Throw the book at him! [Part 2]

In Part 1, we looked out how to use Project Gutenberg‘s large collection of about 39,000 digitized books to apply cribs to cipher texts to try to tease out solutions. Another way we can use the collection of books is to see if any of the unique words and phrases used by the killer in his many correspondences can be found among the books. Did the killer use a unique writing style that was similar to the style of another author? Did he use relatively rare words that can only be found in a few sources? Can any of his many misspelled words be found in common usage by other authors, suggesting a connection?

Over the years, I’ve seen many armchair investigators trying to link the killer to their “persons of interest” by identifying shared patterns in their handwriting, or phrases that are used by both authors. Much of this kind of pattern recognition boils down to simple pareidolia, where people are convinced they see patterns that reflect some underlying connection, but in fact many such connections exist that they don’t recognize, because they seek only the patterns that validate their suspect. Nevertheless, investigating the killer’s writing style is an important angle to the case.

After completing the program that generates the list of Zodiac’s repeated words and phrases, I was really curious to know if any uniquely “Zodiac-like” phrases appeared in other sources, so I turned the program’s attention to Project Gutenberg to find words and phrases shared between its collection and the Zodiac. The extensive results can be found here.

Most of the results can be chalked up to simple coincidences, because of the use of common phrases. But some of the more specific matches are interesting:

One well-known connection is Zodiac’s extensive quotations from Gilbert and Sullivan’s popular operetta the Mikado:

In the July 26, 1970 “Little List” letter, he includes the full text from “They’ll None of ’em Be Missed”, also known as “I’ve Got a Little List” and “Lord High Executioner”. Below is a comparison of Zodiac’s version against the original.

Zodiac version Original version
As some day it may hapen that a victom must be found. As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I’ve got a little list. I’ve got a little list, I’ve got a little list – I’ve got a little list
of society offenders who might well be underground Of social offenders who might well be underground,
who would never be missed who would never be missed. And who never would be missed – who never would be missed!
There is the pestulentual nucences who whrite for autographs, There’s the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs –
all people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs. All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs –
All children who are up in dates and implore you with im platt. All children who are up in dates, and floor you with ’em flat –
All people who are shakeing hands shake hands like that. All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like THAT –
And all third persons who with unspoiling take thoes who insist. And all third persons who on spoiling TETE-E-TETES insist –
They’d none of them be missed. They’d none of them be missed. They’d none of ’em be missed – they’d none of ’em be missed!
There’s a banjo seranader and the others of his race There’s the nigger serenader, and the others of his race, (alternate version: There’s the banjo serenader, and the others of his race,)
and the piano orginast I got him on the list. And the piano organist – I’ve got him on the list!
All people who eat pepermint and phomphit in your face, And the people who eat peppermint and puff it in your face,
they would never be missed They would never be missed They never would be missed – they never would be missed!
And the Idiout who phraises with inthusastic tone Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
of centuries but this and every country but his own. All centuries but this, and every country but his own;
And the lady from the provences who dress like a guy And the lady from the provinces, who dresses like a guy,
who doesn’t cry And who “doesn’t think she waltzes, but would rather like to try”;
and the singurly abnormily the girl who never kissed. And that FIN-DE-SIECLE anomaly, the scorching motorist – (alternate version: And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist–)
I don’t think she would be missed Im shure she wouldn’t be missed. I don’t think he’d be missed – I’m SURE he’d not be missed! (alternate version: I don’t think she’d be missed–I’m _sure_ she’d not be missed!)
And that nice impriest that is rather rife And that NISI PRIUS nuisance, who just now is rather rife,
the judicial hummerest I’ve got him on the list. The Judicial humorist – I’ve got HIM on the list!
All funny fellows, commic men and clowns of private life. All funny fellows, comic men, and clowns of private life –
They’d none of them be missed. They’d none of them be missed. They’d none of ’em be missed – they’d none of ’em be missed!
And uncompromising kind And apologetic statesmen of the compromising kind,
such as wachmacallit, thingmebob, and like wise, well – – nevermind, Such as – What-d’ye-call-him – Thing’em-Bob, and likewise – Never-mind,
and tut tut tut tut, and whashisname, and you know who, And ‘St – ‘st – ‘st – and What’s-his-name, and also – You-know-who
but the task of filling up the blanks I rather leave up to you. (The task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to YOU!)
But it really doesn’t matter whom you place upon the list, But it really doesn’t matter whom you put upon the list,
for none of them be missed, none of them be missed. For they’d none of ’em be missed – they’d none of ’em be missed!

Zodiac’s version matches the original in most cases. But when he writes, “and the singurly abnormily the girl who never kissed“, he appears to be directly quoting the version sung by Groucho Marx, the only version that appears to mention the girl who never kissed. This connection has been noticed before: Example 1, Example 2, Example 3. Interestingly, the “Secret Pal” card, inconclusively linked to the killer, features a snowman wearing Groucho’s trademark glasses and nose:

(Completely unrelated side note: There’s even a Family Guy version of the Little List.)

