Beale ciphers

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Cover of The Beale Papers

The Beale ciphers (or Beale Papers) are a set of three ciphertexts, one of which allegedly states the location of a buried treasure of gold, silver and jewels estimated to be worth over US$43 million as of January 2018. Comprising three ciphertexts, the first (unsolved) text describes the location, the second (solved) ciphertext the content of the treasure, and the third (unsolved) lists the names of the treasure's owners and their next of kin.

The story of the three ciphertexts originates from an 1885 pamphlet detailing treasure being buried by a man named Thomas J. Beale in a secret location in Bedford County, Virginia, in the 1820s. Beale entrusted a box containing the encrypted messages to a local innkeeper named Robert Morriss and then disappeared, never to be seen again. According to the story, the innkeeper opened the box 23 years later, and then decades after that gave the three encrypted ciphertexts to a friend before he died. The friend then spent the next twenty years of his life trying to decode the messages, and was able to solve only one of them which gave details of the treasure buried and the general location of the treasure. The unnamed friend then published all three ciphertexts in a pamphlet which was advertised for sale in the 1880s.

Since the publication of the pamphlet, a number of attempts have been made to decode the two remaining ciphertexts and to locate the treasure, but all efforts have resulted in failure.[1][2][3][4]

There are many arguments that the entire story is a hoax, including the 1980 article "A Dissenting Opinion" by cryptographer Jim Gillogly, and a 1982 scholarly analysis of the Beale Papers and their related story by Joe Nickell, using historical records that cast doubt on the existence of Thomas J. Beale. Nickell also presents linguistic evidence demonstrating that the documents could not have been written at the time alleged (words such as "stampeding", for instance, are of later vintage). His analysis of the writing style showed that Beale was almost certainly James B. Ward, whose 1885 pamphlet brought the Beale Papers to light. Nickell argues that the tale is thus a work of fiction; specifically, a "secret vault" allegory of the Freemasons; James B. Ward was a Mason himself.[1]


A pamphlet published in 1885, entitled The Beale Papers, is the source of this story. The treasure was said to have been obtained by an American named Thomas J. Beale in the early 1800s, from a mine to the north of Nuevo México (New Mexico), at that time in the Spanish province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México (an area that today would most likely be part of Colorado). According to the pamphlet, Beale was the leader of a group of 30 gentlemen adventurers from Virginia who stumbled upon the rich mine of gold and silver while hunting buffalo. They spent 18 months mining thousands of pounds of precious metals, which they then charged Beale with transporting to Virginia and burying in a secure location. After Beale made multiple trips to stock the hiding place, he then encrypted three messages: the location, a description of the treasure, and the names of its owners and their relatives. The treasure location is traditionally linked to Montvale in Bedford County, Virginia.

Beale placed the ciphertexts and some other papers in an iron box. In 1822 he entrusted the box to a Lynchburg innkeeper named Robert Morriss. Beale told Morriss not to open the box unless he or one of his men failed to return from their journey within 10 years. Sending a letter from St. Louis a few months later, Beale promised Morriss that a friend in St. Louis would mail the key to the cryptograms, however, it never arrived. It was not until 1845 that Morriss opened the box. Inside he found two plaintext letters from Beale, and several pages of ciphertext separated into Papers "1", "2", and "3". Morriss had no luck in solving the ciphers, and decades later left the box and its contents to an unnamed friend.

The friend, then using an edition of the United States Declaration of Independence as the key for a modified book cipher, successfully deciphered the second ciphertext which gave a description of the buried treasure. Unable to solve the other two ciphertexts, the friend ultimately made the letters and ciphertexts public in a pamphlet entitled The Beale Papers, which was published by yet another friend, James B. Ward, in 1885.

Ward is thus not "the friend". Ward himself is almost untraceable in local records except that a man with that name owned the home in which a Sarah Morriss, identified as the spouse of Robert Morriss, died at age 77, in 1863.[5] He also is recorded as becoming a Master Mason in 1863.[1]

Deciphered message[edit]

The plaintext of Paper #2 reads:

I have deposited in the county of Bedford, about 4 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.

The second cipher can be decrypted fairly easily using a modified copy of the United States Declaration of Independence, but some editing is necessary. To decrypt it, one finds the word corresponding to the number (e.g., the first number is 115, and the 115th word in the Declaration of Independence is "instituted"), and takes the first letter of that word (in the case of the example, "I").

