The Beale Cipher: Fact or Fiction
November 16, 2015
“IT HAPPENED on a January day in 1820. He appeared at an inn in Lynchburg, Virginia, owned by Robert Morriss,” I said to my friend
Gwendolyn. We were folding and stapling pamphlets together for a charity bazaar. I was rambling, trying to make small talk, as usual.
“I am getting to that. The few people who caught a glimpse of him had never seen someone so dashing and handsome. He was remarkable and mesmerizing to watch—tall, over 6’ 1”, with dark hair, thick and wavy and reaching almost to the shoulders, dark and dancing eyes. His frame was muscular but trim. He made an indelible impression, having a conversational tone that was almost glib. He was friendly, but would give up nothing of himself. He was definitely a mystery man. He said he was Thomas Jefferson Beale, but was he? We may never know.”
“Thomas Jefferson Beale. I don’t seem to remember an event connected to that exact name, Evie, only the first part of it. What on earth did he do?”
“Oh, you wouldn’t have heard of him probably. Not many people have. I only recently found out about him, myself, and that was after considerable digging. His first appearance at the inn seemed to be just a teaser. He soon whisked himself away to parts unknown. He was sorely missed by those who had made his acquaintance. One day out of the blue—it was two years later—he returned again. Would you believe that he was more handsome and magnetic than he was on his first visit? Well, those that saw him the second time around vouched for this—that he was even more of a romantic figure and more handsome. He left a locked iron box with Morriss, for safe-keeping. Then, whoosh, he was gone again. Not long after his departure a letter arrived for Morriss from St. Louis. The letter said that if he, Beale, did not return to the inn within ten years, for Morriss to open the box and figure out the coded messages inside with a cipher key that would be mailed from a different location. The letter with the cipher key never came and ten years did pass by. Then, ten more years went by with no sign of Beale. After twenty-three long years, Morriss decided to open the box, even if he did not have the key to solve the ciphers.”
“Exactly what did Morriss find in the box, Evie?”
“In a long letter from Beale to Morriss, Beale explained that in the year 1817, he and some fellow adventurers had gone west. They had acquired a large amount of gold, silver and jewels from their expeditions. They had brought it back east and buried it in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia—a huge treasure. Also in the iron box were the three documents Beale described with three separate codes on them. These would give the exact location of the hidden treasure. Morriss could make no sense of the ciphers. As he neared the time of his own death, he gave the box with the ciphers to his long-time friend, James Ward. Ward became obsessed with cracking the codes. He cracked one of the three codes after discovering that the key was based on the Declaration of Independence. In this code, the exact contents of the treasure were described.”
“What was in the treasure, basically?”
“Three thousand pounds of gold, five thousand pounds of silver and more jewels than you could shake a stick at.”
“What happened, then?”
“James Ward, as obsessed as he was, could not figure out the two other codes. In 1885 he gave it up. Before he did that, he published an account of his own work on the code, the other two codes and Beale’s letter to Morriss.
He sold the publication for fifty cents. A Beale Cipher Association was born from viewing the documents. The ciphers of the two un-cracked codes have stumped some of the finest minds and they have stumped the most sophisticated computers.”
“What became of all this, Evie?”
“A lot of people’s land got torn up by those looking for the location of the treasure—it did create problem. A woman even tore up a graveyard, and disturbed graves in her search for the gold. There are some wild theories out there. Some thought that this handsome stranger, Beale, was really Jean Laffite, and that he was hiding pirates’ loot. Some think that officials of the Confederate government cooked up the whole thing, fabricating the Beale/Morriss/Ward story to hide money that had been converted to gold—a method to launder it after the war. Many are convinced the whole thing is a hoax—Edgar Allan Poe’s name comes up as a possible perpetrator. He loved ciphers and lived close to the area when he was attending the college, but experts agree that this is not likely. There are those who think that Ward created the whole scheme as a hoax and that Beale never even existed.”
“Whatever it is, it is tantalizing to think about. Are there any more recent developments that you know about Evie?”
“Well There is a person, now deceased who purported that all of the Beale Ciphers have been cracked, by himself, Daniel Cole, and that the location was found and when a crude vault in the mountainous rock was opened the treasure had already been taken, but there were a few artifacts that were left behind near the entrance to the vault: an iron belt buckle, an iron spike, a piece of old leather, and a leg from and iron pot.
I have looked at a website that is put up in Dan Cole’s honor and it is complete with some of his code work, photos of the artifacts, photos of the vault area in Bedford County, Virginia, and a transcript of The Beale Papers, as published. This publication contains the actual story of Thomas Jefferson Beale and his activities in the area during the time he stayed at the inn. The Cole website can be found by searching, ‘Beale’s Cipher Solved-Beale’s Vault found.’ His spin on the whole solution is very interesting reading, with some patriotic overtones. There are many experts who do not go along with Cole’s solution, though.”
“You mean some members of the Beale Cipher Association may still be working on it?” Gwendolyn looked up from her work for my answer.
“It’s possible. There may be a great deal of valuable treasure out there somewhere. James Ward did have advice for any future code tacklers.”
“What?” Gwendolyn waited for my answer.
I remembered it because it was good advice for those with obsessive avocations. “Devote only such time as can be spared from your legitimate business to the task. If you can spare no time, let the matter alone.”
“This says to me that he was not a hoaxer, that he was actually consumed by deciphering the code.”
“And I thought exactly the same thing,” I must say that I agreed.
Sara Marie Hogg’s latest book is Quite Curious.