The Sebald Code is a code created by Gustav Sebald and used by the Volunteers of the V.F.D. It is known to have been used in Sebald's movie script for Zombies in the Snow, but it is also widely used in letters between volunteers.
Instructions for Usage
The beginning of a coded passage is signaled by the ringing, or mention of the ringing, of a bell. The first word to come after this signal is the first word of the coded message. Every eleventh word after this first word is another part of the coded message, making it so that ten uncoded words fall between every coded word. This pattern continues until the first bell stops ringing, a second bell rings, or a bell's ringing is again mentioned.
Here is a simple example of the Sebald Code:
- (A doorbell rings.)
- Gertrude: This is a very pleasant surprise! Please come in, Bob!
- Bob: How is Ebenezer?
- Gertrude: He is very ill. I have to give him an injection every hour.
- Bob: That's a shame. He once was an example of good health.
- Gertrude: For comfort he looks at old photos of when he was healthier. I took him to see
- Dr. Sebald, but it seemed as if he was just talking in code.
- (An alarm clock rings.)
- Gertrude: He must need another injection. Coming, Ebenezer!
- (All leave.)
When decoded, the message in this passage is: "This is an example of Sebald Code".
According to Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, the Sebald code was used in the movie Zombies in the Snow in an attempt to warn Dr. Montgomery Montgomery that Stephano was really Count Olaf in disguise. It is believed, however, that Dr. Montgomery did not know of the Sebald Code, which explains his continued trust of the villain.
The Penultimate Peril
Another example of the Sebald Code can be found on page 67 of The Penultimate Peril. The passage is as follows, with coded words bolded.
- "Ring!" cried either Ernest or Frank. "Ring! I shouldn't have to tell you the bell's your signal. We can't keep our guests waiting for even an instant. You can tell which guest is ringing by the number on the bell. If the number written on the bell was 469, for example, then you would know that one of our Portuguese guests required assistance. Are you paying attention? The bell marked 674 indicates our associates in the lumber industry, as the number 674 means lumber processing or wood producers in the Dewey Decimal System. We can't make enemies out of important guests! The number 371 indicated educational guests. Please be nice to them, too, although they're much less important. Respond to all of our guests whenever you hear that ring!"
Note that numbers are counted as a single word even if they are multiple words when spoken. E.g. 469 is counted as one word, not as three words (four six nine) or four words (four hundred sixty nine).
When decoded, the message in this passage is: "I can't tell if you are in or enemies. Please respond." There seems to be an error in the results, with fans proposing corrections:
- "I can't tell if you are associates or enemies. Please respond." (Moving one word forward from "in" to "associates".)
- "I can't tell if you are in or out. Please respond." (Moving one word backward from "enemies" to "out".)
This might be an unintentional error in the text or it might have been intentionally put in to further confuse the identity of the speaker (while Frank might have meant "associates or enemies", Ernest may have meant "in or out").
The Sebald code, which we see in The Reptile Room: Part One and The Carnivorous Carnival: Part One, appears more complex in the TV series than it does in the books. A spyglass is needed to decode it.
- It is likely that the idea of using different forms of the verb "to ring" to signal the start of the code was taken from Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Bells" from The Coded Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe (a fictional book that apparently references Edgar Allen Poe's experience as a cryptographer). Two excerpts from the book appear in Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography.
- There have been many fan-made messages, including a letter from Gregor Anwhistle to Eleanora Poe which deciphers to "Volunteers needed. Emergency. If anything suspicious, call 929-274-3473. No names line. Not Safe. Others are listening."