It isn’t often that one gets the opportunity to solve a secret message written over a century ago. I’ve been collecting vintage postcards for more than twenty years and this is the only one I’ve personally come across that has a message on the back actually written in secret code. This sort of thing is catnip for history geeks.
Could this be a secret message from a Romanov loyalist advising that they have successfully rescued Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna from the Bolsheviks? Or perhaps a detective who finally tracked down an ageing Jack the Ripper but only had enough time to send this coded message before they were mysteriously murdered by a shadowy figure wearing a top hat? Or maybe it is something boring, like a plot to assassinate an archduke or the last message from a dying bushranger, passing on the secret location of their hidden hoard of ill-gotten gold. I’ve watched more than enough movies to know that secret messages like these always lead to adventure, danger and then treasure, and sometimes Nicolas Cage or Tom Hanks. So I think this is a journey worth embarking on. Here is the message.
Before having a crack at the code, lets try to see what clues we might be able to get from the front of the postcard.
The beautiful woman is Gabrielle Ray, an accomplished English stage actress and well-known Edwardian celebrity. In this photo she is posing as the character Susan from the musical comedy Lady Madcap, in which the mischievous daughter of an Earl decides to hold a ball in her father’s castle without permission, all while pretending to be her own maid. How scandalous!
The production ran for 354 performances at London’s West End between 17 December 1904 and November 1905. Gabrielle Ray joined the cast in early April 1905 and soon made the role of Susan her own. She was the darling of the stage and a favourite with the media. In 1906 she was one of a number of actresses that were interviewed in response to concerns voiced by an ‘expert’ who suggested that travelling by motor car might “induce hardness of the lips, and would terminate the practice of kissing.”
“Miss Gabrielle Ray’s answer was the most modest. “I don’t go in for kissing – not much,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of motoring, but very little kissing. At the same time, I think it would be a pity to discourage those who like kissing, for it seems to please them very much. If I have, by accident, kissed anybody, I never heard any complaints about my lips.”
Wanganui Chronicle, Volume L, Issue 12160, 20 October 1906
Motor car excursions were all the rage but this was also the golden age of postcards, and photos of stage actresses were especially popular. The most successful actresses were paid as much as £300 a year to be photographed in hundreds of different poses to meet the demands of the postcard industry. If an Edwardian spy wanted to send a top-secret message on a postcard, then one of Gabrielle Ray would be a rather inconspicuous choice as cards of her were widely distributed. In fact, it is claimed that she was one of the most photographed women of the Edwardian era. Even today, postcards of her are still in abundance – at any one time there are usually hundreds of them for sale on Ebay. If you are looking for a new hobby then maybe you could start your own collection.
Studio photographs of her playing Susan in Lady Madcap were taken by W. & D. Downey, who was known as the Queen’s Photographer, because, well you can probably guess why. We know that Gabrielle Ray started playing this character in April 1905, so that provides us with the earliest possible date that this postcard was published and the coded message written.
There is also another clue on the back of the card that helps us narrow down the possible date of use even further. The printed message on the left-hand side states that, “This space may now be used for communication to all countries except United States, Spain and Japan”.
This regional restriction wasn’t because these countries were on some sort of naughty list, but because their postal systems required that the address had to be written on one side of the card and the message on the other side. They didn’t allow this sort of postcard with a divided back to be delivered. In March 1907, both the United States and Japan introduced new postal regulations allowing divided back postcards to be used. Taking into account the likelihood that cards like these would have still been circulating on the market for a little while after the change to the postal regulations, it seems likely that this card was produced no earlier than April 1905 and likely sold by the end of 1907 at the latest. So probably too early to have anything to do with any secret attempt to rescue members of the imperial family from the Russian Revolution – damn.
If the coded message is a simple substitution cipher, where each letter has been replaced with a symbol, then it should be reasonably easy to crack. To start with, I scanned the card and then assigned a letter to each of the symbols so I could more easily analyse the frequency distribution and look for common patterns.
Single or double letter use is usually a good place to start. If the dots are interpreted as spaces between words then there appears to be a single letter on the third line (the symbol I’ve labelled as C). Single letters are likely to be either an “a” or “I”. The next step is to look at the frequency distribution. The most common letters in the English language are the letters “e”, “t” and “a”. The three symbols with the highest frequency in this message are the ones I’ve labelled as B, C and I. As we already suspect that the symbol labelled as C is either an “a” or an “I” due to what appears to be a single letter use on the third line, it seems possible when factoring the frequency as well that it might be an “a”.
