I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
On January 20, 1953, a corpse was found lying in a ditch near the Philadelphia International Airport. A piece of paper was taped to the body on which was a cryptic typewritten message. What did it mean?
The Mystery Man
There was no identification on the body and, in addition to the mysterious note, there were other features for police to puzzle over.
The cadaver was that of a young man who was wearing casual clothes. He was described as white, five feet 10 inches tall, and wearing unusually thick lens tortoiseshell eyeglasses.
In his sports jacket was a photograph of a small plane with a Nazi swastika on its tail that was surrounded by a group of U.S. soldiers, along with a spent .38-calibre cartridge shell. An image of Rodin’s "Thinker" statue was found in his wallet. There was also a small, broken glass vial.
Some other items were found on his person as outlined by The Futility Closet, “A copy of Galaxy Science Fiction, as well as a plastic cylinder containing a signal fuse, . . . a ‘fountain pen gun’ of uncertain purpose, four keys, and 47 cents.”
But, the most curious item of all was the small piece of paper attached to his navel with adhesive tape.
United Press was moved to comment, “The case contained all the elements of a cloak-and-dagger spy thriller with the coded note furnishing the most mysterious gimmick.”
Paul Emanuel Rubin
Eventually, the body was identified as that of Paul Emanuel Rubin, aged 18. He was a chemistry student at New York University who was on the verge of failing his term. The coroner found that death had occurred as a result of cyanide poisoning; there was enough of the toxin in his body to kill 10 people.
Rubin lived with his parents, and they had not seen him since the morning before his body was found. His mother said she remembered seeing him cut some adhesive tape strips before he left the house.
As far as his parents were aware, Paul Rubin was in good physical and mental health.
At about 6:35 a.m. on the morning of the discovery of Rubin’s body, a car entered the Pennsylvania Turnpike. As the FBI investigation notes, the toll collector noticed something unusual: "The driver’s companion was hunched down in his seat, holding his stomach, and was obviously in pain.” The collector directed the driver to the nearest hospital, but nobody with severe abdominal pain showed up.
Neither the car nor the driver was ever found. Three hours later, Rubin's body was discovered by a U.S. soldier.
The Cipher Message
Among all the numbers, symbols, and letters of the cryptic message found on Rubin’s body, a couple of words stood out—Dulles and Conant. Could these be references to John Foster Dulles and James B. Conant?
At the time of Rubin’s death, Dulles was about to be sworn in as President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, and Conant was to be appointed U.S. High Commissioner to West Germany.
Alarm bells went off in the intelligence community. Was this a warning about an attack on U.S. government officials? Were foreign spies planning something horrific?
But, nobody could make any sense of the cipher. The best code breakers were turned loose on the document but were unable to unlock its meaning.
The official word came out: "Our investigation of Rubin fails to reflect any subversive activities on his part.” On February 2, 1953, the FBI sent a teletype message to the Philadelphia Police Department, "Intelligence squad detective advised today he was convinced Rubin case contained no intelligence aspect and had turned case over to homicide.”
Likewise, the homicide “detectives advised no further investigation contemplated, being convinced Rubin’s death was suicide.” The file, as per routine, was kept open, but nobody was going to spend any time probing for answers.
Other Theories Abound
Since then, many amateur code-breaking sleuths have puzzled over the Rubin mystery. One of them, Nick Pelling, theorizes that Rubin’s friends could easily have unscrambled the message if they had been given access to his code tables.
Pelling points out that this was the time of the Red Scare and Joseph McCarthy’s Un-American Activities witch hunt. Paranoia about communists pervaded all branches of the U.S. government.
This is how Pelling sees it playing out: “I suspect that the FBI collected up all Rubin’s code-tables and documentation, tried to break them (and failed), and then—because they perceived that National Security was somehow at stake, even if they couldn’t prove it—kept everything quiet. The paranoid logic being, of course, that if Rubin was a goddamn Commie, then all his code-breaking chums were probably all the same distressing shade of Red, and therefore not to be trusted anywhere near his note.”
A simpler explanation occurs to the writer. From the FBI file, it’s clear that Rubin had an unwarranted high opinion of his own intelligence. Could it be that he produced a cipher that was pure gibberish and he simply left an unsolvable problem as a final mockery of those he considered inferior?
- Those who know about these things suggest that Rubin was, in part, using something called Trithemius code. This was an encryption method invented by the German Benedictine abbot Johannes Trithemius who lived from 1462 to 1516.
- A friend of Paul Rubin told police the dead man had taken to referring to himself as Galen Templar after the fictional amateur detective Simon Templar, otherwise known as The Saint. Benjamin Birnbaum said he and Rubin frequently exchanged coded messages.
- The FBI tested Paul Rubin’s typewriter but were unable to state conclusively that the cryptic message was created on his machine.
- On several occasions, Paul Rubin was seen wearing shoes of two different colours.
- “Paul Rubin’s FBI File.” The Cipher Foundation, undated.
- “Paul Rubin Cipher.” The Cipher Foundation, undated.
- “The Secret History of Paul Rubin, Perhaps…? Nick Pelling, Cipher Mysteries, February 22, 2015.
- “The Paul Rubin Cipher.” The Futility Closet, January 8, 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 12, 2019:
What a mysterry this is and will continue to be apparantly. This is a good account of the facts, but I can see why the authorities didn't reach a conclusion.
Liz Westwood from UK on January 12, 2019:
This is a real mystery. You have written a very good account of it.