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The Beale ciphers are several coded messages, originally published in an 1885 pamphlet. This pamphlet purports to tell the story of frontiersman Thomas Beale, who (along with his party) mined quantities of gold, silver and jewels (currently worth approximately $38 million), transported them across the country on wagons and/or pack mules, and buried them in a underground vault somewhere in Virginia. The ciphers themselves (allegedly) contain exact instructions, in code, to this vast treasure.
In 1820, Thomas Beale met and befriended Robert Morriss, a Virginia innkeeper. When Beale and his party left to go mining and exploring in 1822, he left a strongbox with Morris for safekeeping. Over the next few months, Morriss received several letters from Beale, recounting the party's exploits and instructing him not to open the strongbox until 1832. No further letters arrived, and neither Beale nor any of his associates was ever heard from again.
When Morriss finally opened the strongbox in 1845, he discovered three encoded ciphers. One listed the location of the hidden treasure, one listed its contents, and a third listed the names of the people who had claim to it.
Morriss was never able to solve any of the ciphers. In 1862, he shared the ciphers with the pamphlet's author (who officially remains anonymous, but may well be its copyright holder, J.B. Ward). This author was finally able to crack the cipher containing the vault contents, but (conveniently) neither of the others. After Morriss' death, the pamphlet containing the ciphers was published and sold for 50 cents (roughly equivalent to $15-20 today). Hundreds of people have tried to crack the ciphers and get the treasure since; none is known to have succeeded.
The Method Used
The second cipher can be cracked by taking the United States Declaration of Independence, numbering the words, and the assigning each number to the first letter in that word. For example 1 would represent I, 2 would represent T, and so on. This method decodes the cipher containing the supposed contents of the vault itself. It also rather redundantly directs the reader to the first cipher for the vault's location.
Text of the Second Cipher
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 for silver 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.
The First and Third Ciphers
In over 100 years of trying, nobody has been able to demonstrably crack the first or third ciphers.
The Problems With the Story
- There is no third-party evidence that Thomas Beale ever existed.
- There is no evidence that this Thomas Beale ever employed a party of 29 people who transported gold, silver and jewels 2,000 miles across the U.S., using a train of either wagons or pack mules.
- No one ever came forth as either a member of Beale's party, or the descendant of one.
- While there is solid evidence that Morriss existed, there is no evidence (such as letters or diary entries) that he was ever in possession of, or worked on, any ciphers.
- The story first mentions Morriss as the innkeeper of the Washington Hotel in 1820. Separate records state that he did not take it over until 1822.
- The pamphlet quotes several letters from Beale, supposedly written in the early 1820s, that use the words stampede and improvise. Neither of these words is known to have been in use until the 1840s.
- Cryptographers say the first and third messages show statistical characteristics of not being from an English language plaintext.
- If the Declaration of Independence is used as a key for the first cipher, it yields several almost-alphabetical sequences such as "abfdefghiijklmmnohpp". I MEAN, REALLY. COME ON.
Errors in the Decoded Second Cipher
- The actual decrypted text of the second cipher is not nearly as clean as the pamphlet makes out. For instance: The pamphlet gives the first sentence 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:
- However, if one actually decodes the second cipher using the Declaration of Independence, this is the result (with spaces between words added for clarity):
- I haie deposoted in the copntt ol bedoort aboup four miles from bulords in an epcaiation or iault six fest below the surlact of thh gtound ths fotlowing articiss beaonging joiotlt to the partfes whosl namfs ate giiet in number thrff httewith
- While the two results are somewhat similar, it raises the question of how accurate a decoded first or third cipher would really be, as the correct spelling of names and directions would be paramount.
- By the 1820's, reliable banks were in operation as far west as St. Louis, Missouri (where the story has them briefly stopping to obtain the jewels in trade). Why would this party continue to the east coast using pack mules, and then bury everything in an underground vault (where anybody could find and make off with it), rather than avail themselves of a bank? Remember that these were not ill-gotten gains, but rather a legitimate mining haul.
- If all messages were meant to be decoded at the same time, why on Earth use different cipher keys? Surely Beale would have wanted the members of his party to be known when the location of the vault was.
- The original pamphlet has the supposed words of the anonymous pamphleteer, Morriss and Beale. However, all of them tend to write in a very long-winded, verbose, pedantic manner. Some experts have reviewed the text and come to the conclusion that the same person may well have written all three men's text; this, of course, would guarantee that the pamphlet is a hoax.
There seems to be no reliable or logical reason to continue decoding these ciphers. The story is too bizarre, the evidence too lacking, and the motive for a fakery (the $$$ to be gained from selling the pamphlet itself) too great. Not that this will stop anybody. People have been trying to crack the cipher for 100 years, and will probably be trying for hundreds more. In the meantime, the residents of Bedford County get to enjoy the occasional crackpot convinced he's found something digging up their back yards.
- The Legendary Beale Treasure
- Some Beale cipher literature
- One of many supposed solutions for the ciphers, with alleged vault photos
- The Beale Papers Hoax
- Attack on the Beale Ciphers - Summary in English (Historical background and bibliography in French)
- A reprint of the original 1885 pamphlet
- The Thomas Beale Cipher—an animated short film about the mysterious legend