For more than two decades, a mystery has shrouded itself in the University of Arizona. Purportedly the brainchild of a secret organization rooted in counterculture ideals and forecasting radical revolution, the enigma has eluded the majority of UA students and faculty while brazenly publicizing its existence in a series of ads in the school's newspaper, The Arizona Daily Wildcat.
While too young to be connected to the origins of the puzzle, Bryan Hance, 27, a former UA student and the current Web page designer for the newspaper's online edition, unwittingly holds the key to unlocking the mystery. It is a puzzle that he stumbled across while still an undergraduate eight years ago.
"Long live Chairman Mao"
This unusual quote written in simplified Chinese characters appeared May 1, 1981 as part of a small, inconspicuous advertisement in the Wildcat.
While it seemed to be a commemoration of May Day and a celebration of Communism, the anonymous ad contained little information, and its exact origins remain unknown.
"For three years I saw the May 1 ads and wondered what they were all about," Hance says. "By the time I was at the Wildcat, my interest was piqued and I had the resources to find out what was going on."
Over a frenzied two-week period in 1997, Hance scoured back issues of the paper, compiling a list of more than 50 ads. With each one, pieces of a growing puzzle emerged.
On the surface, the ads suggest some sort of intellectual challenge or game.
However, at the core of the most complex ads are recurring themes of social, political, religious and economic unrest and revolution. They seem to act as a communication for a group of dissident intellectuals forecasting an upcoming event of dramatic social consequence.
"We will find a way or we will make one."
They also appear to be a solicitation for new members.
Each cryptic message is encoded visually or by way of historical references and mathematical riddles. To date, the ads have included about 14 languages including forms of Chinese, Afrikaans and Hebrew.
"Someone is spending an inordinate amount of time and money on this thing," Hance says. "At first I believed it was an individual with a lot of both to spare, then my theory moved to a group of friends playing a game with one another. Now, I have run out of theories, but wouldn't be surprised if there was something more subversive going on."
According to Hance, the May Day ads seem to discuss meeting dates - past and future - for some type of secret society, detailing instructions on how to gain access to meetings and topics for discussion.
The ads typically run as full-page spreads with additional information on corresponding pages. According to Wildcat Advertising Manager Jeannette Brauchli, the ads consistently appear in the most expensive advertising areas of the paper. While she refuses to disclose how much is being paid to run the ads, full-page ads in this section cost about $1,100.
According to Brauchli, Robert Truman Hungerford, 56, has placed the ads in the paper for at least the last decade. Before then, it is unknown whether he, or someone else, delivered the ads.
Hungerford claims he places the ads for an organization and that he sympathizes with its motivations, but he refuses to confirm his membership in the group or provide information about it. Instead, the reclusive lawyer in downtown Tucson says he acts as its legal counsel. The relationship, he says, bars his ability to discuss any aspect of its membership.
Though Hungerford is strangely cryptic and mysterious about his connection to the ads, he is the only solid connection to them and therefore is the key to unraveling the May Day Mystery.
An undergrad at the university in the 1970's and a UA law school student in the 1980's, Hungerford boasts an impressive number of connections to recurring themes and topics in each ad. A self-described anti-social hermit, Hungerford contends that he could be insane, and his relationship with the ads is inexplicably linked to that insanity.
"It is in all likelihood that I am a disturbed, mentally ill person," he says "and these writings are no doubt the ravings of a madman."
With an undergraduate degree in philosophy from the UA and a doctorate in theology from Drew University in New Jersey, Hungerford is a member of Mensa and a former member of a variety of mathematics, statistics and historical societies.
His downtown office is littered with books on cryptography, history, languages, physics, medicine and a variety of other topics. While he possesses a vast collection of language-to-language dictionaries, almanacs, encyclopedias and other references, Hungerford denies he has ever read the volumes in his office.
"I pick out books because of their color, nothing more," he quips.
