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by S. Brent Morris

Transcript of the public lecture given by S. Brent Morris at the CMRC on 8th September 1999.  S. Brent Morris is the Editor of Heredom, the transactions of the Scottish Rite Research Society, Washington D. C. USA

I am delighted to be here this evening. Let me begin not with an apology - one of my school teachers taught me never to begin with an apology - so I will begin with an explanation. I grew up in Texas - we speak in the United States a language very similar to English, but there are often phrases and pronunciations that are unique to our part of the world.

I am going to be talking about an aspect of Freemasonry - cryptography. I am going to be looking at cryptanalysis. I am going to be focusing at the art of cryptanalysis - the techniques we go through to analyse the secret coded messages. This is a science that has largely been kept in the dark, because you don't want anyone to know that you can read their mail. This had as you are probably aware a dramatic impact in World War Two - both in the European theatre and in the Pacific theatre. Alies were able to read German Enigma machine as well the Japanese Purple machine. And it was those successes that saved hundred of thousands if not millions of lives. For those reasons cryptography has largely been kept in the black chamber.

Well tonight I am going to talk about some of the 'black' skills that are used in the cryptanalysis. In masonic cryptanalysis - I don't know whether Freemasons that were making the signs that I will be talking about - really thought that they were doing something secure. More importantly, it was symbolic secrecy - in other words you have achieved another step in the ladder therefore we are going to teach you a new cipher to protect those secrets. Whether in fact we talk about what is known as classical masonic cipher, or some other cipher, is not of primary importance - it is the symbolism of secrecy that is important.

The following is, to a large extent the text which has been presented during the lecture; it has been taken from the various parts of the book 'The Folger Manuscript', written by S. Brent Morris. You can order copy of the book, by writing to us at CMRC.


Historians always say that the era of Modern Freemasonry began on June 24, 1717, when four Lodges in London met together and formed themselves into a Grand Lodge. Evidently these four lodges must have existed before that date. It is clear also that, in some sense, they were the successors of men called Masons who were organised into groups in Britain from about 1350 on.

There is some dispute about what these groups did, and why they were formed. In the present writer's view, the evidence suggests that they were made up of operative stonemasons, the cathedral builders of the later Middle Ages. In the course of time these groups took the name 'lodges', from the lodge or shelter that was built on the south side of the project. The organisation served the function of a union, not so much to protect the welfare of the labourers as to maintain the quality of their stonework. These lodges had a set of written regulations and a traditional history, of which over a hundred copies have survived to our time; they are usually written on a scroll of paper or parchment. Apparently they were read to each new member at his admission. The operative lodges also had a rudimentary ceremony of admission, including an invocation and a promise to obey the regulations. It seems also that, as time passed, the lodges adopted signs of recognition. When the members moved to a new job in a different location, they would use the signs to show that they were regular skilled workmen.

Enough documents survive to show that the ritual was constantly growing, evolving, expanding, becoming more elaborate, adopting new symbols, abandoning former practices. And all over the world, the ritual has continued to develop. That is why distinctive rituals are used today in various parts of the British Isles, of Europe, and of America.

The Folger Manuscript contains the Rituals for the 'Blue' Degrees or grades of Disciple, Fellow, and Master Mason from a Masonic system unlike any widely known in the United States. It can be inferred from a note on the cover page of the Baden translation that Ward K. St. Clair (1899-1966), a noted student of Masonic Ritual, identified the manuscript as a 'French Blue Lodge Ritual'. A detailed examination of the text shows that it is a very good interpretation of the first three Degrees of the Rectified Scottish Rite, whose six Degrees are Apprentice, Fellow, Master Mason, Scottish Master, Squire Novice, and Knight Beneficent of the Holy City.

In fact, the Folger Manuscript represents that earliest evidence of the Rectified Scottish Rite or R. E. R. in the United States. While the R. E. R. Degrees still are worked actively in several other countries, including France, Belgium, and Switzerland, the R. E. R. has never been a significant force in American Masonry, though it has surfaced at least two other times.

