Mystery in an Antique Dress | God's World News

Mystery in an Antique Dress

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    The 1880s silk dress had a hidden pocket. (Courtesy of Sara Rivers-Cofield)
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    Papers in the pocket had lines of code on them. (Courtesy of Sara Rivers-Cofield)
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    The words were telegraph code. (Courtesy of Sara Rivers-Cofield)
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    This photo shows the hidden pocket. (Courtesy of Sara Rivers-Cofield)
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    Wayne Chan cracked the code. (Courtesy of University of Manitoba)
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Self-proclaimed “doodad researcher” Sara Rivers-Cofield collects bits, baubles, and textiles. In 2013, she purchased a silk dress at an antique mall. What she discovered inside it fascinated cryptanalysts for a decade.

Rivers-Cofield restores artifacts at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab. As a hobby, she collects antique clothing. Ten years ago, she acquired a Victorian-era silk dress. Upon inspecting it, Rivers-Cofield found a “Bennett” name label and a bustle pin. But the biggest discovery took some serious sleuthing.

On the underside of the garment, covered by the overskirt, was a hidden pocket. Inside, two crumpled papers. They held 24 lines of handwritten text: “Bismark Omit leafage buck bank.” Huh? Another line was equally cryptic: “Paul Ramify loamy event false new event.” The words seemed like gibberish.

Armchair detectives tried for 10 years to crack the code without success. At one point, the “Silk Dress Cryptogram” was #32 on a list of unsolved codes.

Do you ever feel like parts of the Bible are written in code? You aren’t alone! The Apostle Peter called parts of Paul’s writings “hard to understand.” (2 Peter 3:16) But Paul encourages Timothy to “think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding.” (2 Timothy 2:7) Sometimes it takes much reading and studying scripture before the Holy Spirit reveals its meaning.

“Bennett’s” papers might have remained a mystery without computer analyst Wayne Chan. Chan recognized the words as telegraph code.

In the 1800s, sending telegraph messages was common, quick—and expensive. Senders used codes to shorten messages and save money.

Chan studied more than 170 code books. Eventually, he recognized the “gibberish” as weather codes from the U.S. Army and the U.S. Weather Bureau.

An 1887 Army codebook helped Chan decipher the code. Old weather maps provided the probable day described by it—May 27, 1888.

Weather code used certain words in a certain order. Words, syllables, and letters all meant something.

For example, one line from the silk dress papers reads: “Leavenworth merry lemon sunk each.”

The first word refers to a weather station in Kansas. The next four words give the exact barometric pressure/temperature, time/dewpoint, rainfall amount, and type of sunset.

It’s a baffling system. But Chan observes similarities to today’s code-laden texting.

Women like Bennett weren’t high-ranking officials in the 1800s. Yet female clerks, typists, and others probably handled important messages often. Her papers are the only known handwritten examples of a nearly forgotten weather code.

But just why this Bennett kept—and concealed—these particular codes is part of the ongoing mystery of the silk dress.

Why? Curiosity and persistence can serve you well—in code cracking, Bible reading, and life!

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