The Beale Cryptograms
the Beale Cryptograms are real, somewhere six feet under
the ground in Virginia is over $30 million in gold stored
in iron pots. (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2000)
It was 1885 and James B. Ward of Lynchburg, Virginia,
was ready to give up. After twenty years of puzzling over a
difficult problem with limited success, Ward knew that he had
little or no chance of solving the whole thing. He decided to
throw the problem open to the public and see if anyone else
could be successful. For this reason, he published a pamphlet
with the lengthy title: The Beale
Papers containing Authentic Statements regarding the TREASURE
BURIED in 1819 and 1821, near Bufords, in Bedford County, Virginia,
and Which Has Never Been Recovered.
In this pamphlet Ward told a strange story. Ward
wrote that according to letters written from Thomas J. Beale
to Robert Morriss, Beale had led a party of thirty men west
in 1817 on a buffalo hunt in northern New Mexico. While out
west they discovered a rich vein of gold and gave up hunting
in favor of mining. By 1819 they had accumulated a large store
of gold. According to the account ...the question of transferring
our wealth to some secure place was frequently discussed. It
was not considered advisable to retain so large an amount in
so wild and dangerous a locality, where its very possession
might endanger our lives; and to conceal it there would avail
nothing, as we might at any time be forced to reveal its place
The men decided to move their horde by wagon back
to Virginia. They brought it back in two shipments and buried
the gold in iron pots in a secret vault roughly lined with stone
some six feet beneath the ground. The treasure consisted of
2,921 pounds of gold and 5,100 pounds of silver, as well as
jewels obtained in St. Louis to save transportation.
In 1982 one journalist investigating the Beale story estimated
the modern value of the treasure to be 30 million dollars.
According to Ward's writings, the group entrusted
their secret to Robert Morriss of Lynchburg while they traveled
back to west to get a third shipment. Morriss was given a strongbox
with instructions not to open it for ten years. If the men failed
to return by then, Morriss was to open the box. Inside the box
were instructions and a series of cryptograms.
Morriss would have been given keys he would need to decode them.
He was to use the secret information in the cryptograms to uncover
the treasure and disperse the money among the men's surviving
Morriss was true to his word. When the men did
not return he not only waited ten years, but twenty-three. When
he opened the box he found three cyptograms and a letter of
explanation. The cryptograms consisted of a series of numbers
from one to three digits long. Morriss, who was never given
the promised keys to the messages, worked to decrypt them for
years, but failed. About a year before his death in 1863 he
passed the box onto Ward. Ward, by accident, solved one of the
cryptogram ciphers. He was able to decode the message by consecutively
numbering the words in the Declaration of Independence, then
swapping those words with the matching numbers in the cipher
number 2. The message he was able to decode gave him a list
of the vault's contents. The other two messages, which were
supposed to carry the location of the treasure and the list
of men who were part of the group, Ward failed to decrypt after
many years of trying.
Ward blamed his financial problems on his compulsive
pursuit of an answer to the two remaining cryptograms. To put
the matter behind him he decided to make the whole affair public:
....I resolved to sever at once, and forever, all connection
with the affair, and retrieve, if possible, my errors. To do
this, and as the best means of placing temptation beyond my
reach, I determined to make public the whole matter, and shift
from my shoulders my responsibility to Mr. Morriss.
After Ward published his pamphlet many people
tried to decode the messages. Most failed. A few decided that
they succeeded, but their decryptions were faulty, leading to
wrong conclusions. Many spent small fortunes themselves digging
up Virginia hillsides trying to find the treasure. In 1966 a
Tennessee banker employed a backhoe to dig up a considerable
chunk of land with no result. A bulldozer was used to level
most of a hill on Purgatory Mountain without any better luck.
Between 1897 and 1912, two brothers, George and
Clayton Hart, took up the Beale challenge. They spent much of
their spare time looking for documents that might serve as keys
for the other two ciphers much as the Declaration of Independence
had been for cipher 2. Though they never managed to decrypt
the messages, that didn't stop them from digging at what they
considered promising sites. To this end they even employed a
psychic, but still found nothing.
In 1968 the Beale Cypher Association was founded.
This group hoped that by pooling their resources and talents
they might finally solve the mystery, but though they have been
successful in documenting the story of the Beale papers, they
have not found the treasure.
Will this mystery ever be solved? Some have suggested
that the solution lies not with treasure, but with trickery.
What if the Beale papers are a hoax?
One of the first clues that the Beale papers are
not what they seem is in one of the documents which is a letter
from Morriss to Ward. He states, It was in the month of January,
1820, while keeping the Washington Hotel, that I first became
aquainted with Beale...
A notice in the Lynchburg Virginian for December
2nd, 1823 shows that Morriss didn't become the proprietor
until three years later. In addition, the Washington Inn wasn't
known as the Washington Hotel until after Morriss sold it.
Some of the wording in the Beale papers doesn't
seem to fit with the time either. For example, a letter from
Beale dated 1822 talks about "stampeding" a herd of buffalo.
The word stampede (from the Spanish estampida) did not
enter into print before 1844, twenty-two years after the letters
In fact there is no solid evidence that a Thomas
Jefferson Beale existed in Virginia in the early 19th
century. Also there are no records of an expedition that found
gold in California. The original Beale papers themselves do
not even exist. Ward reported they had been lost in a fire at
Virginia Job Print plant along with many of the pamphlets.
If the Beale letters are a hoax there are probably
three candidates for the hoaxster. Beale himself, Morriss and
Ward. Clearly most skeptics focus on Ward. He published the
pamphlet and charged for each copy. Statistical studies of the
word usage in the pamphlet suggest that probably all the texts
in it were written by a single person, most likely Ward.
Little is known about Ward, but unlike Beale,
he clearly did exist. Ward grew up in the same section of Virginia
as figures in the Beale papers story. It is believed he was
a member of the Freemasons. Records show he joined Dove Lodge
No. 51 in 1862. In fact, Ward's membership in the organization
may give clues to motives he may have had for concocting a hoax.
Many of the elements in the Beale Papers' story
show up in Masonic rites. The idea of a vault (the exact word
used by Beale) filled with treasures and lined with rough stone
is part of Masonic symbolism. Joe Nickell, a skeptic researching
the Beale tale concluded in his book Mysterious Realms:
...Beale and his treasure are illusory-merely
part of an allegory meant to evoke the anticipated Masonic `discovery
of the secret vault and the inestimable treasures, with the
long-lost word'...The contrast between the futile quest for
gold and that for more spiritual wealth are didactically expressed
in the allegory...
Where did Ward get the inspiration for his story?
Several people have pointed to Edgar Allan Poe's story The
Gold Bug which had similar elements in it. Also, a Kentucky
legend about a man named Swift who discovered a silver mine
may have influenced Ward.
If the Beale Papers are only a story, what about
the two undecyphered messages? Are they merely random series
of numbers? In 1971 Dr. Carl Hammer did a computer study of
the undecyphered messages and concluded that there were cyclic
patterns in the numbers that suggested they were not just random,
but most likely text-encoded in the same manner as the decoded
cipher number two.
So what would the undeciphered messages tell us?
The location of a priceless treasure? Or a confirmation that
the story is a fabrication by Ward? Until somebody can decipher
the messages, if that is possible, we will never know.
Try your own luck at decoding the messages with
our reprint on the Beale Papers Page.
Krystek 2000. All Rights Reserved.