A set of 200-year-old codes contain the key to unlocking the location of millions of dollars’ worth (60 million more or less) of gold, silver, and jewels buried in Virginia. With a treasure as large as that, it’s no wonder that for the past century, the quest to break these highly secretive codes has attracted the military, computer scientists, and (of course) conspiracy, theorists. But they have all failed, one after the other.
So the question is: Are the codes (also called ciphers) and the treasure real? Well, according to treasure hunters and mediums (those who communicate between the living and the dead), as well as those who have tried to crack the code for over a century, the struggle is, indeed, real.
Through the Crystal Ball
According to the medium hired to figure this out, the year this all began was 1819. The medium claimed he saw the upper bedroom of Paschal Buford’s tavern, which sat below the Blue Ridge Mountains near modern Montvale, Virginia. In this dark room, a frontiersman named Thomas J. Beale sat looking at a pair of saddlebags resting on his bed.
As Beale opened the bags, light suddenly burst through the room. The medium, who claimed to see this all happen through his crystal ball, saw the glitter of jewels, diamonds, rubies, pearls, and emeralds. He then saw Beale look at his treasure, smile, and cautiously tuck the saddlebags under a pillow.
Two Brothers on a Mission
I know what you’re thinking: “Crystal ball? What the —-.” But keep in mind that this medium and his visions occurred back in 1898, when things were, um, different. There were two brothers, one a believer, one a skeptic. Clayton Hart was the believer, and he fidgeted with anticipation as he watched the medium. Clayton’s brother, George, however, was a skeptic and stood nearby in silence.
The two Hart brothers were attempting to gather potentially life-changing information. What they knew was that 79 years earlier, Thomas J. Beale had reportedly buried millions of dollars of gold and jewels in the foothills near Montvale. The medium’s readings were the brothers’ last straw in their efforts to discover the location of the buried treasure.
Wagons, Shovels, and a Buried Treasure
Lucky for the Hart brothers, the medium said he saw Beale’s every move: Beale arriving at Buford’s tavern on horseback with a rifle, pistols on each hip, and two bags of jewels slung over his saddle. Behind him were five covered wagons, hauling iron pots of gold and silver.
After resting in his dark room at the tavern, Beale and his men buried the fortune deep in the Virginia woods, about four miles from the tavern. The medium described the location as Clayton jittered, listening to every detail. It took a few months, but finally, Clayton and George headed into Montvale with their buggy full of shovels, ropes, and lanterns.
Up Goose Creek
Their trusty medium joined the brothers reluctantly. Clayton had hypnotized the medium (again, it was 1898), who then led the brothers up Goose Creek, past a fence, and down a stream to a hollow in the earth. While in his trance, the medium then pointed to the dirt. “There’s the treasure!” he yelled out. “Can’t you see it?”
Lit by lanterns and the moon, the Hart brothers dug into the earth. Hours passed as the hole deepened. As dawn was about to break, Clayton stuck his shovel into the red, iron-rich dirt and stopped when he heard a hollow thud.
First Shovels, Then Dynamite
After the brothers exchanged glances, Clayton frantically dug. They turned over a large rock, but nothing was underneath it. After refusing to help for the entire night, the medium (who lounged on a bed of dead leaves instead) was re-hypnotized by Clayton and instructed to explain himself. That’s when he pointed to an oak tree just a few feet away.
“There it is! You got over too far! Can’t you see it?” The Hart brothers, by then exhausted and utterly annoyed, left. A week later, Clayton returned. This time, he had dynamite. He literally blew up that poor oak tree, but – you guessed it – there was no gold.
First, a Puzzle
These events were later written down by George in 1964, and, all in all, they convinced the Hart brothers that hypnosis and the use of a medium were not the path to fortune. If they were to discover Thomas J. Beale’s buried treasure, they would have to do the hard work like everybody else: by solving a puzzle.
This insane list of numbers apparently reveals that a treasure with 2,921 pounds of gold, 5,100 pounds of silver, and $1.5 million of precious jewels (totaled at a value of $60 million) are buried somewhere and are up for grabs. You just need to crack the code first.
The Age-Old Story
Anyone able to crack the code will discover the location of the treasure Beale buried about 200 years ago. Beale’s story of his treasure has been retold countless times: Beale was a 19th century adventurer who discovered a fortune on a hunting trip near the New Mexico-Colorado border.
