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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Cipher

Marino C. Alvarez, Ed.D., BSI


I was told the rules of governance when gaining admittance to the British Library, Manuscript Section that pens were prohibited and that pencils are to be used when copying from manuscripts, letters, and other artifacts. On one such occasion I was accessing A. Conan Doyle manuscripts, letters, and other materials and came across Arthur Conan Doyle on Sherlock Holmes. Speeches of the Stoll Convention Dinner: An Exchange of Rhymed Letters, published by The Favil Press, London, 1981. A copy had been donated to the British Library by Richard Lancelyn Green, with an inscription that read: For the British Library, From Richard Lancelyn Green. Five Hundred copies of this pamphlet have been printed of which this one was No. 22. 1

I handwrote and copied these items as they appeared from this volume when visiting the British Library on October 16, 2014. Within the context of this pamphlet I have extracted from my handwritten copy information that pertains to a cipher used by A. Conan Doyle and reported at the Stoll Dinner.


During the Victorian era some romanticists sent encrypted messages to each other via the “agony column” of The Times: an inexpensive way to communicate. In one such circumstance, a student at Oxford was using cryptograms to send secret messages to his sweetheart. 2 However, because this was a somewhat common occurrence, Sir Charles Wheatstone, a prominent and noted cryptologist, would review the “agony column” on Sunday afternoons as a pastime. Following some of the messages over time, he read the encoded message between Charlie, an Oxford student, and his woman friend stating that the Oxford student had suggested that they elope. Wheatsone intervened by placing an advertisement of his own directed at these two persons that advised that that they abandon this foolhardy plan. A few days later there appeared a message that read: “Dear Charlie: Write no more. Our cipher is discovered!”

Sherlock Holmes often read the “agony column” appearing in The Times of London. Watson reveals that “Sherlock Holmes was, as I expected, lounging about his sitting-room in his dressing-gown, reading the agony column of The Times” (ENGR). Again Watson mentions a series of exchanges Holmes reads in the Daily Telegraph (BRUC). In fact, this reading of the “agony column” by Holmes seemed to be a daily occurrence: “There have been no advertisements in the agony columns. You know that I miss nothing there” (3GAR). So it can be assumed that he also scanned the “agony column” to analyze and discern encrypted messages that might have pertained to his investigations.

The Stoll Convention Dinner: Remarks and Reflections

The Stoll Convention Dinner was held in the Balmoral Ballroom of the Trocadero on
Wednesday, 28 September 1921. Toasts were given by the chairman who thanked the guests and
read a message sent to Conan Doyle from Lord Riddel concerning the Prime Minister and “The
Adventure of the Mazarin Stone.” The message read:

“Among the first to read Sir A. Conan Doyle’s new Sherlock Holmes story first
published in the October issue of the Strand Magazine has been the Prime Minister, who considers it to be one of the best Sherlock Holmes stories that he has read. Mr. Lloyd George is not only a great admirer of Sherlock Holmes, but also of the stories of
Brigadier Gerard, the other great hero of Sir A. Conan Doyle.”

“The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” has a ritual in the form of a word puzzle that needs to be
decoded to ascertain a treasure. Holmes engages with secret writings in four stories that require
code breaking (GLOR, REDC, DANC and VALL). Cryptography in various forms was long in use, but
this method was devised by Aeneas the Tactician who had long ago advised using individual
letters appearing in correspondence and then poking holes beneath them to spell out the
encrypted message.3 That Conan Doyle was familiar with this type of secret message transferal is
evident when during the Stoll Convention Dinner he reveals how he used this cipher to
communicate with a friend by employing pinpricks underneath letters of his stories:

“My creation of Holmes did, after all, a small bit of war work. It is hardly worth
mentioning, but I had a friend who was shut up in the Magdeburg Military Prison in
Germany. As he and his brother officers were getting no news from England, I took a
volume of Sherlock Holmes and in it I pricked out all the news letter by letter, beginning with the third chapter --- pricking under each letter of the message with a needle I sent the book to him with a note saying: “This may relive your prison captivity and afterwards be placed in the prison library. It is slow but perhaps you might find the third chapter to be a little more interesting.” I thought that would be good enough for him, but as a matter of fact he missed it. There was however, another officer, Capt. The Hon. Keppel, of the Guards who with extraordinary sagacity, “got on” to it. The result was that the British officers in captivity got the whole of the news of England at that time. I then got another letter saying “Please send us another Sherlock Holmes story.” I continued to send them with all the news pricked out in them to those officers until I learned that they wereactually being allowed to have English newspapers, and then I desisted.”

There is no doubt that real-life intrigue encompassed the worlds of both Doyle and
Sherlock Holmes. When we read of Doyle and his life experiences and see them appear through
the London fog in the writings of Watson’s chronicles do we better understand the workings and undertows of the stories that enable us to better enjoy the events no matter how many times we read and reread them.

1 The original source of the speeches was entitled, Speech by Arthur Conan Doyle at the Stoll Convention Dinner – Stoll’s Editorial News, 6 October 1921, volume 5, pp. 11-14.

2 Gary Blackwood. Mysterious Messages: History of Codes and Ciphers, (New York: Dutton, 2009), pp. 104-05.

3 How to Survive Under Siege is the oldest military handbook to survive from Classical Antiquity. It is the only surviving work of the Fourth Century BC author called Aeneas Tacticus (“Aeneas of Stymphalus”) whom other ancient authors tell us wrote several military handbooks, and is believed by some to have been the Arcadian general Aeneas of Stymphalus who fought in the Battle of Mantinea (362 BC).

Scholar Posts Menu
A Visit to the Museum of London Sherlock Holmes Exhibit
/ Filed 6 April, 2015 /
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Cipher
/ Filed February, 2015 /
Footprints Along the Paths / Filed August, 2011 /
Scholar Posts: Holmes as Knight-Errant / Filed September, 2011 /
Pursuing Sherlock Holmes / Filed October, 2011 /

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