Does the Beale Ciphers' Code of Numbers Detail Hidden Treasure?

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

Beale cipher
The Beale Ciphers are three typed pages of nothing but numbers, a code that supposedly details the location of a vast treasure hidden by a mysterious figure named Thomas J. Beale. But was the entire mystery just an elaborate hoax? Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 3.0)/HowStuffWorks

The story of the Beale Ciphers is a particularly peculiar mystery, to be sure, and many people who've researched it have concluded that it's probably just an elaborate 19th-century hoax. After all, who would bring back a fortune in gold, silver and jewels from New Mexico and bury it somewhere in the rolling hills and ridges of central Virginia? And why would the person who hid that treasure — one Thomas J. Beale — write down instructions on how to find the treasure in code on three sheets of paper, entrust a box containing those papers to an innkeeper and then never return for it?

Implausible as that all might seem, the mystery of the Beale ciphers has fascinated, even obsessed, numerous people over the past 136 years, when the story initially was published in a ponderously-titled 50-cent pamphlet, "The Beale Papers Containing Authentic Statements Regarding the Treasure Buried in 1819 and 1821 near Bufords, in Bedford County, Virginia, and Which Has Never Been Discovered."

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Treasure Would be $93 Million in Today's Dollars

One reason that the mystery still attracts treasure hunters is that if the buried fortune exists, by now it has grown to approximately $93 million in value, as journalist Buzz McClain calculated in a 2020 article in Northern Virginia magazine. But even if it doesn't, the Beale Ciphers — two of which remain unsolved — have continued to fascinate both amateur and professional cryptographers, to the point that the National Security Agency actually has compiled a file of articles and reports on the mystery.

From 1970 to 1996, there was even an organization, the Beale Cipher Association, composed of people who paid a $25 annual fee for the privilege of receiving a quarterly newsletter and attending "periodical seminars and symposiums" on the mystery. (Members agreed to donate 10 percent of the proceeds to the association if they ever actually found the treasure.)

"Although some have slammed the door and called it all a hoax, or merely a fun tale, because the story has some inconsistencies and questionable actions, the door seems never able to be tightly shut," explains Jenny Kile. She's the author of the book "Introduction to Codes and Ciphers, Plus 20 Famous Unsolved Codes, Ciphers, and Mysterious Writings," and is founder of the Mysterious Writings website.

"Those unanswered details seem to always keep the door slightly ajar, no matter how hard some slam it. It's amazing how the story can't be conclusively determined to be all false or true."

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The Story of the Beale Ciphers

Here's the story as laid out in the 1855 pamphlet, which was written by an anonymous author and published by a local newspaperman named J.B. Ward. In 1820, a Virginian named Robert Morriss, who operated a hotel in Lynchburg, Virginia, became acquainted with a long-term guest named Thomas J. Beale, whom he described to the anonymous author as about 6 feet (1.8 meters) in height, with "jet black eyes and hair of the same color, worn longer than what was the style at that time." Beale registered simply as being from Virginia — where exactly in the state, he didn't say — and he never said anything about his family, or much of anything about himself at all.

Beale left the hotel in the spring of 1821 with a group of friends, and returned the following January, this time only staying for a couple of months. Before departing, he gave Morriss a box for safekeeping, "which, as he said, contained papers of value and importance," according to Kile.

That was an understatement. In letter that he left behind, Beale explained that he and companions had ventured west to New Mexico in the late 1810s on a hunting expedition and while there, somehow had discovered a gold mine. The men abandoned their recreation and worked the mine, extracting a fortune in gold — "as well as silver, which had likewise been found," according to the letter. The group wasn't sure exactly what to do with their newfound riches, but eventually, they entrusted it to Beale, who traveled back east and buried it in a cave near a tavern in Bedford County, "which all of us had visited, and which was considered a perfectly safe depository," according to the letter.

Beale and his friends later returned and then moved the treasure to a different location. The group also instructed Beale to give some "perfectly reliable person" instructions on how to find the treasure, so that in the event they died during their adventures, their families could be given the fortune.

Beale cipher
The first of the three nearly-identical Beale Cipher pages of numbers. The only difference between the three pages is the numbers themselves.
Wikimedia Commons

Beale later sent Morriss a letter from St. Louis, instructing him that if Beale didn't return, after 10 years Morriss had permission to open the box. Beale, of course, never came back. "I can only suppose that he was killed by Indians, afar from his home, though nothing was heard of his death," Morriss explained.

For reasons unexplained, Morriss didn't break the lock and open the box until 23 years later, in 1845. But it didn't contain a map or simple instructions on how to find the fortune. Instead, it contained sheets of paper covered with seemingly incomprehensible numbers.

The pamphlet's mysterious author figured out that one of the three sheets was in a code based on the Declaration of Independence, and deciphered it. It was a message describing the fortune, which consisted of 2,921 pounds (1,325 kilograms) of gold, 5,100 pounds (2,313 kilograms) of silver, and a quantity of jewels that had been obtained in exchange for silver. The treasure was packed in iron pots with lids and buried in a stone-lined vault. But the exact location was on one of the other pages, in a coded message that the anonymous author — conveniently for the mystery — wasn't able to solve. Ditto for the third page, which listed the members of the group and gave their relatives' names and addresses.

Elonka Dunin, a video game developer, writer and cryptographer, and her colleague, German computer scientist and cryptographer Klaus Schmeh, are co-authors of the 2020 book "Codebreaking: A Practical Guide." They've studied the Beale Ciphers mystery in detail, even traveling to Bedford County to scrutinize the area around the former site of Buford's tavern, where Beale supposedly buried the riches.

Aside from the basic implausibility of the story, as Dunin explains, there are plenty of clues that indicate the Beale treasure is a hoax. "The only source is the pamphlet," she notes, and the details in it are sketchy. In addition, the originals of the letters to Morriss from Beale were conveniently lost, so no one except the anonymous author got a chance to examine them. But language experts who've examined the texts of the letters and compared them to the pamphlet have concluded that "it all seems to have been written by the same person," Dunin explains.

Additionally, as Schmeh notes, there are a few, slightly different versions of the Declaration of Independence. As the basis for one of his ciphers, "Beale used a rare or unique version," Schmeh explains. Bizarrely, the person who 60 years later solved the cipher just happened to have exactly the same rare version. "It's almost impossible," Schmeh says.

But the Beale Ciphers still fascinate people interested in cryptography, and the story still prompts amateur treasure hunters to head to Virginia in hopes of striking it rich.

"Even after it's been pretty well debunked, there's something in the human psyche — the finding a hidden treasure, something no one else has been able to do — that keeps people searching for it," Dunin explains.

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