Stacks Image 224
Merle Ohaver’s place in cryptological history is often overlooked, but with re-publication of some of his works he may be brought back to the recognition he deserves.

Sometime in the seventies, I ran across David Kahn’s monumental CODE-BREAKERS. I was fascinated from the beginning and made great efforts to expand my knowledge of this fascinating subject. In PICCOLA’S work, ELEMENTARY CRYPTANALYSIS, she mentions Mr. Ohaver on page 160 and gives him credit for many of the reference tables in the appendix. There is a note at the bottom of page 218 that reads:

Lists of terminals (letters, diagrams, trigram); of common affixes, short words, and common pattern-words, can be found in the booklet “CRYPTOGRAM SOLVING”, obtainable from the author, M.E. Ohaver at Columbus, Ohio.

I was struck by a flash of adventure since I was residing in Columbus, Ohio at the time. A quick referral to the local telephone book showed a Merle Ohaver residing in German Village, a small area that once housed the Columbus, Ohio Pioneers. Calling the number listed connected me to Mr. Ohaver’s wife, and I was soon to learn, widow. Mrs. Ohaver continued to list the telephone under her husband’s name after his death because so many people continued to call for him.

Mr. Ohaver’s notebooks and cryptography collection were still intact, and over the years I managed to purchase them from his widow. She was very generous in the hopes that someone would re-publish some of his material and establish his place in the history of cryptography.

Merle Ohaver (SUNYAM) was a very prolific writer and is best known for his long-running series SOLVING CIPHER SECRETS established in a popular pulp detective fiction publication of the day, DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY. Mr. Ohaver’s column appeared weekly and gained quite a following during the 1930’s. The popularity of his column and his effort to start a ‘solver’s club’ eventually led to the founding of the American Cryptogram Association, as detailed in much of the correspondence contained in his notebooks.

While SUNYAM’s columns awakened the public to the fun of crypto solving, his detailed explanations of solving methods was even more fascinating. His preparation of the weekly problems were immaculate, he would devote one page to each problem, using the opening lines as an index. There was a series (year) and article number assigned to each column and the submitter’s identification and date was included in the heading.

A neatly-typed Message: and alphabetic string followed next with Cipher: letters placed appropriately beneath the alphabetic string.

An appearance count of each letter was hand-noted above its position, with a total of all appearances tabulated for a later cross-check. Unused symbols were shown below the cipher string.

Next came the appearance of the problem in capital letters and the corresponding plaintext in lower case above each capital letter.

Each word of the typed message was numbered, as well as the total character count of each line in the right column.

Below the entire problem were comments showing the original submission, where and why changes were made and often-times, a detailed chronological method of solution.

These problem sheets were evidently prepared ahead of time and were inserted into the manuscript appropriately to create a total weekly column. It is too bad that the original problem sheets couldn’t be published as they stand — they are beautiful.