FBI vs the VM…?

Pretty much by accident I came across this link from the FBI: A far cry from the Somerton Man, in 1999 one Ricky McCormick had been found killed somewhere in Missouri, the police being baffled as to motives and perpetrators to this day, but with a connection to secret messages.

Interestingly enough, Ricky — described as a high school dropout with not too much formal education — was found with two notes written in a cipher he apparently had devised himself on him, and the FBI hasn’t managed until now to crack the system.

Am I the only one to note a few similarities between his cipher and the VM?

First of all, we can safely assume that neither Ricky nor the VM’s author had a strong background in modern cryptography. Consequently, the fact that neither Ricky’s nor the VM’s cipher has been cracked is probably not due to the cipher used being so strong, but being original — in other words, it doesn’t remain a puzzle because the method is so darn complicated, but because nobody has had the right idea how to solve it.

Above and below are the two cipher messages from Ricky.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it also seems that both ciphers share a number of characteristics, like a tendency for certain letters to sit word-initial/-terminal, or repeating sequences (notwithstanding the fact that Ricky relied on latin letters as opposed to the invented character set of the VM.) Look for example at the letter pair “SE”, which appears especially in the second message mostly word-terminal (assuming the dash “–” is meant to seperate words), or “NCBE”, which terminates four of the five last lines in the first message. Longer repetetive sequences also stand out, for example in the second line of message #2: “VLSE MTSE — CTSE — WSE — FRTSE” — tell me this isn’t a dead ringer for “daiin daiiin qocheedy cheedy” of VM’s fame.

The interesting feature of both systems is that, as opposed to what is generally considered a good cipher, they don’t generate a more or less random-looking sequence of latters, but au contraire the ciphertext generated looks very regular and structured.

Now, it’s always been my opinion that the genius behind the VM cipher is not that it’s an incredibly hard to crack algorithm, but that the VM’s author had a genuinely extraordinary idea when he devised the VM, and we simply haven’t followed this idea. Consequently, is it possible that poor Ricky independently and accidentally had the same idea when he decided he’d write down a few notes in his own cipher system?*)

Would it be interesting to dig deeper into a possible connection? While we can’t assume that in addition to using the same algorithm they also used the same key, could we gain insight if we examined and compared the two systems more closely, checking for similarities and differences?

*) Hint for the upcoming cheap novelist: Ricky actually was killed because his killers thought he had cracked the VM cipher and was about to find out all the secrets of the VM!

31 thoughts on “FBI vs the VM…?

  1. “Now, it’s always been my opinion that the genius behind the VM cipher is not that it’s an incredibly hard to crack algorithm, but that the VM’s author had a genuinely extraordinary idea when he devised the VM, and we simply haven’t followed this idea.”

    I agree with your assessment there, Elmar. Rather than thinking “more and more complex”, I think the best path would be to think “alternative methods” than those we might be familiar with… complex or not.

    I don’t know about Ricky’s scheme being all that similar in appearance (not discounting the points you see there as being somewhat intriguing), but the idea that “humans are humans” might tell us it would be a good idea to examine this and other methods novices have dreamed up on their own. If “nature repeats itself”, then so do people… and it might normally occur to some tyro to come up with a system similar to the Voynich author, even if not seen anywhere else in history.

  2. What sort of ciphering system would a seventeen year old Venetian merchant-family kind of chap make, if he were canny enough with maths to know and be able to explain Tycho Brahe by the time he was 20 or so?

    Plus posit him having additional languages: say, Farsi, Armenian, Syriac, … maybe perhaps Tamil and Malayalam.

    I’m guessing some alpha-to-numerical translation, then encoding using an existing system gained by living in the eastern world: that of the Indians or Chinese (Indians had a calculation system of factors 9×27 or -28 which was earlier known in the Mediterranean and known to Gebert in the ninth century; eastern mariners had a grid with one variable axis and the other of 28 parts.

    Variable axis was 3 or 5 or 7 or 9 or 17 or 32).

    And then the Arabs had a way of relating the 28 letters to 28 stars of the manazil.

    If I were keen on maths, or on ciphers, I’d test these notions. As it happens, I’m not so interested in that side of it, and my maths is worse than it should be.

  3. Hi Rich,

    I think it’s intriguing to consider the VM cipher may have been invented several times independently. It’s quite possible that, once the scheme is known, it turns out not to be a very safe cipher, no matter which key you use, and perhaps this is the reason why it fell quickly into oblivion again — only to be resurrected by a slightly naive (and now dead) high school dropout some 500 years later?

    I know, there is little evidence other than some possibly superficial similarities between the ciphertexts, but I like the idea. It’s got a poetic ring to it.

