The Beale Cipher

Beale Cipher

The human drive to plumb the depths of mysteries has led to astonishing achievements. It has also driven untold souls to obsession, madness, and ruin.

According to frontier legend, hunter Thomas J. Beale struck out from Bedford County, Virginia at the head of a thirty-man expedition headed west. Legend has it that they journeyed all the way into Spanish territory. The party split at Santa Fe and turned north toward Colorado.

There, the story goes, they found rich veins of gold and silver, which they mined and loaded onto a train of wagons for the return trip to Virginia. Along the way he converted some of the precious metal into more portable jewels.

Beale's first move upon returning home was to bury his fortune in a secret location. He reportedly prepared three documents as a sort of will informing his heirs of the treasure's location. Then he set out again for the frontier and never returned.

Before he left on his final expedition, Beale entrusted his papers to the care of Lynchburg innkeeper Robert Morriss.

As instructed, Morriss waited ten years for Beale to return. When the hunter failed to appear, the innkeeper opened and read his papers.

This would be the story of how Robert Morriss became a multimillionaire, if not for the fact that Beale had encrypted all three documents in a numerical substitution code which is known to this day as a Beale cipher.

The simplest Beale codes work by numbering every word in a document which serves as the cipher's key. Each letter in the message to be encrypted is replaced with a number corresponding to the key text word whose first letter matches the one to be encoded.

Beale Cipher 2
Image by Lucy Quintanilla

In 1862, a frustrated Morriss passed his thus far indecipherable ciphers to a friend. That unknown acquaintance somehow identified the Declaration of Independence as the key to Beale cipher 2. In 1885 he granted publishing rights to James B. Ward, who prepared a booklet aptly titled The Beale Papers.

The deciphered message read:
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.
Based on the inventory in cipher 2, Beale's treasure would be worth over $60 million in today's money.

Not surprisingly, the pamphlet instantly sparked an outbreak of gold fever that's had would-be treasure hunters flocking to Bedford County for 135 years.

None of them has found the treasure, though they've destroyed countless tracts of private property, careers, and families in the hunt. Yet people keep trying.

A major reason why a much higher incidence of obsession surrounds Beale's hidden stash than most other lost treasures is the layers of mystery covering the truth like Virginia soil strata. Not only have ciphers 1 and 3 never been cracked, the existence of the treasure--and Thomas Beale himself--has never been definitively proven.
Beale’s letters are suspicious, too. In 1982, the linguist Dr. Jean Pival compared Beale’s prose to the writing of the pamphlet’s anonymous author and found that both used reflexive pronouns incorrectly, copied the prosody of the King James Bible, and overused negative passive constructions such as never to be realized and never be told. “The striking similarities in the Ward and Beale documents argue that one author was responsible for both,” Pival wrote. Further scrutiny by the myth investigator Joe Nickell showed that Beale’s letters contained words such as stampeding and improvised, terms Beale never would have used—because they did not exist when he wrote the letters.
This evidence (and much more) has convinced most casual observers that the treasure story, the codes, and even the character of Thomas J. Beale are part of a canard designed to sell pamphlets. In other words, the reason nobody has found Beale’s treasure is because there is no treasure to find.
Then again, these and other objections have met with equally compelling rebuttals.
Many of these researchers believe the inconsistencies can be explained away. The archival research they’ve done to achieve this aim is, in some cases, hard to deny.
Take the criticism that silver and gold hadn't been discovered yet. The specifics, they point out, are blurry. Beale researchers have dredged up old reports showing rumors of precious ore swirling decades earlier, with small traces of gold possibly being discovered before Beale’s trip.
The lack of evidence that Beale went west? Carl Nelson Jr., an ex-C.I.A. agent, combed through old newspapers from St. Louis—what would have been Beale’s last checkpoint before the frontier—and discovered a postmaster’s notice in an October 1817 copy of The Missouri Gazette for an “S. T. Beall” and an 1820 notice for a “Thomas Beall” in The Franklin Intelligencer. As for Beale's ability to avoid arrest, researchers point to the Adams-Onis treaty of 1819, which redrew the border between the United States and what was called “New Spain.”
The rebuttal to the clunky cipher solution is impressive. Stephen Matyas researched this discrepancy and compiled one of the world's most complete collections of Declaration of Independence copies. From 1776 to 1825, the Declaration appeared in more than 350 publications, each of which made slight alterations to the text: Unalienable over inalienable, mean time over meantime, institute a new government over institute new government. A single extra word or space, Matyas argued, can corrupt a decipherment. Choose the wrong version and your solution will resemble alphabet soup.
As for the consistent language and the linguistic anachronisms in the pamphlet? That’s nothing, researchers say. Have you ever heard of an editor?
As a matter of fact, yes I have!
Other cryptologists of the era approached the ciphers with similar ambivalence. Herbert O. Yardley, whose 1931 tell-all book The American Black Chamber revealed the workings of America’s cryptography units, believed the Beale ciphers could be solved—but also admitted they looked “a bit fishey.”
That attitude would reign among professional cryptanalysts until January 1970, when Dr. Carl Hammer, Director of Computer Sciences at Sperry-Univac, made a startling revelation at the Third Annual Simulation Symposium in Tampa, Florida. He had analyzed the Beale ciphers with a UNIVAC 1108 computer and compared the codes to the musings of a random number generator. The results showed signs of an intelligent pattern.
“Beale Cyphers 1 and 3 are ‘for real,’” Hammer concluded. “They are not random doodles but do contain intelligence and messages of some sort. Further attempts at decoding are indeed warranted.”
Hammer's analysis showing intelligent patterns in the Beale codes would seem to be the final word on the matter.

