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The Mysterious Treasure of Thomas Beale

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About a century and a quarter ago, a slim pamphlet was published in Virginia, USA. Amazingly for such an unassuming little document, it has ruined numerous lives, mostly through greed and obsession. It tells the story of buried treasure, and has snared the unwary ever since it was published. It is hard to imagine a treasure more like 'fool's gold' than that described in The Beale Papers. The story revolves around a set of ciphers, that have so far resisted every effort to break them. Fools, read on and become beguiled...

Lynchburg, Virginia, the 1860s

Robert Morriss is one of the few characters in this story whose existence is beyond doubt. He was born in 1778, in the state of Maryland, but moved to Loudoun County, Virginia, where he married Sarah Mitchell. He set up in the tobacco business, as did so many people in Virginia, and for a while he prospered. Unfortunately, he behaved like a bull in a bear market, investing large amounts of money in tobacco stocks whose projected market value was never realised.

Morriss faced financial ruin, but his very resourceful wife suggested that they lease a local hotel and set it up as a business. He found this was as lucrative as selling the 'deadly weed', and very soon became the foremost hotelier in the town. He had a happy and prosperous existence, passing away in 1863, two years after his wife.

A year before his death, Morriss reportedly invited an unnamed associate into his confidence with a tale of a guest, who left a valuable item in his charge. Many years beforehand, Thomas Beale had come to stay at Morriss's hotel. Beale was a handsome and swarthy man who had spent several years on the open range. Quite what he'd been doing out there was anybody's guess, but he was a regular guest of Mr Morriss and had come to trust him.

Hence, in the spring of 1822, he left with Morriss a small, locked iron box, saying that it contained valuable papers. Morriss thought nothing more of the box until Beale sent him a letter from St Louis elaborating on the box's contents. According to the letter, Morriss was to open the box ten years after he received it, at which point he would find that the papers contained within to be totally unintelligible without the aid of a cryptographic key. The key was contained in another letter that Beale had left with a friend of his, and which was not to be delivered until July, 1832.

The second letter never arrived. Beale was never seen again by anyone, and Morriss, being even better than his word, refrained from opening the box until 1845. When he did, he found the papers were covered in seemingly random numbers. Morriss did not breathe a word about the box to anyone else until 1862, when, with the Grim Reaper looking over his shoulder, he confided in an associate.

The Treasure

In his adventures, Beale and his party of 30 people had apparently stumbled upon a crevice containing seams of gold. They immediately set about mining it, agreeing to divide the gains between them. Eighteen months later, in 1819, they had amassed gold worth about $30 million, by today's reckoning, as well as some silver and gems bought with some of the gold. Having no means of securing it, they argued about the best course of action. Eventually, they agreed that Beale should take the treasure back to Virginia where he would sequester it in a cave near Buford's Tavern. When he got to the cave he found it unsuitable, and soon found another hiding place for their cache.

The Ciphers

Quite where this hiding place was located was about four miles from Buford's Tavern. How do we know this? After Morriss had passed the papers on to his friend, the latter set about deciphering them - a task which was to take his lifetime (and those of several others since). There were three ciphers: the friend managed to decipher only the second. He did this by realising that it was a book cipher.

In all kinds of cipher, the original plaintext is encrypted using a key to yield the ciphertext. Generally, the same key also serves to effect the reverse process and allows the original plaintext to be obtained1. In a book cipher, the key is a passage from a printed text. The encryption proceeds as follows: take the first letter of the plaintext, look up any word in the key that begins with the letter and then write down the position of the word in the key. Book ciphers are pretty secure as they prevent cryptographic attacks through frequency analysis2, providing that the same word is not used over and over again for the same letter.

The friend eventually hit upon a version of the American Declaration of Independence as the key, and managed to decipher the second of the three ciphers. What he got was3:

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 3, herewith. The first deposit consisted of one thousand and fourteen pounds of gold, and three thousand eight hundred and twelve pounds of silver, deposited November, 1819. The second was made December, 1821, and consisted of nineteen hundred and seven pounds of gold, and twelve hundred and eighty-eight pounds of silver; also jewels, obtained in St. Louis in exchange for silver to save transportation, and valued at $13,000. 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 1 describes the exact locality of the vault, so that no difficulty will be had in finding it.

