The Beale Ciphers: A Puzzly Treasure Hidden Since the 1800’s?

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There’s nothing quite like a treasure hunt to spark the imagination. From The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to the adventures of Indiana Jones, from tales as far back as Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” to stories as recent as an episode of NCIS: New Orleans last year, a treasure hunt can turn a crime story or an adventure tale into an irresistible narrative for the ages.

Thankfully, there are a few treasure hunts lurking out there in the real world, offering clever solvers the chance to live out their own adventure. In the past, we’ve explored the mystery of Forrest Fenn’s Rocky Mountain treasure, we’ve chronicled efforts to locate all of Byron Preiss’s The Secret treasures, and we’ve suggested tactics for cracking Jason Rohrer’s A Game for Someone hunt.

But as intriguing as those hunts are, none of them have spanned more than a century of searching. (Without resulting in unfortunate demises, that is. We’re looking at you, Oak Island.)

No, that singular honor belongs to a treasure hunt known as the Beale Ciphers.

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As the story goes, a man named Thomas J. Beale buried a treasure trove of gold and silver somewhere in Bedford County, Virginia, in the early 1800s. Beale then encrypted the location of the treasure, the contents of the treasure, and the names of those he wished to have the treasure. Beale handed off those encryptions to an innkeeper, then vanished, never to be seen again. (His promise of later providing the key for the ciphers was never fulfilled.)

The innkeeper failed to crack the ciphers, then held onto them for decades before passing them along to an unnamed friend before his death. The unnamed friend spent twenty more years trying to unravel the encryptions (managing to solve the second of the three encrypted messages). Eventually, the friend published the encryptions and the story of Beale’s treasure in a pamphlet he began selling in 1885.

So, how do the ciphers work?

It’s simple, really. Take a book, pick a given page, and number all of the words on the page. (Or just start at the beginning of the book.)

If you’re using A Tale of Two Cities, for instance:

1 It
2 was
3 the
4 best
5 of
6 times,
7 it
8 was
9 the
10 worst
11 of
12 times…

So, using the first letters of each word (and the corresponding number), the word BOW could be encrypted 4 11 8 or 4 11 2 or 4 11 10.

This grants people in the know two advantages. The code is incredibly difficult to break on its own, because unlike a cryptogram (or any other message encrypted with a Caesar cipher or a one-to-one relationship between coded letters), each appearance of a given letter could be a different number, not the same one over and over.

Plus, if you know the key (the book and page number), decoding it requires no puzzly skill at all.

It’s diabolical and effective, as proven by Beale’s trio of ciphers, since only one has been cracked (because the solver stumbled upon the Declaration of Independence as the key).

[The second Beale cipher.]

The decrypted text from 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 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.

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Of course, there are some problems there, even with the cipher that treasure hunters consider solved. You see, there are some irregularities with the solution. Not only are there four misspellings in the translation, but a variation on the original Declaration of Independence must be used or the cipher doesn’t decode correctly.

Now, mistakes happen. (As we learned with the story of Brian Patrick Regan.) But if there are mistakes in the two unsolved ciphers as well, that only makes the chances of finding the proper key even slimmer, because a mistake in the early numbers of the code might convince someone that they’ve got the wrong key, even if they have the right one!

Do you find that challenge daunting, fellow puzzlers? It’s understandable if you do. The other two ciphers have resisted the best efforts of even master cryptographers and cryptanalysts.

Given that the Declaration of Independence was the key for the second cipher, many aspiring treasure hunters have tried using other famous historical documents as possible keys for the other ciphers, including the Magna Carta, the Constitution, the Monroe Doctrine, and more, as well as the plays of Shakespeare and the Lord’s Prayer.

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There are also plenty of reasons to doubt that this treasure exists at all. (The same question marks hang over some of the other treasure hunts we’ve mentioned, like Forrest Fenn’s.)

There are questions regarding the language in the pamphlet, where the gold was supposedly found, why Beale would bother encrypting the names of the people he wanted to inherit the treasure, and even whether Beale himself ever existed in the first place. (Famous skeptic and investigator of the supernatural Joe Nickell believes the pamphlet is a fraud.)

But does that mean the ciphers are? Not necessarily.

An analysis in 1970 by Dr. Carl Hammer of Sperry-UNIVAC indicated that the number patterns are not random. He believed that further attempts at cracking the ciphers would be worthwhile.

