By Doug Crowell
I am going to deviate from posting our usual historical Oak Island content for a moment. I would like to use this blog article to address the speculation that has swirled around the French Cipher "La Formule", since some of researcher and author Zena Halpern's research was featured on History channel's Curse of Oak Island television show recently in season four.
Now that the information regarding Zena Halpern's work has aired on the show, I can now tell you about the La Formule Cipher, and confirm how close, some viewers have come to a correct translation, or as near to one as we believe to be correct. You may never know how hard it is to sit and have to keep silent while everyone else is working on figuring out the answers before all the information airs on the show, especially when it looks like it hasn't been solved yet.
The La Formule cipher was brought to my attention, and it intrigued me because it utilized the same symbols as the well known Kempton Cipher (purported to be inscribed on Oak Island's 90 Foot Stone). The Kempton Cipher became public knowledge shortly after 1949, when Reverend A. T. Kempton brought it to the attention of author Edward Rowe Snow, and Oak Island treasure hunter Frederick Blair. Edward Rowe Snow soon published it in his book, "True Tales of Buried Treasure". Kempton stated that he received the cipher and an account of the history of the Oak Island Treasure Hunt, in 1909, from a retired school master, who resided near Mahone Bay. Kempton, who gave popular lectures, in New England, on the history of Nova Scotia, had intended to write a story about Oak Island, but never managed to get around to doing so. To this day, the Kempton Cipher stands as the only claimed copy of the inscription on the 90 Foot Stone. Skeptics doubt the authenticity of the Kempton Cipher primarily on the grounds that the solution to the cipher, "Forty Feet Below, Two Million Pounds are Buried" makes little sense to them, and they view it more likely to be a fabrication, created to entice people to invest in the treasure hunt, with promises that treasure is within a mere forty feet more. Prior to the release of the Kempton Cipher, the translation was always described in newspapers and magazines as stating "Ten feet below", rather than forty feet below. This is another reason why the Kempton Cipher is looked at with suspicion. Reverend Kempton was a pillar of his community and a respected historian, who was asked to write the forward for a book about the Acadians in Nova Scotia. So when he states that he was given this cipher and the story that accompanied it from someone who lived near Oak Island, it is ignoring the character of the man to doubt his word. Of course, we will never know for sure what was inscribed on the stone, removed from the Money Pit in 1804, until it is found.
When Zena Halpern came forth with the La Formule Cipher and the French Oak Island Map, it could not be ignored for the simple reason that it is the only other cipher ever seen to use the same symbols as substitutions for the actual lettering of the message. In fact, it presented us with even more symbols than the Kempton Cipher did! The Kempton Cipher has been well known in Oak Island circles since, as stated, 1949. Therefore, it is easy to pause and wonder if this newly revealed cipher was fabricated after 1949, using the existing Kempton Cipher. It would be easy to do, but would it be easy to do correctly? Typically, the symbols used in a substitution cipher have an internal logic to their selection.
Note the internal order to the symbols used in the Masonic Cipher Key above. Once they had chosen symbols for the letters A through M, the symbols were reused in order again, but a dot was added to each symbol to make it unique.
Do the Kempton Cipher symbols exhibit an internal order, or progression? Yes they do. This internal order was recognized by Joseph Judge, a retired editor with National Geographic, back in 1987.
The Kempton Cipher does not require the letter "Q" in its hidden message, but Mr. Judge predicted that the letter Q would be represented by the circle with a line running through it from top left to bottom right, as shown above.
The immediate test, then, is to see if this symbol is used in the La Formule Cipher. It is used four times, as seen below and indicated with red arrows.
But would it represent the letter Q as predicted? For that would we would need to decipher the message. I had started work on that task early this year, and my first step was to see if it deciphered using the same key as used with the Kempton Cipher. I thought I was onto something when I started to recognize what seemed to be French words like "pas" and "terrer". However, not being strong in French and not being able to parse the string of letters into more than a few sensible French words, I turned to checking this cipher against other languages in my computerized database.
As you can see in my scribbles above, using the French language wasn't helping me to test the symbol that should represent the letter Q either. Of the other languages tested against, Portuguese was the most promising, until I started testing the cipher against British English.
Then words began to appear, which all seemed related to the African continent.
This excited Zena, as it touched upon themes in her overall research, of which Oak Island as only a small part. Place names that I had never heard of before, such as Cephala and Harrar appeared. Even more amazing is that those two place name, when I researched them, are rendered in this cipher in their old and now unused spellings. Modern spellings for these places are now Sofala, in Mozambique, and Harar, in Ethipoia respectively.
It was also interesting to learn that Cephala was rich in gold and thought by some scholars to be the area of King Solomon's Gold Mines, as mentioned below in an excerpt from Vincent Leblanc's book, written in 1660AD.
