The Beale Treasure

Do Ciphers Point to a Treasure or a Hoax?

by J. M. Pressley
First published: December 31, 2009

Mysterious ciphers tell of a fortune allegedly buried in Bedford County, Virginia.

Thomas J. Beale first rode into Lynchburg, Virginia in January of 1820. He checked into the Washington Inn and promptly made himself at home. Beale, although highly popular about town, never spoke about his past or what business brought him to Lynchburg. He left abruptly at the end of March.

Beale returned to Lynchburg two years later to spend another winter. At that time, he entrusted the innkeeper, Robert Morriss, with a locked iron box that he said contained "papers of value and importance." In the spring, Beale rode off once more, never to return.

In May of 1822, Morriss received a letter from Beale posted from St. Louis. The letter asked him to keep the box safe for ten years. If neither Beale nor any of his associates came forward to claim it in that time, Morriss was instructed to break the lock and read the instructions therein.

Morriss would guard the box for over two decades. In 1845, convinced that Beale was dead, he finally opened it. Inside, Morriss found a letter from Beale along with three sheets of numbers. According to the letter, Beale and 29 companions had stumbled upon deposits of gold and silver while traveling in the west. Beale allegedly hid the trove away while visiting Lynchburg; the letter explained that he had been instructed to find someone trustworthy in whom to confide in case anything happened to him or his companions so that their next of kin could receive the treasure.

Each page of numbers was a cipher. The first told the location of the treasure. The second described the treasure. The third provided a list of the relatives for the men who had discovered the treasure. Beale's letter stated that the key to the ciphers was to have been sent by a friend of his from St. Louis, but this had never arrived. Morriss apparently spent some time attempting to crack the ciphers, passing them on before his death to an anonymous friend.

We know all this because the friend published a pamphlet titled The Beale Papers in 1885. In it, the author told the tale of Robert Morriss and detailed the three ciphers-the second of which the author claimed to have solved by using the Declaration of Independence as a key. It was a form of book cipher; each number corresponded with a word in the document, and by taking the first letter of that word, one could decrypt the message.

According to the author, the deciphered message told of a cache buried near Buford's Tavern in Bedford County. Beale acknowledged 2,921 pounds of gold, 5,100 pounds of silver, and some $13,000 worth of gems that he had acquired for silver in order to make transportation easier. It was a fortune that today would be worth upward of $50 million.

The anonymous pamphleteer also wrote that he had failed in every attempt to solve the remaining two ciphers, neither of which corresponds to the Declaration of Independence. In devoting so much time and energy, the author stated, he had squandered his own wealth and neglected his family. He was publishing the story and the three ciphers to wash his hands of the matter—leaving his name off the pamphlet to avoid being overwhelmed with requests for more information.

Since then, the story has intrigued both treasure hunters and cryptologists. The alleged treasure has never turned up, and the remaining two ciphers have eluded the most dedicated efforts to solve them for over a century. Cryptology pioneers such as Herbert O. Yardley and Col. William Friedman considered the ciphers to be particularly fascinating. Friedman actually incorporated the ciphers into his training while head of the U.S. Army's Signals Intelligence Service. There was even a Beale Cypher Association, formed in 1968, dedicated to solving the mystery (the association shut down around 1996 following the retirement of its last CEO).

Despite the story's legion of believers, however, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the pamphlet was written as a hoax. For instance, Morriss didn't own the Washington Inn until 1823, and it wasn't called the Washington Hotel (as the Beale Papers describe it) until after Morriss had sold the business. There are a few anachronisms in the text as well; words such as "stampede" and "improvise" were not in usage in the 1820s. Furthermore, modern stylistic analysis suggests a correlation between the language used in writing the pamphlets and Beale's purported letters—enough to imply that they were written by the same person. As for Beale himself, we have no proof that a Thomas J. Beale of Virginia even existed, much less left behind a hidden fortune.

Nevertheless, the story continues to inspire those who would seek an answer. Books, television specials and the Internet all serve to keep people interested in Beale's lost hoard. Hoax or not, the ciphers remain an enigma to this day.