Heck, even our old codebreaking friends Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband William tried to unravel the Beale ciphers, but without success. She called the ciphers “a diabolical ingenuity designed to lure the unwary reader.”

And, of course, not every hunter has come away empty-handed. One team of treasure hunters stumbled upon a cache of Civil War artifacts while hunting for Beale’s trove.

So what do you think, PuzzleNationers? Is the Beale treasure real? Will it ever be found? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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The Puzzling Art of Letterlocking

letterlocking

[Image courtesy of Letter Writers Alliance.]

When you think about puzzles and personal security, what comes to mind?

Do you think of puzzle boxes, those delightfully tricky little wooden creations with all their sliding pieces and hidden compartments? Or does your mind go to encryption, the art of concealing your message in plain sight with ciphers, scytales, and other techniques meant to baffle anyone but those in the know?

Some puzzle box designs date back centuries, and ciphers can be traced back even further. (One is named after Caesar, after all.)

But there’s another centuries-old puzzly procedure you might not know about, and it kept letters and messages safe using nothing more than paper and wax.

butterflylock

[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

This technique is known as letterlocking. It involves a mix of precise folds, interlocking pieces of paper, and sealing wax in order to create a distinctive design or pattern.

Although the pattern itself can work like a puzzle — requiring a particular trick to unfold it and reveal the message without ripping or damaging the letter — that’s only a secondary line of defense. The true goal of letterlocking is to reveal tampering. The folding techniques are distinctive, and the wax creates points of adhesion.

If you receive a letter and the folds are done (aka redone) incorrectly, or the wax is smeared (or the paper ripped where the wax would have held it tight), then you know the letter has been compromised.

daggertrap

[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

Some examples of letterlocking trace back to the 13th century, and key figures like Queen Elizabeth I, Machiavelli, Galileo, and Marie Antoinette employed letterlocking security in the past. Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote a message and letterlocked it with a butterfly lock six hours before her beheading. (For a more modern reference, letterlocking was employed in the Harry Potter films as well, most famously in Dumbledore’s will.)

The various techniques involved are as distinctive as knots. The triangle lock. The dagger-trap. The pinwheel letter. And some historians believe that those techniques imply connections between some of the important players in history.

For instance, both poet John Donne and the spymaster of Queen Elizabeth I employed a similar letterlocking style. Did they share a common source, or even an instructor in common? Or did a particular letterlocking technique provide a clue as to the contents of the letter within?

Letterlocking is a historical curiosity that was seemingly lost to time after the proliferation of the envelope and other security techniques, but it is slowly being rediscovered by a new generation, as well as reverse engineered by scientists and scholars. Yale and MIT both have teams exploring the burgeoning field of letterlocking.

Museums are discovering treasure troves of letterlocked messages by going directly to the source: post offices. A cache of 600 undelivered letters in the Netherlands, for instance, are being analyzed by researchers.

trianglelock

[Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura.]

It’s a remarkable thing, really, this union of centuries-old skills with twenty-first century knowledge. These are puzzles, frozen in time, waiting to be solved and placed into the larger picture of history.

Letterlocking is nothing less than a rare and beautiful art combining puzzles and privacy, as elegant as it is clever. There are no doubt many more secrets to be found behind the folds, slits, and wax seals of these lovingly crafted messages.


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The Gravity Falls Cipher Hunt!

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It’s sad when your favorite show goes away, particularly when it feels like there could have been so much more to enjoy. As someone who routinely seems to discover hidden gems on TV, only for them to vanish a season or two into promising runs, I know this better than most. (Alas, Brimstone, Now and AgainTwin Peaks, Better Off Ted, and others…)

The fans of the Disney Channel animated series Gravity Falls endured similar sadness when the show wrapped up its two-season run earlier this year. (Although it was the decision of the showrunner to end the show and not the network in this case, it was still a sad day for fans.)

From the Wikipedia article on this Twin Peaks-fueled program:

For their summer vacation, 12-year-old twins Dipper and Mabel Pines are dropped off from their home in Piedmont, California to the fictitious town of Gravity Falls, Roadkill County, Oregon to live with their Great Uncle Stan Pines (often shortened to Grunkle Stan), who runs a tourist trap called Mystery Shack. Things are not what they seem in this small town, and with the help of a mysterious journal that Dipper finds in the forest, they begin unraveling the local mysteries.

