Have You Ever Heard Of The Mystery Of The Bennett Bustle, An Antique Maine Dress With A Secret?
It would be hard to swing a cat, as the saying goes, and not hit an antique store in this state. Maine is full of the evidence of the past. Some things are simple reminders of days gone by, but some things, well, some things present a little more mystery with their history.
One such item was purchased from an antique mall in Maine, by a woman on Christmas break in 2013. This bronze silk dress held a secret, that provided people with such a stumper, it took them over a decade to crack the code!
Sarah Rivers-Coflield is the woman's name, and she lives in Maryland. She says in her blog "Commitment To Costumes", that she almost didn't buy the dress because she wasn't sure where she'd store it, but ultimately broke down and bit the bullet.
"On its face, this is a textbook mid-1880s silk bustle dress."
"In addition to general structural observations and old seam lines, the usual post-purchase inspection I give all of my vintage dresses yielded three unexpected discoveries that made me ever so happy."
The Dress Contained Several Secrets
Rivers-Cofield goes on to say that the first discovery was a paper tag with the name "Bennett" sewn into the bodice of the dress. The second discovery was a bustle pin. But it was the third discovery that she made that would set a flutter in the hearts of all those code-breakers in the land.
The third discovery was that of a secret pocket, that was particularly difficult to open. But when was able to finally get access to this pocket, what it yielded would leave her even more confused than the pocket itself.
"Thank goodness my mom was there to share my excitement when I finally felt my way to the pocket and pulled out a clump of paper, balled up and wrinkled as if it had been through the laundry. It consisted of two translucent sheets, both of which exhibited writing... The writing is readable, but it makes no sense."
Rivers-Cofield posted the story and a picture of the paper with the code on her blog, and as often happens on the web, people started to share her story.
A short while later, over in Europe, a German man named Klaus Schmeh caught wind of the mystery. Schmeh happens to be one of the world's leading experts in cracking historical codes, and reached out to her to see if she could get him better pictures with higher resolution to share with his code-cracking community.
When she did, he transcribed the text and released the info on a science blog called Cipherbrain. (you may need to select Google Translate to put it into English as he wrote the thing in his native tongue.
The writing is readable, but it makes no sense."
"I've never been interested in old women's clothes or antique children's underwear. That's why I didn't know the Commitment to Costumes blog before...Does anyone have any idea what this could all mean? Is my transcription correct? I look forward to interesting comments."
For more than a decade, folks tried to figure out what those words meant. It got to the point where this mystery got its own nickname: The Silk Dress Cryptogram.
The Code Is Cracked
And then, just after New Year's Eve, 2024, the news came out that the code had been cracked!
According to the website Popular Mechanics, a Canadian data analyst from the University of Manitoba, with some help from (of all organizations) The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, determined that the code is actually (drumroll please...)
...a weather forecast.
"Wayne Chan, a data analyst from the University of Manitoba and hobby codebreaker, took up the mantle...The Silk Dress Cryptogram rose to become one of the top 50 unsolvable codes in the world, but Chan wasn’t done. He eventually stumbled upon the old book “Telegraphic Tales and Telegraphic History,” and read about weather codes used by the U.S. Army Signal Corps—the group that served as the national weather service during the late 1800s. "
Chan published his findings in a journal called Cryptologia.
"The cryptogram was found to be a telegraphic code used for transmitting weather observations by the U.S. Army Signal Service (Signal Corps) and later by the U.S. Weather Bureau. The decoded messages were weather observations for a number of American and Canadian stations in 1888."
The folks at NOAA go into detail on just how this code was broken down, with each line relating to a specific weather observation for a specific location, which was supposed to make its way to a Signal Service Office in D.C.
"The format of weather messages at the time was as follows:
Each started with the station location, which was unencoded, followed by codewords for temperature/pressure, dew point, precipitation/wind direction, cloud observations, and wind velocity/sunset observations.
So for example, Bismark, omit, leafage, buck, bank
Was code for: BISMARK Station name: Bismarck, Dakota Territory (in present-day North Dakota) OMIT Air temperature: 56 F Barometric pressure: 0.08 in Hg (Note that only the fractional part of the pressure value was telegraphed, unless the station was west of the 97th meridian or the pressure was below 29.4 in Hg or above 30.38 in Hg). In this case, the actual reading was 30.08 in Hg) LEAFAGE Dew point: 32°F Observation time: 10:00 p.m. BUCK State of weather: Clear Precipitation: None Wind direction: North BANK Current wind velocity: 12 mph Sunset: Clear"
But Who Owned the Dress?
We're told that while the code itself was cracked, Chan also tried to track down who the dress may have belonged to, as that's almost as big a part of the mystery, but NOAA says he was met with dead ends.
"There was a man named Maitland Bennett working there as a clerk during this time period, and his wife might have been a possible candidate for owning the dress, but she was eight months pregnant when the weather observations were taken and unlikely to have been wearing the dress at the time. And, there’s no way to know when that label was attached to the dress or if it denoted ownership in the 1880s."
Why did a lady in the 1800s code a weather forecast and put it in a secret pocket? It would be the equivalent of Todd Simcox making his forecast a tricky riddle and hiding it in his shorts!
While the code may no longer hold mystique, the reasons behind the need for a coded weather report remain a mystery.
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