The other day I was reading the popular book Simple Genius by David Baldacci , a story woven around codes , espionage etc. The book itself was rather flatfooted with the author not responding with alacrity to the challenges thrown at him by the subject. But, it lead me to other books on the subject of codes etc. Among those I found , The Code Book by Simon Singh and The Beal Treasure: New History of a Mystery by Peter Viemeister quite interesting. I wish to write about them separately. Some related websites that I have listed at the bottom of this page too were very engaging.
This blog is mostly about the Beal cipher code and the fascinating stories surrounding it ..
Simple Genius involves ciphers, computers, childhood traumas and the CIA, among other elements. Woven through the evolving relationship between King and Maxwell are forays into classical codes and Internet encryption (factual), Virginia colonial history (slightly fictionalized) and modern-day government operations at Camp Peary, a CIA “farm” on the York River. While the story and characters that Baldacci places at the installation are entirely fictional, the camp itself is not, although “if you call the CIA and ask them about Camp Peary, they don’t admit that it exists.”
To research it, Baldacci went along the river as close to the station as he could, and talked to locals who have lived with its various agencies (it started out as a Navy base) all their lives. One of the most chilling sentences in the book has to do with the unidentified jets that land there: A small-town newspaper editor tells King and Maxwell, “I knew something was up before Gulf One and Afghanistan and Iraq started because that damn runway at Peary looked like Chicago’s O’Hare what with all the traffic going in.” That’s precisely what a local resident told Baldacci—a quote not only stranger but stronger than fiction.
Baldacci’s villains are not the only ones playing games. His books are filled with literary allusions, historical “borrowings,” name games, etc. Simple Genius includes a reprint of the famous Beale Cipher, only one page of which has ever been deciphered—using the Declaration of Independence as the key—and which allegedly leads to a vast treasure buried in Tidewater Virginia. (Baldacci, whose family owns a country place in Bedford County, says he grew up with treasure hunters digging holes all around the area.) And the new edition of Wish You Well has an appendix encouraging readers to begin to track their own family histories. davidbaldacci.com
The stories woven around riddles, codes and treasure hunts have always enthralled me since the time I read Edgar Allen Poe; and that was a long time ago. I tried a few times to break codes , only to be reassured that I not good at that one too. I am far from a passable code breaker. Among the films the subject of ” A Beautiful Mind” based on John Nash’s life that touches on his game theory, a mathematical study of winning games (which led to fundamental changes in economics and political science) interested me much. There were a few other movies based on numbers like Er-dos-Bacon number games, Good Will Hunting and Proof etc . Among the number riddles ,the stories concerning the proof of Fermat’s last theorem, the best way to stack oranges and such others have fascinated me a great deal.
The Beal Cipher is another of those intriguing stories. It concerns an enormously complicated codes running into three pages and if correctly decoded lead to a treasure worth millions of dollars. The Beal Ciphers could be real or it could an elaborate hoax. In any case, it attained a mythic status. Some well known books have been written about the Cipher. For instance, The Beal Treasure: New History of a Mystery by Peter Viemeister, The Code Book by Simon Singh and Simple Genius by David Baldacci are some of the better known. There are also a number of websites offering to sell solutions to decrypt the code.
Is it a complete hoax, as many claim it? It could be..! Did someone went to great lengths to create an amazingly perplex one? I am not sure . In any case Please read on…
The Beale Treasure Cipher
The story of the Beale ciphers begins in January 1820, when a stranger by the name of Thomas J. Beale rode into the town of Lynch-burg, Virginia, and checked himself into the Washington Hotel.
“In person, he was about six feet in height,” recalled Robert Morriss, the hotel owner, “with jet black eyes and hair of the same color, worn longer than was the style at the time. His form was symmetrical, and gave evidence of unusual strength and activity; but his distinguishing feature was a dark and swarthy complexion, as if much exposure to the sun and weather had thoroughly tanned and discolored him; this, however, did not detract from his appearance, and I thought him the handsomest man I had ever seen.”
Although Beale spent the rest of the winter in Lynch-burg and was “extremely popular with every one, particularly the ladies,” he never spoke about his background, his family and the purpose for his visit. Then, at the end of March, he left as suddenly as he had arrived.
Beale returned two years later, and once again he spent the rest of the winter in Lynchburg and disappeared in the spring, but not before he entrusted Morriss with a locked iron box, which he said contained “papers of value and importance.” Morriss dutifully guarded the box, waiting for Beale to collect it, but the swarthy man of mystery did not return to Lynchburg. He disappeared without trace, never to be seen again.
