Saturday, June 4, 2011

Dr Church's Monoalphabetic Cipher

  So just what cipher did Benjamin Church, Jr. use in his letter to John Fleeming, his brother-in-law? He used what is referred to in cryptography as a "monoalphabetic cipher" -  a simple substitution code that uses fixed substitution over the entire message as opposed to a "polyalphabetic cipher" that uses a number of subsitutions at different times. Here is the key to Dr Church 's cipher:

The top line is the alphabet. The second line sets forth the substitutions  in Church's handwriting. The third line is a cleared up version of the second line.

 Here are the first few lines of the letter in original manuscript form:


   Here is the first page of the letter after being cleaned up to make it more readable:

      Using the key we get the first two sentences of the letter:

      I hope this will reach you. Three attempts have I made without success in effecting the last.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Samuel West

  Samuel West, a classmate of Dr Benjamin Church Jr in Harvard's class of 1754, was one of the people to whom George Washington gave Church's ciphered letter to be decoded. West is now long forgotten but he is a fascinating study in his own right. It made perfect sense for West to be entrusted with this task by Washington and a discussion of his background and talents will illuminate this decision.

   Samuel West was born in Yarmouth Massachusetts on Cape Cod in 1730 the son of a physician. While living in a nearby town with his family, Samuel attracted the attention of a local minister.  Samuel was said to have mastered certain portions of the bible by the age of seven and then became very interested in theology. While he worked as a farm hand, Samuel was prepared by this minister to take the entrance exams for Harvard. He did so well that he was awarded a Fitch and a Hollis scholarship. These scholarships were bequests to Harvard for students destined for the ministry. While at Harvard Samuel distinguished himself and helped to defray expenses by working as a waiter at the Fellows (tutors) table. John Hancock was also one of his classmates and their relationship would help to ratify the Constitution in Massachusetts. But that's getting ahead of the story.

   After graduation, Samuel worked as a schoolmaster and began preaching. In 1760, he obtained a position as minister to the First Congregational Society in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. He remained at that position until his retirement in 1803. West was way overqualified to service this congregation of poor farmers. In fact, for most of his ministry, the congregation paid him a pittance, if they paid him at all. Eventually, he had to go to court and sue for his back salaries. He survived because of a small inheritance, some charity from a few wealthy Boston merchants, and because members of his congregation fed and housed his horse and two cows.

    But a ministry to this small community allowed West to pursue his other many interests.He had time to study, carry on a voluminous correspondence, tutor young ministers and travel extensively. In addition to his interest in theology, West was interested in history, the law, medicine, politics, the physical sciences, and even alchemy.  He was reputed to have read every available book on these subjects. So, an interest and knowledge in cryptography is not surprising in this man who was also as ardent a Patriot as there was. After Bunker Hill, West served for a few months as a chaplain. In May 1776, he was chosen to give the prestigious Election Day Sermon in Boston. The Election Day Sermon (it should more appropriately be titled Inauguration Day since this was the day newly elected officials took office) began in 1634 and lasted until 1880. It was one of the few public holidays in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Schools and stores closed and the day was marked with parades and a sermon. In that sermon, West proclaimed that the colonies were already independent and constituted a new nation. “Any people, when cruelly oppressed,” West argued, “has the right to throw the yoke, and be free.” Like other ardent Patriots in the New England clergy, West played an influential role in the run-up to the American Revolution by providing a theological justification for declaring independence from England.

   A physically imposing man, over six foot tall and weighing over 200 pounds, West developed a reputation for eccentricity and absentmindedness. It's difficult to know whether all of the stories told about him are true, but there is no doubt that he was an eccentric. Dressed in ill fitting and often dirty clothes, he would walk the countryside always looking for a good discussion and often losing sight of just where he was going and why. One story has it that while a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, other residents of his boarding house would slip items of clothing into his pockets, knowing that upon discovery, he would ponder for hours just how they had gotten there and wonder if he had misappropriated him. But that did not diminish the affection with which he was held by his contemporaries and that fact that he was a brilliant conversationalist able to argue theology and almost any other subject brilliantly. A charter member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he contributed papers on the making of porcelain and on the geology of Gay's Head on Martha's Vineyard.