The soyle of Cefala is exceeding rich in gold, and the river Cuama brings it ready fn’d in small threads which are found in the sand, so as this river passes through mines of gold, for which reason the Portugals by permission of a Mahometan Prince who rules the Country, have here built a Fort to facilitate their negotiation with the Inhabitants. ...where at this day are seen huge ruines of ancient structures, which resemble the greatnesse and magnificence of those of the ancient Romanes, chiefly in the kingdomes Batua and Toroa, where are the most ancient mines of gold in Africa. There you find likewise store of stones of excessive bulke so excellently polished, they never lose their lustre, fixed together without Cement, so fine, it is not perceivable. In like manner we finde there Remainders of walls of above twenty five handfulls thick, with certain hieroglyphick characters engraved, not to be read, as the like is observed in Persia among the ruines of the town Persepolis. Many do conceive ’twas from hence Salomon fetcht his gold, as I said elsewhere; and these great ruines to have been of that Ages building, and by the same King.
- Vincent Leblanc describes Cefala (or Cephala, which is now Sofala in Mozambique) and its surroundings in his Voyages fameux, quoted here from the 1660 English edition, The World Surveyed: Or, The Famous Voyages & Travailes of Vincent le Blanc, or White, or Marseilles, etc. , pages 194-195.
You likely didn't fail to take note of the line in the quotation above that said "with certain hieroglyphick characters engraved, not to be read". I know it caught my attention.
At this point the investigation was getting very interesting. Cephala, was the sight of the second Portuguese fort and settlement on the east coast of Africa, in 1505AD. They built their fort from stone imported from Europe. At this point, we are ringing the bells on many Oak Island themes. Unreadable inscriptions, gold, and stones not native to the region. Even the name Joab appeared in the cipher, who, if meant to be King David's General, as active in Africa at one time. Harrar was said to be the gold trading hub at one time. It certainly seemed like I was on the right track, especially considering the place names appeared in their ancient spellings. I am still amazed that at how that occurred by accident.
It was all very interesting, but I was unable to fully decipher the message using British English. I did not know if that was because I only had a partial message to work with, or if it was because I was on the wrong track. So an expert in Cryptology was brought in to see what he could make of the La Formule cipher.
That expert's name is Kevin Knight, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Southern California. Professor Knight is the author of more books and papers on machine translation and decipherment than can be listed here, but if you really want to be impressed, check out his credentials here: http://www.isi.edu/~knight/
Perhaps his most impressive and pertinent accomplishment as an expert in cryptology is his work in solving the previously unsolved Copiale Cipher, a 75,000 character cipher comprising 105 pages. It proved to be the work of a secret society from the 1730s called the "high enlightened oculist order". Hopefully he would make short work of our simple substitution cipher. That hope proved true, and the decipherment below was what he sent back to us.
We had a little time to digest the material sent back to us, before we were to hold a Skype session with the Professor and his assistant, Nadda Aldarrab. They confirmed for us that it was a French Language solution that read as follows:
stop do not dig burrow forty foot with a
forty degree angle the shaft has five
hundred twenty two foot you enter the
reid gold UNMIL cient five foot reached
We took Professor Knight's solution and quickly set the solution keys to both the La Formule and the Kempton cipher on the same page for comparison. They are an exact match, as seen below. What's more, Knight's solution gave us our answer to the test question regarding the predicted internal structure of the symbol for the letter Q. The La Formule did indeed adhere to the expected internal logic of the symbols! A positive outcome to this test of internal logic is one factor in evaluating the legitimacy of this cipher. How likely would it be for someone in modern times to fabricate a cipher based on the Kempton Cipher and correctly choose the predicted symbol for the letter Q? That would greatly depend on the individual's knowledge of the construction of ciphers and Oak Island.
While looking over the solution that Prof. Knight and his assistant sent back to us, we noted that the letters "H" and "R" at the start of the third line of the cipher had been transcribed in error, and should actually have been written "I" and "Q" per the key.
We also did some digging on the "ISANTE" in the fifth line of the cipher. We identified it as most likely being "SOISANTE", with turns out is old to middle period French, encompassing a period of 1155AD to 1600AD, before falling out of use.
If the word is indeed Soisante, then the usage fits into Zena Halpern's timeframe of 1179AD and later. Are any other words in the solution words no longer in use today? Yes, Deus is also old to middle French. Most commonly translated as "God" or "Gods", deus was the former correct spelling for the word two as well.
