When I was about 14 years old, I encountered one of the most fascinating puzzles in history: the Beale Ciphers. The Beale Ciphers are widely-known among treasure hunters.

What are the Beale Ciphers?  It is a collection of three documents, each of which contained an encrypted message as a sequence of numbers.  The story goes that they were left by a man named Thomas Beale in the care of an innkeeper, Robert Morriss, with instructions to hold them and to whom he should give them in case he (Beale) did not return.  You might have guessed it: he did not return.  The man who claimed to have ultimately obtained the documents published them for the public to see, including one of the documents which had been broken using the Declaration of Independence as the key. That document described the contents of a treasure which had been buried and the description of the vault where it was buried.  The contents are quite valuable. The other two documents remained undeciphered, one of which contained the location of the treasure, and the other containing the heirs to the treasure. Read the Wikipedia article for more details.

Naturally, this launched the efforts of treasure hunters for the next 120+ years. The documents have been analyzed by many people, including mathematicians and later with computer science departments when that technology became available. While no documented case of anyone breaking the ciphers had been known, there were plenty of police cases of people trespassing and digging on properties near Bedford County Virigina, where the treasure was supposedly buried.  And because the first document to be deciphered described the treasure and described what the two other documents contained, many people argue that the whole thing is a hoax.

Recently, I discovered an apparently no-longer-maintained web site Beale Ciphers Solved which documented not only that the other documents in the Beale Ciphers were successfully deciphered (sometime in the late 1990’s by Daniel Cole, now deceased), but showed what was found at the location described by the deciphered location document. It was thrilling to read about the effort, and see pictures of the site described. Basically, they claimed to have found a vault similar to what is described, but it was empty of any treasure. It had only small artifacts dating to the time it would have been built.

Still, the site is missing a lot of critical information, and there are things (and lack of things) in the documentation and the pictures which generate more questions than answers. It even raises some suspicions.

  1. While the site posts the claim of how the documents were deciphered, it provides no details. This is very strange for two reasons. First, these are enciphered documents which have stumped the world for almost 200 years. If I had solved it, I would want the world to know I did it and give details to prove it. This would be the moment of well-earned personal fame. Just the math and cryptography knowledge alone would be a feat in itself. Second, there is no reason not to provide this information. The treasure is supposedly gone so there is nothing to protect (they do post the lattitude/longitude of the vault on the site), and the method of cryptography used is outdated and has no military or intellectual property value. I will concede that Daniel Cole possibly died before he could document this for the public, but he must have generated and assembled a lot of notes from his work–at a minimum. Why isn’t this information shared?
  2. The site has no pictures from inside the vault.  Even if it was empty, photographs of the undisturbed vault would be valuable for evidence and to archaeologists, and to history in general.
  3. The backside of the vault looks like somebody was digging with heavy construction equipment.  The description of the vault says that it is not very big (seven feet at one point), and the site writers claim that it is empty.  But there is a tremendous amount of fresh dirt and rock splattered on the hill behind the entrance–far more than could be done reasonably by hand.  There is no indication of anything other than hand tools (sledgehammer, pick axes, etc) on the site or in the pictures.  Why do all this digging for something that is clearly empty?  There may be a valid reason, but again, no explanation is given. (A big thank you to my dad who pointed this out in the photos)
  4. The two remaining, and supposedly now-decoded ciphers are a little suspicious.  The decoded location cipher is listed as partial content (“the very last portion of Dan’s decoded document”), and “this is the most difficult area of cipher one to decode.”  Again, give us the details.  This is critical, because viewed as circumstantial evidence only, the “residence” document which is supposed to list the heirs to the treasure instead essentially says “hey, we’ve all come back and removed our treasure and even paid taxes on it.” Well, of what value is that for Beale to bother encoding, let alone give to someone in a cipher form to protect?  And more relevant, why not list the heirs only since that is of value if, as Beale claimed, he was leaving the information in case something happened to his party on their next expedition and did not return.  This content claimed to be from the deciphered Residence document is the most critical one for outside sources to validate.

So #4 above opens a huge and potentially dangerous point.  Any treasure hunter in the world needs to keep people from knowing what they know as they pursue the treasure.  Once the treasure is found (and in this case that includes recovered from its hiding place), the finder is either going to:

  1. No longer hide information about the treasure and take action to legally claim and protect it. Make an official claim to it, pay any taxes, etc, so that ownership of the treasure is protected officially.
  2. Continue to hide information about the treasure, and even generate disinformation to throw fellow treasure hunters and others off the trail.

Assuming that Beale’s treasure did exist and was not removed by Beale but WAS found in the excavation described on the site, the content listed in the site as being from the list of heirs would be great content to discourage future attempts at excavation.  But even more so, from discouraging government entities (e.g. the IRS) from thinking anything was found at the site.  After all, according to the text, Beale and party came back and claimed the treasure.  Who would care about paying taxes or handshakes with the Secretary of the Treasury (argument by unverifiable authority), or that he had no heirs?  That sounds more like disinformation.

Am I accusing the people who created the site of any deception. No. It makes no sense to even put up a web site like that if they found treasure there. But the lack of details which would allow others to duplicate the deciphering results they claimed to have achieved not only creates the potential for a lot of suspicion, but denies information to history that it rightly deserves. So I strongly hope that the creator’s of the site can either take the time and post the information on the site, or solicit some help from others to do it.  Even if this was all valid and part of an elaborate hoax by someone to lead people to a vault that was always empty, history is being robbed of a great part of this story.

… until, at least, the full details of how all the deciphering was accomplished are released to the public, and validated.