   In 1788, West was elected a delegate to the Massachusetts Convention to ratify the new US Constitution over which his old friend and Harvard classmate John Hancock, Governor of Massachusetts, presided. Much of the debate surrounding ratification in Massachusetts, as in other states, centered around whether the document provided sufficient protection for individual liberties, the rights of the states, and taxation, among other issues. West was a vigorous proponent of the Constitution as written. At the height of debate, Hancock withdrew, claiming to be suffering from an attack of gout. Without Hancock's support, ratification was impossible. West and the pro-ratification faction prepared a series of amendments and West was dispatched to Hancock to try and persuade him to support ratification with these amendments. Just how much influence West had over Hancock and whether his arguments were persuasive enough to garner Hancock's support, or whether Hancock supported ratification with the proposed amendments for his own reasons is subject to debate. But there was no doubt of West's prominence during that debate.

  In the 1790s, West got involved in a theological dispute with Jonathan Edwards Jr over the character of God. Dissertations flew back and forth until the public lost interest in the dispute and West could not find a publisher.
   West was given honorary membership in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and, in 1793, Harvard awarded him a Doctor of Scientific Theology.

  West married twice, was widowed twice, and had six children from his first wife. Becoming increasingly eccentric and absentminded, West was forced to retire from his parish in 1803,  and went to live with his son in Tiverton, R.I.,where he died in 1807.

   Legend has it that the British burned Samuel West's parsonage in Dartmouth in  September 1778 in retaliation for his efforts in deciphering Church's letter. Just why the British would do this in 1778, three years after West deciphered the letter and for just deciphering a letter, is puzzling. But, let's set the scene. Dartmouth in the 1770's was a hotbed of Whig support but the port of Bedford (New Bedford) was less fervent. Many Dartmouth men were engaged in privateering but New Bedford was not. However, New Bedford served as a rendezvous point for privateers from Boston, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The war had tied up the whaling fleet and adventurous sailors were lured to the profits that could be made from privateering. In any event, New Bedford and the surrounding towns were a lucrative target for the British. Thus, on the night of  5-6 September, 1778, the British landed a force of approximately 4-5000 troops to burn ships, burn stores, and capture supplies. The British were aided in their efforts by Tory pilots in navigating the local waters and ardent Tory sympathizers who pointed out the residences of Whig sympathizers for the British to burn. The British and American accounts of this raid conflict in many details and it would serve no purpose to try and reconcile them for our purposes. A story arose that, as the British were leaving, Samuel West's parsonage was pointed out to them and they burned it down. West's ardent Patriot sympathies far outweighed his role in deciphering Dr Church's letter and there would be sufficient cause to burn down his house based on his own activities and sympathies. Now, was Samuel West's parsonage burned down.? The best evidence I have come across is contained in Daniel Ricketson's self published 1858 book, The History of New Bedford, Bristol County Massachusetts. In it he lists the houses in New Bedford erected prior to the Revolutionary War that were still standing in 1846. Among the seventy seven homes mentioned is "out of town Samuel West house (B. Rodman's farmhouse)". Ricketson goes on to state that the British burned eleven houses on September 6th, 1778. West's home was not amongst them.


Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Introducing Dr Benjamin Church Jr.

  The website where I posted my article on Pvt Hosea Rogers has today posted my article titled Introducing Dr. Benjamin Church., Jr.. It can be read at:

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Use of Ciphers in Colonial America

  Whenever I discuss Dr Benjamin Church Jr with someone not familiar with him and I mention the fact that he was arrested after attempting to smuggle a cipher letter to his brother-in-law in British occupied Boston, invariably I get a reaction that indicates that Dr Church must have been up to something no good if he sent a letter that was encrypted. I think a discussion of the use of ciphers in letters in Colonial America would be of benefit.