Between an assortment of weapons such as knives, machetes and guns on his walls are handwritten messages in Hebrew and hieroglyphics, posters of human anatomy and framed collections of stamps and other oddities.
Given the fact that in its 25-year history no other real individual can be connected to the mystery, critics of Hance's site and even individuals who claim to know Hungerford directly say they believe he is the sole creator of the ads.
One source is certain Hungerford alone publishes the ads to flaunt his own intelligence; however, the source refused to be identified fearing retribution from the hermitic lawyer.
When confronted about the possibility that he is the sole originator of the ads, Hungerford contradicts himself into oblivion, first noting the lunacy of the ads and himself, then admitting that if such an organization existed, it would be in its best interest to convince its enemies that it was crazy.
"It is entirely possible that all of this is the work of one person, disturbed or otherwise, it could be for amusement, could be mental illness, could be anything," he says. "But on the other hand … that wouldn't be a bad cover, if one needed a cover."
Hance says he is convinced Hungerford is merely a member of an organization publishing the ads, not its driving force. And though Hance has met with the lawyer on several occasions to fix his computer, Hance says he is neither connected to the organization behind the ads nor interested in pursuing an answer to the riddle through Hungerford.
Instead, Hance used his expertise as a page designer to create a Web site documenting the history of the May Day Mystery and possible theories or explanations for who created it. While the site, www.maydaymystery.org/mayday, contains a complete listing of the ads he has found, in addition to his theories and explanations for the ads, Hance has refrained from posting any information about his relationship with Hungerford.
Created in 1997, interest in the Web site has grown slowly as a variety of individuals have come upon it. In the six years since its inception, Hance's site has garnered a small but dedicated following of skeptics, code breakers, intellectuals from as far away as Europe and China, even someone claiming to be a former member of the National Security Agency. Despite the combined efforts of all its contributors, no one has broken the code, or if they have, no one is talking.
The site eventually attracted the interest of the creator of the cryptic ads. In January 1999, he - or they - made contact.
"The members wish him well, but he (Hance) currently has no idea of the immensity of the prize."
This e-mail communication, later posted on Hance's site, came directly from someone in an organization calling itself The Orphanage. The message rebuked notions that the ads were part of an elaborate game. Instead the writer pointed to meaning in each coded message leading to a culminating event, one in which the political, social and cultural revolution discussed in the texts will play out.
Hance contends that he does not know how The Orphanage discovered his site, but says he believes members of the group found it much like other contributors do, keyword-searching parts of the texts in Internet search engines like Google or Yahoo. References and links to the site also appear on a variety of other cryptography and mystery-related Web sites and online discussion groups.
"Sometimes I wish they never contacted me at all," Hance says. "My involvement in the mystery went from simple to far too complex with one e-mail and I wonder what they'd do to me if I just stopped [the site] altogether."
To date, he has received more than 100 e-mails, courier messages and packages from around the country. He has even received phone messages from The Orphanage. Each provides Hance with insights into aspects of the mystery, specific clues about parts of each ad or monetary incentives to continue maintaining the site. But the identity, or identities, of whomever is sending the information to Hance remains a mystery.
"The day you can see the door, you will be welcomed inside."
Hance says upkeep of the site costs about $120 each month. And though he does not spend any of the money sent by the group, The Orphanage has delivered more than $400 in cash and exotic coins to him for his contributions to the site.
While clarifying a number of lingering questions about its existence, messages from The Orphanage have created more queries than answers in the search for who they may be and what they stand for.
Regardless of its origins, the May Day Mystery is intimately tied to the production of the Wildcat. Hungerford says the group may have other methods for contacting one another, however, he admits the ads have a way of attracting new members.
"Like a tuning fork, there is resonance with the right people," he says. He also contends the group, which he refers to as The Brotherhood, has a growing membership.
"Is there a growing underground army of people waiting to take up arms?" he says. "It would be a wonderful thing if there was, but I wouldn't confirm or deny it even if I could."
