What’s in a Code Name?

Jefferson Coded Letter to Madison

Coded letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison.

Long before computers or Enigma machines, diplomats and spies sent coded messages to colleagues. Just as some people are far better working crossword puzzles than others, some historic figures embraced code more readily than their compatriots.

As a diplomat in France and Holland during and after the Revolutionary War, John Adams was urged to encode letters, even private letters to his wife.

Abigail_AdamsHowever, Abigail Adams declared to code-maker James Lovell, “Thank you for your alphabetacall cipher tho I believe I shall never make use of it. I hate a cipher of any kind and have been so much more used to deal in realities with those I love, that I should make a miserable proficiency in modes and figures.” She also felt that her husband John was not much of a code-cracker either. ” Besides my Friend is no adept in investigating ciphers and hates to be puzzled for a meaning.”

Below is a list of coded names that Adams, Francis Dana, and James Searle used in correspondence during their diplomatic missions in Europe.

Note that Benjamin Franklin is referred to as D.D. and his grandson D.D.J. (for junior), while John Adams is Steady.

D.D.J—Franklin Junr.
Joseph YorkeAngelica—Vergenes
De Novo—De Castres
Grex—States General
Steady—Mr. Adams
Funn—J. Searle
Dortje—Regency of Ams.
Knobb—Van Berkle
Swivel Eye J. D. Neufville
V—Arthur Lee
Brux—Mr. Izard
Fornicatio—Sr. Jos. Yorke

I love some of those names. The British minister to The Hague, Sir Joseph Yorke, must have been quite a character to inspire the moniker Fornicatio. And I have to wonder why Amsterdam merchant, Jean de Neufville, was known as Swivel Eye. I just wish the chap tagged Indiana had been named Jones…

james searleJames Searle, known in the list as Funn, was indeed a fun guy. He once engaged in a cane fight at the Continental Congress with Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress. Searle claimed that Thomson misquoted him, and the fight resulted in slashed faces for both men. 

I took a course on the history of espionage in high school where we had to choose code names. A classmate and I split Mata Hari between us, with me taking one half and her the other. I can’t remember now whether I was Mata or Hari, but I think I prefer either to the choices on that list.  However, if I have to go with one, I’ll take Snapo!

Read the text of a letter from Francis Dana to John Adams (dated 1781) that includes code names from the list.

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