When a brain tumor robbed Dorothy Holm of her ability to speak, she began filling index cards from edge to edge with seemingly random sequences of letters before she died in 1996. Her grandchildren thought she might be writing in code, but couldn’t decipher it.
When the cards resurfaced this year, Dorothy Holm’s granddaughter Janna Holm decided to take another crack at the code—this time with some help. She posted photos of the cards on community blog MetaFilter.com on Jan. 20, and its users solved significant portions of the 20-year-old-puzzle in under 15 minutes: Dorothy Holm was writing prayers.
“It was kind of relieving to have an answer, even if we don’t know what every single word says,” Janna Holm, who posted the card, said. “It’s nice to know that they were prayers, and kind of gave some insight into what she was thinking and what she was focused on in her last couple weeks.”
When Holm originally posted the photos, she thought the code might be song lyrics, because there were repetitions, strokes that looked like backward commas, and line breaks that looked like stanzas.
“This is a crazy long shot, but I've seen Mefites pull off some pretty impressive code-breaking before!” she wrote on the blog when she uploaded the photos.
In minutes, MetaFilter members were on the case. One user—looking at the back of the card—asked if Dorothy was religious and recognized the beginning letters of the Lord’s Prayer.
“AGH, YES! … OFWAIHHBTN … Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name,” the user wrote.
From there, MetaFilter members worked through different letters on the card. They looked for patterns from the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and possible phrases from personal prayer. Some put together algorithms to find patterns and matches. Using her own deductions and comments from the website, Holm compiled a prayer in which her grandmother was giving thanks, and praying that her loved ones would be safe, happy and healthy.
Not only did the forum explode with people trying to help crack the code, but the story began circulating around the internet as well.
Holm said she's not sure why her grandmother used a code, but perhaps, as her memory faded, she used it as a “cheat sheet” to help recall her prayers.
Holm, of Baltimore, Md., said the experience has shown her the power of crowd sourcing and given her new insight into her grandmother’s character. And after a couple of whirlwind days, Holm said she has all the answers she needs.
“I don’t care if a little bit of it never gets solved,” she said. “It’s OK to have a little bit of mystery.”