After lugging his riches home to Virginia and burying them, he concealed the details — the exact location, contents, and heirs of the treasure — in three separate codes. Only one of those codes, Cipher No. 2, the code describing the contents of the treasure, has been decrypted.
A Guessing Game
They’re basic substitution codes: Each number represents a letter of the alphabet. Someone numbered the words in a “key” text. Simply put, as long as a key is available, a substitution code is a reliable way to encrypt a message. But the thing about Beale’s ciphers is that we don’t have the keys. Not yet…
For the past two centuries, different attempts have been made to solve the Beale codes, making it more or less of a guessing game. In the late 19th century, an amateur cryptanalyst (who remains anonymous) stumbled upon the key to Beale’s second cipher.
The Declaration of Independence
The cryptanalyst revealed the opening sentence to the second cipher, which used the Declaration of Independence as the key to the code: “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 coded message describes the treasure in detail and ends with: “Paper number one describes the exact locality of the vault so that no difficulty will be had in finding it.” Easy for him to say. So far, the search has been nothing but difficult.
Searching Far and Wide
Both amateur and professional cryptanalysts have searched, desperately, for the lost key texts. They have searched far and wide, consulted with the Louisiana Purchase, Shakespeare’s plays, the Magna Carta, the Monroe Doctrine, and the United States Constitution.
They checked The Star-Spangled Banner, the Lord’s Prayer, the Songs of Solomon, and the Book of Psalms. They looked at old local newspapers, too. According to journalist Ruth Daniloff, “Cryptanalysts say a second-grader could break the ciphers if he looked in on the documents on which they are based.” Well, until that happens, the last two ciphers will remain a jumble of useless numbers.
The Struggle Is Real
Like all (good) riddles, the Beale ciphers are addictive – ones that naturally curious people can’t resist. But unlike almost all riddles, solving these could make you a millionaire. With such stakes, the codes have the potential to ultimately take over and ruin people’s lives.
These are the people who come with metal detectors and magnetometers, those things called Geiger counters and dowsing rods. They have backhoes and pickaxes, with psychic mediums (even to this day) on speed dial and dynamite ready to ignite. These are the treasure hunters who are motivated by a certain Virginia state law…
The law states that buried treasure is finder’s-keepers, which applies even if it’s discovered on private property. These treasure hunters come ready, gripped by a belief that they are the only ones who truly know where Beale’s treasure is hiding.
One treasure hunter insisted that it’s buried at a local visitors’ center, directly under the ladies’ room. (How convenient…). Many of these treasure hunters have noticed that the newspaper headlines of the past 70 years reveal a hopeless pattern:
“MAN HOT ON THE TRAIL OF THOMAS BEALE’S TREASURE.”
“FOLLOW-UP: MAN WRONG.”
Clothes Hangers and Horseshoes
A Chicago refrigeration contractor was sure he had broken the ciphers in just five days. He even convinced local officials to dig up a (graveless) portion of a cemetery. What did they find? Clothes hangers and horseshoes. But he wasn’t on the good side of luck (the horseshoes, you see).
Then there was a Texas man who drove to Virginia with his wife and kids, just to borrow a local roadmap that he was positive would lead to the treasure. It didn’t. You see the pattern? We can continue a little, for fun…
Catching the Bug
A man from Massachusetts jumped out of bed, shaken by a vivid dream, and drove toward the Blue Ridge Mountains to see if his dream’s prophecy was real. It wasn’t. There was also an Oklahoma psychic who surveyed the Goose Creek Valley from a helicopter.
There was even a Virginia Supreme Court Justice who caught the cipher-treasure bug and scouted the location by bicycle. A Washington state man hired armed guards to make the search. He was an anonymous man who kept an armed truck idling on the road nearby.
Troublemaking Treasure Hunters
As you may have already guessed, these Beale treasure hunters are almost all male. But there have been some rumors about a Pennsylvania woman named Marilyn Parsons, who cashed a disability check in 1983, rented a backhoe, and tested her own theory that the treasure was buried under an unmarked plot of a church graveyard.
When she excavated a coffin handle and human bones, she was ultimately arrested and advised to never return to Virginia again. Unsurprisingly, many treasure hunters trespass at night, leading to real problems with the local landowners.