And that is precisely how far the associate was ever able to get with the ciphers. Eventually, he gave up, after spending the subsequent 23 years neglecting work, family and other aspects life in the vain hope of discovering the whereabouts of the treasure. One of the obstacles he ran into early on was the range of numbers in the other two ciphers. Attempts to decrypt Paper #1 using the Declaration soon ran aground when the numbers exceeded the number of words in the Declaration. And much the same result can be expected when other methods of numbering are used, such as starting at the end and working backwards.

In a sane world, this is where the story would have ended. The associate would have quietly given up and got on with what remained of his life, and no more would have been heard about the matter. The papers would have been consigned to much the same fate as the notorious 'Singing Frog' in the Warner Brothers' cartoon One Froggy Evening. Obviously they weren't, otherwise the following story would not now be related. The associate, much to the subsequent dismay of the people of Buford's Tavern and delight of treasure hunters, decided to publish the whole sorry story as a pamphlet - The Beale Papers - through the agency of a James B Ward in 1885, in an apparent attempt to put the matter firmly in the public domain, and thereby draw a line under the affair. Many of these pamphlets subsequently perished, along with the original papers, in a print shop fire.

Hoard or Hoax?


So, is there anything to the story in the pamphlet? Lots of people seemed to think so. Even discounting the difficulty of deciphering the remaining two papers, the phrase 'about four miles from Buford's' contains enough information to entice intrepid treasure hunters out into the Blue Ridge Mountains. Couple it with the occasional nugget of seeming sense that can be extracted from the papers when other keys are used, and you have a sure-fire recipe for all kinds of misadventure.

  • One of these nuggets pans out from trying to decipher Paper #1 using the Declaration. Mostly it fails, the numbers being greater than the number of words in the Declaration, but there is a sequence of letters ABFDEFGHIIJKLMMNOHPP visible in the 'deciphered' text. The chances of this occurring spontaneously in a randomly arranged plaintext is next to zero.

    From the treasure-hunter's perspective, this sequence of letters is a deliberately placed hint to the decipherer that they are on the right lines in using the Declaration to decipher the remaining papers. If this is what the author intended, it is highly likely that not one but two or more encryption processes were applied to the original plaintext, a practice known as 'superencipherment'.

  • There is another explanation for why the papers may be genuine, but the remaining two ciphers yield gibberish. Suppose that the confidant of Morriss believed that the person with the key, who was due to turn up in 1832 was still alive but did not know about where the papers were concealed. Under such circumstances, the confidant may well have decided to publish one correct cipher in The Beale Papers and replaced the other two with random numbers in the hope that it might flush out this second person and bring them to Lynchburg in the hope of discovery where the treasure lay. The confidant could then have struck a deal to split the gains in return for the original ciphertext. Both would have gone away considerably richer men.

  • The third and least likely explanation, and therefore the one beloved of conspiracy theorists, is that the shadowy National Security Agency4 (or someone in it), home to the country's best cryptographers, has already deciphered the message and made away with the treasure, under which circumstances nobody would be any the wiser.

Whatever one makes of such explanations, they don't yield any real information about the contents of the ciphers. All the same, in the absence of such information, people have managed to convince themselves that the ciphers were genuine, mainly because it was much more difficult to prove otherwise.

Two of the most determined treasure hunters were George and Clayton Hart, who spent decades trying to solve the ciphers, but had nothing to show for it. Hiram Herbert, Jr became obsessed in 1923, but gave up in 1970. The ciphers were even made part of the training programme for the US Signal Intelligence Service, because its then boss deemed them to be of 'diabolical ingenuity, specifically designed to lure the unwary reader'.

Hardly surprisingly, some treasure hunters have decided to dispense with the task of deciphering the papers altogether, and resorted to more speculative action. Groups of people routinely get arrested in Bedford County for unauthorised digging on private property. One woman even dug up the cemetery of a local church in 1983, convinced that Beale had hidden the treasure there. This was at the top of Porter's Mountain, which is exactly four miles from Buford's Tavern. The landowners in this area are now painfully aware of treasure hunters and anybody wishing to dig here must get permission.


