In 1885, an author named James B. Ward published a pamphlet telling of a long-lost treasure available to anyone clever enough to solve the puzzle associated with it. Ward reported that around 1817, a man named Thomas Jefferson Beale had been the leader of an expedition to the American Southwest primarily concerned with hunting buffalo and/or bears. Beale’s group had instead stumbled upon gold and silver deposits in what is now Colorado. Agreeing to keep it all a secret, Beale’s team had spent the better part of two years quietly mining, then had taken the metals to Virginia by wagon and buried them in a vault underground between 1819 and 1821. Beale had written three notes explaining where the treasure was and who had legal rights to shares in it, encrypting each of these using a different text. However, Beale had vanished after leaving the notes with a friend. Eventually, the second of the three texts was deciphered using a slightly altered version of the Declaration of Independence. It specified which county in Virginia the treasure was hidden in, and referred the reader to the first of the notes for details.

But the first—and the third—notes remained stubbornly undeciphered. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor any other ciphertext source produced a readable message out of the first note. Beale had done far too good a job of encrypting his texts.

Or had he? Even as the field of cryptography advanced, and modern computers were invented and directed at the ciphers, the content remained frustratingly out of reach. The tantalizing mystery of where in Virginia there might be an enormous cache of treasure has turned into a broader question: Did Thomas J. Beale even exist, or was James B. Ward playing an enormous practical joke? The problem with the second interpretation is that Ward was not known to be a prankster. Could his pamphlet have been motivated by something stranger still?

By Ward’s account, Beale had written the three notes, encrypted them, and locked them inside an iron box. He turned the box over to an innkeeper named Robert Morriss in 1822. Beale had told Morriss that he would be sending along the keys to the ciphers, but also instructed Morriss not to open the box unless he or his colleagues failed to return within a decade. Morriss heard nothing from Beale over the next decade, or ever again. Only in 1845 did he finally relent, having decided that Beale probably wasn’t coming back.

Morriss opened the box. Inside were two letters and three encrypted notes; Morriss tried to decipher the latter himself but met with no success. He gave up, and upon his death the iron box was inherited by a friend. Morriss’s friend was reportedly extremely pleased when an undisclosed “accident” revealed the secret of the paper marked ‘2’.

The cipher was a sequence of numbers. Each number corresponded to a word in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The first letter of each of those words spelled the plaintext—with a few modifications for errors and spelling.

115, 73, 24…
instituted, hold, another…
I H A…

With the corrections made and punctuation added, the text comes out as follows—describing a treasure that would be worth approximately $65 million in modern American dollars:

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 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 for silver 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.

However, the anonymous friend had been unable to decipher either the first or the third notes—so Morriss’s friend had reached out to Ward and the two of them had made arrangements to publish the pamphlet, hoping that doing the nineteenth-century equivalent of crowdsourcing the job would unlock the other two ciphers—and the treasure.

Ward stated that Morriss’s friend had no doubt “that of the many who will give the subject attention, some one, through fortune or accident, will speedily solve their mystery and secure the prize which has eluded him.”

But no one did. In spite of a Cheyenne legend from around 1820 that tells of gold and silver from the West being taken east to be buried in the mountains, researchers began to wonder if the entire story had been made up. After all, no one claimed to have seen the original “Beale” documents except for Ward himself.

In the late 1960s, Carl Hammer—an employee of the company that produced UNIVAC computers—turned his machines’ attention to the Beale ciphers. Hammer did not get especially far, but concluded that the patterns in the two undeciphered notes seemed to be non-random. This was looking promising for Ward and Beale, since such non-randomness would be expected if the notes had a true decipherable text behind them. In other words, if Beale (or maybe Ward) had simply made up gibberish, it would be highly unlikely to show this degree of systematicity.

Later on, cryptographer Jim Gillogly made a startling secondary discovery: although Hammer had been correct and the encrypted text was indeed fairly non-random, it also didn’t seem to correspond to the statistical properties of the English language. In fact, attempting to use the Declaration of Independence again on the first note yielded several sequences along the lines of ‘abfdefghiijklmmnohpp’. With an incorrect key, an attempted decipherment should necessarily produce arbitrary-looking sequences of letters—and these were quite orderly. Suspiciously orderly.

Now the very premise of the ciphers was completely open to question. The decryption of the second note had been built into the story that Ward had written down in his pamphlet. Was it possible that the entire story was an invention of Ward’s? The pamphlet’s author had charged quite a bit of money for copies of his story: 50 cents (now more than $13), and had stated outright that he anticipated it selling in large numbers. Could Ward’s pamphlet have been both a hoax and a money-making scheme?

