Friday’s Poe Quote – Ciphers! – 06 March 2015


In addition to Poe’s detective stories with Inspector Dupin, Poe wrote one other story that fits into his meme of ‘ratiocination’–that is, Poe’s science of deduction that launched the entire modern genre of detective fiction. Poe wrote ‘The Gold-Bug’ in 1843 for a contest. His tale about buried treasure, secret writing and ciphers:   

“Here Legrand, having re-heated the parchment, submitted it to my inspection. The following characters were rudely traced, in a red tint, between the death’s-head and the goat:    






“But,” said I, returning him the slip, “I am as much in the dark as ever. Were all the jewels of Golconda awaiting me upon my solution of this enigma, I am quite sure that I should be unable to earn them.” 

–from ‘The Gold-Bug’ 

This ended up being Poe’s most successful and popular story in his lifetime. However, it hasn’t aged as well as some of his other classics like ‘The Tell-Tale Art’ or ‘The Black Cat.’ Namely, the character of Jupiter is such a grotesque caricature of an African American, that most modern readers have trouble getting through the many racist passages of Jupiter’s stilted speech and abject stupidity. 

Nonetheless, ‘The Gold-Bug’ remains a prime of example of period fiction, and if you can get past the stereotyped Jupiter, it’s a great buried treasure yarn and a good introduction to the notion of the ‘substitution cipher’, which is the simplest kind of secret writing. 

The image comes from a wood engraving by Fritz Eichenberg for a 1944 version of the short story, showing the treasure hunters discovering their hidden loot.