Internet Sleuths Wanted to Solve 20 Year Old Family Mystery

internet sleuths
Internet sleuths who enjoy solving a good puzzle may want to take a look at a 20 year old mystery left by a dying woman on index cards. A family mystery that in Minnesota is pretty close to being solved thanks to the Internet.  For 20 years, the children and grandchildren of Dorothy Holm , their mother and grandmother, have been trying to break an apparently unbreakable code.  The elder Ms. Holm passed in 1996 from cancer.

About 10 minutes after the code was posted online, a web surfer noticed a possible encryption device and the code is almost, but not quite, solved.  The family has been trying to unjumble the jumble of letters for years.  Grandchildren and cousins, who were between 8 and 10 years old when the elder Holm died, worked on the puzzles for several months without success.

Internet SleuthsAfter seeing the images online and noticing a string of triple As, one internet sleuth who goes by the alias ‘HarperPitt’ felt the string of As could represent “Amen Amen Amen”.  Applying this reasoning to more of the code, HarperPitt noticed the letters matched the Lord’s Prayer.

Once HarperPitt’s method for cracking the code was posted, other internet sleuths starting applying the sequencing to other letters on the card.    Eventually, the letters seemed to be pointing towards personal prayers.

All of the attention that the Internet has brought to Ms Holm would not have been appreciated by her when she was alive.  Ms Holm’s granddaughter told Mashable her “…grandmother hated being in the spotlight.”

According to the granddaughter, the elder Ms Holm was a kindly person.  Married to a World War II sailor, she had never flown in a place or drove a car as she had a fear of them both.  She also hated having her picture taken the granddaughter recalled.  Whenever the grandchildren came for a visit, Ms Holm was prepared with coloring books and crayons.

The family in the cipher shows up in one string, TVJE.  TVJE is representative of the elder Ms Holms’ son, daughter-in-law and their two children.  A large portion of the card has been solved, but code-breakers are encouraged to take a look and help solve the mystery.

Cryptography, using codes to protect and pass secrets, has a long history starting hundreds of years go.  Until recently, cryptography has been used with pen and paper or simple mechanical devices.  In the early twentieth century, electromechanical machines came along.  The German ‘Enigma’ was one such machine which gave the Germans an edge during World War II until the British captured one machine and broke the code.

internet sleuthsAlong with cryptography, the science of cryptanalysis, or the breaking of codes, has risen.  One such method of breaking alphabet based codes is called ‘frequency analysis’  The frequency and positioning of letters within the code often provided the key to cracking the entire message.  Until the 70s, cryptography was mainly a tool of governments.  With the rise of the internet, more people use encryption devices daily to safeguard personal and business communications and internet sleuths try to crack the codes.

Internet sleuths who are interested in helping to solve the family mystery, just need to take a look at the images with this article.  There’s a family Minnesota that want to figure out the rest of the story.

By Jerry Nelson

Daily Mail
The Economist
Cryptography Research


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