There are numerous aspects to the story that might indicate that there is less to it than meets the eye.

  • Doubts are first raised by the abortive attempt to decipher Paper #1 using the Declaration as key. The almost alphabetical sequence of letters that appears in the result is certainly not there due to chance, but the rest is gibberish. It is entirely plausible that anyone wanting to construct a fake cipher might start out by choosing words from the Declaration at random, but then start to work through the alphabet to relieve the boredom of the task, or perhaps to simply throw a 'red herring' into the mystery. Moreover, why would Beale have created three ciphers with three separate keys, instead just the one? Paper #3 also appears to be too short to list the next of kin for 30 individuals. And why encrypt these names and their places of residence? Possibly because they never really existed?

  • Additional doubts arise from the story itself. The words 'stampede' and 'improvise' are not recorded in general use before 1840, but were supposedly written by Beale in 1820 in his accompanying note to the ciphers. There are scant references to any 'Thomas Beale' at that time: the only such person who fits the bill died in New Orleans in 1820, before the box was handed over. Robert Morriss, on the other hand, did exist but his involvement cannot be verified, since he died long before the pamphlet was written.

  • Perhaps the most damning clue is in the account given for the decipherment of Paper #2. The version of the Declaration quoted in the pamphlet appears to be unique, in that it contains several errors, yet is supposed to have been discovered independently by the unnamed associate. Is it likely - or even conceivable - that Thomas Beale would have used the same inaccurate and seemingly unique version of the Declaration as the associate?

    In addition, the person who made the cipher clearly miscounted the words in the Declaration, for there are a number of discrepancies which can only be explained by the count being wrong. And the person who decoded it published the count of words in the Declaration with the same errors, without mentioning it. So either the coder and decoder made the same mistakes, or Ward, in decoding the cipher, figured the mistakes out but didn't mention it, both of which seem unlikely. Or were they the same person?

Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave...

If indeed The Beale Papers is nothing more than an elaborate hoax, then one has to inquire as to motive. No doubt, the sale of a few thousand or even just hundreds of copies of a pamphlet, netting the present-day equivalent of $15 a throw, would have been a nice little earner for its author, and this would have been reason itself to have contrived such a ruse.

There may have been another, surprisingly high-minded reason for writing the papers. On 30 May, 1883, a fire broke out in downtown Lynchburg, claiming several buildings and the lives of at least five people. The Lynchburg News went on to relate that:

The aggregate loss by the fire is variously estimated at from $250,000 to $300,000. Jones, Watts, Bros & Co are the heaviest losers, and their insurance is comparatively light. Members of the firm estimate their loss at from $75,000 to $100,000 above the insurance. Peters & Flood also suffered tremendous loss, but their insurance was also large. The loss by the Lynch estate was considerable and the minor losses foot up an enormous amount, and are severally indicated below in the statement of insurance.

In the following year, numerous events and appeals were launched to aid stricken families, and relief funds established. Almost exactly a year later, Mr Ward filed for copyright protection of The Beale Papers and the rest, as they say, is history. 'James Ward' (probably a pseudonym for the local newspaper editor) wrote this pamphlet as a 'dime novel', a frivolous work of fiction, purely to raise money for the bereaved families of the 1883 disaster, and the remaining stock of pamphlets was deliberately destroyed, when the author realised that he had created a monster capable of controlling or consuming all those with whom it came into contact.

Yet even today, individuals spend weeks or years of their lives attempting to decipher lists of numbers, and others head for Buford's Tavern with picks, shovels and a seemingly inexhaustible optimism. They will continue to do so as long as they believe that, instead of working for the American Dream, they can find it ready for the taking. And, as long as stories of buried treasure and secret codes continue to enthral, and there are fools enough to believe them.

1The only cipher which uses separate keys for encryption and decryption is the RSA cipher, in use all over the world for Internet security.2A means of cracking a cipher that was used to decode the plot against Elizabeth I by Mary, Queen of Scots.3The text given here is that published in The Beale Papers. The actual decryption of the cipher gives a slightly different text, with for example 'ten hundred' instead of 'one thousand'.4Also known as 'No Such Agency'.

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