The most beautiful secret I know sits a block from my office, near the corner of Independence and Seventh avenues in Washington, tucked neatly into one of the sexy curves outside the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. It’s a message written on two sinuous waves of copper joined by a piece of petrified wood—a graceful sculpture called Antipodes crafted by Jim Sanborn 15 years ago. The copper scrolls unfurl in a maddening Babel of Cyrillic letters on one side and Roman on the other. The Cyrillic code was broken in 2003: It includes a passage from a classified KGB memo about dissident Andrei Sakharov, and matches the text on another Sanborn sculpture installed in Charlotte, North Carolina. The English message, similar to the text on Sanborn’s famous Kryptos sculpture in front of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, has been partially deciphered, but includes one of the most famous unsolved codes in the world. I often wander over and stare at the maze of letters, an artistic reminder that so many secrets are hidden in plain sight.
On the eve of the presidential election, it seemed like the right time to look at the power of secrets in America. We begin at the beginning with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in code to the explorer Meriwether Lewis and later created a wheel cipher so ingenious that its design was used to create military codes nearly 150 years later. Jefferson kept other secrets at his home in Monticello, most notably on Mulberry Row, a spartan village of slave cabins and work buildings. In “Master of Monticello,” award-winning historian Henry Wiencek uncovers new archaeological and documentary evidence that paints a darker portrait of Jefferson than any we’ve ever seen before.
The rest of this issue is jammed with secrets large and small, from the long-forgotten identity of Mark Twain’s drinking buddy (“The Real Tom Sawyer,”) to an alleged 19th-century vampire we’ve unearthed in time for Halloween (“The Great New England Vampire Panic,” ). You’ll find unpublished images from the Cuban missile crisis 50 years ago (“The Photographs That Prevented World War III,” ) and the more recent secret ops of a real-life “Mission: Impossible” character, an agent who crisscrossed the globe stealing codes for the CIA. The Smithsonian’s collections are filled with artifacts linked to secrets, and one of the most iconic is the file cabinet from the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, marked by the crowbars of the White House “plumbers” unit that would go on to infamy at the Watergate hotel (“The Ellsberg Files,”).
We’ve added to the secrets by turning this issue itself into a code. Turn to page 39 and see if you can crack the Great American History Puzzle. If you’re first you will win a “Secrets of the Smithsonian” tour—and maybe you’ll also be able to tell me what my favorite sculpture is trying to say.
Michael Caruso, Editor in Chief