Sara Rivers Cofield bought the dress because it had “a really poofy bustle.” As a collector of antique bustle dresses, that appealed to her.

So she paid $100 for the 19th-century garment at the Searsport Antique Mall in 2013. It turned out to be quite a bargain, considering all that came with it – history, mystery and national media attention.

Last week, both the New York Times and Washington Post ran stories on Rivers Cofield and her bustle dress.

This bustle dress bought in Searsport held a mystery that took years to solve. Photo courtesy of Sara Rivers Cofield

Soon after buying the garment, Rivers Cofield found a hidden pocket that contained two pieces of paper with what appeared to be random handwritten words. Rivers Cofield is a Maine native – her family moved out of state when she was about 4 – who works as an archeological curator for the state of Maryland and is an ardent antique hunter. Despite her training as an archeologist and antiquing hobby, she had no idea what the random words might mean or why they were in the dress.

“I thought it might be part of a spy story,” Rivers Cofield, 46, told the Press Herald last week. She bought the dress on a trip to visit her parents, who live in Searsport.

Random words scribbled on paper found in an antique dress in Maine turned out to be coded weather forecasts from the 1880s. Photo courtesy of Sara Rivers Cofield

Hoping to find out about the odd scribbling, she posted the papers online, which created a buzz among a certain segment of code-breaking enthusiasts. Some recognized that it was likely a coded telegraph message. The telegraph was the fastest form of communication for much of the 19th century and messages were coded to protect people’s privacy, the way people today might password-protect valuable information.


Sara Rivers Cofield found a mysterious message tucked into an antique dress she bought in Searsport. Photo courtesy of Sara Rivers Cofield

Wayne Chan, an analyst with the Centre for Earth Observation Science at the University of Manitoba in Canada, was one code-breaking enthusiast particularly interested in the mystery. Chan told the Press Herald he pored over some 170 old telegraph code books for about four years, online and in print, to see if any matched the pieces of paper found in the dress. One book from 1880 included a description of some codes used for weather reports. This led him to a 19th-century telegraph code used by the U.S. Army Signal Corps for weather reports sent from stations around the country.

Chan looked at microfiche copies of several editions of those codebooks and was able to decode the dress pocket messages. They include observations of temperature, pressure, wind speed, and visibility sent in 1888 from a variety of stations, including Bismarck in the Dakota Territory (now North Dakota), Texas, Illinois, and Mississippi, as well as Canada. Chan started researching the mystery in 2018 and solved it near the end of 2022.

“The problem was that there were hundreds of codebooks produced during the era of the telegraph, so it was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack,” Chan said about his long search for answers.

Chan wrote an academic article about cracking the code and his findings last August, and the University of Manitoba news office posted an article about it online in December. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also posted a release about the dress and the coded message on its website in December. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post picked up the story.

But why would a coded telegraph message be hiding in an antique dress in Maine?

Rivers Cofield had also found a handwritten tag with the name “Bennett” stitched into her antique dress. During his research, Chan found that in the 1888 Signal Corps annual report there was a listing of several volunteer weather observers, including Mary C. Bennett, of Fairview, Fulton County, Illinois.

How the dress and message got to Maine is still a mystery, though. The Searsport Antique Mall has since closed. Rivers Cofield said she and her mother had asked Antiques Mall staff if there was any information about where the dress came from. They checked with the dealer who had brought the dress into the antique mall, on consignment, and the dealer could not recall where the dress came from.

“It was a splurge for me. It was this really beautiful metallic color, a quintessential bustle dress. And it had all its buttons, usually on a dress like that they’re cut off by button collectors,” said Rivers Cofield.

She still has the dress. Now she’s got quite a story to tell, too.

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