“Silver lying” (Beale ciphers)


Legend tells that a man named Thomas Beale discovered gold, silver, and jewels in present-day Colorado two centuries ago. Beale and 30 compatriots transported the haul, worth about $43 million today, to Bedford Country, Virginia, where they buried it.

Beale wrote three encoded letters about the valuables and left them with hotel proprietor Robert Morriss. The first note explained where the treasure lay; the second described what the valuables were comprised of; and the third mystery missive listed the names, locations, and relatives of the 30 persons who could share in the loot. Only the second of these letters has been decoded.

That letter included instructions on how to use the Declaration of Independence to decipher the text. Though littered with numerous spelling errors, the revealed message, after substantial copy editing, yields this script: “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.”

Morriss was never able to solve the other ciphers. He shared them James Ward, who in1885 published them in a pamphlet, which also included the background story. Of note, the phrases,   punctuation, and vocabulary range in the pamphlet are similar enough to the supposed writings of Beale that they likely emanated from the same source. As nearly seven decades had elapsed between the supposed Colorado trip and the pamphlet’s publication, Beale, if he ever existed, would likely have been deceased by 1885, strongly suggesting that Ward or a conspirator were the author of both tracts.

If the method for decoding the second letter is used when trying to decipher the other texts, it produces such sequences such as “abcdefghiijklmmnohpp,” and does so multiple times. The American Cryptogram Association states that the chances of such a run appearing twice in genuine text would be one in a hundred trillion. It could be that a source other than the Declaration of Independence is meant to be used in the decoding, but if so, Beale inconsistently left this crucial information out of the other two letters. There’s also the issue of why he would use different keys since all the messages were meant to be decoded at once.

So the ciphers are made up of one easily decoded message and two that, if genuine, have utterly baffled world-class cryptographers for more than a century. Such a combination seems utterly implausible. Another giveaway to the ciphers’ likely fraudulent nature is that the third garbled missive, at barely 600 words, is insufficient to list the names, addresses, hometowns, and kinfolk of 30 persons.

Joe Nickell, senior research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, looked into the Beale Papers thoroughly and found still more discrepancies. He unearthed no record of a Thomas Beale in Buford County, Va., during the time Beale was allegedly residing there. Nickell also learned that Morriss only became a hotel proprietor in 1823, whereas the pamphlet listed him as running the operation in 1820 when Beale stayed there as a guest.

Further, a linguistic analysis showed that some words in the pamphlet, such as stampede and improvise, which were not part of the English vocabulary in the 1820s. There’s also the highly unlikely scenario of 30 men agreeing to keep massive wealth buried, as opposed to spending, saving, and investing it.

Additionally, the tale has the crew sojourning in St. Louis on their way back east, and banks had opened on that side of the Mississippi by then. It would have been wise and cautions to deposit the metal and jewels, as opposed to carrying them by mule for another thousand miles and risk their theft or loss, only to bury them, which carries still more risk.

Geology raises still further doubts. According to Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning, gold and silver in ore form appear much different than they do after refining and purification. Yet Beale’s account has the men simply recognizing the gold and silver, then packing it up in a series of digs and trips that lasted 18 months. It strains credulity to think that a massive amount of valuables would be out in the open, seen only by 30 accidental prospectors who neither speak of it nor horde it for a year and a half.

What’s more, Dunning writes that gold and silver pure enough to be distinct from one another are never found in the same place. If they are in close proximity, they are alloyed and only become recognized as separate metals during refinement and purification.

None of this is enough to overcome greed or, if I’m being less jaded, curiosity and intrigue. Many self-styled treasure hunters have descended on Bedford County, although the only money that’s changed hands has been the fines levied on them for trespassing and unauthorized digging.

Other persons have tried to decipher the remaining letters by employing the Magna Carta, Bible, and U.S. Constitution, without success. I examined the codes and compared them with some of my blog posts to see if it revealed the location. Nothing yet, but tonight I’ll try doing that while lining up the posts and ciphers with Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz.



One thought on ““Silver lying” (Beale ciphers)

  1. I would agree that there’s a very strong case that the pamphlet is almost entirely fake: yet at the same time, the same doesn’t seem to be true of the ciphers themselves. Even Jim Gillogly’s now eponymous string sequences seem to me to be far more indicative of some two-layered encryption scheme than of fakery.

    So while I think it is wise to be highly doubtful about the pamphlet, the jury should still be out about the ciphers themselves. 🙂

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