Several years after sending his Little List letter, Zodiac includes another Mikado quote in his 1974 “Exorcist” letter:

Here’s the full poem as it appears in “Songs of a Savoyard“:

Zodiac’s apparently admiration of the Mikado has been often discussed. The original case investigators thought that maybe the unique phrasings in Zodiac’s version suggested he might have played a part in the play. They questioned cast members of various local productions of the Mikado, but they were all cleared. What was Zodiac’s connection to the Mikado? Was he just a fan of the play, or did he have a more direct connection?

Moving past the Mikado references, here’s another interesting match occurs in the November 9, 1969 Chronicle letter:

The phrase “ammonium nitrate fertilizer” appears in “Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965” by Morris J. MacGregor:

But chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance wanted to retain white marines at Earle because a recent decision to handle ammonium nitrate fertilizer there made it unwise to relieve the existing trained detachment.

Does this suggest a military connection to the Zodiac killer? Did he gain knowledge of the explosive properties of ammonium nitrate while in the military? Many people have explored Zodiac’s connection to the military, given his apparent knowledge of code-making, guns, and bombs.

In the letter to Melvin Belli, the killer says “I wish you a happy Christmas”, a slightly more formal version of “Merry Christmas” that gained popularity in the 19th century in the UK, and is still commonly used there.

Others have explored Zodiac’s frequent use of the word “shall”, appearing in his letters about two dozen times. Americans rarely use the word “shall”, but it is common in British English (source).

Even more unique to Zodiac are the odd misspellings littered throughout his writings. Do they appear among the thousands of Project Gutenberg books? The answer is yes, and quite frequently. Here is a list of Zodiac’s misspelled words, shown in order of how often they are found as-is, from least frequently found to most frequently found:

booboos, closeing, comidy, darck, idenity, pepermint, raceing, shakeing, srounded, symbionese, twiched, victom, waveing, xmass, averly, butons, circut, efective, unspoiling, woeman, accid, bluber, runnig, figgure, fryst, intersting, teritory, triger, truley, aprox, brunett, posibly, twich, dificult, dungen, experence, pleass, provences, thoes, rubed, wateing, nineth, lyeing, hapen, buton, noze, useing, fireing, frunt, efect, christmass, committ, toschi, anamal, paradice, howers, allways, roat, cene, abot, extreamly, evere, oute, mery, doo, bussy, complet, som

And here’s a list of misspelled words that I didn’t find as-is among the 39,000 Project Gutenberg books:

abnormily, anilating, cicles, claif, commic, consternt, controol, coupples, crackproof, cruzeing, cyipher, dangeroue, descise, disconect, entirle, epasode, hummerest, idiout, impriest, inthusastic, meannie, meannies, motorcicles, nucences, orginast, origionaly, paterned, pestulentual, phomphit, phraises, positivily, saterical, seranader, shabbly, silowets, singurly, sloi, swiches, thashing, thingmebob, unnoticible, ventalate, wachmacallit, whashisname, whrite, wipeing

The problem, though, is that misspellings are very common in older forms of English. For example, The Journals of Lewis and Clark by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (1804-1806) shares many of the same misspellings found in Zodiac’s letters:

the Indians whome I have asked in what direction the traders go when they depart from hence, allways point to the S. W. from which it is prosumeable that Nootka cannot be their distination

this day Joseph Fields killed a Braro as it is called by the French engages. this is a singular anamal not common to any part of the United States.

The Indians with the oile & bluber tole me they had to purchase of the Ca-le nixx

Our Diner to day Consisted of pore Elk boiled, Spilt fish & Some roots, a bad Christmass diner worm Day

the river is Crouded with rocks in every direction, after Passing this dificult rapid to the mouth of a Small river on the Larboard Side

you arrive within three miles of the vilage when the woodland commences and continues to the Missouri the latter is extreamly fertile.

I expect the French men fireing for Whitehous who was lost in the woods.

all prepared on board for any thing which might hapen, we kept a Strong guard all night

a series of observations made by myself for that purpose was found to be 15 Seconds and a 5 tenths of a second too slow in twenty four howers on Mean Solar time.

Secured by a outer pole lyeing parrelal with the eve pole

The Indians and our party were very mery this after noon a woman faind madness

I wouldn’t read anything into these kinds of similarities to the Zodiac’s misspellings. They are just coincidences. But there is still an open question: How can you tell if a match is not a coincidence? I don’t know. But perhaps we could limit the search to contemporary sources that were available in the Zodiac’s day. Or develop another method to filter out the coincidental matches by combining the matched misspellings with other matched phrases and words. Or look for similarities in writing style, such as ways sentences are organized, lengths of sentences, syntactic structures, use of jargon words, figures of speech, and diction.

If you want to perform full text searches of the Gutenberg collection yourself, you can use the Anacleto search engine.

Can you find other interesting results in the search results? What, if anything, can you conclude from any of the remaining matches between the Zodiac’s letters and other sources?

In Part 3 we will explore the results of a search for snippets of text from Project Gutenberg that fit into highly constrained pieces of the Zodiac’s cipher text.