Sara Rivers Cofield didn't anticipate uncovering a mystery when she purchased a vintage 19th-century dress in 2014. The curator and archaeologist bought what appeared to be a typical 1888 bronze silk bustle dress, but it was in incredibly good shape. But when she was able to examine the intricate garment, she saw that it was accompanied by an enigmatic message, the meaning of which would not be discovered for almost a decade.
On her blog, Cofield first expressed her excitement about the purchase. There, she discussed the various characteristics of the dress that set it apart, like the fact that it still had its original buttons and a handwritten name tag that said "Bennett" was sewn into the bodice lining. The excitement level increased, though, when Cofield discovered that the dress had a hidden pocket. "Usually built-in pockets don't play hard-to-get, but it took a while to get to the thing, even with assistance from my mom, my constant antiquing partner," the author notes.
"This pocket opening is entirely hidden by the overskirt; that is, you have to hike up the draped silk, expose the cotton underskirt, and generally disrupt the entire look to get to the pocket, instead of being easily accessed through an inconspicuous slit in the overskirt." Cofield also noticed that the pockets could only be accessed without causing damage to the dress when no one was wearing it because of their placement and design.
Surprisingly, when Cofield got to this hidden pocket, something was still there: two transparent sheets of paper with handwritten notes on them. Sadly, the jottings themselves weren't very informative at first. In addition to numbers and colour notations, most of the lines contained odd phrases like "Bismark Omit leafage buck bank/ Paul Ramify loamy event false new event." Cofield concluded after some investigation and help that it was a telegraph code, but data analyst Wayne S. Chan would not decipher the secret message's meaning for years. The strange phrases were part of telegraph messages describing weather observations in the United States and Canada that were sent by the weather bureau and army.
Chan's research even allowed him to pinpoint May 27, 1888, as the day of the covert message. A line that reads, "'Bismark Omit leafage buck bank' indicated the reading was taken at Bismarck station, in the Dakota Territory," was translated and published in The New York Times. 'Omit' called for an air temperature of 56 degrees and a pressure of 0.08 inches of mercury; however, the true reading may have been higher, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Leafage," measured at 10 p.m. with a dew point of 32 degrees. "Buck," fine weather with a northerly wind and no precipitation. "Bank," a 12-mile-per-hour wind, and a brilliant sunset.