  4. What gets me is that if you want something to pass notice, you don’t encode it in an artificial script and in what appears to be a blatently obvious attempt to encode.

    When you could just as an unnecessary diacritic to mark a verbose text, or something of that kind, and pass unnoticed, why bother? Its not as if it weren’t possible to keep secrets by simply not writing anything down. Generally, people wrote only what they wanted shared, or what had to be sent as an international diplomatic letter..


    1. Voynichimagery: That does make sense… why draw attention to your encipherment, with these obvious “give-aways”. In fact Francis Bacon points this out when describing his Biliteral Cipher, which can be encoded in innocuous cover texts, or even images, and other medium which would not draw attention.

      But to play devil’s advocate, I do wonder if with the Voynich the “cover cipher” and “cover script” is a red herring… meant to attract attention, and draw all the attempts against it… when the order and frequencies of these characters really means nothing. Then the “true cipher/code” may be in features of the text which have so far gone unnoticed, because of this cover, fake, cipher text. There are countless schemes which would allow this.

  5. It’s the historical context that is a problem. The rise in xenophobia, the western religious schism, the insularity fostered by nationalism, mean that throughout western Christendom a massive and pervasive paranoia existed in the populations of Europe – and particularly in the northern countries – against anything not immediately comprehensible to the ‘common man’. Not even their own sacred scriptures were left in the original languages.

    The same fear of foreign script or language was a little less common in lands then in the borders of Islam, but it did exist.

    A book written in ‘curious characters’ could merit investigation in any case, and could cost your life unless you had the protection of a religious order, or some royal court.

    Hence Francis’ advice I suppose. One might have a book like the Voynich in the twelfth-early fifteenth century, but by the sixteenth and seventeenth, it would be a very risky business to have whose characters no-one could recognise.

    So why risk one’s life when there were easier (and just as impenetrable) means of encoding? That’s why I can accept that the written text may be encoded (as the pictures could be termed ‘hieroglyphik’ in the parlance of the times, but only that the script was poorly copied, or foreign, not deliberately invented. Why create unnecessary trouble for yourself. Easier methods existed.

  6. Voynichimagery,

    aside from the fact that I don’t quite share your historical viewpoint (the age of Renaissance as “xenophobic”? — Hm…), obviously we *do* have the VM, written in an invented script, at hand.

    What do you suggest as to its origin, purpose, content…?

  7. I don’t think the case for an invented script is proven, merely assumed, and I’m not keen on that assumption.

    How anyone can look at the Renaissance and suppose it was not xenophobic is surprising to me. One of the most intolerant periods of an intolerant region. The massacre of the Jews and Muslims (the ‘expulsions’ so called), the behaviour of Europeans in the Americas, in the Indies.. in fact everywhere they went at that time. And in addition there is the replacement of a more open interest in other countries’ peoples, customs and literature which existed for a time – till about the end of the fourteenth century – replaced by a fantasy that Europeans might recreate the world of classical Rome, or even of classical Greece, of which they had inherited nothing but a handful of books. Had they really recreated the world of the Greeks, one might have had a more intelligent interaction with foreign peoples, whether African, Islamic, South or North American, Indian or Chinese. In a global context, the Renaissance left some nice relics, but to live in it would have been ghastly unless you were white, and western Christian. If a civilised person is indifferent to skin colour, religion and other externals, ‘Renaissance’ Europe was more barbaric than 12thC Sicily. IMO.

    As to explaining the Voynich – I try to let the manuscript do that for itself, acting more as a kind of interpreter and drawing conclusions from the evidence presented by the manuscript and the relevant disciplines such as history and archaeology. *I try*

  8. Hello from Spain.

    Last line, 2 note, i see:
    “O-W-m-4 H8L XORLX”
    This means that;
    This is the signature last will or testament of a very sick man.

    X= Variations of letter C (Mc, C,CK) by shorthand solution
    O=O, W=W and R=R
    H=I, m=N and L=M by caesar Code B or +1
    4=FOR by phonetic use
    8= letter A by phonetic use
    vowel i by phonetic solution
    the hyphen join the letters in a word

    -It is a children game.

    look Marais Temps Clair CA (mo).

      1. Hello from Spain.
        The Mccormick´s story is very curious

        + Is it strange that a man sick of the heart and lungs died suddenly appear?

        + Is it strange that a man sick of the heart and lungs write his will?

        Remember Mccormick did not trust either his mother or family.

        +If we heed the advice of the Roman emperor:
        This seems a natural death of a hitchniker (Who was returning home from ……) and the conduct of a driver´s terrified.

        Simplicity and human nature. (or Occam´s razor).


