Cracking the Code of The Thomas Beale Cipher
By: Chris Darkes - July 17, 2015
There’s nothing in the world that gets people hyped up quite like the thought of finding buried treasure. Often times in the most unforgiving terrain – land or sea. Some of the greatest explorations have revolved around sunken ships, harsh desert conditions, and murky rainforests. Empires were cemented and others crumbled while seeking routes during the Spice Trade. Even the development of the entire western United States was predicated on gold during the Gold Rush. More recently, we’ve seen movies depict this. Some of my personal favorites being the Indiana Jones trilogy (there was no 4th one, right?), Goonies, and National Treasure. Everybody likes the idea of finding a winning lottery ticket.
Sometimes the clues are in plain sight. Sometimes the puzzle pieces are there, but nobody knows what the picture looks like. One of the most fascinating ones I’ve come across that nobody can solve is that of the Thomas Beale Cipher. So without further adieu, grab your pix ax, a latern, and travel back in time to…
The Beale Cipher is one of those mysteries that has been speculated since it was originally written about in 1822. According to the legend, a treasure was buried deep in the Virginia mountains to refrain anyone from finding it. The treasure’s location was locked in an iron box in plain sight. Everything seemed pretty straightforward. However, things aren’t as they first seemed. During the winter months of 1820, a mysterious man by the name of Thomas Beale checked into a Lynchburg hotel, meeting the Washington Hotel owner, Robert Morriss. Morriss described Beale as being extremely handsome and popular amongst townies. The following March, Beale disappeared without a trace. Two years later, he came back to town and entrusted the iron box to Morriss which he claimed “contained papers of value and importance.” He entrusted Morriss that if anything were to happen to him, Morriss should hide the box in a place nobody could find. Morriss was a man of his word, and kept the box in a safe place. The only problem: Beale vanished indefinitely.
Twenty-three years later, Morriss’ curiosity began to creep in. Just what exactly was in that damn box? Going on the assumption Beale was dead, Morriss broke open the lock, and removed the contents. Inside was a note written by Beale himself, and three sheets full of numbers. The letter gave a little backstory to who exactly the mystery man was. In April of 1817, Beale and 29 men embarked on a journey across America. Arriving in Santa Fe, they searched for buffalo. Summing up the note, they stumbled across a hoard of gold, and silver. Excitement ensued. The site was mined up for the next 18 months, accumulating a bunch of chunks of gold. The men agreed to take it to their hometown of Virginia, with the intention of a secret location, only the men knew about.
To reduce the amount of weight for traveling purposes, Beale traded some gold and silver for jewels, and in 1820 he traveled to Lynchburg, Virginia. Beale buried the treasure in the mountaintop, and on this occasion met Morriss for the first time. When Beal took off, he went back to continue working the mine with his team. After 18 months, Beale returned to Lynchburg with an even healthier amount of gold and jewels to hide.
Now at this point his men were a little concerned that if they were to pass away, the hidden treasure would not find its way back to their relatives. Hence, why a suitable person was to be in charge of carrying out their wishes. Beale wisely chose Morriss.
Morriss became obsessed with finding who the recipients were, and maybe the treasure itself could offer some more clues. But the treasure’s contents, the location of the treasure, and the list of relatives had all been on three separate sheets that contained nothing but numbers. Beale’s note stated the key to the cipher would be given to Beale by a third party, but it never materialized. So Morriss was left to feverishly unscramble the three sheets from scratch. The daunting task overtook his life for the next twenty years, ending in complete failure.
In 1862, Morriss being elderly, knew his health was beginning to wane. He had one last ditch effort to carry out Beale’s wishes. If he didn’t solve this thing, the treasure and Beale’s wishes would be gone for good. So Morriss confided in a friend, who decided it would be best to publish a pamphlet. The pamphlet contained the entire story of Beale and Morriss’ account of the entire situation. Secondly, his friend made a breakthrough with the code. Realizing each number corresponded to a word in the Declaration of Independence. Unscrambling the code stated on sheet one:
“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: … The deposit consists of two thousand nine hundred and twenty one pounds of gold and five thousand one hundred pounds of silver; also jewels, obtained in St. Louis in exchange for silver to save transportation … 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 …”
This was a milestone that finally told the exact contents of the treasure. Unfortunately, using the Declaration of Independence’s key failed to unlock the cipher in the other two sheets. Morriss’ friend spent tireless hours trying to find the location of the treasure. Despite strenuous efforts, he failed to make any real progress. In 1885, he decided it was best to bring the case to the public. He published everything he knew, but remained anonymous to avoid his own life in danger. Sadly a warehouse fire destroyed most of the pamphlets, but those that survived gained immediate attention.
Treasure hunters from all over the country climbed aboard. The town was flooded with mobs of people, pickaxes and shovels in hand. Lycnhburg wasn’t prepared for the influx of people swarming the land. In 1920, the infamous treasure hunters, George and Clayton Hart, who both went nearly mad, gave up in 1952. Herbert Yardley, who founded the U.S. Cipher Bureau, was fascinated by the Beale mystery. Colonel William Freidman, a dominant figure of 20th century codebreaking, made the Beale cipher part of the training program. Some claim the cipher pushed the boundaries of advancement in computer programming.
Of course there’s still a ton of skeptics. Some believe it’s an elaborate hoax. Some say words written in the Beale cipher like “stampede” were not written in print until 1844, with the code being from 1822. Although others claim the word may have been jargon for true buffalo hunters not commonly used by the general public.
With all this in mind, this infamous cipher to this day continues to enthrall codebreakers and treasure hunters alike. The original reason I stumbled across this was that I saw a really interesting short film that depicted the accounts of Mr. Thomas Beale. The short itself contains hidden messages. All in all its a really original and creative short that I think everyone should check out. To those of you searching for the hidden treasure both in the video and in real life, good luck and may time be on your side!