The meticulously prepared cipher manuscript shows an intent to preserve information of great value, but there is no direct evidence that it was ever used. There is only one clue pointing to a definite use of the Ritual, and a few hints as to other places it may have been employed. There are two most probable reasons for writing the manuscript in an unknown cipher: external and internal. The external would possibly be that as Freemasonry at the time was very unpopular, writing of a text of masonic nature would expose the author to the possible unnecessary danger [Morgan Affair, the rise of Antimasonic Movement]. 'Internally', it was considered by Freemasons to be of utmost importance to save the secrets referring to rituals intact.

The cryptanalysis of the Folger cypher

On a chilly day in 1955, Will Baden returned to his New York house and fixed some hot lemonade. He then sat down and opened an envelope from Harold Voorhis, Master of the American Lodge of Research, containing about ten pages copies from Robert Folger's cipher writing. Baden earlier had deciphered Mnemonics, the ritual book of Rob Morris's Conservators of Symbolic Masonry, and Voorhis had found out about his cryptanalytic abilities. Macoy Publishing and Masonic Supply Co., Inc. owned a copy of the Folger Manuscript, and Voorhis wanted to see the cipher broken, both as a Vice-President of Macoy and as a student of

Masonry. He had, in fact, already published a paper in the 1952 Proceedings of the Ohio Chapter of Research, entitled 'Masonic Alphabet', illustrated with two pages from the Macoy Book.

Page 84 from the Macoy book

FIGURE 1. Page 84 from the Macoy Book

As Baden studied the pages, his initial enthusiasm turned to dismay. The cipher had no readily identifiable characters and appeared impregnable. Two of the pages were laid out similarly, with some of the same text written in plain English on each. However, one had portions encrypted where the other had text. Hoping for the best, he carefully compared the phrase contains great treasures on one page with the matching cipher on the other and discovered he could read the manuscript! In less than thirty minutes Folger's cipher had fallen to the cryptanalytic technique of 'matched plain and cipher'. Baden then translated the entire manuscript but never published his solution. the enciphered phrase essential to his solution was from page 84 of the Macoy Book (see Figure 1), and the page with the key phrase written in plain English came from the Supreme Council Book, now lost.

In 1982, Donald H. Bennet sat down at his computer and started a lengthy program. While it was running he read Brent Morris's article 'Fraternal Cryptography', which showed page 21 of the Macoy Book as an example of an exotic, unbroken, possibly Masonic cipher (Baden's solution was unknown then to Morris or Bennett). The unsolved puzzle challenged Mr. Bennett, and he set about applying classical cryptanalytic techniques. In a few hours he had independently broken the cipher as it yielded to his 'cipher text only' attack. Bennett published his results as 'An Unsolved Puzzle Solver' in Cryptologia magazine, and his work forms the basis for the discussion which follows.


Click for full image (143 Kb)

FIGURE 2. Page 21 from the Macoy Book

Before beginning the cryptanalysis of an unknown message like the one on Figure 2, certain fundamental assumptions must be made. Little was known to Mr. Bennett, except that the document was composed by Robert B. Folger, M.D. in 1827. Because of his Masonic membership, the cipher was assumed to conceal some message relating to Masonry. A number of words commonly used by Masons, such as grand, lodge, council, brother, companion, freemason, etc. had been suggested in Morris's article. Each group or cluster of cipher symbols was suspected to represent a syllable or word. There were other theories and speculations advanced regarding the Folger cipher; but, after more than 150 years, its solution was unknown to the public.

Some of the assumptions, explicit and implicit, are given below with their reasons.