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The show was big on supernatural storytelling and puzzles to unravel, even including ciphers at the end of each episode that incorporated classic encryption techniques like Caesar ciphers, Vigenere ciphers, and others. This is pretty high-level stuff for a show that’s supposedly for kids. (Then again, plenty of adults enjoy a quality animated show, and Gravity Falls was critically acclaimed for good reason.)

In the series finale of the show, there was a brief shot of a statue of the show’s villain Bill Cipher, but it appeared to be a photograph rather than an animated image.

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Speculation immediately ran rampant as fans wondered if there was really a Bill Cipher statue somewhere.

And there was.

Cue the Gravity Falls Cipher Hunt, a world-spanning puzzle hunt launched on July 20, 2016, where fans teamed up to crack clues offered by show creator Alex Hirsch, all in the hopes of tracking down this mysterious statue.

Although the main thrust of the hunt was centered around the United States, clues appeared in places as far-flung as Russia and Japan, requiring a truly global effort of cooperative fandom to crack each mystery.

And the creator himself was astonished when the entire hunt was solved in just two weeks, as fans pieced together the last fragment of the puzzle on August 2: a missing section of parchment that corresponded to a map of a forest in Reedsport, Oregon.

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[Click here for a rundown of the entire puzzly saga.]

Awaiting the intrepid solvers was not only did the statue of Bill Cipher, but a treasure chest with messages that could only be read under black light. Also, in a truly brilliant bit of fan service, there was a sash and crown inside the chest that would anoint the wearer as the mayor of Gravity Falls! (Hirsch even went on to say that this appointment is now canon for the show!)

And, as it turns out, they found the statue just in time, as a property dispute between neighbors has led the statue to be taken in by police until the situation is resolved!

This is not only an outstanding example of real-world puzzling in its own right, but a wonderful thank you from a creator to his fans, providing one last challenge, one last story, to the people who’d most appreciate it. Nicely done, Mr. Hirsch, and nicely done, Gravity Falls fans!

[Also, nicely done to Owen, and his mom, friend of the blog Chris Begley, for bringing this story to my attention.]


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Let’s crack some Confederate codes!

[A table for cracking Vigenere ciphers.]

Cryptography is probably the only puzzly skill in history upon which lives have depended. The movements of troops, plans for invasion, locations of key officers, spies, and personnel… all of these vital pieces of information have been encoded numerous times across numerous conflicts, all in the hopes of keeping that data from prying eyes.

It’s not as if anyone has to solve a crossword to prevent a Dennis Hopper-esque madman from wreaking havoc on Los Angeles, or the outcome of a pivotal battle hinged on someone finding all the words in a word seek faster than the enemy.

But cryptography is both a delightful diversion and deadly serious, depending on the context.

Which makes it all the more curious that it took more than a hundred years for a Confederate message from the Civil War to be decoded.

The coded message was first displayed in The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia in 1896, after being donated by Captain William A. Smith, a member of Walker’s Greyhounds, a division of Texans fighting for the Confederacy.

The actual message was unknown. The rolled-up slip of paper was tied with a linen thread and placed in a small glass vial along with a .36-caliber lead pistol bullet, and stoppered shut. (The bullet was included in order to make the vial heavy enough to be tossed into the river and sink if the scout carrying it was in danger of being captured.)

The mysterious message was meant for General John C. Pemberton, the Confederate general attempting to protect and defend Vicksburg from the army of Union Major General Ulysses S Grant. The same general who would surrender Vicksburg to Grant on July 4, 1863 after 47 days under siege.

But the message never got to Pemberton. Instead, it ended up as part of a Civil War museum, its message undelivered, its code unbroken.

Until 2008, when curiosity among museum staff led to an unveiling a century later than intended. The message was photographed and then returned to the glass vial, which itself was then returned to its display.

And the message intended for General Pemberton?

SEAN WIEUIIZH DTG CNP LBNXGK OZ BJQB FEQT FEQT XZBW JJOA TK FHR TPZWK PBW RYSQ VOWPZXGG OEPF EK UASFKIPW PLVO JKZ HMN NVAEUD XYE DWRJ BOYPA SX MLV FYYRDE LVPL MEYSIN XY FQEO NPK M OBPC FYXJFHOHT AS ETOV B OCAJDSVQU M ZTZV TPJY DAW FQTI WTTJ J DQGOAIA FLWHTXTI QMTR SEA LVLFLXFO.

