Offbeat Adventure

The Beale Ciphers (Allegedly) Lead to Treasure in the Virginia Wilderness

Treasure! You can feel it already, can't you? The hairs on the back of your neck rising. Your heart beating faster. A vision of the easy life coalescing in your mind. There's nothing quite like the thought of finding a big old chest in the wilderness and living off the booty for the rest of your life. The only thing that could make it more exciting is if you had to decipher a coded message first.

Hidden Treasure

The Beale treasure isn't the only treasure said to be hiding out in the American wilderness. But it's one of very few allegedly located out east, and one of even fewer that has a "Da Vinci Code"-esque trail of clues to guide the way. That's right: Before you find the Beale treasure, you'll have to solve the Beale ciphers. Here's the skinny (presented without critique, for now).

About 200 years ago, a man named Thomas J. Beale found an enormous treasure trove out near the New Mexico-Colorado border, including silver, gold, and precious gems. Along with his crew, he dragged the treasure back to his home state of Virginia and hid it underground from any greedy eyes. In 1821, Beale headed out west again in search of even greater wealth, but not before leaving an insurance policy. He stopped by the Washington Hotel in Lynchburg, Virginia, and left a package with hotel owner Robert Morriss.

Inside the package were three documents, each encoded to protect the treasure they revealed. The first document described the exact location of the treasure. The second, the treasure's contents. The third, the surveyors to whom the treasure belongs and their next-of-kin. Only the second cipher was ever cracked, and it was enough to set treasure hunters salivating for centuries. In that secret place, wherever it is, Beale and company had hidden 2,921 pounds of gold, 5,100 pounds of silver, and $1.5 million in precious stones — all told, about $54 million in modern currency.

The Ciphers Go Public

Morriss, unfortunately, was not one for code cracking, so it wasn't him but an unnamed friend who solved that puzzle when Beale never returned. In 1885, that friend teamed up with yet another friend, James B. Ward, who released his discovery to the public in 1885 in a pamphlet entitled "The Beale Papers." This is the first time that the story actually enters the historical record. As you can probably imagine, the pamphlets sold like gangbusters, and the legend of the Beale treasure grew.

The legend is still going strong today. You'll find plenty of people (and websites) holding on to the hope that the answer is still within reach. But then there are others who point out that this whole story is a little fishy, especially since the only person to actually make a dime out of the alleged treasure was the one selling pamphlets.

Poking Holes

It's never fun to deflate and debunk a dream of wealth beyond imagining. But deflate and debunk we must. For one thing, the second cipher, the one that was allegedly translated, was supposed to have been decoded using the Declaration of Independence. Only if you actually use the Declaration of Independence as a key, the cipher doesn't start "I have deposited in the county of Bedford about four miles from Buford's ...", it starts, "A haie deposoted tn ttt eointt oa itdstrrs aboap thrr miles troa baaotts ..." Which, to be fair, may have been an honest mistake. If Beale was working from a mistranscribed copy of the Declaration and didn't have the best spelling to begin with, you can see where some of the mistakes seep in. But it's enough to make you raise an eyebrow.

For the moment, let's leave aside the fact that the one document that happened to have been decoded was also the one guaranteed to incite the most excitement. The code and the documents said to have been found alongside it also contain some anachronistic words. "Stampeding" and "improvised" had entered the lexicon by 1885 when the pamphlet was published, but weren't at the time that the papers were supposed to have been written some 60 years earlier according to investigator Joe Nickell.

Perhaps most damningly, in 1982, linguist Dr. Jean Pival analyzed the writing of those documents said to have been written by Beale and those known to have been written by James Ward — you know, the guy who published the pamphlet — and found that they shared several quirks, such as using reflexive pronouns incorrectly, emulating certain rhythms of the King James Bible, and frequently using negative passive phrases such as "never be told" and "never to be realized." This tale of buried treasure is looking mighty fishy. But that doesn't mean it'd hurt to try. After all, there's no research that can debunk the real treasure: the friends you make along the way.

Correction 9/25/2018: A previous version of this article stated that the treasure was worth about $60 million in modern currency. That was calculated using a standard ounce, but precious metals are measured by troy ounce. Whereas there are 16 ounces in a pound, there are only 14.6 troy ounces in a pound. That means that this treasure, if it weren't almost definitely imaginary, would be worth only $54 million. If this leads you to call off your search, we understand.

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If you've got kids, then this is one outdoor treasure hunt that will pay off every time. Gofindit is a game of cards for nature-loving youngsters — pick cards with random adjectives like "round," "hard," and "small," then let your little one trundle off in search of an acorn or something similar. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 21, 2018

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