Beale used a version of United States Declaration of Independence slightly different from the original, and made mistakes in numbering it. To extract the hidden message, the following 5 modifications must be applied to the original text:

  • after word 154 ("institute") and before word 157 ("laying") one word must be added. The pamphlet handles this by inserting "a" before "new government".[6]
  • after word 240 ("invariably") and before word 246 ("design") one word must be removed. The pamphlet's numbering has eleven words between the labels for 240 and 250.[7]
  • after word 467 ("houses") and before word 495 ("be") ten words must be removed. The pamphlet has two labels for 480.[7]
  • after word 630 ("eat") and before word 654 ("to") one word must be removed. The pamphlet's numbering has eleven words between the labels for 630 and 640.[7]
  • after word 677 ("foreign") and before word 819 ("valuable") one word must be removed. The pamphlet's numbering has eleven words between the labels for 670 and 680.[7]


  • The first letter of the 811th word of the modified text ("fundamentally") is always used by Beale as a "y"
  • The first letter of the 1005th word of the modified text ("have") is always used by Beale as an "x"

Finally, in the decoded text there are five errors, probably due to wrong transcription of the original paper:

  • 84 (should be 85) 63 43 131 29 ... consistcd ("consisted")
  • 53 (should be 54) 20 125 371 38 ... rhousand ("thousand")
  • ... 108 (should be 10 8) 220 106 353 105 ... itron ("in iron")
  • ... 84 (should be 85) 575 1005 150 200 ... thc ("the")
  • ... 96 (should be 95) 405 41 600 136 ... varlt ("vault")


The treasure's total weight is about 3 tons as described in inventory of the second cryptogram. This includes approximately 35,052 troy oz gold, 61,200 troy oz silver (worth about US$42 m and US$1 m, respectively, in January 2017[8]) and jewels worth around US$220,000 in 2017.


There has been considerable debate over whether the remaining two ciphertexts are real or hoaxes. An early researcher, Carl Hammer of Sperry UNIVAC,[9] used supercomputers of the late 1960s to analyze the ciphers and found that while the ciphers were poorly encoded, the two undeciphered ones did not show the patterns one would expect of randomly chosen numbers and probably encoded an intelligible text.[10] Other questions remain about the authenticity of the pamphlet's account. In the words of one researcher "To me, the pamphlet story has all the earmarks of a fake . . . [There was] no evidence save the word of the unknown author of the pamphlet that he ever had the papers."[11]

The pamphlet's background story has several implausibilities, and is based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence and hearsay.

  • Later cryptographers have claimed that the two remaining ciphertexts have statistical characteristics which suggest that they are not actually encryptions of an English plaintext.[12][13] Alphabetical sequences such as abcdefghiijklmmnohpp are both non-random, as indicated by Carl Hammer,[10] and not words in English.
  • Others have also questioned why Beale would have bothered writing three different ciphertexts (with at least two keys, if not ciphers) for what is essentially a single message in the first place,[14] particularly if he wanted to ensure that the next of kin received their share (as it is, with the treasure described, there is no incentive to decode the third cipher).[10]
  • Analysis of the language used by the author of the pamphlet (the uses of punctuation, relative clauses, infinitives, conjunctives, and so on) has detected significant correlations between it and the writing style of Beale's letters, including the plaintext of the second cipher, suggesting that they may have been written by the same person.[1]
  • The letters also contain several English words, such as "improvise", not otherwise recorded before the 1820s in English[15] but used from French from 1786 in the New Orleans area,[16] and stampede (Spanish) "an uproar".[17] Beale's "stampeding" apparently first appears in print in the English language in 1832[18] but was used from 1786 to 1823 in New Orleans in French and Spanish.[1]
  • The second message, describing the treasure, has been deciphered, but the others have not, suggesting a deliberate ploy to encourage interest in deciphering the other two texts, only to discover that they are hoaxes. In addition, the original sale price of the pamphlet, 50 cents, was a high price for the time (adjusted for inflation, it is equivalent to $14.4 today[19]), and the author writes that he expects "a wide circulation".
  • The third cipher appears to be too short to list thirty individuals' next of kin.[10]
  • If the modified Declaration of Independence is used as a key for the first cipher, it yields alphabetical sequences such as abcdefghiijklmmnohpp[20] and others. According to the American Cryptogram Association, the chances of such sequences appearing multiple times in the one ciphertext by chance are less than one in a hundred million million.[20] Although it is conceivable that the first cipher was intended as a proof of concept letting decoders know that they were "on the right track" for one or more of the subsequent ciphers, such a proof would be redundant, as the success of the key with respect to the second document would provide the same evidence on its own.
  • Robert Morriss, as represented in the pamphlet, says he was running the Washington Hotel in 1820. Yet contemporary records show he did not start in that position until at least 1823.[21]