  • The underlying language is English. This follows from the author living in New York and having an English sounding surname.
  • The orientation of the page is correct as shown, with the cipher reading from left to right and top to bottom. A paragraph seems to end in the middle of the second line, and a new paragraph, indicated by the illumination of its first few characters, starts on the next line. This one ends on line 8, and another paragraph starts on the next line, indicated by a slight indentation.
  • The cipher is homogeneous throughout. Cipher symbols are repeated throughout the text and are not limited to one part of the page.
  • Clusters of symbols represent, in general, words rather than individual letters or syllables. If clusters represent only letters, then each cluster must contain many meaningless strokes, because hundreds of discrete clusters can be identified. These clusters are referred to as cipher words.
  • There is no transposition of the order of letters within a cipher word. If rearranging the order of symbols were part of the enciphering process, then repeats of longer words would be rare, but in fact, exact repeats of many words do occur.
  • The order of the symbols within a cipher word is from top to bottom and/or from left to right. This corresponds to the order of normal English writing.
  • A discrete set of approximately 26 cipher symbols represent English letters.
  • The size of and minor artistic variations in individual cipher symbols is immaterial, but dark shading of certain strokes may have special meaning.


FIGURE 3. Possible Elemental Cipher Symbols

FIGURE 3. Possible Elemental Cipher Symbols

Folger disguised his cipher symbols well; little can be gained from examining the individual characters. The symbols are angular, a characteristic of most Masonic ciphers, and only a few curved strokes can be found, each of which might be an elemental symbol (see Figure 3). Nine other symbols which showed up repeatedly in the text are also shown. The last three symbols, which occurred less frequently than the first six, are assumed to be infrequent letters, the first six to be frequent ones.

Boxed-in symbols

The only other useful information gained from individual characters is the observation that many words are surrounded by boxes (see Figure 4). The box-like character is probably the first letter, with the rest of the word inside the box. The dark shading on the sides of some boxes may or may not be significant.

FIGURE 4.  Boxed in symbols

FIGURE 4.  Boxed in symbols

Out of about 150 boxed-in symbols on the page, no less than forty two, or 28%, contain a horizontal stroke just inside the box, near the top (e.g., in Figure 4, row 1, words 3 and 4, and row 2, words 1, 2, 4, 6, and 7). The stroke appears to be the second letter in these words.

The most frequent letter in English is e and it most often occurs as the second letter of a word; the horizontal stroke could be the symbol for the letter e! This symbol occurs throughout the text but is relatively inconspicuous, a desirable feature for a cipher character representing a high frequency letter. However, it is too soon to firmly identify cipher symbols.

The mystery digraph

The analysis continues by searching for digraphs or pairs of symbols with noticeable positional limitations. In English the most striking example of a positional limitation is qu: the letter q is always followed by the letter u. A pronounced limitation is found with the crescent moon (, and backward gamma : the crescent moon is always followed by the backward gamma without exception! The backward gamma, however, is preceded only occasionally by the crescent moon. Next, all cipher words containing this "mystery digraph" are listed (see Figure 5). It appears twenty-three times in thirteen different words. The first word on the list occurs seven times, the second and third three times each, and all others only once. The first three words should be fairly common, consisting of perhaps three to five letters each.

The most distinctive feature of the digraph is that it occurs as Lhe last two letters in fifteen times out of twenty-three, and as the first two letters six times. Only twice (in words 4 and 6) does it occur within a word, and word 4 appears to be the same as word 3 with a suffix added. The crescent moon is probably an infrequent letter and the backward gamma a common one, and, if so, then what is the mystery digraph? Certainly not qu, because qu cannot occur at the end of words. It is most likely the letters th, with the backward gamma as t and the crescent moon as h.

Word 1

Testing this hypothesis proves interesting and fruitful. Word 1 has th or ht as its last two letters, with either one or two letters preceding. Since no three-letter English word fits this format, it must be a four-letter word, such as both, with, hath, or doth (taking into consideration that verb forms such as hath, doth, goeth, doeth, etc., might occur more often in English written in 1827). There's no use guessing which four-letter word this might be, but if the other cipher symbols represent two letters of plain text, then the most logical way to split this combination is into a cup, U, and a short, vertical line, I.