  The first recorded use of a cipher in communications in the Western World is that of one used by Gaius Julius Caesar to communicate with his generals. According to Suetonius, Caesar used a simple substitution code by changing the letters of the alphabet. In one code he just substituted the fourth letter down from the letter he wished to; thus D was substituted for A, and so forth. This code is easily broken by a knowledgeable cryptologist but may have been made more difficult in Caesar's day since letters were written without any space between words as is now done. In fact, Caesar was admired for his ability to look at a manuscript and quickly make out the specific words in what would have been a continuous line of letters. Another Roman historian believes that Caesar used several more sophisticated codes. In any event, the use of ciphers has a long history in the Western World.

Note how this inscription from the Colosseum has no spacing.
  Secret communication methods were widely used in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century England. When  the legendary David Shulman published his  An Annotated Bibliography of Cryptography, in 1976,  he listed a number of treatises on cryptographic subjects published in England between 1593 and 1776, as well as scholarly books that contained chapters on use of codes, ciphers, and secret writing techniques. In 1641, John Wilkins, Bishop of Chester and Oliver Cromwell's brother-in-law, published Mercury, or the Secret and Swift Messenger, a treatise that illustrates  the widespread knowledge of various techniques for concealment of a message. Wilkins described the use of parables of scripture, inversion of known words, secret inks and papers, changing the place of common letters, use of keys, double alphabets, invented characters, emblems, hieroglyphics, the use of tones and musical notes, as well as fire and smoke signals.
  The printing press brought about the publication of a large number of treatises on encryption and closely related subjects. According to one major history of cryptography, a number of prominent figures in British history used ciphers. They included Roger Bacon, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Mary Queen of Scots. The House of Lords was sufficiently familiar with ciphers that it allowed the introduction of deciphered writings in the 1723 trial of Bishop Francis Atterbury and the Royal Mail was so familiar with private and diplomatic ciphers that, by 1720 in London, it operated one of the most sophisticated overnight systems of opening and deciphering mail.
   In Colonial America, secret communications were used to defeat the efforts of government agents and social censors. Before 1700, John and Mary Winthrop of Puritan Massachusetts corresponded in a private cipher regarding intimate matters, thus concealing their affairs from persons who might read their messages while in the process of transmission by hand.
   Because of the government practice of opening and reading private mail, and because mail might be stolen from the post riders, there was a substantial risk of exposure in colonial America.  
   In 1764, a young Thomas Jefferson suggested to John Page the use of a hundred-year-old English text (Shelton’s Tachygraphia ) to encode their letters to protect information about Jefferson’s unsuccessful efforts to court a young lady.
I wish I had followed your example, and wrote it in Latin, and that I had called my dear campana in die instead of αδνιλεβ. We must fall on some scheme of communicating our thoughts to each other, which shall be totally unintelligible to every one but to ourselves. I will send you some of these days Shelton’s Tachygraphical Alphabet, and directions.
                                   Jefferson to John Page, 23 January 1764
   When Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition, he instructed them to:
   Avail yourself of these means to communicate to us, at seasonable intervals, a copy of your journal, notes & observations, of every kind, putting into cypher whatever might do injury if betrayed.
                                             Jefferson to Lewis, 20 June 1803
   In 1795 Jefferson invented his "wheel cypher" - a cypher system using a set of wheels or disks, each with the 26 letters of the alphabet arranged around their edge. The order of the letters is different for each disk and is usually scrambled in some random way. Each disk is marked with a unique number. A hole in the centre of the disks allows them to be stacked on an axle.The disks are removable and can be mounted on the axle in any order desired. The order of the disks is the cipher key, and both sender and receiver must arrange the disks in the same predefined order. Jefferson's device had 36 disks.  
Jefferson's "wheel cypher."
 John Adams used a cipher provided by his friend James Lovell to communicate non-governmental and private information to his wife Abigail. Lovell also provided Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Gates with a cipher for use in their private correspondence in the late 1780s and 1790s.
   Among the Revolutionary War figures known to use ciphers in their private correspondence were James Madison, James Monroe, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr.
Cryptology was not some exotic science in the 1770s in Pre-Revolutionary America and someone as talented as Dr Samuel West, Dr Church's classmate at Harvard, would have had little difficulty in dealing with it. Some of the shock expressed at the time over the cipher was rather disingenuous and, I feel, had to do more with self-preservation. A rebellion against a British Monarch was a very serious business, indeed.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

