"Retirement News," March 2002, pp. 1-2.
Millions of dollars' worth of gold buried in the hills of Virginia? And a 150-year-old treasure map made up of secret coded numbers?
It sounds like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie - where "X" always marks the spot, but only if you can figure out how to read the map before the bad guys do!
Get ready for a real American folktale of buried treasure and three coded messages that have stumped both professional and amateur codebreakers for decades.
'There's Gold in Them Thar Hills!'
Sometime in the early 1800's, gold miner Thomas Jefferson Beale buried a pile of gold (worth about $30 million today) in the hills of Bedford, a small southern town in Virginia. He also left a lockbox containing three pages of coded numbers and a letter of explanation to Robert Morriss, a local innkeeper.
But this is where the story gets murky. The original Beale codes, the lockbox, the letter, not to mention anyone who could verify the story, are all long gone. What does exist of this fantastic tale is a pamphlet written by an anonymous friend of Robert Morriss, which was first published in 1885. It tells the tale of the Beale treasure and includes coded pages containing hundreds of numbers, plus a copy of the letter Beale wrote in 1822 to the innkeeper.
Apparently, Beale instructed Morriss to open the box after 10 years if no one claimed the buried gold, and a trusted friend would send along the key to decipher the coded pages. Well, the key never came and Morriss forgot about the box until many years later.
He gave up trying to decipher the coded pages himself and turned them over to the anonymous pamphlet writer, who insisted that after several years he successfully decoded the second letter, using the Declaration of Independence as the key. He matched each number of the code to the first letter of the corresponding word in the Declaration, then listed all the first letters of these words.
The result is the following sentence: I have deposited in the county of Bedford, about four miles from Buford's (reportedly an old tavern), in an excavation vault...one thousand and fourteen pounds of gold, silver and jewels.
Our mysterious pamphlet writer also claimed that the first encoded letter contained the location of the treasure, and the third letter had the names of the miners the gold belonged to. Neither one of these letters has ever been deciphered, even though thousands have tried, including cryptologists at the National Security Agency (NSA) outside of Washington, D.C.
"Well, anything is possible," says Armand Vallieres, a resident of Riderwood Village in Silver Spring, Maryland, and a former CIA careerist in intelligence work. "But it could also be a puzzle that has no solution."
One of the great cryptologic minds of the 20th century, William Friedman, spent some 30 years trying to solve this puzzle. Known as the patriarch of the NSA, Friedman was considered by many in cryptology to be a leader in deciphering encrypted messages. "If you tell me Friedman worked on this, that's all I need to hear," says Dick Vayhinger, who was a cryptographer at NSA for 27 years and now lives with his wife, Martha at Riderwood Village. "He was the best."
But even Friedman couldn't crack this code. "It's all a matter of using the right key against the cipher stream, which turns your numbers into words," says Dick. "But coded messages can be simple or enormously complicated; they can take five minutes or five years to solve."
"And if William Friedman could not solve it...," he trails off.
'Town Without Pity'
Which brings us to the amateur sleuths and fortune hunters. The town of Bedford has seen them all. "It's the idea of getting something for nothing that gets them every time," says Ellen Wandrei, managing director of the Bedford City and County Museum, whose gift shop does a brisk business in selling books about the Beale treasure.
She says the citizens of Bedford have seen their cemetery illegally excavated, trenches dug in the apple orchards, and a silo moved for digging. Mostly though, they see people come and go, spending a lot of money in the process.
"There seem to be two main groups," she adds, "retirees who are interested in solving the codes, and younger people who want to get rich quick."
Start Digging - In a Book!
Encrypted messages have been a part of history for a very long time, says Mr. Vayhinger. "Queen Elizabeth used them during her reign." His advice to Beale treasure hunters is to find a book on codes and ciphers and start from there. "I used to work the New York Times crossword puzzles for years," he says, "and that was one of the questions I was asked during my job interview at NSA - 'do you work crossword puzzles?'"
What do you think? Is the Beale treasure a real-life fortune just waiting to be discovered or the mother or all fish tales? "We want you to come to visit us in Bedford and see if you can solve the mystery," challenges Ellen Wandrei. "You'll never know if you don't try."