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The Beale ciphers are a set of three ciphertexts, one of which allegedly states the location of a buried treasure of gold and silver estimated to be worth over USD$50 million as of 2009. The other two ciphertexts allegedly describe the content of the treasure, and list the names of the treasure's owners' next of kin, respectively. The story of the three ciphertexts originates from an 1885 pamphlet detailing treasure being buried by a man named Thomas Jefferson Beale in a secret location in Bedford County, Virginia, in 1820. Beale entrusted the box containing the encrypted messages with a local innkeeper named Robert Morriss and then disappeared, never to be seen again.[1] The innkeeper gave the three encrypted ciphertexts to a friend before he died. The friend then spent the next twenty years of his life trying to decode the messages, and was able to solve only one of them which gave details of the treasure buried and the general location of the treasure. Since the publication of the pamphlet, a number of attempts have been made to decode the two remaining ciphertexts and to find the treasure, but all have resulted in failure.[2]


The story

It is important to note that all of the following information originates from one source — a single pamphlet published in 1885, entitled "The Beale Papers"

The treasure was said to have been obtained by an American man named Thomas Jefferson Beale in 1818, to the north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, most likely in what would now be Colorado. Beale supposedly led about 29 adventurers on the discovery, but no solid proof of Beale's existence, or that of any of his companions, has yet been found in any public or private record.

It is claimed that Beale placed the ciphertexts in an iron box, and left it with a reliable person in 1822, a Lynchburg innkeeper, Robert Morriss. The treasure was supposedly buried near Montvale in Bedford County, Virginia. Beale asked Morriss not to open the box, unless he, or one of his men failed to return from their journey within 10 years. Beale promised to have a friend in St. Louis mail Morriss the key(s) to the cryptograms, but they were never received. In 1843 Morriss opened the box and unsuccessfully attempted to solve the ciphers on his own but, decades later, passed the box and contents (three letters and three ciphertexts), and the story, to one of his friends.

Using a particular edition of the United States Declaration of Independence as the key for a modified book cipher, the friend successfully deciphered the second ciphertext, which gave descriptions of the buried treasure. The friend ultimately made the letters and ciphertexts public, apparently via James B Ward, in an 1885 pamphlet entitled The Beale Papers. Ward is thus apparently not 'the friend'. Ward himself is obscure, and is untraceable in local records with the exception that someone of that name was the owner of the home in which a Sarah Morriss, identified as the consort of Robert Morriss, died at 77 (Lynchburg Virginian newspaper, May 21, 1865), so perhaps he was "the friend" after all. There was no explanation of the accident which led to the solution of the second ciphertext, which perhaps suggests that there was additional information now lost (from Morriss?).

The deciphered message

The plaintext reads:

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 second cipher can be decrypted fairly easily using any copy of the United States Declaration of Independence, but some editing for spelling is necessary. To decrypt it, one finds the word corresponding to the number (i.e. the first number is 115, and the 115th word in the Declaration of Independence is "instituted"), and takes the first letter of that word (i.e. which would be "I"). Note that this method of encryption is slightly different from a standard book cipher.

Beale used a version of United States Declaration of Independence different from the original. To extract the hidden message, the following 5 modifications must be applied to the original DOI text:

  • after word 154 ('institute') and before word 157 ('laying') one word must be added (probably "a")
  • after word 240 ('invariably') and before word 246 ('design') one word must be removed
  • after word 467 ('houses') and before word 495 ('be') ten(!) words must be removed
  • after word 630 ('eat') and before word 654 ('to') one word must be removed
  • after word 677 ('foreign') and before word 819 ('valuable') one word must be removed


  • The first letter of the 811th word of the modified text ('fundamentally') is always used by Beale as a 'y'
  • The first letter of the 1005th word of the modified text ('have') is always used by Beale as an 'x'

Finally, in the decoded text there are 4 errors, probably due to wrong transcription of the original paper:

  • 84 (should be 85) 63 43 131 29 ... consistcd ('consisted')
  • 53 (should be 54) 20 125 371 38 ... rhousand ('thousand')
  • ... 84 (should be 85) 575 1005 150 200 ... thc ('the')
  • ... 96 (should be 95) 405 41 600 136 ... varlt ('vault')

Truth or hoax?

There has been considerable debate over whether the remaining two ciphertexts are real or hoaxes.

In 1934, Dr. Clarence Williams, a researcher at the Library of Congress, said, "To me, the pamphlet story has all the earmarks of a fake . . . [There was] no evidence save the word of the unknown author of the pamphlet that he ever had the papers."

The pamphlet's background story has several implausibilities, and is based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence and hearsay.