There have been many attempts to break the remaining cipher(s). Most attempts have tried other historical texts as keys (e.g., Magna Carta, various books of the Bible, the U.S. Constitution, and the Virginia Royal Charter), assuming the ciphertexts were produced with some book cipher, but none have been recognized as successful to date. Breaking the cipher(s) may depend on random chance (as, for instance, stumbling upon a book key if the two remaining ciphertexts are actually book ciphers); so far, even the most skilled cryptanalysts who have attempted them have been defeated. Of course, Beale could have used a document that he had written himself for either or both of the remaining keys or either a document of his own or randomly selected characters for the third source, in either case rendering any further attempts to crack the codes useless.

Existence of Thomas J. Beale[edit]

A survey of U.S. Census records in 1810 shows two persons named Thomas Beale, in Connecticut and New Hampshire. However, the population schedules from the 1810 U.S. Census are completely missing for seven states, one territory, the District of Columbia, and 18 of the counties of Virginia.[22] The 1820 U.S. Census has two persons named Thomas Beale, Captain Thomas Beale of the battle of New Orleans 1815 in Louisiana originally from Virginia Botetourt County – Fincastle area 12 miles from Bedford County and one in Tennessee, and a Thomas K. Beale in Virginia, but the population schedules are completely missing for three states and one territory.

Before 1850 the U.S. Census recorded the names of only the heads of households; others in the household were only counted. Beale, if he existed, may have been living in someone else's household.[23]

In addition, a man named "Thomas Beall" appears in the customer lists of St. Louis Post Department in 1820. According to the pamphlet, Beale sent a letter from St. Louis in 1822.[20]

Additionally, a Cheyenne legend exists about gold and silver being taken from the West and buried in mountains in the East, dating from roughly 1820.[20]

Poe's alleged authorship[edit]

Edgar Allan Poe has been suggested as the pamphlet's real author because he had an interest in cryptography. It was well known he placed notices of his abilities in the Philadelphia paper Alexander's Weekly (Express) Messenger, inviting submissions of ciphers which he proceeded to solve.[24] In 1843 he used a cryptogram as plot device in his short story "The Gold-Bug". From 1820, he was also living in Richmond, Virginia at the time of Beale's alleged encounters with Morriss. In February 1826 Poe enrolled as a student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.[25] But with mounting debts, Poe left for Boston in April 1827.[26]

However, research and facts debunk Poe's authorship. He died in 1849 well before The Beale Papers were first published in 1885. The pamphlet also mentions the American Civil War that started in 1861. William Poundstone, an American author and skeptic, had stylometric analysis performed on the pamphlet for his 1983 book Biggest Secrets, and found that Poe's prose is significantly different from the grammatical structure used by the author who wrote The Beale Papers.[27]

Search attempts[edit]

Despite the Beale Papers' unproven veracity, treasure hunters have not been deterred from trying to find the vault. The "information" that there is buried treasure in Bedford County has stimulated many expeditions with shovels, and other implements of discovery, looking for likely spots. For more than a hundred years, people have been arrested for trespassing and unauthorized digging; some of them in groups as in the case of people from Pennsylvania in the 1990s.[20]

Several digs were completed at the top of Porter's Mountain, one in late 1980s with the land owner's permission as long as any treasure found was split 50/50. However, the treasure hunters only found Civil War artifacts. As the value of these artifacts paid for time and equipment rental, the expedition broke even.[20]

Media attention[edit]

The story has been the subject of multiple television documentaries, such as the UK's Mysteries series, a segment in the seventh special of Unsolved Mysteries; and the 2011 Declaration of Independence episode of the History Channel TV show Brad Meltzer's Decoded. There are also several books, and considerable Internet activity. In 2014, the National Geographic TV show The Numbers Game referred to the Beale ciphers as one of the strongest passwords ever created. In 2015 the UKTV series Myth Hunters (also known as Raiders of the Lost Past) devoted one of its season 3 episodes to the topic.[28] Also in 2015, the Josh Gates series Expedition Unknown visited Bedford to investigate the Beale Ciphers and search for the treasure.