John Fleeming - Part Three

   The Boston Chronicle gave only twenty nine lines of coverage to the "Boston Massacre" which occurred on March 5th, 1770 and concluded its report with the statement that "We decline at present, giving a more particular account of this unhappy affair, as we hear the trial of the unfortunate prisoners is to come next week."

Please note that the Chronicle identifies Crispus Attucks as a "mollatto" named Johnson (I have no intention of getting into the whole Crispus Attucks controversy). It fails to mention Irish leather worker Patrick Carr who died nine days later.

   Whether Fleeming feared for his personal safety or that of his business or for some other reason, with the March 5-9, 1770 issue the Chronicle converted itself to circumspection. Fleeming continued to print the cargo manifests from the year 1769 up until June of 1770; but no more factional letters were printed. The damage had been done. In no issue during the Chronicle's short remaining life was there ever so much as one column of advertising.

   Mein and Fleeming's campaign against the Non-Importation Agreements has to be seen as a major cause of the collapse of the agreements. Of primary importance was the fact that the Chronicle had the widest circulation of any Boston newspaper as copies were supplied to prominent merchants in all ports outside of Boston. John Mein claimed that he and Fleeming used 4,000 sheets of paper for the issues of the Chronicle that were circulated outside of Massachusetts.

   Fleeming's continuation of John Mein's efforts by printing the manifests in his paper after the Boston Massacre caused him serious trouble. In a November 1773 letter to Lord North, Fleeming, speaking of the publication of the cargo manifests, stated that:

"His (Fleeming's) life was threatened and finding the power of Government too weak to protect him against the fury of a lawless mob, he fled to Castle William."
Castle William after restoration. British troops evacuating Boston destroyed its fortifications which were subsequently repaired by troops under Lt Col Paul Revere.

   Fleeming apparently had rejected overtures from a faction of the Whigs to discontinue publication of the manifests and it had responded, as Fleeming expressed it, by "denouncing vengeance against him if he refused."
  So on June 30th 1770, Fleeming fled to Castle William ( a fort on an island in Boston Harbor holding fortifications and 72 cannon for the defense of Boston ); an action caused by the publication of the last updated edition of the importation pamphlet. But popular rage against Fleeming soon abated and he was able to return to Boston to continue business in a new printing house on King Street.

   Somehow, during all of this turmoil, Fleeming managed to find romance and on August 8, 1770 married Alice Church, sister of Dr Benjamin Church. Jr.. The wedding took place in Portsmouth, N.H., perhaps to avoid any possible incidents since Fleeming's flight to Castle William was still very recent. Given Benjamin Church's prominence as a leader of the Whig camp, the prominence of the Church family in New England, and the fact that John Mein had lampooned  Church as 'The Lean Apothecary", this is an astonishing event. We have no first hand or second hand documentation in any letter, diary or other correspondence to chronicle this marriage but, looking back at it some 240 years later, one must assume that this must have been a love match or one of necessity. There certainly is no family, political, or business reason for an arranged marriage.

Connecticut Journal Tuesday August 14, 1770

   Sometime in 1770, Fleeming became a Mason, perhaps influenced by his new brother-in-law. Fleeming was to join with his brother-in-law when he received permission from John Rowe to start a new lodge, The Rising Sun Lodge, in June of 1772.