Then on the fifth line of the cipher, we have "reidor". The obvious possibility for completing this fragment of the cipher is "correidor". We have yet to locate examples of old usage of this word in French, but if corridor is the correct interpretation of this fragment of text, then it is within reason to allow for a grammatical error on the part of the author of the cipher. Despite proofreading this article, I suspect you will be able to find a mistake that I have committed in writing it. The fly in the ointment however, is that the earliest known use of the word corridor in the French language is 1719AD. This doesn't mean it was not in use earlier, only that it is the earliest use identified so far. The good thing is that all these dates occur before the date of discovery for the Money Pit in 1795. In fact, even as late as 1719, there was likely less than thirty people living within a twenty mile radius of Oak Island, and all of them out of site of the island. Admittedly, corridor is purely a guess based on the small orphaned text in the solution.
So where does all of this put us?
We appear to have a partial French solution that translates into English as follows:
Halt. Do not burrow/dig to
forty foot with an angle of forty
five degree the shaft of five hundred
twenty two foot you enter the
corridor of one thousand sixty-five foot
reach the chamber
Obviously this is not a complete solution, and the missing parts of the document need to be reassembled to do more than guess at the full message.
There are indications that this fragment is supposed to be one part of seven pieces that comprise the full document.
Professor Knight was of the opinion that this cipher was likely related to the Kempton Cipher in some way and that both ciphers were typical to other substitution ciphers of their like used by secret societies, including their structure and sometimes bad grammar. He also felt that they were created by someone knowledgeable in ciphers Additionally, in answer to our questions, he stated that he had never seen this particular symbol set used in any other ciphers, in his experience.
So to recap:
I do harbor one concern about the ciphers though. In the La Formule cipher, the triangle with the Northwest to SouthWest line through it, stands for the letter"G". If this is applied to the Kempton Cipher, then the first word in that cipher which is "Forty", then becomes "Fgorty". In checking into Old English, I can find no ancient spelling of the word forty as fgorty. Ironically, a Google search for "Fgorty" meaning brought up an Historic Oregon Newspaper listing (East Oregonian : E.O. (Pendleton, Umatilla Co., Or.) 1888-current, April 16, 1902, Image 3) for a meeting of the Knights Templar. That caused a good chuckle for me.
I don't know what to make of the "G" puzzle though. Does it delegitimize one of the ciphers? Does it suggest that someone fabricated the La Formule Cipher, getting the internal logic right on the letter "Q", and using old French terms correctly, but overlooked the obvious conflict with the "G" (crossed out triangle) symbol? I suppose that someone may have been working from one of the versions of the Kempton Cipher, like Edward Rowe Snow's version, which chose to drop that symbol as being a mistake, and therefore wasn't aware of the use of the crossed out triangle symbol.
Upon comparing Snow's version against Kempton's version I realized that my concern was invalid. As you can see, the second symbol in the Kempton Cipher is a triangle with two lines through it, rather than just one, as seen in the La Formule. So there is no conflict between the two ciphers. So until more information surfaces, we have to allow that both the Kempton Cipher and the La Formule Cipher do more to corroborate each others legitimacy, than they do to refute each other. One comes from a person who was in a position to have seen the 90 Foot Stone while it was on display, and the other may have been passed down directly from the McInnis family on Oak Island.
On a final note, I thought I would present one other observation I made while researching the La Formule Cipher. Notice the last symbol in both ciphers. Edward Rowe Snow, even though he learned of the 90 Foot Stone Cipher from Reverend Kempton, interpreted that last symbol as a Roman numeral two, while in Kempton's letter to Frederick Blair, the same symbol could be seen as either a Roman numeral two or a rectangle. In fact, other instances of this symbol in the Kempton Cipher actually do look more like a rectangle, even though all the symbols, regardless of which way you interpret them, represent the letter "D".
Other renditions of the Kempton Cipher, chose to present the symbol as a Roman numeral as show below:
As all renditions of the "Forty Feet Below Two Million Pounds Are Buried" cipher are derived from Reverend Kempton's copy, and it is obvious that some symbols are perceived differently, depending on the observer.
I am going to draw your attention to another Oak Island artifact, discovered before the Kempton Cipher was released in 1949.
This stone artifact, now missing, was discovered by Oak Island treasure hunter Gilbert Hedden in the 1930s. It is believed that some previous treasure seeker had dynamited a much larger rock into fragments, of which the H O Stone was one piece. How much of the message inscribed on the rock was lost to this event is not known. It is yet another example of an unfortunate course of action taken on the island.
If you will play along, I would like to speculate about the possibility that this artifact somehow shares a connection to the Kempton and La Formule Ciphers. If we treat the inscribed characters as a cipher, enciphered like the others, then we are dealing with the following characters:
Since it has already been established that:
We are only left with the "H" symbol to decipher. Knowing that the only four letters not used between the Kempton and La Formule Ciphers are J, K, X, and Z, this leaves us with only four possible solutions. Is H equal to J, K, X, or Z?
Of these four possible solutions, in our speculative scenario, KEUES and XEUES do not seem to be defined.