Simon Singh's 1999 book The Code Book explains the Beale cipher mystery in one of its chapters.[20]

In 2010, an award-winning animated short film was made concerning the ciphers called The Thomas Beale Cipher.[29]

See also[edit]

  • List of ciphertexts
  • Rennes-le-Château – a similar case where encrypted documents, discovered in a church in France, allegedly refer to a hidden treasure
  • Oak Island mystery – an undiscovered buried treasure on Oak Island in Nova Scotia
  • Captain Kidd – a 17th-century pirate who is supposed to have left behind clues to buried treasure


  1. ^ a b c d e Nickell, Joe (July 1982). "Discovered: The secret of Beale's treasure". The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 90 (3): 310–324. JSTOR 4248566.
  2. ^ "The Beale Treasure Ciphers". The Guardian. 1999. Archived from the original on 2006-12-30. Retrieved 2007-04-14.
  3. ^ Dunin, Elonka (2003-12-08). "Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers". Archived from the original on 23 April 2007. Retrieved 2007-04-14.
  4. ^ Burchard, Hank (5 May 1972). "Leading cryptanalysts seek to break secret code reported to tell of buried treasure in Virginia" (PDF). The Washington Post.
  5. ^ "Sarah Morriss". obituary. Lynchburg Virginian. 21 May 1865.
  6. ^ "The Beale Papers, page 17". Retrieved 22 April 2021.
  7. ^ a b c d "The Beale Papers, page 18". Retrieved 22 April 2021.
  8. ^ "Historical London Fix Prices Current Year| Kitco". Retrieved May 13, 2020.
  9. ^ Burchard, Hank (7 September 1979). "Motley group gathers to solve ciphers to treasure". The Washington Post.
  10. ^ a b c d Poundstone, William (1993). Biggest Secrets. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company. p. 127. ISBN 0-688-11529-2.
  11. ^ Dr. Clarence Williams, a researcher at the Library of Congress, in 1934. (No source given.)
  12. ^ Gillogly, James (April 1980). "The Beale Cipher: A Dissenting Opinion". Cryptologia. Archived from the original on 26 January 2006.
  13. ^ Love, George (20 April 2006). "The Beale Ciphers". Archived from the original on 20 April 2006.
  14. ^ Kruh, Louis (October 1982). "A basic probe of the Beale Cipher as bamboozlement" (PDF). Cryptologia.
  15. ^ "Improvise". The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal. Vol. 12. 1824.
  16. ^ Harper, Douglas. "improvisation". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  17. ^ Harper, Douglas. "stampede". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  18. ^ Sherwood, Mary Elizabeth Wilson (1834). Etiquette, the American Code of Manners. G. Routledge & Sons. p. 107.
  19. ^ 1634 to 1699: Harris, P. (1996). "Inflation and Deflation in Early America, 1634–1860: Patterns of Change in the British American Economy". Social Science History. 20 (4): 469–505. JSTOR 1171338. 1700-1799: McCusker, J. J. (1992). How much is that in real money?: a historical price index for use as a deflator of money values in the economy of the United States (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1800–present: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved January 1, 2020.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g Singh, S (2000). The Code Book. page 97: Fourth Estate. ISBN 1-85702-889-9.CS1 maint: location (link)
  21. ^ Poundstone, 127–128.
  22. ^ Murphy, Linda Troutt (25 July 2006). "Missing Federal Census Schedules". Traut / Trout(t) Family. Archived from the original on 13 January 2009.
  23. ^ "Clues in Census Records, 1790–1840". National Archives and Records Administration. Archived from the original on 19 July 2006.
  24. ^ Silverman, Kenneth (1991). Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance (Paperback ed.). New York: Harper Perennial. p. 152. ISBN 978-0-06-092331-0.
  25. ^ Poundstone, 126.
  26. ^ Meyers, Jeffrey (1992). Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy (Paperback ed.). New York: Cooper Square Press. p. 32. ISBN 978-0-8154-1038-6.
  27. ^ Poundstone, 133.
  28. ^ "The Mystery of Thomas Beale's Treasure". IMDb. Retrieved 5 June 2018.
  29. ^ "The Thomas Beale Cipher: A Short Film by Andrew Allen". Retrieved May 13, 2020.

Further reading[edit]

  • Viemeister, Peter. The Beale Treasure: New History of a Mystery, 1997. Published by Hamilton's, Bedford, Virginia
  • Gillogly, James J.. "The Beale Cipher: A Dissenting Opinion April 1980 Cryptologia, Volume 4, Number 2
  • Easterling, E.J. In Search Of A Golden Vault: The Beale Treasure Mystery ( CD/AUDIO BOOK 70 min. ) copyright 1995/ Revised In 2011 . Avenel Publishing 1122 Easter Lane Blue Ridge, VA 24064.

External links[edit]