I filled in the message replacing that symbol with the letter A and noticed something. If the third letter in the first word is an ‘a’, then perhaps the message starts with the word “Dear.” That gave me another thought – the spacing of the message on the right-hand side of the card looks suspiciously like an address. It seems counter-intuitive to write the address in code, how on earth would the postman know where to deliver it, but this card doesn’t have a stamp or any postal markings, so was not postally used at all. Perhaps it was hand-delivered by the sender or left in a secret rendezvous spot. If we presume that the right-hand side is indeed an address, then the last word is likely to be a town, city or country. If you look closely you’ll see that it is a six-letter word, and the first and last letters are the same. I found this postcard in New Zealand, so while this doesn’t necessarily mean it was used here it is certainly a reasonable possibility. In fact, an advertisement in the Evening Post on 29 May 1906 specifically mentions the arrival of new postcards of Gabrielle Ray. So postcards of her were definitely sold here.
There is a place-name in New Zealand that came to mind which starts and ends with the same letters and is six letters long – Nelson. I tested that theory, along with the presumption about the letter ‘a’, and this is what I got:
This seems to have cracked it. There is a Nile St in Nelson, bisected by the cathedral on Church Hill. I actually know this part of Nelson well; I grew up in the city and my first course in TV and Film Production was on Nile Street. If you look on maps today you’ll see it is called Nile St West on the west side, and simply Nile St on the east – but some street signs still refer to it as Nile St East. Nile St was named after Horatio Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile. If you want to learn more about the influence that Napoleonic ships and sea battles had on Nelson’s street names then read my article about Arthur Wakefield’s early naval career.
I should mention that some rather interesting characters passed through Nelson in the 1860s – gold prospectors, wealthy merchants and even bushrangers, notably the infamous Burgess Gang. Growing up in Nelson I sometimes heard rumours of lost gold hidden during those legendary times. Some of the old timers from the gold rush were still around when this postcard was printed, so perhaps this message might lead to the secret stash of an aging highwayman or gold digger?
With a little more deduction I was able to fill in the gaps and finally managed to solve and read the secret message, likely revealed for the first time in a century.
DEAR FANNY. HOW WILL THIS DO FOR A CHANGE. WITH LOVE FROM EVA. MISS MARTIN, NILE ST E NELSON
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a little bit disappointed. No hidden gold or spies, no scandalous revelations or assassinations and no Nicholas Cage. However, there are still a few mysteries left to solve. Who were the mysterious correspondents?
There was indeed a Fanny Martin living on Nile Street East, Nelson at around the right time. It seems highly likely that she was the recipient of the postcard. She was born in Nelson in 1888, so would’ve been around 18 years old in 1906, roughly the time that I estimate this postcard was likely used. It appears that this secret message was a fun little moment, likely shared between two friends excited to see a new pose from one of their favourite stars.
Unfortunately, this story has a sad ending. Fanny passed away in November 1910 at her father’s residence on Nile Street East, after a long and painful illness. She was only 22 years old.
Gabrielle Ray retired from acting upon the announcement that she was going to marry millionaire Eric Loder at St Edwards Roman Catholic Church on 29 February 1912, but then caused a scandal when she failed to show on her wedding day, leaving the groom and his party waiting at the altar. The guests, choir and media were sent home. The wedding was held in private the following day but the marriage didn’t last, the couple divorced in 1914. Gabrielle returned to the theatre and continued to perform through until the mid-1920s, but the glitz and glamour of the movies were stealing the limelight from the stage and her star was slowly fading. Sadly her struggles with depression and alcohol eventually got the better of her; she suffered a mental breakdown in 1936 and was institutionalised for the rest of her long life. She was 90 years old when she passed away in 1973 at Holloway Sanatorium – a sad end for the Edwardian superstar. Her stage career and the days when she stole hearts and headlines were faded memories. Perhaps the most lasting reminders of her success are the many postcards of her that continue to circulate among collectors.
One mystery I haven’t been able to solve is the identity of the author of the coded message. One possibility is that perhaps it was Eva Caroline Barltrop, who married Fanny’s younger brother Henry Thomas Martin on 28 August 1912. She was only about four years younger than Fanny, so she seems a possible candidate but with only the name ‘Eva’ to go with I can’t know for sure. That is one secret that might just have to stay unsolved.
It would’ve been awesome if this coded message led to treasure, scandal or spies, but I’m still extremely grateful for the opportunity it gave to learn about a slice of social history. All vintage postcards (even those without coded messages) have secrets waiting to be revealed and stories waiting to be told and this one certainly wasn’t an exception. I find it fascinating that Edwardian stage actresses were so famous even on the other side of the world and the role they played in the burgeoning postcard industry is interesting. I hadn’t heard of Gabrielle Ray before, and found her story sad but mesmerising – it made me think of Lana Del Ray’s ‘Young and Beautiful’. Lastly, it was also nice to get a glimpse of a friendship between two girls a century ago in Nelson, exchanging a secret message and enjoying a fun little moment in a way that I’m sure many of us can relate to.
To learn more about Gabrielle Ray I highly recommend this excellent website, which is dedicated to her life and career and also check out this incredible collection of Gabrielle Ray postcards. On one final note – I’d be a poor History Geek if I didn’t point out that the ship mentioned in the postcard advertisement was the SS Wimmera which struck a German mine and sank off North Cape on 26 June 1918.
© Lemuel Lyes