In 1972, The Washington Post reported that the area’s landowners were often firing warning shots at strangers whom they found tip-toeing on their property. “People would sneak onto their land and blow big holes out of the ground and leave them that way. Cows would step in and break their legs.”
Those were the realities, explained by Ed Easterling, a local Beale expert. “Most people here have resented it.” Parts of the land near Montvale are owned by the federal government, and like these local land and gun owners, they don’t take kindly to unpermitted treasure-digging, either.
On the Government’s Day Off
In the early 1990s, a church group in Pennsylvania tore up the Jefferson National Forest on federal holidays. They figured they would evade the finger-wagging rangers if they made the mess on the government’s day off. Update: They were caught and forced to re-fill the pits.
Even the treasure hunters who are considerate enough to ask for permission are treated with a one-eyebrow raise and hesitation. Danny Johnson, a local farmer and winery owner, said, “A guy will sign a contract, saying he’ll put the land back in shape after digging. Then they go broke and leave! Then the landowner has to go and put their land back.”
The Beale Treasure: The History of a Mystery
Johnson added that many treasure hunters appear to go broke. Among them is the man who cracked the second Beale cipher. As he broke the code, the anonymous cryptanalyst got so high off the adrenaline that, according to one 19th century author, he was compelled “to neglect family, friends, and all legitimate pursuits for what has proved, so far, the veriest illusion.”
Peter Viemeister is a Bedford-based author who wrote The Beale Treasure: A History of a Mystery. He said that “Once you get the Beale treasure in your system, it is hard to get it out. You could get possessed by it. Like drugs or gambling, it can lead a vulnerable person to stake everything on a dream.”
Families Broken, Jobs Lost
It’s true. Families have been broken apart, bank accounts have evaporated, and jobs have been lost. One man named Stan Czanowski spent over $70,000 over seven years on dynamite and bulldozers. In the early 1980s, one treasure hunter went bankrupt after blowing up rocks for six months. He then skipped town, still owing the local motel money.
One editor at the American Cryptograph Association spent so much time focusing on the ciphers that he was eventually fired. Richard Greaves, who spent decades investigating the Beale story, referred to it as “possibly the worst decision I ever made.”
Is It? Could It Be?
“If I had devoted all the hours spent pursuing this treasure legend to the study of medicine, I would easily have become an accomplished neurosurgeon,” Greaves said, grieving his wasted time and effort. What’s even more painful than all these lost souls ruining their lives is the possibility that this whole thing – the codes, the story, the gold, the jewels, even Beale himself — might just be one big, fat hoax.
Is it? Could it be? Well, consider this: In April 1817, Beale and about 30 men reportedly left Virginia and wandered west to hunt buffalo, grizzly bears, and other creatures in the wild frontier.
When Beale and his party reached Santa Fe (which was then part of Spain’s territory), they split up and headed for what is now the Colorado border. It was there, in a ravine, that they discovered gold and silver. Over the following year, Beale and his men mined thousands of pounds of precious metal.
The goldmine, however, kept Beale constantly looking over his shoulder. He knew he was in hostile territory, and so he “decided that it should be sent to Virginia under my charge, and securely buried in a cave near Buford’s tavern, in the county of Bedford,” Beale wrote.
If I Never Return…
A mule train trudged east to St. Louis, where Beale exchanged some minerals for jewels. When they arrived in Virginia, they buried the treasure in a grave-sized plot (instead of a cave as they intended) about four miles from Buford’s tavern.
Beale repeated that same trip one more time before returning west for good in 1821. Before making his final journey, he stayed at the Washington Hotel in Lynchburg, Virginia. There, he befriended the hotel’s owner, Robert Morriss. As this old tale goes, before leaving, Beale gave Morriss an iron lockbox and told him to open the box if he never came back.
He Never Returned
Morriss didn’t know it at the time, but that box held the three ciphers. It sounds pretty whimsical, even imaginary, but exchanging secret messages was actually quite common during the early 19th century. Many men, particularly veterans of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, had basic coding skills.
It’s possible that Beale and Morriss knew something about such secret codes. But the thing is that Beale never sent Morriss a key. And, indeed, after 10 years, Beale never came back. Morriss spent the next two decades trying to unravel the codes.
The Beale Papers
In 1862, a year before Morriss’ death, he gave the materials to an anonymous acquaintance of his, who lucked onto the Declaration of Independence as a key. Then, in 1885, that nameless man enlisted the help of James B. Ward to publish Beale’s story.