Word 2

Word 2 is a short word beginning with th (an ht beginning isimpossible). Since the backward gamma is assumed to be t, Word 2 must have the form th - t. Only one word fits this format--the word that-which implies the dot,., stands for a. Before substituting an a for every dot, however, it's wiser to analyze the mystery digraph words further.

Words 3 and 4

FIGURE 5. The 13 Words with the Mystery Digraph

FIGURE 5. The 13 Words with the Mystery Digraph

The third word seems to begin with t and to end in either th or ht. Since the cup, U, was assumed to be a single letter, all that remains to decide is whether the gamma, represents one letter or two. Word 3 could be of the form t--th, t--ht, t---th, or t---ht, with U representing one letter or two. Some possibilities are tenth, troth, taketh, or taught, but truth is just the sort of word a Mason might use three times on one page. If truth is assumed to be correct, then and U equate to r and U in some order. These assumptions however, present problems with Word 4, which appears to be truths, but this leads to the unlikely situation where represents both r and S. Rather than reject earlier, seemingly sound assumptions, Word 4 is put aside for the moment and the analysis continues.

Word 5

Word 5 has five 4 letters, four of which have been tentatively identified. Its form is - art or - auto, depending on whether is r or U. the only candidate is earth, which confirms the earlier idea of the horizontal stroke as e and clearly indicates that stands for r. At this point, the following cipher letters have been tentatively identified: a, e, h, r, t, and U.

Words 6 and 7

An upper semicircle, begins Word 6 followed by three. This suggests other; the only alternative, ether, begins with e, a horizontal stroke . Thus semicircle is identified as 0. The seventh word contains fl followed by Th. It seems to be a short word of the form - oh, like dot, or both, but there is not enough information to decide. Word 7 does neither proves nor disproves semicircle as o.


The semicircle symbol does not occur again in the word list, so a different approach is needed to continue its analysis. The answer is to synthesize a short, common word containing o and then to look for it in the cipher text. The symbols for a, e, h, o, r, t, and u have been identified, which allows (among other possibilities) the construction of the words to and or (see Figure 7). The first possibility for to occurs seventeen times in the message and the first possibility for or three times, which pretty well confirms semicircle as o. As the text is searched for or, a similar cipher word, our, can be found, and this leads to an interesting discovery: a circle can be split into two parts: the top half, representing o and the bottom half, U, representing U.

FIGURE 7. Synthesizing Short Words

FIGURE 7. Synthesizing Short Words

Words 8 to 13

Returning to the list brings up Word 8, which is of the form the - or the--. The word must be thus, but the last cipher symbol is difficult to distinguish because it seems to merge with the bottom of the crescent moon. Thus, the symbol for 5 could be either I or , but further analysis is required. Words 9 through 12 are either too long or have too many unknown symbols for good assumptions. Word 13, however, lends itself to partial analysis. It is one of the "boxed-in" words and, if the box is the first letter, it has the form - eat or - - eat. This

could be a five-letter word such as death or a six-letter word like breath if the box is a combination of two symbols. A final decision must wait. It is important to note a missing symbol from the upper left corner of the box. Is this just an artistic variation of a plain box, or is it significant?

Other interesting words

Word 13 exhausts the list, but analysis can continue by looking for "interesting" words in which most of the symbols have been tentatively identified. Such a word ends line 25. It begins with ru, followed by three to five additional letters, one of which is e. The last character may be s, if the analysis of Word 8 was correct. The word is of the form ru - es or ru - ees, depending on whether the symbol L represents one letter or two. Some possibilities are rules, runes, ruses, or rupees. The most likely word is rules, which goes nicely with the earlier recovery of truths. This means the symbol for 1 is, of all things, an 1!

