The Beale Cipher Treasure Mystery
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 30 million US
dollars in the present time. 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 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. 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.
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 (one of
Beale's letters suggests crevice mining of metallic gold,
somewhat implausibly in the claimed terrain, but nothing
else is known) somewhere in what is now the American
Southwest. Where exactly the treasure was found is unknown,
but speculation centres to the north of Santa Fe, New
Mexico, based on one of Beale's letters. Beale led about 30
adventures on the discovery, but no solid proof of either
Beale, or any of his men's existence 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, near Montvale in
Bedford County, Virginia (where the treasure is said to have
been buried). Beale asked him not to open that box, unless
he didn't return from his journey before 10 years. Beale
promised to mail Morriss the keys, but they were never
received; perhaps Beale died before he could do so. Morriss
on 1832 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 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 Jas (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, 1861), 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 '3,' 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 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
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.
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.
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
implausibility's, 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. 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. It is often claimed that, in many ways, the
entire story seems far too implausible to be true. Some
observers have noted that anachronistic use of several
English terms (e.g. the word 'stampede' and 'improvise', not
recorded before the 1840s) in the letters suggest
composition no earlier than the 1840s, not the early 1820s,
thus making the entire account less than credible. It is
also interesting, some claim, that the second message,
containing the information as to what the treasure is, has
been deciphered, but the others have not. They believe that
this coincidence may be a deliberate ploy to encourage
interest in deciphering the other two texts, only to
discover they are hoaxes.
The third cipher is rather short, especially considering
it is supposed to provide next of kin information for 30
individuals. Some have suggested that the ciphers may be
legitimate codes, but do not actually contain any relevant
information once 'cracked' and instead simply reveal a prank
message of some sort.
Regardless, there have been many attempts to break the
remaining cipher(s). Most attempts have tried other
historical texts as keys (eg, the Magna Carta, various books
of the Bible, the U.S. Constitution, the Virginia Royal
Charter, etc), 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 cyphertexts are actually book ciphers);
so far, even the most skilled cryptanalysts who have
attempted them have been defeated.
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.
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, and if he existed, Beale may have been living in
someone else's household.
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 some folks from Pennsylvania in the 1990s.
The number of man made holes (up to 'six feet deep' or so -
see the plaintext above) in Bedford County is said to be
extraordinarily large; some get filled in, some don't.
County inhabitants are said to now lack enthusiasm and to
generally view people with metal detectors with disfavour.
There is reportedly a story of a women digging up a
cemetery because she was convinced that Beale had hid the
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
Books and articles
- Viemeister, Peter. The Beale Treasure: New History
of a Mystery, 1997. Published by Hamilton's, Bedford,
- Gillogly, James J.. 'The Beale Cipher: A Dissenting
Opinion', April 1980, Cryptologia, Volume 4, Number 2
- Dunin, Elonka. The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and
Cryptograms, 2006. US ISBN 0-7867-1726-2, UK ISBN
1-84529-325-8. Contains the complete text of The Beale
The Beale Treasure Ciphers. The Guardian (1999).
Retrieved on 2007-04-14. [dead link]
- Elonka Dunin (December 8, 2003).
Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers. Retrieved on
The Beale Cipher: A Dissenting Opinion, James
Gillogly, Cryptologia, April 1980
The Beale Ciphers, George Love
A Basic Probe of the Beale Cipher as Bamboozlement,
Louis Kruh, Cryptologia, October 1982 (PDF
file, 70 kB)
Missing Federal Census Schedules. [dead link]
- National Archives and Records
Clues in Census Records, 1790-1840. [dead link]