also point out that “Culper code book” is a modern, not contemporary, title.  Tallmadge, with the same obliqueness he used regarding anything related to espionage, referred to the code book simply as a “numerical dictionary.”

Click on one of the four pages below and then click “view full size” for the largest available size. All images courtesy of the Library of Congress, where this copy of the code book resides.  You might want to keep it readily available for future episodes of TURN… or if you’re feeling REALLY ambitious, you can try to decode one of many original Culper code letters found in the LOC’s online collection of George Washington papers.

(If the image gallery isn’t cooperating, you can also use these links to download the full-size images: Page 1, Page 2, Page 3, Page 4.)

For those of you who haven’t spent hours in an archive familiarizing yourself with 18th century chicken-scratch, a very handy transcription of the entire code book can be found on the Mount Vernon website.  If you ARE, however, feeling confident about your paleography skills, you might try to decipher 277, 617, and other smudged or damaged parts of the manuscript. (Obviously this ‘numerical dictionary’ was well used!)

  • A Note on Codes vs. Ciphers

In certain contexts, the words “code” and “cipher” are often interchangeable, and can carry all sorts of metaphorical meanings. But when it comes to spycraft, their definitions are a bit more black and white. The Language of Espionage glossary on the International Spy Museum’s website contains the following simple definitions:

Cipher: A system for disguising a message by replacing its letters with other letters or numbers or by shuffling them.

Code: A system for disguising a message by replacing its words with groups of letters or numbers.

In other words, ciphers usually involve simple substitution — swapping one letter out for one number, letter, or symbol.  Codes are usually more complicated (e.g. one number could represent an entire word, name, or phrase) and require a code book or other device in order to interpret them.  The Culper code book contains both a code (first three and a half pages) AND a cipher (the simple alphabet cipher used to encrypt words that are not included in the code dictionary).

If you love the nitty-gritty details of spycraft, don’t forget to check out our earlier post on the Cardan system and steganography, featuring the beautiful copper grille seen in the pilot episode of TURN. ipdqs!

LU

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