The Original Crypto Bros and the Undiscoverable Buried Treasure Somewhere in Virginia
Somewhere in Bedford County, Virginia, there might be a cache of treasure worth 40-odd million dollars — or not.
Codebreakers and treasure-hunters have spent decades trying to figure out a mysterious trio of papers known as the Beale Ciphers, which may or may not lead to a shit-ton of gold. Thousands upon thousands of dollars and untold amounts of time have gone into trying to figure out what might just be some dude from the 1800s pulling everyone’s dick.
Long before there were crypto bros, there were crypto bros. Cryptography was a big deal in the 19th century, popularized by people like Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Code-breaking that would now seem incredibly simple was seen as pretty extraordinary — substitution ciphers (in which the letters of a message are replaced with different letters) that would show up in 21st-century kids’ books were viewed as cutting-edge, and the ability to decode them meant people saw you as a god.
Poe was a huge fan, and popularized it both through his story “The Gold Bug (the story that earned him more money than any of his others) and a lengthy campaign in a magazine inviting readers to send him ciphers, all of which he decoded. The main tool in his arsenal was knowledge of letter frequencies — working out a substitution cipher is much more straightforward when you know which letters are the most common, which ones are most likely to be repeated and so on.
In 1885, a pamphlet called The Beale Papers was published by an anonymous author. It contained three coded texts, one of them also decoded, and the story behind them — that they contained the details of a treasure cache buried somewhere in or around Bedford, Virginia by an enigmatic (but notably handsome) figure named Thomas Beale seven decades earlier.
The first detailed where the treasure was, the second its contents and the third its owners. Beale had promised to send “the key,” but never had, and they had sat in an iron box in the care of an innkeeper for years before being bequeathed to the author, who had managed to decode the second text.
The texts were all long groups of numbers, and in the second text, these referred to words in the Declaration of Independence, their initial letters spelling out the original message (this is known as a “book cipher,” the author having tried multiple important texts before striking lucky). There seemed to have been several errors in Beale’s transcription, missing words and occasionally whole sentences when coding the message up, but the treasure described was incredibly impressive: almost 3,000 pounds of gold and over 5,000 pounds of silver. Today, the hoard would be worth well over $50 million.
But the other two texts were unsolvable, despite thousands of people trying. Trainee cryptographers in World War II worked on them, as did the U.S. Cypher Bureau and the National Security Agency. The late Carl Hammer, one of the leading figures in the development of computer cryptanalysis, once said, “The Beale ciphers have occupied at least 10 percent of the best cryptanalytic minds in the country. And not a dime of this effort should be begrudged. The work — even the lines that have led into blind alleys — has more than paid for itself in advancing and refining computer research.”
The issue with decoding them is that, if they are book ciphers like the second, there is no way of solving them without the book, and no way of knowing what or where that might be. In fact, as physicist Simon Singh wrote in his history of cryptography The Code Book, “Beale might have been prepared to create a special keytext for the first and third ciphers. Indeed, if the keytext was penned by Beale himself, this would explain why searches of published material have not revealed it. We can imagine that Beale might have written a 2,000-word private essay on the subject of buffalo hunting, of which there was only one copy. Only the holder of this essay, the unique keytext, would be able to decipher the first and third Beale ciphers.”
If that was what the “key” Beale had mentioned was, and it was lost, the messages will never be decoded — unless they could never be decoded in the first place, because the whole thing was bullshit. That is one theory people have put forward, based on the mysterious nature of Beale, the convoluted story the texts are said to have gone through, and the hefty price tag of the pamphlet — 28 pages for 50 cents was, at the time, incredibly expensive, the equivalent of about 20 bucks now. The author insisted their anonymity was to avoid being deluged with questions by the public, but maybe it was just to take the money and run.
Textual analysis showed that the writing by the author and the letters quoted as being from Beale were remarkably similar, suggesting the backstory might not be true. Analysis of the numbers in the unsolved texts showed less random a distribution of final digits as in the solved one — people are pretty crappy at generating strings of random numbers, so that analysis would point to a human hand at play.
Curiously, using the Declaration of Independence as the key on the first text results in a string that is almost a chunk of the alphabet — abfdefghiijklmmnohpp — suggesting it isn’t just a random string of numbers, but could potentially have been encoded multiple times. Another theory is that the author deliberately messed with the texts in the hope that whoever had the key would realize they had done so and come forward, contacting them via their publisher, and the pair could use the real texts and key to find the treasure together. The kind of reluctant partnership that buddy movies are made of.
There were also theories that the whole thing was written by Poe, who died over 30 years before they were published. Despite the papers mentioning a war that started several years after his death, which by most people’s logic would make it an open-and-shut case, a startling amount of time was spent by various academics trying to prove or disprove the theory.
The very real chance that it’s either unsolvable or horseshit hasn’t stopped dozens of people over the last century or so digging big-ass holes, blowing up hillsides and desecrating graves — treasure-hunters have ended up jailed for crimes including “violating a sepulcher,” which admittedly sounds incredibly badass.
There probably isn’t an enormous treasure-trove awaiting discovery beneath Virginia. And in the teeny-tiny chance there is, it’s incredibly unlikely to be discovered as the result of decoding a pair of absurdly difficult messages. But it’s not completely out of the question, and it’s a shitload of money, so realistically, plenty more people are going to dedicate huge chunks of time to unearthing something that may not exist.
After all, human greed would never let a little thing like reality get in its way.