A Very Mysterious Postcard from 1909



I like a good mystery as much as the next fellow, but this one has me stumped.

My pal Paul Craig recently sent me a scan of a rather battered old postcard, with this message: "I recently won an eBay auction for a very odd and unusual postcard. The front [a view of Main Street] isn't very interesting. The back, however, certainly is. Have you ever seen anything like this?"

No, Paul, I haven't. The message seems to be a complicated mix of mathematical symbols and Greek letters. Is it a message? A code? A math equation? It certainly reminds me of secret codes the Lauderdales used during the war, between the American branch of the family, and the relatives who stayed behind in Switzerland, but that's about as far as I got with it.

The postcard itself offers a few clues, but not much to go on. We certainly don't know much about the sender. As you can see from the postmark, it was mailed from Memphis on November 20, 1909. For some reason, the one-cent stamp is affixed upside down, and I don't know if that has any significance.

The card is addressed to Mr. George Cooper James, who was living at 779 Adams, in Memphis. A look through old city directories tells me that James was a student at the "University School," which is how Memphis University School was often identified in its early days. I presume that James must have been a grown-up student, because the city directories list him as the only person living at 779 Adams — there's no mention of parents or other family members.

I think this card is some secret coded message between friends, who would surely be amazed — if not downright mortified — that people more than 100 years later are scrutinizing it.

Anyway, here you go. If anybody knows what "language" this is, let me know. Even better, tell me what it says.

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Famed Memphis trivia expert Vance Lauderdale answers reader questions weekly here on his blog!

About This Blog

Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

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