      2. Of course, Ricky’s death could very well have natural courses, but this is far from proven. As for the “last will”; the question is, why that should be written in cipher? If you use this way to hide it from your parents of whoever, you’ll also hide it from the world — it’d make more sense to give a copy to a trusted friend. Besides, I doubt Ricky had that much of an inheritance to leave…

  9. If that were the reading, it could be otherwise interpreted:
    (i) the book was being bequeathed to a McCormick.
    (ii) the equivalent of an ‘ex libris’ inscription.
    (ii) mcCormac was he wo copied the material included in the manuscript. Some of it, particularly the ornate letters, looks as if it has been traced from carved inscriptions.

  10. Hello from Spain.

    How i can try a natural death?

    +The proof of the natural death of Mccormick is the lack of evidence of murder. The Coroner of st. Charles county (mo) did not give a reason for his death and the FBI does not give more explanation about his alleged murder.

    +Family and friends are not experts in Cryptography, so it is easy to deceive

    +I think Mccormick hid $ 99.840 in a suitcase. that is what i think means end line 12 to line 13, note 2, which reads:
    -12 …n/mre/ 13-99.84./S/2/u/P/LSE/n/C8SE/P/OL/TSE/n/SK/SE/n/BSE/.
    -12… and/more/ 13-/99.840/$/to/you/quit/lose/and/(suit)case/quit/all/these/and/seek/see/and/busy/
    ……buried in Marais Temps Clair CA (mo).


    1. Your argument makes little sense: If there was no evidence for murder, why does the FBI make a case of it? Is it not much more reasonable to assume the FBI has proof of murder, but avoids releasing details which could alert the murderer?

      As for your “deciphering”, are you aware of the fact that the “plaintext” doesn’t make sense?

      (As an aside, if a guy like Ricky had close to 100,000$ to hide, I’d *strongly* suspect he’s involved in some crime, which would lend credence to him being a victim of murder!)

      1. Hello from Spain-Part one

        + The FBI says that the notes were written days before his death, for this reason the notes can not prove who kill and how was killed Mccormick. The notes can only suggest a motive and a good defense attorney can argue that there may be another murderer and another motive…..otherwise would be if the FBI had the murder weapon, DNA evidence and fingerprints of anyone.

        + I think the FBI has nothing except an undecipherable code in his hands and this can be very valuable.

        + The plaintext no exist., it can not exist because Mccormick wrote a transcript according to his own shorthand rules. The stenographic original text is shorthand with deception measures and can only be trasladed into English signs (not phrases according to the grammatical norms of language).
        —The stenographer must reconstruct the speech and that can only be done by the stenographer original (Mccormick). We can see the problemin a chapter of TV series about FBI called “Criminal Minds” (Season one, episode 17, “a real rain”).

        + I just can offer an imaginative solution as plaintext ( but the plaintext not exist). So line 12(end) & 13, note 2, it means to me:

        12/- “and more ….
        13/- than $ 99.840 for you i have left abandoned the money in a suitcase, that you will again take care to seek and find.”


        $= dollars
        quit lose = left abandoned
        and case quit all these= the money in a suitcase
        seek see and busy= that you will again take care to seek and find

        + This is the problematic art of stenography or Shorthand.


      2. Hello from Spain. Part two.

        + The word is “To reconstruct”
        + The office of Stenographer is being relegated to the past by new recording technologies. The Stenographer must write as fast as we speak using signs that represent words or sounds, and later must to reconstruct the text with the signs posted.
        + Mccormick has left us some signs.
        + We just have to put in place according to the rules of English grammar and common sense.

        Example one.
        Line 8, note one.
        -If TF = THIEF, CB= would be, CBEIN= had being, C=DO and TEN = TEENager then…..

        2+teen i thief are need and would be are these and had being do.
        3+They were thieves teenagers for need and i wanted to be like them and finish remained so.

        Example two
        Line 12, note two
        -If TF=THIEF, MRDE=MURDER, CMS= had miss, CBE= had been and ¿?= name murdered then….

        2+ Thief and ¿name sign? had miss quit sole murder loose to tied would and would not had been.
        3+ A thief called ¿? disappeared and was left without an investigation, would be a lone unsolved murder that i would not have happened.

        The problem is that Shorthand eliminates the superfluous and the original idea must be reconstructed.

        + If my theory is correct that the house at the northern entrance of “Marais temps clair CA (mo)” has the number 35 (35 GLE = 35 home by code caesar B).

        * I can not verify this from Spain.

        + I just know that from the residence of Mccormick and “Marais….” is a distance of nearly 36 miles (36m) by west and east, and 29 miles (29 kE -E epsilon- = 29 KEEP) by north and west.