In 1885, a pamphlet entitled “The Beale Papers” was published as a thin blue booklet. It cost 50 cents. That pamphlet has created controversy ever since. And yes, the story is very fishy. First of all, there’s the trip Beale and his men took out west, which has some unanswered questions…
Problems with the Papers
If we believe what the history books tell us, Beale’s men found the gold and silver over 30 years before precious metals were discovered in that area. Also, there have been no records documenting a crew of Beale’s size. Keep in mind, a party of over 30 men would have been arrested for trespassing on foreign soil.
Then there are problems with the ciphers. Dr. Todd Mateer of the N.S.A. wrote in a 2013 paper for the journal Cryptologia that if you decrypt Cipher No. 2 with the original Declaration of Independence (as the cryptanalysts previously did), you DON’T get…
Something’s Fishy Here
“I have deposited in the county of Bedford about four miles from Buford’s…” According to Dr. Mateer, what you DO get is: “A haie deposoted tn ttt eointt oa itdstrrs aboap thrr miles troa baaotts…” Yeah. Then there are Beale’s letters, which are also suspicious.
In 1982, a linguist by the name of Dr. Jean Pival compared Beale’s writing to that of the pamphlet’s anonymous author. He found that both writers used reflexive pronouns (i.e., “myself” or “himself”) incorrectly, copied the tone of the King James Bible, and overused negative passive constructions like “never to be realized” and “never be told.”
A Myth Designed to Sell the Pamphlets
Dr. Pival wrote that “The striking similarities in the Ward and Beale documents argue that one author was responsible for both.” And here’s another thing: Myth investigator Joe Nickell revealed that Beale’s letters contained words like “stampeding” and “improvised,” which are terms Beale never would have used.
Why? Because they didn’t exist at the time that he wrote the letters. There’s even more evidence, but suffice it to say that even the most casual observers of the story now understand that the whole ordeal was a scheme – a myth – designed to sell pamphlets. In other words, the only reason nobody succeeded in finding Beale’s treasure is that there’s no treasure to find.
A New Mission: Find Counter-Evidence
But, of course, Beale enthusiasts refuse to accept this. And why would they? After all, they lost their jobs, money, and families to find this so-called treasure. You would deny it, too. When these treasure hunters first encountered these fallacies, only a few dropped their shovels. What they did was pick up books and dive into the archives to start a new hunt.
The new mission was to find counter-evidence in historical records to give doubt to the doubters. It turns out that researching the Beale treasure is just as addictive as searching for the treasure itself.
At the Bedford County Museum and Genealogical Library near Montvale, Virginia, there are heaps of material, including both serious historical research and total bull—-. There are handwritten letters, copies of ancient maps, lineages of people related to the story, unpublished academic papers, and manifestos claiming the National Forest Service is involved in a conspiracy.
There are also “solutions” to the codes and sketches that only a tortured mind could create. It’s easy to chalk it all up to crazy people stuff, but that would be lazy. Among the rubbish are real people with legitimate talent who have done hard work on the mystery.
Legitimate Experts Doing Legitimate Work
One top Beale expert, Dr. Stephen M. Matyas, used to be a skeptical IBM cryptanalyst with several digital security patents. Another expert is Victor Theyer, who was a professional writer with proven research skills. Then there’s Dr. Albert C. Leighton, a professor of cryptology history, who was a Fulbright Research Scholar (he cracked a code linked to Pope Gregory XIII that had baffled codebreakers since 1573).
“Some of these people who come in here digging for it, heck no, I wouldn’t call them nuts,” the Bedford County’s sheriff said in 1989. The librarian at the Bedford County Museum and Genealogical Library agree.
Normal People Just Trying to Solve a Mystery
She said, “There are people who want to solve the historical part of it — just to see if it’s accurate — and most of them are good, normal people just trying to solve a mystery.” According to many of these researchers, the inconsistencies can be explained.
In terms of the silver and gold that haven’t been discovered yet, experts point out that it’s blurry. Old reports show rumors of precious minerals found decades earlier, and so small traces of gold could have possibly been discovered before Beale’s trip. Then there’s the choppy solution to the Declaration of Independence code…
Stephen Matyas researched the discrepancy and compiled one of the most complete collections of Declaration of Independence copies. Between 1776 and 1825, the Declaration was in more than 350 publications, and each had slight alterations.