FIGURE 8. Folger's Cipher Alphabet from Page 11

FIGURE 8. Folger's Cipher Alphabet from Page 11

Another interesting word occurs in the middle of line 17. It starts with e, followed by a repeated letter, and then ends with orts: e - - orts. The obvious choice is efforts, which provides additional confirmation of the backward I, as s and establishes the half mast flag, as f.

The solution

From this point on, the rest of the alphabet can be recovered using the ten known letters: a, e, f, h, 1, o, r, 5, t, and U. Only z cannot be recovered from page 21, because it was not used. Folger seemed to have used page 11 for practice and to have copied the alphabet there (see Figure 8).

Note that the cipher symbol U is used for the letters u, V, and w. Thus Word 1 from the list is with, even though the symbol U was originally recovered as U. The letter h is represented by either of two symbols: the standard symbol is fl, but a variant symbol, (,is used sometimes after t. When Folger began writing his manuscript he used the standard h exclusively. About page 15, however, he started using the variant more and more often, after t. This variant could have been for ease of writing, but the th digraph fl looks like the Hebrew letter tauv, and Folger may have tried to introduce Hebrew into his cipher.


Folger's alphabet is unlike any other Masonic cipher, even though several of his symbols can be found in some hauts grades ciphers. This, however, is not surprising because of the small possible number of simple geometric shapes. It is most likely that he invented his system on his own, with inspiration from some other Masonic book or manuscript. However, his technique of stacking his symbols is unique to him and greatly increases the cryptographic security of the system. Based on the mixture of good and bad cryptographic practices and on the evolving nature of the cipher through the manuscript, it can be concluded that Folger was a self-taught amateur who invented a rather good cipher.

Breaking this cipher and reading the text solves only part of the puzzle. Some important questions are still unanswered: who was Robert Folger and what kind of a person was he? Several interesting conclusions can be reached from studying the Macoy Book, many of which are confirmed in Chapter 6.

  • Robert Folger was a well-educated man. His grammar, syntax, and spelling are quite good. He was a meticulous draftsman; his characters are well-defined and precise so that little ambiguity is encountered in the deciphering process. There are virtually no errors on page 21; the few misspelled words, such as hapy and intereresting, could be clerical errors in encryption, while words like beautifull probably reflect the spelling of the day. Using one cipher character for U, V, and w and interchanging the symbols for i andj in the text hint at a knowledge of Latin. The use of Hebrew letters elsewhere shows a crude knowledge of that alphabet.
  • Robet Folger was an experienced speaker. The homily on the Bible on page 21 shows careful, simple wording of complex ideas, suitable for a general audience.
  • Robert Folger was an enthusiastic Mason. Many, many hours were devoted to writing and decorating the manuscript, showing an intense interest in Masonry.
  • Robert Folger was a man of strong passions. The almost complete obliteration of Ferdinand L. Wilsey's name in the preface goes well beyond a simple revocation.

[ADDRESS ON THE BIBLE - Figure 2 and pages that follow]

W.M. This great light of Masonry is ever open in a proper Lodge, to that end that we should be reminded of the duty, that of learning and practicing the excellent precepts it contains. And if we, as far as we can, scrupulously examine both the character of those who gave the precepts and the influences they have had upon society and still have upon it, if we examine the great ends and views of the doctrines here written, and thus become acquainted with this volume, we shall experience that this volume is an inestimable treasure and should be viewed as such by all good men. It is in fact the book that contains the rules of life pointing out to man his whole duty. This volume is of great antiquity, and splendid monuments of the ancients have decayed and nations who peopled the countries where these things were written have vanished or are scattered over the face of the earth, their former places of abode are desolate, the languages the book was written in are dead, yet the book survives.

And the enemies of order and opposers of the good precepts this volume contains have sought with astonishing obduracy and unwearied pains, with jests, with philosophy falsely so-called, with misapplied learning, with every effort of their genius to bring this volume into contempt. But they have been engaged in a foolish work. All their pains have been taken in vain. It stands deservedly now in higher estimation than ever.