   Although Fleeming appeared to be free of physical intimidation after his return from Castle William, his Loyalist activities continued to hurt his business. His printing business was in trouble even though he continued to publish almanacs, the report of the Boston Massacre trial and various other books. His attempt  to publish "Clark's Family Bible" in folio met with little encouragement.  He remained the stationer to the Customs Board and attempted to gain the printing contract as well. But he faced the determined resistance of John Green and Joseph Russell, the publishers of The Boston Weekly Advertiser who had been very supportive of the British Government and the Tory cause. In anticipation of receiving this contract, Fleeming had associates in London ship him a large quantity of printing tools, papers and other supplies in anticipation of receiving the Board's printing business. Only, in Fleeming's own words to Lord North:

  This after all this expense, your Memorialist after waiting many months in expectation of employment from the Board as their Printer found to his great loss and disappointment, that they were only to discontinue him as their Stationer.
  That your Memorialist finding by experience, that the whole profit arising from his employment as Stationer was scarcely sufficient to discharge the interest of the money advanced to him by his friends, he thought it most prudent to give up the employment before he encroached on the Capital -- Especially, as all his other business had been totally ruined, by the entrigue and outrages of the faction.
   Faced with financial ruin, Fleeming sold his equipment and supplies to the new partnership of Mills and Hicks who had taken over the businesses of Green and Russell and sailed for London in April 1773.

Boston Evening Post, April 26, 1773

 In London in November 1773,, Fleeming wrote a letter (memorial), previously mentioned, directly to Lord North; an unusual occurrence reflecting some kind of relationship between the two. In his letter, Fleeming reflected on his close relationship with the Customs Board and stated that:

My life for these last four years has been a diversified scene of distress, expectations, and disappointment.
   Fleeming, implying that he had no intention of returning to America, asked Lord North for an appointment as one of the Landwaiters for the port of London. A "Landwaiter" was a British Customs Officer who enforces import/export regulation and collects duties. (You can't make this stuff up!) I do not know if Fleeming received his appointment as a Landwaiter or any other appointment.
   Fleeming did return to Boston, with his family, sometime in 1774. It has been suggested that he came back as a civil official with the British Army. If so, he most likely returned with General Gage in early May, 1774 or with the subsequent troop ships that brought in the troops to coerce the citizens of Boston. Fleeming must have had some type of appointment since given the situation in Boston after the passage of the Boston Port Bill and the closing of Boston Harbor and his past record in attacking the non-importation agreement, there is no way he could have earned a living as a printer. We have no information as to what Fleeming was doing between presumably May 1774 and September 1775 when a letter he wrote triggered the events that led to his brother-in law's downfall.

   Early in September 1775, Fleeming sent a cipher letter to his brother-in-law telling him that the British were determined to crush the rebellion and pleading most urgently:

For God's sake, Doctor, come to town directly. I'll engage to procure your pardon. Your sister is unhappy, under the apprehension of your being taken and hanged for a rebel...
    Church later said that this letter aroused fear and agitation in him and led him, about a week or ten days later to write the cipher letter to Fleeming that was intercepted. Later blog posts will address the circumstances surrounding both letters.

  Our knowledge of the remainder of John Fleeming's life is fragmentary. He is not on the list of refugees who left Boston when the British evacuated the city in March 1776. That can be explained either by the fact that we know that the list of refugees is incomplete or by the fact that if Fleeming was a civil servant working for the British Army he would have been part of the official complement, not a refugee. In any event, Fleeming and presumably his family departed Boston in March 1776. 

   Fleeming, curiously along with Mills and Hicks, was among the 308 Loyalists proscribed and banished by an act of the State of Massachusetts passed in September, 1778. This act provided that any of those listed in the act who returned to Massachusetts were to be arrested and deported, and, if they returned a second time, were to "suffer the pains of death without benefit of clergy."

  This dire threat was not enforced after the war, as Masonic records in Boston indicate that Fleeming visited Boston and the United States more than once as an agent for a commercial house in Europe. He is believed to have died in France, probably in 1800, where he had resided for several years. No proceedings concerning his estate or an application for a pension from the Crown have been found