A single extra word or space, as Matyas argued, could corrupt a decipherment. If the wrong version is chosen, the solution (“A haie deposoted tn ttt eointt oa itdstrrs aboap thrr miles troa baaotts…”) looks more like alphabet soup. As for the consistent language and tone in the pamphlet? Researchers say that’s nothing. It’s likely the work of an editor.
At Least Two Thomas Beales
Researchers discovered that there were at least two Thomas Beales within 20 miles of Montvale, Virginia, during the early 1800s. During that time, one of these Beales dueled a Lynchburg, Virginia man named James Risque. This Beale then fled town. Risque, who was shot in the gut but survived to tell his story, stuck around.
He ended up raising a family that included a grandson named James B. Ward. Yes, the same James B. Ward who later published “The Beale Papers.” This information alone has led to yet more theories, including one that stated it was all a hoax perpetrated by James B. Ward. But, Ward’s children denied this. His daughter “believed the story as she believed the Bible,” as the Lynchburg News reported in 1934.
Focus on the Codes
For people like Nick Pelling, a British computer programmer who launched the website Cipher Mysteries, all this the endless bickering over historical authenticity is distracting everyone from the true mystery: the codes. The real treasure is buried in the numbers, not what’s in the ground.
And it’s this perspective that cryptanalysts have centered on for nearly a century. In the 1930s, William F. Friedman, leader of the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service (or S.I.S., the forerunner to the N.S.A.), spent his free time trying to untangle the Beale codes. It got to the point that his legal counselor drafted an agreement, just in case he solved them.
Included in the S.I.S. Program
But… he never did. Friedman wrote: “So far as my attempts to produce an authentic reading is concerned, I can most earnestly say I have tried to the best of my ability and now must confess myself beaten.” He didn’t abandon the codes, though. Rather, he included them in the S.I.S training program.
According to Frank Rowlett, an S.I.S. cryptologist during World War II, the trainees concluded that the codes were phony. Friedman shrugged it off. He said, “On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I think it is real,” he said. “On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, I think it is a hoax.”
1 in 10,000,000,000,000
Then, in 1980, a man named James Gillogly, a computer scientist at RAND and the president of the American Cryptogram Association, discovered a message in the first Beale code. Gillogly decoded the first cipher with some versions of the Declaration of Independence and got complete nonsense.
He then published his discovery in an essay called “A Dissenting Opinion,” calculating the chance that it could occur randomly was 1 in 10,000,000,000,000. He offered two interpretations. One explanation is that the message is buried under a second level of encryption. The other is that the decoded string of text was the intelligent pattern a computer in 1970 had detected. In other words, the codes are almost certainly a hoax.
Leave It to American Supercomputers
By 1999, the B.C.A., the Beale Cipher Association, dissolved. Many of its members are long gone. There are, however, hundreds of supercomputers in the United States. But super doesn’t mean magic. In order for a computer to decode a cipher, a human needs to write a program that can break it.
That means a human needs to understand how that individual code works. And that’s clearly beyond tricky. In 2014, a method was used by a Ph.D. student named Malte Nuhn and two other researchers at Germany’s Aachen University. The Beale Cipher No. 2, which is the longest and most repetitious of the Beale ciphers, took eight computers about 30 hours of work. The solution had a five percent margin of error, and it was the first time a computer automatically deciphered a Beale code without any reference to the key.
Was It Poe?
It has been suggested that the famed poet Edgar Allan Poe was the pamphlet’s real author because he had an interest in cryptography. From 1820, he lived in Richmond, Virginia, at the time of Beale’s encounters with Morriss, and in 1826, he enrolled at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. But Poe left for Boston in 1827.
Research and facts debunk the rumor that Poe was the writer. He died in 1849, well before The Beale Papers were first published, which was in 1885. Additionally, the pamphlet mentions the American Civil War, which started in 1861.
Are You a Beale-iever?
The Beale story has been the subject of many TV documentaries, books, and, obviously, internet activity. In 2014, the National Geographic show The Numbers Game referred to the Beale codes as one of the strongest passwords ever created.
In 2010, an award-winning animated short film called The Thomas Beale Cipher was made concerning the ciphers. It all goes to show just how fascinating and addictive it all is. And who knows – maybe it isn’t a hoax. What do you think? Are you a Beale-iver?