JEUES and ZEUES, upon a cursory search, seem to be old words for the Jewish people, and the name of God, respectively.
A quick Google search on JEUES turned up these examples:
While a Google search for ZEUES seems to suggest ZEUES as an alternate spelling of the Greek god Zeus, or as a basis for the evolution of the name of Jesus. That requires more research than I have time for at the moment.
The one other possible solution I speculated on was could the "H" actually be a Roman Numeral II, like in the Snow version of the 90 Foot Stone Cipher? What if the cross bar on the inscribed H was a natural mark? This would make the "H" on the stone equal to the letter "D" in the cipher key, giving us the word "DEUES" or God or Gods as seen on Zena Halpern's map of Nova Scotia.
This is all idle musings on my part, as the cross bar on the H symbol on the stone certainly looks to be man made in the picture. It is too bad that the stone is currently lost, or it could be examined closer. The similarities in the symbols on the stone and in the ciphers just jumped out at me. The stone has always thought to have been inscribed with an H and a cross with a dot in each corner, and a center-dot-circle. A while back, while reviewing some notes on the H O Stone, it occurred to me that the four-dot-cross might actually be three separate symbols grouped closely together. That is when I could visualize it was a cipher like the others. I have no idea whether this interpretation is valid or not, but it is an interesting take. What would three separate pieces of possible Oak Island evidence being connectable to each other suggest? If they were all part of a stock selling scheme perpetrated in the mid to late 1800s, why were all three items never publicized together before? As always, there are more questions than answers.
I am currently involved in other research projects and do not have the time to look deeper into the H O Stone as a cipher, but if you find the idea worthy of some research, please let me know what you may determine, pro or con.
Goodnight from The Blockhouse!
By Doug Crowell and Kel Hancock, Blockhouse Investigations
Oak Island has attracted tourists to the island since the day knowledge of the treasure hunt became public in 1857. Thousands of curious individuals have found their way to Nova Scotia's Treasure Island to experience firsthand the lure of this enduring mystery. Since Robert Dunfield and Mel Chappell built the causeway to the island in 1965, visitors have been able to walk or drive onto the island to partake in guided tours. Before the causeway, visitors journeyed to Oak Island by boat, whether hired or in their own.
"Any boat seen to land parties above high tide mark will be treated as pirates and shot on sight."
We recently found a notice about Oak Island visitors permits from days gone by, shown in the above photo, in the R.V. Harris papers housed at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia. The undated handwritten permit, likely written sometime between 1888 and 1935, reads as follows:
to land on Sellers farm, Oak Island to picnic, may be purchased at 25 cents per person from this date.
Parties of less than six may obtain a guide by paying $1 extra.
Any boat seen to land parties above high tide mark will be treated as pirates and shot on sight.
Landing must be made at North Cove stone wharf!
Season permit for 5 persons $10 in advance.
All boats permitted to come and go must have name on bow and stern in white letters on black ground at
least 2 inches high and one inch apart.
These permits do not allow trespass in meadowland.
$50 fine to be imposed if permits are forged. <undecipherable signature>"
As you can see, visitor's were welcome on the island for a small fee, but pirates would receive a much less friendly greeting.
We believe that this notice was likely issued between 1888 and 1935 because it mentions the Seller's Farm.
After John Smith, one of the co-discoverers of the Money Pit and owner of Lot 18 upon which the Money Pit is located, died in 1857, Anthony Graves bought up Smith's island lots. When Graves passed away in 1888, he left his island lots to his daughters Sophia and Rachel. Sophia was married to Henry Sellers, and the land became known as the Seller's Farm. Sophia died in 1931, but the land stayed in the Seller's family until Gilbert Hedden bought them out in 1935.
We suspect that sometime between 1931 and 1935 is the most probable date for this notice as the notice states "Farm Rentee". The most likely time for the farm to have been rented would have been after Sophia's death, but that is uncertain.
I can recall "Trespassers will be shot" signs posted in the Nova Scotia countryside back in the early 1970, but no later. You will not encounter such a notice these days, but remember, Oak Island is a privately owned island and under Canada's Trespass to Property Act, you can only be there with permission from the land owners.
Today, you can visit Oak Island under a much friendlier atmosphere. There are twice daily tours on weekends, typically running between late June and early September. These tours are most often led by Charles Barkhouse, of the Curse of Oak Island TV show. A Visitor Centre containing museum displays and a gift shop is staffed by friendly and welcoming faces.
You can visit their website by clicking here:
Thanks for reading.
Goodnight from The Blockhouse!
From The Blockhouse
is published by Blockhouse Investigations and oakislandcompendium.ca
in Nova Scotia, Canada
Editors and Chief Correspondents
Kelly W. Hancock, CD
John Wonnacott, P. Eng.
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