Detective and skeptic Joe Nickell published an analysis in 1982, evaluating the matter using several types of evidence, beginning with the historical record. The text of Ward’s pamphlet had set Beale up to be untraceable: Ward reports that Morriss said, “Curiously enough, [Beale] never adverted to his family or to his [ancestors].” And not just Beale but also Morriss and Ward himself were potentially fictional. Nickell finds that Robert Morriss does seem to have been a real innkeeper in the correct location. But the pamphlet claimed he’d been running the Washington Hotel in 1820 and in 1822; the record says that Morriss did not start in this position until the end of 1823. Whether Thomas J. Beale existed is unclear; Nickell uncovers no straightforward evidence that he did. Author James B. Ward does appear to have existed—he was registered for a time as a Freemason, and at least one early aspiring codebreaker claimed to have visited him around the beginning of the twentieth century—but no one knew him very well. Acquaintances appear to have described Ward as a man of integrity, but there was little more than that.

The language used throughout Ward’s story is another aspect of the pamphlet that can be analyzed for period authenticity. Nickell points out that this extends to the letters purported to have been written by Beale to Morriss and locked in the iron box in 1822. Tellingly, some of the words that “Beale” supposedly employed in his letters to Morriss seemed too new to have been likely to be found in the 1820s: stampede and improvise were not known to have existed in written English before 1840, and the gerund form stampeding was unattested before 1883. Although it was possible that the letters by “Beale” contained early uses of these words that happened to be a fair bit older than the oldest-known ones, the fact that there were three of them in two short letters was quite improbable.

Nickell also highlights how Ward’s story had some convenient holes in it. The pamphlet’s reprint of the Declaration of Independence contains a few errors—precisely the ones that were required to unlock the message in text number two. This suggests that the same person was responsible for coming up with both the erroneous reprint and the original cipher. It also seemed awfully convenient that the only text that had been deciphered was the one that provided all of the tantalising details about the treasure except the precise location. Ward’s pamphlet eagerly promised that the first note “describes the exact locality of the vault, so that no difficulty will be had in finding it.” Meanwhile, the third text, which supposedly contained the identification of thirty men entitled to parts of the treasure, is too short to be able to realistically contain that amount of information.

Nickell’s other major angle is that of writing style. Literature scholars have long been aware that every writer has a consistent but unique writing style—much like a fingerprint in terms of its potential for identification. Nickell and colleague Jean Pival analyzed the styles of Ward versus “Beale” (versus several contemporaneous literate Virginia men as controls). Among other telling results, they found nearly identical average sentence length, as well as very similar proportions of the words the, and, and of. The three controls are noticeably different from Ward/“Beale” and also distinct from each other. (A later analysis by cryptographer Louis Kruh of how many words of each potential length were used by Ward and “Beale” agreed.)

Pival concluded:

“[T]he striking similarities in the Ward and Beale documents argue that one author was responsible for both. Although two writers might share one idiosyncratic characteristic, the sharing of several extraordinary features constitutes, I think, conclusive evidence that the same hand wrote both documents.”

As Nickell acknowledges, the big remaining question is what a man described as being of great integrity would be doing engineering an elaborate—and profitable—hoax. It is possible, of course, that Ward’s good reputation was unearned, or that financial desperation drove him to betray his usual values. But there is a third, stranger explanation that Nickell refers to: that the whole thing might have been a metaphorical illustration of Freemason philosophy. The practises of the Freemasons often involve symbols and allegories, and some of Ward’s words and phrases are known to have been associated with Freemasonry in general. The potential “solution” to the Beale ciphers that fell out of this is that the “treasure” could be the endpoint of a rewarding moral/spiritual journey, rather than a literal stash of silver and gold lying somewhere in Virginia.

Could Ward have been trying to reform the greedy and the materialistic? He does slyly warn his pamphlet readers not to get too obsessed with the treasure:

“I would say a word to those who may take an interest in [the ciphers], and give them a little advice, acquired by bitter experience. It is, to devote only such time as can be spared from your legitimate business to the task, and if you can spare no time, let the matter alone. Should you disregard my advice, do not hold me responsible that the poverty you have courted is more easily found than accomplishment of your wishes.”

To this day the first and third Beale ciphers have never been cracked. Cryptography enthusiasts, research groups, and even self-declared psychics have all attempted to decipher the texts—to no avail. However, even if the Beale ciphers were indeed a prank—or a subtle Freemason parable—they do have a legitimate claim to fame as an early surviving example of cryptography in American history and popular culture. But there has been no success when it comes to a straightforward cryptographic approach to resolving the two encrypted texts. Cryptographers now tend to dismiss it as a hoax; Louis Kruh, writing in the journal Cryptologia in 1988, called it a “bamboozlement.”

This hasn’t kept opportunists from racing to Virginia to make unauthorized digs in Bedford County. However, none of those people have been known to have found anything along the lines of what Ward claimed Beale had hidden. Neither approach to the Beale ciphers has uncovered any evidence of the literal treasure that Ward’s pamphlet described. Whether anyone has started from the supposed story of “Thomas J. Beale” and found treasure worth $65 million in the form of emotional/spiritual well-being is a different matter altogether.

The original version of this article erroneously stated, “some of Nickell’s words and phrases are known to have been associated with Freemasonry in general.” We meant Ward’s words, the text and audio have been corrected.