Picture of telegraph poles

Barnard, “Arbitrable Nathan,” and the 1895 Police Cipher

It was 1895, and the company of St. Louis printing manufacturer George D. Barnard was focused on telegraph wires, specifically how individuals might tap them to “listen in” on Morse-code messages between police U.S. police departments.

Telegraph tapping and intrusions of privacy were sources of ongoing concern for individuals in the nineteenth century, mainly because both were easily achieved. To tap, all one needed was a few pieces of equipment, some basic knowledge, and enough grit to climb a telegraph pole. For those less inclined to get their hands dirty, there was the option to bribe an unscrupulous operator to disclose the contents of a message. While neither was particularly widespread, senders and receivers always had to face the nagging fear that their message was no longer private.

Title page of Barnard's Cipher
(Source: archive.org)

To address the problem (at least for police), Barnard’s company, George D. Barnard & Co., published a new telegraph cipher just for law enforcement clients. Codes and ciphers were nothing new—plenty had been published for other industries and the general public—but Barnard’s Universal Criminal Cipher Code for Telegraphic Communication between Chiefs of Police, Sheriffs, Marshals, and Other Peace Officers of the United States and Canada claimed to be different. According to the book’s preface, this was going to be universal, the exclusive code used by police: “We will spare neither time, labor nor expense to place these ciphers in the hands of every responsible peace officer in the United States and Canada.”

The cipher consisted of an elaborate series of seemingly nonsensical words that designated a larger phrase. For instance, “Arbitrable, Nathan” meant “Arrest, hold, and notify inquirer by wire if caught: individuals described as follows. Two white women. For prudential reasons I do not give their names.” After handling the situation, the receiver might reply, “Infiltrate,” meaning, “I got them. Advise further.”

But there was a method to the gibberish. The first letter or few letters of each word identified what “class” of information or instructions to which it belonged. “Ar” meant the word was a command to arrest someone; “Na” indicated the following phrase was the person’s name or nationality; “Be” words described a person’s beard, mustache, and whiskers; etc.

Thus, if an officer received the message “Arbuscular, Nash, Lucas, Obstacle, Hitherto, Against, Harass, Feat, Peg, Saint, Loggerhead, Tab, Fabulous, Famine,” he could consult his book to discover his fellow officer was either very confused or on a very strange case:

“Arrest and hold a white boy, and notify me by wire if caught: individual described as follows. His alias is Lucas. Wanted for conspiring to commit murder. Is a dwarf. Is a baby about 6 months old. Hair is dark brown and curly. He is a Mason, or claims to be. He has a scar on his nose. He is likely to be found at a saw mill about 12:00 o’clock at night. Look out for the following described animals: a Sorrel horse about 13 hands high.”

Barnard & Co. offered further guidelines on how to order the message, along with extra blank words at the end of every section so police departments could include their own phrases. They were even cautious to avoid including “difficult” words (the book’s compiler, a telegraph operator named Floyd Shock, helped with that process):

“Much care has been exercised to eliminate any word that would be ‘bulled’ [i.e., messed up] by the telegraph operator. The neglect of this feature is a fruitful source of trouble in many other Telegraph Codes.”

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There was also the added benefit of saving money by shortening telegrams, as the preface explained:

Page from Barnard's book explaining how to save money using the code.
Using the code (above) for the message (below) saved $5.35. (Source: Public Domain Review)

By the time the book was published, George D. Barnard was either 49 or 50 years old. A Massachusetts native, he came to St. Louis in 1868 and began a stationary manufacturing business with two partners in 1872. Barnard gained full possession of the business after his final partner died in 1877, and the newly incorporated George D. Barnard & Co. soon became highly successful.

Barnard was a pillar of his community, actively participating in his church and serving on multiple committees, including the one that organized the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (World’s Fair).

Barnard’s Universal Criminal Cipher was available to police officers for $4.50 in 1896. It’s unclear how many copies were sold, although the eventual death of the telegraph rendered the carefully crafted code obsolete. Today, a microfilmed version can be read online at archive.org.


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