The Beale Ciphers
Treasure hunters comb Virginia searching for a legendary hoard of gold and silver.
If you see someone digging with a shovel under the moonlight in Bedford County, Virginia, chances are you've come across a treasure hunter. For more than a century, hopeful treasure seekers have combed these green hills, searching in vain for a fantastic treasure said to have been buried here, as described in a mysterious coded document. The story goes that a man named Thomas Beale discovered a fabulous wealth of gold and silver in 1818 in what is now Colorado, and along with his company of thirty partners, brought it back to the east and buried it in Virginia. Beale wrote three encoded letters: one giving the exact location of the treasure, a second giving its detailed description, and a third giving the names and contact information of the thirty partners. Only one of the letters — the second describing more than four tons of gold, silver, and jewels — was ever deciphered. It has tempted the greedy and adventurous ever since.
The world first learned of the Beale ciphers in 1885 with the limited publication of a pamphlet in Lynchburg, Virginia entitled The Beale Papers: Containing Authenticated Statements Regarding the Treasure Buried in 1819 and 1821, Near Bufords, in Bedford County, Virginia, and Which Has Never Been Recovered. It was written by James B. Ward. A 1981 article in Smithsonian described him as a "gentleman of independent means". In The Beale Papers, Ward provided the three ciphers and told the story of how he came into possession of them. But after many years of toil and neglect of family and responsibility, he was:
In Ward's account, the man Thomas Jefferson Beale had been a regular customer at the Washington Hotel in Lynchburg, kept by a man named Robert Morriss. Morriss died in 1865, twenty years before Ward revealed all his secrets in his pamphlet. In 1822, Beale returned to Morriss' hotel and gave Morriss a locked iron strongbox for safekeeping. Morriss gave the box little thought until he received a letter from Beale in May of that same year. The letter advised him of the great importance of the box's contents, and added:
Morriss waited the ten years but never saw or heard from Beale again. Neither did the promised key ever arrive. So in 1845, Morriss finally opened the box on his own, 23 years after receiving it. He found the three encoded letters, plus another letter addressed to himself in which Beale gave his account of finding the treasure. Beale's company of thirty adventurous partners, all Virginians, had been hunting north of Santa Fe, when they happened across a ravine full of gold. No specific description of the gold was given, so we're left to guess whether it was bags of coins, raw nuggets, or natural ore. Beale states that it took eighteen months to extract it, so it seems probable that it was naturally occurring. The partners contrived to share in the wealth equally, but to first transport it cross country and hide it in Virginia, where it would be more secure than in the relatively lawless territories. Beale and nine companions took the first load to Virginia and buried it, then returned to the other twenty who still toiled. All thirty then took the final load and buried it along with the rest.
Morriss was never able to decipher the papers; and so in 1862, he turned the whole affair over to Ward, with the understanding that if Ward ever recovered anything that they should share in it. It was well after Morriss' death that Ward finally decoded the second paper. The key to the cipher was discovered to be the United States' Declaration of Independence; and the cipher solved by taking each number from the code, counting that many words in the Declaration, and using the first letter of that word. The letter said:
And that was as far as Ward ever got before publishing the papers. Bedford County has been dug up regularly ever since, but no treasure was ever found. Many researchers have fact checked and studied The Beale Papers, none more thoroughly than Joe Nickell, as described in his article in a 1982 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. What we've learned is that Beale and his treasure are almost certainly a product of James Ward's imaginative fiction.
For one thing, Nickell found no record of a Thomas Jefferson Beale from Virginia, at least not of the right age. For another, there were impossibilities in the dates in The Beale Papers; such as Beale's having first been a customer of Morriss' at the hotel in 1820, and written a letter to him at the hotel dated 1822, when Morriss did not become the hotel's proprietor until 1823; and Beale's use of the words stampede and improvise, neither of which existed in the English language until much later.
Indeed, the name Thomas Jefferson Beale suggests an inside joke. Thomas Jefferson was, of course, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the very document Ward claimed to have stumbled upon "by accident" (in his words) as the key to the cipher. The name Beale suggests Edward Fitzgerald Beale, who became famous when he crossed what was then Mexican territory in disguise to transport the first samples of California gold from the west to the east, 37 years before Ward's book.
How likely is it that neither Beale nor any of his thirty companions would have wanted to spend and enjoy their fabulous wealth, but were instead content to leave it buried for the rest of all their lives? Ward wrote that he suspected they'd been killed by Indians; ridiculously proposing that all thirty would have walked away from their fortune to go camp out in the territories.
Compare the Beale report to what happened when gold actually was discovered in California thirty years later in 1848. Word spread like mad, compelling hundreds of thousands of men to storm west in one of the most important events in American history, the California gold rush. Yet Beale and his men told no one, made two cross-country trips trucking four tons of gold and silver across the nation with nobody noticing, and even traded large amounts of silver for jewels in St. Louis without piquing any interest or inquiry. It strains credibility.
Mineralogy also casts doubt on the story. Gold and silver ore do not look anything like gold and silver, and would not be recognizable to any but experienced prospectors. Once mined, the ore requires lengthy and substantial processing to reduce it to just the precious metals. Beale's account had the men simply recognizing gold and picking it up, for eighteen months. This means that it would have had to be a placer mine, where small nuggets appear naturally in the sediment. This strike would have made it the single richest placer district in Colorado's mining history, meaning these thirty men out-mined all of those tens of thousands who followed in Colorado's later silver and gold rushes. Further, gold and silver placer pure enough to look distinct from one another are never found in the same place. If it is, the metals would most likely be alloyed, and not recognizable separately as gold and silver.
The length of the third cipher, 618 characters, tells us that Beale's statement that it contains the names, addresses, next of kin, and their contact information for thirty men is unlikely. That's a lot of information to squeeze into twenty characters for each man. From a practical standpoint, it's impossible; so at the very least, either Ward or Beale was lying or hopelessly incompetent at cryptography. The former is probably true; cryptographers studying the case have been unanimous that for Ward to have found such an obscure solution to the second cipher is not plausible. Combined with several errors in the coding and decoding that Ward did not appear to catch, the only reasonable explanation is that the person who solved the cipher also created it at the same time. Beyond any reasonable doubt, James Ward was the creator of the ciphers, not Morriss, and not the apocryphal Beale.
Nickell and later researchers, notably Louis Kruh in the journal Cryptologia, also found compelling stylometric evidence that the authors of Ward's pamphlets and Thomas Beale's letters were one and the same person, especially when compared against three contemporary control authors. We can only conclude that Ward wrote both the letters and the ciphers he attributed to Beale, and included Robert Morriss only to anchor his story to a grain of truth, and because Morriss had been dead for twenty years and was unlikely to dispute the account.
After its publication, Ward tried to downplay the tale, claiming that all remaining copies of the pamphlet had been destroyed in a print shop fire, despite researchers finding no newspaper records of any such fire. Only the first few pamphlets ever got out, and once they did, it appears that Ward realized he'd created a monster with a greater effect than he'd anticipated. Ward had been friends with the Buford and Morriss families, and it's perhaps most probable that the unexpected attention changed his mind about promoting his fictional story at the expense of his friends. It's most conspicuous that he never reprinted the pamphlet, despite great demand, great potential for sales, and availability of five other print shops in Lynchburg.
It's hardly surprising that none of the Bedford County treasure hunters have yet turned up any evidence of Beale's fabulous hoard. It may never have been more than a small joke that took an unwanted direction, but it's become a firm fixture in the annals of American legend.
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