Unlike many simple coding techniques, this is not a Caesar cipher where each letter is simply another letter of the alphabet in disguise. (Every E is actually an L, every F an M, etc.)

This is a Vigenere cipher, where a key word or phrase is required to unlock the letter substitution involved. For centuries, this cipher was considered unbreakable, though this was no longer the case by the time of the Civil War. (The Union regularly cracked coded Confederate messages.)

By 2008, Vigenere ciphers were easily cracked by amateur and professional cryptographers alike, and the Confederate message was finally revealed to the world:

Gen’l Pemberton, you can expect no help from this side of the river. Let Gen’l Johnston know, if possible, when you can attack the same point on the enemy’s line. Inform me also and I will endeavor to make a diversion. I have sent some caps. I subjoin despatch from Gen. Johnston.

Essentially, the message means that the reinforcements Pemberton was hoping for to shore up Vicksburg’s defenses weren’t coming.

But the message never got to the general, because before the scout arrived with the bad news, Vicksburg had already fallen, and Pemberton had surrendered.

So instead, the scout, having somehow realized from afar that Vicksburg was lost, returned to his camp and handed the unopened message to a Captain Smith, the same man who would later donate the message to the Museum.

And an enduring mystery was born.

[I learned of this story in the book Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can’t or Won’t Show You by Harriet Baskas, which also inspired my post a few weeks ago about the Morris Museum music box.]

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PuzzleNation Book Reviews: The Code Busters Club, Case #3

Welcome to the ninth installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews!

All of the books discussed and/or reviewed in PNBR articles are either directly or indirectly related to the world of puzzling, and hopefully you’ll find something to tickle your literary fancy in this entry or the entries to come.

Let’s get started!

Our book review post this time around features Penny Warner’s third Code Busters Club novel, The Mystery of the Pirate’s Treasure.

I regularly get questions from fellow puzzlers who are looking for fun ways to get their kids into math, science, history, and other subjects through the media of board games or puzzles. Sadly, I don’t always have the picture-perfect recommendation for them prepped and ready in my back pocket, gift-wrapped for delivery.

That’s what makes stumbling upon a book tailor-made for encouraging both reading AND a love of puzzles such a delight. And if you’re looking for a gateway book for scavenger hunts or coded puzzles, look no further than The Code Busters Club series.

When there’s a puzzle to be unraveled or a code to be cracked, you can count on the crafty quartet known as the Code Busters. Friends Cody Jones, Quinn Kee, Luke LaVeau, and M.E. Esperanto are ready at a moment’s notice to put their codecracking skills to the test, and a field trip to Carmel Mission might be the perfect opportunity. There are some shifty characters lurking about, but with rumors of a pirate’s treasure hidden nearby, what else would you expect? Can the Code Busters make history and solve the riddle of de Bouchard’s gold?

If you’re looking for a fun way to introduce coded puzzles to younger readers, you’d be hard-pressed to find a book that employs as many different styles of coding as The Mystery of the Pirate’s Treasure. Warner has clearly done her research, employing everything from Morse code and semaphore to symbols, skip codes, Caesar ciphers, alphanumerics, and more.

[A quick interlude for coded-puzzle newbies:

  • A skip code is a message wherein you skip certain words in order to spell out a hidden message concealed within a larger one.
  • A Caesar cipher, also known as a shift cipher, works by shifting the alphabet a predetermined number of letters. For instance, if you shift the alphabet 5 letters, A becomes F, B becomes G, etc.
  • An alphanumeric code (in its simplest form) replaces the letters in words with their corresponding digits on a telephone keypad. So an A, B, or C becomes 2 while G, H, or I becomes 4.

End informational interlude.]

As a puzzler with plenty of experience with coded puzzles and cryptography, I was impressed by the breadth of codes and secret messages Warner had snuck into book that’s less than 200 pages, including illustrations and a sizable typeface.

The story itself is a bit threadbare, but considering the brisk storytelling pace and the sheer number of puzzles included, it’s easy to forgive the author for providing just enough impetus to get the Code Busters (and the reader) from one puzzle to the next. After all, this is a book about friends solving puzzles, and the puzzles are dynamite introductory-level puzzles for young readers.

I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for further Code Busters Club adventures.

[To check out all of our PuzzleNation Book Review posts, click here!]

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