Considering the character of the writers for this volume and finding them to be good, even inimitably so, examining the doctrines contained in this volume, and observing their unison with truth and their beneficent influence upon society and upon individuals, thinking upon the great antiquity of these writings and the many revolutions which they have survived and their complete victory over the efforts of enemies, therewith continually increasing in the estimation of the world at large of the friends of good order and of truth,then it can be said, even if there were no other reasons for so saying,. that this volume is not to be neglected, but, on the contrary, that it ought to be examined and should be made the subject of our attention and study.

And see how correct is its philosophy, how interesting the history, how sublime and beautiful the poetry, how acceptable the doctrines of religion and morality contained in this volume. It is calculated in every point of view to engage our attention, and, if attended to, the truths it contains make men better, wiser, and happier, and the benefits arising from these sacred truths are not limited to the period of human life. They point not forward to the grave as the boundary of our existence, as the place where men shall cease to be.

No, the thick gloom of death is dissipated by divine truth. A ray of sacred light makes visible tQ the eye of faith a state of existence beyond the grave, a state of existence, at the approach of which all must fear. For it lasts to all eternity, for it is a state of rewards and punishments, for it is dependent upon Divine mercy, for no man can claim a place there. Happy indeed is the man who has strove to subdue his passions and to lay aside his prejudices, and thus is fitted for the task of the Fellow.

And studying and executing the designs and rules of the Master, by contemplating upon the image of the pillar of beauty, he may have observed his own weakness and his own inability to make his work according to the pattern given him by the Master. If he is sensible of his own incapacity and imperfections, he has in truth made the first step toward the light and has thus become more susceptible of the truth than he was. Then he will have the trestleboard in his hands and use all proper means for becoming acquainted with the designs which are drawn, and no doubt he will not only direct others how to exert them, but he will participate in the labour in the erection of the truly noble edifice~a Temple sacred to the name of God.

And in this work he will use the implements of the Master. The compasses will remind him to set proper limits to his duties, desires, and actions, not to be eccentric in behaviour, but to preserve any even line of conduct without irregularities.

We should, by example and persuasion, try to exact and encourage fraternal love. This is the very cement of the Temple. If it is wanting the whole becomes a heap of rubbish and is of no worth, but on the contrary is an obstacle to those who pass where it lies and nuisance to those who may have a habitation near it. Where fraternal love is not, there must be many evils. There the ruffian passions are enthroned and virtue is driven out or spurned with contempt or bound with thorns. There folly derides wisdom, and truth is obliged to hide her fair face. There religion or morality can not be found. There all is but mockery.

Time we cannot recall, but we can and we ought to use that anght which is to come. [Exhibits hourglass] See the sand. The particles run rapidly, and, for aught we know, with the passing of one of them you or I shall die. It is uncertain. We should not then neglect a moment, but from henceforth do all we can do to the great end of being really happy. For we shall die, and in the grave there is no working. There is no device, no knowledge, no pardon there.

[Exhibits skull] See this emblem, this monitor. It is silent vacant dead yet it speaks to our minds. The good hear a sound that even make them tremble. To some it can be a great cause of terror. It reminds all to remember death. We have crowned it with a green sprig, for we hope, in partaking of immortality, immortality and happiness through faith in the giver of every good and perfect gift, and by an earnest striving to do His will.

Remembering that man was created in His image and, although, much deformed, can be again restored to his pristine state, be made fit for blissful enjoyments. Remembering that we should not be ashamed of truth and religion, for that would make us unfit for fraternity on earth and disqualify us utterly for the enjoyments of a future state, where love is the most essential requisite. Remembering that we should be charitable and sensible of the wants of our fellow men, for else we are monsters even here, as although associated as

Brethren, and therefore would be hereafter unfit for lasting joys.

We must have hope to be restored to pristine purity. We must have faith. We must confess the truth. We must exercise love and charity with all our might. These are the rounds of the mysterious ladder that reaches from earth to heaven, and charity is the upper round.

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