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.

beale_papers

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.

bealemap

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.

bealemontvale

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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George Washington: Commander in Chief (and Codes)

George Washington was the first American president, the Father of Our Country, a general, a farmer, and an inventor. He invigorated and empowered the role of the president far beyond what the Framers of the Constitution originally envisioned, and is widely regarded as the standard against which all presidents are measured.

But did you know he also created America’s first spy ring?

The story is fascinating, and you get the full scoop in Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager’s book George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution.

As the Revolutionary War raged on and America struggled to rout the British forces, Washington realized that British spycraft was heavily responsible for American losses. Determined to even the playing field, Washington marshalled trusted associates to form America’s first spy ring, known as the Culper Ring.

Originally, Washington and his agents employed code names and a few numerical substitutions for words in their messages. The two key agents, Benjamin Tallmadge and Abraham Woodhull, were designated Culper Junior and Culper Senior, respectively, while a still-unidentified female agent is known only as Agent 355. (355 was Tallmadge’s code for “lady.”)

10 stood for New York and 20 for Setauket, so that the recipient would know the source of the information contained in the reports. Two additional numbers, 30 and 40, were used to designate Jonas Hawkins and Austin Roe as post riders delivering the messages to their next destination.

But after two close calls with key agents and information endangered by the British, they followed the French model and developed a more elaborate code system.

Making a list from 1 to 763, he [Benjamin Tallmadge] … assigned each pertinent word, location, or name a numerical code. He became 721, Woodhull as Culper Senior 722, Townsend as Culper Junior 723, Roe 724, and Brewster 725. General Washington was 711 and his British counterpart, General Clinton, was 712. Numbers were often represented by letters, so that the year “1779,” for example, might read as “ennq.”

Could you decipher this message, a rudimentary version of the code eventually used by the Culper Ring?

[In this example of Tallmadge’s ever-evolving code,
“Setauket” went from “20” in the earlier code to “729.”]

They delivered their coded messages through some tried-and-true spying methods, including employing invisible ink and disguising vital communiques as bland family letters. And the Culper Ring had some stunning victories to its credit, including rooting out Benedict Arnold’s traitorous plot to hand over West Point to the British.

[An example of the more elaborate, French-inspired code system
employed later in the war by Washington and the Culper Ring.]

The Culper Ring even saved American aspiring cryptographers one heck of a headache. There was a standing order for agents to “learn as many of the British navy’s code signals as possible, so that the French fleet could decipher what the enemy ships were communicating to one another during naval engagements.”

As you might imagine, even skilled codebreakers would’ve had a nearly impossible time memorizing the codes AND deciphering them in the midst of battle. Thankfully, the Culper Ring obtained a copy of the entire British Naval Codebook, not only saving the eyes and sanity of numerous Americans, but delivering Yorktown to American Revolutionary forces.

In fact, British intelligence agent Major George Beckwith commented, “Washington did not really outfight the British, he simply outspied us!”

And he used some puzzly cryptography skills to do it.

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