This being a first-class mystery, however, there is no final word.
Then, in 1980, James Gillogly, a computer scientist at the think tank RAND and the president of the American Cryptogram Association, discovered an even stranger message in the first Beale cipher—just not the kind the B.C.A. was hoping for.
The alphabet never looked so depressing. If you decode Beale's first cipher with some versions of the Declaration of Independence, as James Gillogly tried in 1980, you'll get gobbledygook—with the exception of this pseudo-alphabetical string in the middle of the code. Gillogly published his discovery in a Cryptologia essay called “A Dissenting Opinion" and calculated the chance it could occur randomly was 1 in 10,000,000,000,000.
Gillogly offered two interpretations: that the message is buried under a second level of encryption; or that this measly string of text was the intelligent pattern Hammer's computer had detected. That is, the codes are almost certainly a hoax.
The controversy rages on. Beale believers have, of course, come up with counters to Gillogly. "Current cryptography algorithms aren't up to the job!" "There are two--or many more--layers of encryption!"

Do the Beale ciphers really hold cryptic clues to the secret location of a buried treasure? No one knows. Nor is anyone likely to know anytime soon.

For now, let's just enjoy the mystery.

And you can enjoy my thrilling mech espionage novel now for just 99 cents!


  1. The real question is: in the world of Xseed, was the Beale treasure ever found?

    1. It turned out that Beale was a Sentinel who wanted to mess with everybody, the missing key was James Ward's pamphlet itself, and the secret stash actually contained nothing but gummy bears.

    2. The difference between a hoard of gold and a hoard of gummy bears is that the bears are edible. As long as they're genuine Haribo, I'd rather have the candy

  2. I don't know whether you've fooled us with some Andromeda Strain-style tale, or regaled us with some Old Dominion lore. I've decided I don't want to know.

    I like how the cryptanalysis was basically an intelligent design test.

    1. The Cipher really does exist, and everyone's been looking for the alleged treasure and never found it.

      Also, people have looked at alleged ciphers in Shakespearean plays to support Baconian authorship instead. Which is a far deeper rabbit hole than this one.

    2. Some claim that one or more of Shakespeare's plays is the key to Beale cipher 1 or 3.

  3. Well...
    *ponders carefully*
    I guess if someone finds it, it was real, and if it wasn't real, no-one will. Finding the treasure in place is the only way to know someone wasn't hoaxing someone else.

    1. That's what it comes down to, since none of the disproofs are conclusive.

      The most easily dismissed is the assertion made by some that a simple frontiersman wouldn't have had knowledge of ciphers. The US military used highly sophisticated cryptography in the Revolution and the War of 1812. It's highly likely that Beale--if he existed--learned his cipher while serving in either of those wars.

      Here's a cool video on 18th century spycraft:

    2. Modernists can’t accept the intelligence and knowledge of those in the past who don’t share their myopic world view and Marxist education.

    3. *nods* It's part of their origin myth.