        __Can anyone tell me if the house has the number 35?


  11. Hey Elmar! Your post reminded me of a thought I had regarding a simple encryption scheme, initially inspired by the Dorabella cipher. In this simple scheme, letters do not represent fixed values, but instead record the *distance* between adjacent letters in the plaintext. For instance, the letter ‘a’ (=0) represents any doubled letter pairs, ‘b’ (=1) represents a letter followed the subsequent letter in the alphabet, etc. In this way, any given ciphertext letter can represent very different values in the plaintext. There are a number of variants of this cipher I’ve come up with, but that’s the main idea–a difference encoding. It’s super easy to implement, and nearly impossible to crack without knowledge of the paradigm. There may be a good many other amateur ciphers that do not operate in any conventional way, and thus may stymie professional codebreakers blinded by experience…

    1. I see where you’re going… Interesting idea — by not using a “sorted” alphabet for reference, but one with a scrambled letter sequence as a key to determine distances, you’d make it even more difficult for attackers.
      But isn’t that kind of cipher equivalent to an autokey?
      (In either case, I don’t think this is what is at the bottom of Ricky’s cipher… too much repetition…)

    2. Hi Reed: Your idea is a great example of how a code might hide within a phony code. There are so many ways this could be done, and I like the idea you came up with. If one of these were done with the Vms, it would, like you say, be nearly impossible to crack… but also, even, nearly impossible to “see”.

      1. Hi Rich, Elmar! Just getting around to thinking about your replies after a long stint away from VMS doings… Rich, I agree that there are many ways to ‘hide’ code and the mechanisms of its enciphering. My feeling is that cryptography has become a highly formalized field in the last five hundred years, but that the various familiar (largely mathematical) conventions for creating and attacking cipher texts were not yet formalized, or even widely known, during the time of the VMs’ creation. Therefore, one should approach the text with a degree of naivete that might be problematic for the modern cryptanalyst, who tends to be steeped in a highly formalized system.

        Elmar, you’re right about the difference cipher I outlined essentially being a variant of an autokey. But in thinking about the VMs, with its odd mix of number-like and letter-like symbols, I wonder if there’s room for a mixed implementation of such an approach–for instance, different classes of characters might encode different types of information. For instance, letter-like characters might record absolute value, while number-like characters might indicate relative values (for instance, ‘hello’ could be written variously as ‘hel03’, (0 and 3 representing relative distances in the alphabet, for instance). Just a hypothetical, to show you what I mean by ‘less formalized’ cryptography: a few easily-learned rules which nonetheless may yield impenetrable text.

  12. Hello from Spain.

    + I have found the home number 35

    + The house is in the place i had predicted, next to northern entrance of Marais Temps Clair CA (MO), to 36 and29 miles from the official residence of Mccormick, 1400 Chouteau Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri….. Is that:

    6035 Missouri 94, Portage Des Sioux, MO 63373, United States

    + Anyone can check and see …. I used Google Maps, Google Earth and “Street View”; and the measure of the distance between sites ia a rough estimate by Google (and you must remember Mccormick wrote in 1999).

    + I think this show that i was right and i deciphered correctly the Mccormick´s notes.

    + Now you have to walk 651 steps from the northern entrance to a bird watching site has been after the central curve.

    + I can no longer do anything. If the FBI wants to dig up the case or not, that is up to them.

    + I have finished my work. Good bye.
    Greetings from Spain.

    1. I have a friend in that town. I’ll let you know if he finds anything, tomorrow. Don’t tell anyone about this, OK?

  13. Hello
    ++ It appears that the FBI and local police lied to the family of McCormick:

    “Code Dead: Do the encrypted writings of Ricky McCormick hold the key to his mysterious death?”
    – By Christopher Tritto (published: June 14, 2012).


    McCormick’s mother, Frankie Sparks, says:
    “They told us the only thing in his pockets was the emergency – room ticket,”
    “Now, twelve years later, they come back with this chicken-scratch shit.”

    -In the links I mentioned above can read the full story.

    -It seems that everyone thought that Ricky was a idiot and the family was misled or not informed of police/FBI investigations.

    -These guys from the FBI …… trying to trick a sweet and helpless old lady.

    Bye from Spain,

  14. Elmar .. I found a few posts of yours over at Nick Pelling’s site in one of his many threads about the code found written on the back of a Rubaiyat in South Australia, and thought you might be interested in a new development regarding this unbroken code.
    In summary .. If one was to examine each completed line of code … assuming line 2 was replaced lower in the order, the Letter A occupies the seventh position in each line.
    NickP calculated the odds of such an event as 133 to 1.
    I’m of the view that together with the book and the torn slip of paper printed with Taman Shud, the code is a second step identifier.

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