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The Strange Case of the Beale Ciphers

In 1819, Santa Fe, New Mexico, a group of 30 gentleman adventurers entered, hunting buffaloes. They unearthed a buried treasure of gold, silver, and jewels that would be valued at $43 million today. Entrusted with its safekeeping, Thomas Jefferson Beale encrypted the location, contents and ownership of the treasure handing it over to his friend and hotel owner, Robert Morriss. Little did they know that the Beale Ciphers would spark one of the biggest treasure hunts the world has ever seen with no traces of this treasure to date.   


What Are The Ciphers Exactly? 


Originally named ‘The Beale Papers’ in a pamphlet published in 1880, the ciphers are divided into a set of three encrypted messages. The first cipher unravels the exact location of the vault. Some experts speculate that the treasure is in Beale’s hometown of Bedford, Virginia. Others believe it is still in Santa Fe or in a nook and cranny of Colorado. The second cipher explains the contents of the vault, which was decoded by an unnamed friend of Morriss the same man who published the papers into a pamphlet made accessible to the public. The third cipher encapsulates the ownership of the treasure. 


The Decoded Cipher


The only part of the Beale Papers decoded the second set of ciphers was discovered by the author of the Beale Papers, who spent ten years of his life deciphering and searching for the treasure, to no avail. The author’s method of decryption was rooted in the Declaration of Independence, published in 1776. At the surface, it may come off as bizarre. However, to put this into perspective — Thomas J Beale was a Freemason, like many of his companions and other gentlemen were at the time. By taking the numbers of the second cipher and matching them with the first letter of the corresponding number of the words in the Declaration of Independence, the author was able to decipher the letter. For instance, the first number of the second cipher is 115. We can take that number and find the 115th word of the Declaration of Independence, which is “Instituted”. The first letter of the word is “I”, and by repeating this method, we are able to interpret Beale’s encoded message. This is how the entire body of the second cipher unfolds


“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 1014 pounds of gold, and 3812 pounds of silver, deposited November, 1819. The second was made December, 1821, and consisted of 1907 pounds of gold, and twelve hundred and 88 pounds of silver; also jewels, obtained in St. Louis in exchange for silver to save transportation, and valued at $13,000 (in reference to the rate of currency at the time of 1819).

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 ‘1’ describes the exact locality of the vault so that no difficulty will be had in finding it.”

Could The Cipher Be A Hoax?


Although three ciphers exist entailing a buried treasure, there is no certainty that the treasure exists as it has not yet been retrieved. However, we also cannot be certain that a Thomas Jefferson Beale existed and that he was the one who authored the ciphers. 


For starters, the US Consensus Records of 1810 indicate that there were two people that went by the name of Thomas Beale one residing in Connecticut and the other in New Hampshire.  The US Consensus in 1820 reveals a Captain Thomas Beale who fought in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and a Thomas K Beale in Virginia however, this finding is not linked to either of the two Beales undergoing rigorous scrutiny as to their existence and whereabouts. Furthermore, the consensus reports can be deemed unreliable as they lack data of population schedules for many states of the time of recording. 


The 1982 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography titled “Discovered: the Secret of Beale’s Treasure”, written by Joe Nickell, suggests that there is no evidence of there ever being a Thomas J Beale. Nickell found that the dates of the letters and the recorded dates do not coincide with each other. For example, it was mentioned in a letter from Beale to Morriss in 1822 that Beale was Morriss’ first hotel customer. However, Morriss did not become the hotel’s proprietor until 1823, so Beale could not have been his first customer. Moreover, Beale uses words like “stampede” and “improvise” words that did not exist until the early 1820s (“stampede” making its first appearance in the English dictionary in 1823), bearing in mind that the letters to Morriss were written between 1819-1822. 


Nickell also noticed that “Thomas Jefferson” Beale is also the exact name of Thomas Jefferson — the author of the Declaration of Independence and “Jefferson’s Conundrum” another set of ciphers decoded by mathematician Lawren Smithline in 2007. Beale’s last name is also the last name of Edward Fitzgerald Beale who famously crossed the Mexican border in the 1850s while transporting gold from California discovered in 1848 three years after the second cipher was decoded.


Nickell’s discovery brought to light the writing of author James Ward, whose language is eerily similar to Beale’s letter suggesting that Thomas Jefferson Beale was simply a fictional character belonging to Ward. The pamphlet written and published in 1885 by “an unnamed author” allows room for skepticism all the more reason to believe that Thomas Beale never existed. The timelines are too close to be coincidental. 


A Cheyenne legend exists of gold and silver that were taken from the west and buried in the mountains of the east from the 1820s. However, we simply cannot subscribe to legendary tales as far as establishing credibility of a certain event of public speculation is concerned. Many questions about the Beale Papers are still shrouded in mystery why did Beale and his companions not split the treasure and keep it for themselves instead of encrypting it? Did Thomas Jefferson Beale even exist? How did he discover who the treasure belonged to and their next of kin? What was the rationale behind encrypting the treasure using the Declaration of Independence? Will the treasure ever be found or will it forever remain one of the world’s most arguably complex ciphers? We will simply just have to wait. Nevertheless, the cipher remains undefeated.

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Tags: History American History World History Thomas Beale Beale Ciphers Cryptology Ciphers Unsolved Mysteries Beale Papers


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