  • Many cryptographers have also claimed that the two remaining ciphertexts have statistical characteristics which suggest that they are not actually encryptions of an English plaintext.[3][4]
  • Others have also questioned why Beale would have bothered writing three different ciphertexts (with at least two keys, if not ciphers) for what is essentially a single message in the first place.[5]
  • Analysis of the language used by the author of the pamphlet (the uses of punctuation, relative clauses, infinitives, conjunctives, and so on) has detected significant correlations between it and Beale's letters, suggesting that they may have been written by the same person.[6]
  • The letters contain several English words, such as "stampede" and "improvise", not recorded before the 1840s; implying composition no earlier than twenty years after their purported date.
  • The second message, describing the treasure, has been deciphered, but the others have not, suggesting a deliberate ploy to encourage interest in deciphering the other two texts only to discover that they are hoaxes.
  • The third cipher appears to be too short to list thirty individuals' next of kin.
  • If the Declaration of Independence is used as a key for the first cipher, it yields alphabetical sequences such as abfdefghiijklmmnohpp[6] and others. According to the American Cryptogram Association, the chances of such sequences appearing multiple times in the one ciphertext by chance are less than one in a hundred million million.[6]

Regardless, there have been many attempts to break the remaining cipher(s). Most attempts have tried other historical texts as keys (e.g., the Magna Carta, various books of the Bible, the U.S. Constitution, and the Virginia Royal Charter), assuming the ciphertexts were produced with some book cipher, but none have been recognized as successful to date. Breaking the cipher(s) may depend on random chance (as, for instance, stumbling upon a book key if the two remaining ciphertexts are actually book ciphers); so far, even the most skilled cryptanalysts who have attempted them have been defeated. Of course, Beale could have used a document that he had written himself for either or both of the remaining keys, thus rendering any further attempts to crack the codes useless.


Did Thomas J. Beale exist?

A survey of U.S. Census records in 1810 shows two persons named Thomas Beale, in Connecticut and New Hampshire. However, the population schedules from the 1810 U.S. Census are completely missing for seven states, one territory, the District of Columbia, and 18 of the counties of Virginia.[7] The 1820 U.S. Census has two persons named Thomas Beale, in Louisiana and Tennessee, and a Thomas K. Beale in Virginia, but the population schedules are completely missing for three states and one territory.

Before 1850 the U.S. Census recorded the names of only the heads of households; others in the household were only counted. Beale, if he existed, may have been living in someone else's household.[8]

In addition, a man named 'Thomas Beall' appears in the customer lists of St. Louis Post Department in 1820. According to the pamphlet, Beale sent a letter from St. Louis in 1822.[6]

Additionally, a Cheyenne legend exists about gold and silver being taken from the West and buried in mountains in the East, dating from roughly 1820.[6]

Digging for treasure in Bedford County

Doubts have not deterred many treasure hunters, however. The 'information' that there is buried treasure in Bedford County has stimulated many an expedition with shovels, and other implements of discovery, looking for likely spots. For more than a hundred years, people have been arrested for trespassing and unauthorized digging; some of them in groups as in the case of people from Pennsylvania in the 1990s.[6]

There is reportedly a story of a woman digging up the cemetery of Mountain View Church in February 1983, because she was convinced that Beale had hidden the treasure there.[6]

The story has been the subject of at least two television documentaries (one is in the UK's Mysteries series), several books, and considerable Internet activity. There is even a 2001 claim (and supporting Web site) of having decrypted one of the remaining cipher texts and of finding the Beale vault — minus its supposed treasure (and any explanation of the cryptanalysis).

See also

Books and articles

  • Viemeister, Peter. The Beale Treasure: New History of a Mystery, 1997. Published by Hamilton's, Bedford, Virginia
  • Easterling, E.J.The Beale Treasure Mystery: In Search Of A Golden Vault(CD/AUDIO BOOK 72 min.)1995/ Revised 2009 . Avenel Publishing P.O. Box 72 Blue Ridge, Virginia 24064


  1. ^ "The Beale Treasure Ciphers". The Guardian. 1999. Retrieved 2007-04-14.  
  2. ^ Elonka Dunin (2003-12-08). "Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers". Retrieved 2007-04-14.  
  3. ^ The Beale Cipher: A Dissenting Opinion, James Gillogly, Cryptologia, April 1980
  4. ^ The Beale Ciphers, George Love
  5. ^ A Basic Probe of the Beale Cipher as Bamboozlement, Louis Kruh, Cryptologia, October 1982 (PDF file, 70 kB)
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Singh, S: "The Code Book", page 97. Fourth Estate, 2000, ISBN 1-85702-889-9
  7. ^ See: Missing Federal Census Schedules.
  8. ^ National Archives and Records Administration,Clues in Census Records, 1790-1840.

The Beale Treasure Mystery (CD/AUDIO BOOK) by E.J.Easterling $12.95 (free s&h) Avenel Publishing P.O. Box 72 Blue Ridge,Va. 24064.

External links

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