Somewhere out there is a fortune in buried gold. We have coded directions on how to find it. One of America’s most sacred documents is the key to deciphering the mystery. It sounds like the plot to the next installment of National Treasure, but this is one situation where reality may be just as interesting — and lucrative — as anything Hollywood can concoct.
The mystery began in January 1820, when Thomas J. Beale showed up at the Washington Hotel in Lynchburg, Virginia. He was a stranger, but he struck up a friendship with the hotel’s owner, Robert Morriss.
Morriss described the man, saying, “In person, he was about six feet in height, with jet black eyes and hair of the same colour, worn longer than was the style at the time. His form was symmetrical, and gave evidence of unusual strength and activity; but his distinguishing feature was a dark and swarthy complexion, as if much exposure to the sun and weather had thoroughly tanned and discoloured him; this, however, did not detract from his appearance, and I thought him the handsomest man I had ever seen.”
Beale spent the winter in Lynchburg before disappearing for two years. When he returned, he shed no additional light on his business, but he did entrust Morriss with a locked iron box. He said the box contained “papers of value and importance.” Morriss held on to the item when Beale disappeared again. This time, however, the mysterious stranger never returned.
Twenty-three years passed until Morriss finally decided the owner of the box was not going to come back. He cut off the lock and looked inside, finding a note from Beale and three pages of numbers. The note described how Beale and 29 others set out to the Wild West in search of buffalo when they happened upon the find of a lifetime. “The party,” the note explained, “encamped in a small ravine, were preparing their evening meal when one of the men discovered in a cleft of the rocks something that had the appearance of gold. Upon showing it to the others it was pronounced to be gold, and much excitement was the natural consequence.”
Beale’s note explained how the 30 of them spent the next year and a half mining the site. By this time they accumulated a large amount of gold and silver. The group entrusted Beale with transporting their treasure back east. To make travel easier, Beale traded some of the silver for jewels. In 1820 he traveled to Lynchburg and buried the treasure in a secret location.
The note also explained how, on Beale’s second trip to Lynchburg, he supplemented the stash with additional treasure. His companions, concerned that something might happen to any of them, decided that someone else would need to be brought into the secret so the prospectors’ relatives would be sure to receive their share of the treasure in the event of a misfortune. This is the reason Morriss ended up being entrusted with the box.
The rest of the note explained that the three sheets of numbers were three separately-encoded messages. One revealed the contents of the treasure, the second disclosed its location, and the third listed the names of the thirty owners, along with their next of kin. Beale promised to send the key for deciphering the messages by way of a letter. Unfortunately, that letter never arrived.
Morriss spent twenty years trying to decipher the secret messages. In 1862, at the age of 84, he knew his time was running out, so he confided in a friend for help. This friend was able to break the code for one of the messages. The key was a foreshadowing of the Nicholas Cage movie National Treasure that was to come 150 years later. The secret of the second cipher was nothing less than one of America’s most precious national treasures: the Declaration of Independence.
The codebreaker determined that Beale’s code was connected to the Declaration. By taking the number in the coded message and counting the corresponding numbered word in the Declaration, and using the first letter from that word, the cipher began to reveal its secrets. For example, the first number in the cipher is 115. The 115th word in the Declaration of Independence is instituted. That means that the first letter in the decoded message is “I.”
By applying this method of codebreaking, the Beale cipher that reveals the contents of the treasure reads as follows:
“I have deposited in the county of Bedford, about four miles from Buford’s, in an excavation or vault, six feet below the surface of the ground, the following articles, belonging jointly to the parties whose names are given in number three, herewith:
The first deposit consisted of ten hundred and fourteen pounds of gold, and thirty-eight hundred and twelve pounds of silver, deposited Nov. eighteen nineteen. The second was made Dec. eighteen twenty-one, and consisted of nineteen hundred and seven pounds of gold, and twelve hundred and eighty-eight of silver; also jewels, obtained in St. Louis in exchange to save transportation, and valued at thirteen thousand dollars.
The above is securely packed in iron pots, with iron covers. The vault is roughly lined with stone, and the vessels rest on solid stone, and are covered with others. Paper number one describes the exact locality of the vault, so that no difficulty will be had in finding it.”
Despite this promising start, Morriss’ friend was unable to glean any meaning from the other two ciphers. He decided to turn to the public for help. The result was the publication of The Beale Papers, a pamphlet that laid out the mysterious history of the documents and provided the undeciphered coded messages for the public’s contemplation.
The publication of The Beale Papers sparked a furious search by professional and amateur treasure hunters and codebreakers. Countless would-be prospectors have descended on Bedford County to start digging. Some have done so with the permission of the owners, and some ended up being arrested for trespassing. Based on the uncoded description of the items, the value of the buried treasure, in 2018 figures, is estimated to be in excess of $43 million.
Some of the best minds in codebreaking have devoted themselves to the task of unlocking the secrets of the Beale ciphers. Herbert O. Yardley, the founder of the U.S. Cipher Bureau; William Friedman, a top U.S. codebreaker; Carl Hammer, retired director of computer science at Sperry Univac; and Alan Turing, the codebreaker who deciphered the German Enigma code, are just a few of the brilliant cryptologists who attempted — and failed — to decipher Beale’s codes.
The lack of success in deciphering the remaining messages has led some to conclude that The Beale Papers is nothing more than an elaborate hoax. Skeptics have searched for inconsistencies and flaws in the Beale story. For example, Beale’s letter enclosed in the box with the ciphers was supposedly written in 1822, but it contains the word stampede, which was not seen in print until 1844. It is, however, possible that the word was in common usage in the west at a much earlier date, and Beale could have encountered it on his travels.
Despite the skeptics, there is historical evidence that supports the claims of the pamphlet. Using the census of 1790 and other documents, scholars have identified several Thomas Beales, who were born in Virginia and whose backgrounds fit the few known facts. Most of the details we have about Beale concern his trip to Sante Fe, and there is evidence to corroborate his discovery of gold. For example, Jacob Fowler, who explored the American southwest in 1821-22, noted in his journal that the Pawnee and Crowe tribes “speake on the most friendly terms of the White men and Say they are about 35 in number.” Also, there is a Cheyenne legend dating from around 1820 which tells of gold and silver being taken from the West and buried in Eastern Mountains.
Additionally, studies by computer scientists have led to the conclusion by some that the numbers in the undeciphered messages do not correspond with randomly-assigned values. Although the key to deciphering them remains undiscovered, the distribution of the numbers suggests that there is some kind of message there.
The possibility that this vast fortune is still out there is enough to keep the Beale ciphers in front of a new generation of treasure hunters. Perhaps in anticipation of this, the author of The Beale Papers provided this word of warning:
“Before giving the papers to the public, I would give them a little advice, acquired by bitter experience. It is, to devote only such time as can be spared from your legitimate business to the task, and if you can spare no time, let the matter alone … Never, as I have done, sacrifice your own and your family’s interests to what may prove an illusion; but, as I have already said, when your day’s work is done, and you are comfortably seated by your good fire, a short time devoted to the subject can injure no one, and may bring its reward.”
Read The Beale Papers for yourself, and see if you are able to unlock the mystery and the treasure that have eluded the best cryptologists and treasure hunters.
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