The Mystery of the Old Postcard — SOLVED!



Image courtesy of Paul Craig

Yesterday I posted an image of a postcard, mailed in 1909 to a young man in Memphis named George Cooper James, which contained a rather puzzling message.

Well, I must say that we have some exceedingly intelligent people in our city, because it only took a few hours for one reader to break the secret code. Someone named Tim (last name unknown, I'm sorry to say), left this comment on the original blog post:

It reads: "Dear Cooper, when are you going to write to an old friend? How are your mother and father, hope you are well and having a good time."

Tim explains, "It doesn't have any punctuation or separation of words, and 'write' is even broken up on separate lines. I don't know the bottom 3 characters — might be a key for shared code book, or it might be the sender's initials or something like that. If it's part of the message, then the middle one is M, and the last one might be G, if it didn't have a closed top."

Closed top? Huh?

Tim explains, as if it's the simplest thing in the world: "It's a substitution cypher, which means one character represents a letter. What makes it hard on this this one is that they have 2 characters that both look like pi: one with a round top is O and one with a flat top is H. Also, the character at the end of the second line with the closing parenthesis ... the closing parenthesis is part of that character. Some of the dots are P, but an open parenthesis with a dot is a Y." — Tim

Dr. John Harkins, who knows more about the long history of Memphis University School (where George Cooper James was a student in 1909), provided further details about the card and the young man who received it."

"Affixing a postage stamp upside down used to be considered a way to say "I love you." Of course we also just goof sometimes without knowing or caring about such symbols. So, the sender might have been a smitten female or someone just wanting to rattle the addressee's chain."

"(George) Cooper James appears in a number of the MUS publications between 1904 and 1909. He apparently attended starting in 1902 and left after seventh form (11th grade) without graduating. He appears in a couple of yearbook group pictures, but none of the individuals therein are identified. He was called Cooper throughout his time at MUS. His address in 1904 is given as 419 Adams, but the address discrepancy may be due to standardizing Memphis street numbers early in the 20th century. His father is listed as Mr. C.B. James in the 1908-09 catalog. I would not attach much significance to Cooper being the only one listed at 779 Adams in 1909; errors and omissions were and are pretty common in city directories.

"Cooper belonged to the MUS Hamiltonian Literary Society in 1909, but does not appear to have been much involved in school activities otherwise or to have had any athletic or academic distinctions or honors. Students, even boys, commonly did not finish high school early in the 20th century, especially if they did not intend to go to college. There does not appear to have been much,if any, stigma  associated with dropping out."

Finally, Dr. Harkins offers this summary of Tim's translation, and — until I hear otherwise (and other people are still scrutinizing this card) I agree with him:

"Checking Tim's transcription seems to work on the first few words, and Tim knowing that the addressee was called by his middle name "Cooper" also suggests that it may authentic. I still wonder if the sender could be a female, trying to get a young (late teens) male's attention."

He continues: "There were not many telephones in Memphis in 1909 and this sort of little chit-chat note would have been commonplace at that time. The "3" in the stamp cancellation bars may indicate the station through which the card was mailed, irrespective of it possibly being picked up by a delivery postman or mailed at a branch post office. I just checked with [Shelby County Historian] Ed Williams and his best recollection is that postal zone 3 was the DeSoto Station PO, which at that time would have been south of downtown."

So that's where we stand for now. The real mystery, of course, is WHO sent this card, and WHY did they send it in code?? And of course I sure would like to know more about Tim, whoever you are. Stay tuned ...


 

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: 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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