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“I fear our cypher is detected”: When agony ads go awry

The “FLO. Ciphers,” sent between September 1853 and January 1854, were a lovers’ correspondence that appeared in the Agony Column of “The Times”. Identifiable only by their addressee, the correspondence was the subject of much intrigue due to the unique numeric cipher in which it was written. The cipher was broken and later intercepted by Charles Babbage, a Victorian mathematician with a knack for code breaking. The ever-witty Babbage let the correspondents onto his discovery by correcting the grammar and spelling of one of their messages. Finding themselves exposed, the lovers ended their secret correspondence in haste.

By: Ronny Litvack-Katzman, Research Assistant, ROAAr At first glance, the Agony Column appears a perfect outlet for clandestine correspondences. Throughout the 19th-century, thousands of writers across the British Empire successfully sent and received cryptic messages through popular Victorian newspapers such …

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Couched in Unintelligibility: Agonies of The Times

people reading newspapers

By Ronny Litvack-Katzman, Research Assistant, ROAAr Numbers, letters, and pseudonyms, reversed text, symbols, and foreign language words –the most infamous encrypted agony ads contained all these and more. Throughout the 19th century, ciphers and codes were a covert means for …

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