Though few on the Wildcat's staff have delved into its existence or possible meaning, the May Day ads are one of a few consistencies in the paper that changes writers, editors, and even readers, about every four years.
"The few calls we do receive each year about the ads are just referred to Bryan [Hance]," UA Student Media Director Mark Woodhams says. "He knows and cares about it more than anyone else seems to."
However, minor controversies have arisen in the past regarding the ads and the possible motivations of The Orphanage. In 1998, a group of students demanded to know who published the ads, convinced the cryptographic messages, many written in Hebrew, were thinly veiled anti-Semitic attacks.
Though the students had to be forcibly removed from the Student Media office, Hance says, the outburst did little to alter the way Wildcat advertising or editorial employees respond to Hungerford's ads.
"The paper has an unspoken policy of 'We don't know, we don't care'," Hance says. "And I tend to agree with it; the [mystery] may be creepy, but I would doubt it is racist."
Hungerford also staunchly denies that The Orphanage uses the May Day ads to attack individual religious beliefs. "That interpretation is wrong," he says. "There is no anti-Semitic undertone to the message."
While Woodhams oversees production of the paper and other student-run media on campus, the student editor-in-chief of the paper makes the final decision about what ads appear in the paper.
"The student-held position changes about every semester and even with occasional outcry against it, the ubiquity of the May Day Mystery has overridden any censorship by editors in the recent past," Woodhams says.
Current editor-in-chief Daniel Scarpinato, who was promoted to the position in January, said in April that, though he is not familiar with the May Day Mystery, any future ads with questionable content would be carefully examined before being published. Under his direction, a full-page ad, placed by Hungerford, ran in the paper May 1.
"Look to the obvious"
While contributors to Hance's Web site extrapolate individual pieces of each puzzle, the key to deciphering the mystery may lie in a more rudimentary examination of its earliest texts.
One explanation of how to read the texts appears on the Web site via a cryptic, anonymous contributor named "near a terminal." According to Hance, "near a terminal" consistently posts suggestions to contributors that show insight into the mystery beyond that of an outsider. Hance is convinced the posts come directly from a member of The Orphanage and are vital to deciphering the overall mystery.
One message posted by "near a terminal" may suggest the way to identify the date of future ads.
The message said, "One of the few things I know about Chinese is that you count the number of brush strokes in a character." In the ad to which the posting refers (May 1, 1981) there are eight letters in a word written in English and 24 brushstrokes in the Chinese writing directly underneath. The date of the next advertisement appearing in the Wildcat was the following Aug. 24 (8/24).
While the connection between visual patterns and the dates or locations of corresponding ads is unclear, Hance agrees that the earliest ads most likely play an integral role in understanding the complexity of the later ones.
Another inhibiting factor in the search for an answer is the fact that Hance's collection is incomplete. While the list of ads he has compiled and received since starting the site has grown to more than 60, microfich copies of the Wildcat at the UA Main Library reveal additional ads including notices on April 18 and April 29, 1983. While the quality of the microfiche is poor, both of the ads appear to be identical to the earlier May Day ads listed on Hance's site.
"The key to solving the whole thing lies in the early ads, I am sure of it," Hance says. "But, I don't know when they begin posting; the May '81 ad is as early as I can find."
"No piece stands apart from any other INTERCONNECTED"
If he does stumble across the key to unlocking the secrets of the May Day Mystery, Hance says he believes he will expose it on the Web site for his most dedicated contributors and code-breakers.
"I know much more about it now than I could have without the help of the other people who contribute," he says. "If there's some light at the end of the tunnel, some group meeting in a dark room somewhere, I couldn't go there alone. I would make it public the same way I have with every piece of information so far. No more secrets."
However, the one secret Hance keeps from the contributors to his site - the knowledge of the man who places the ads and who, at times, says he may well be the sole producer of the riddles - may be the only solution that exists.