Eventually, 23 years later in 1845, Morriss’s curiosity got the better of him and working on the assumption that Beale was dead, he cracked open the locked box. Inside he found a note written by Beale in plain English, and three sheets full of numbers. The note revealed the truth about Beale, the box, and the ciphers.
In April 1817, almost three years prior to his first meeting with Morriss, Beale and twenty-nine others had embarked on a journey across America. After travelling through the rich hunting grounds of the Western plains, they arrived in Santa Fe, before heading north in search of buffalo. Then, according to Beale’s note, they struck lucky: “The parties, encamped in a small ravine, were preparing their evening meal, when one of the men discovered in a cleft of the rocks something that had the appearance of gold. Upon showing it to the others it was pronounced to be gold, and much excitement was the natural consequence.”
The note went on to explain that Beale and his men mined the site for the next eighteen months, by which time they had accumulated a large quantity of gold, as well as some silver which was found nearby. In due course, they agreed that their new found wealth should be moved to a secure place, and decided to take it back home to Virginia, where they would hide it in a secret location. To reduce the weight, Beale traded some of the gold and silver for jewels, and in 1820 he traveled to Lynch-burg, found a suitable location, and buried the treasure. It was on this occasion that he met Morriss for the first time.
When Beale left at the end of the winter, he rejoined his men, who had continued to work the mine during his absence. After another eighteen months, Beale revisited Lynchburg with even more to add to his stash. This time there was an additional reason for his trip. His companions were concerned that, in case of an accident to themselves, then the hidden treasure would not find its way to their relatives. Hence, Beale was instructed to find a reliable person, who could be confided in to carry out their wishes in the event of their sudden death, and Beale selected Morriss to be that person.
Upon reading the note, Morriss felt responsible for finding the treasure and passing it onto the relatives of the presumably dead men. Unfortunately, there was a problem. The description of the treasure, its location, and the list of the relatives had been encrypted, and had been transformed into the three sheets that contained nothing but numbers. Beale’s note said that the key required to decipher the sheets would be posted to Beale by a third party, but it never materialized, and so Morriss was forced to unscramble the three sheets from scratch. This task occupied his mind for the next twenty years, and ended in complete failure.
In 1862, at the age of 84, Morriss knew that he was coming to the end of his life and realized that he had to share the secret of the Beale ciphers; otherwise any hope of carrying out Beale’s wishes would die with him. Morriss confided in a friend, but unfortunately the identity of this person remains a mystery. Only two things are known about Morriss’s friend. First, he published a pamphlet, which contains the entire Beale story, including the Beale ciphers and Morriss’s account of the events surrounding the mystery. Second, the anonymous pamphleteer made the first breakthrough in deciphering one of Beale’s cryptic papers.
The second Beale cipher, like the other two, contains about 800 numbers, beginning with the sequence; 115, 73, 24, 807, 37, … The pamphleteer guessed that each number corresponded to a word in the Declaration of Independence. For example, the first number in the sequence is 115 – the 115th letter of the Declaration is ‘instituted’, which begins with the letter I. Hence the first number, 115, represents the letter I. The second number in the sequence is 73 – the 73rd word in the Declaration is ‘hold’, which begins with the letter H. Hence, the second number, 73, represents the letter H.
The Opening of the “Declaration of Independence”
When 1, in 2 the 3 course 4 of 5 human events it becomes
necessary 10 for one people to dissolve the political bands
which have 20 connected them with another, and to assume
among the powers 30 of the earth, the separate and equal
station to which 40 the laws of nature and of nature’s God
entitle them 50, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind
requires that 60 they should declare the causes which impel
them to the 70 separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident,
and that 80 all men are created equal, that they are endowed
by 90 their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among
these are 100 life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; That
to secure 110 these rights, governments are instituted among men
By continuing this process, the pamphleteer revealed the following message from Beale:
“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: … The deposit consists of two
thousand nine hundred and twenty one pounds of
gold and five thousand one hundred pounds of silver;
also jewels, obtained in St. Louis in exchange for silver
to save transportation … 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 …”
The lack of success means that we cannot exclude the possibility that the Beale ciphers are an elaborate hoax. Skeptics have searched for inconsistencies and flaws in the Beale story. For example, Beale’s letter enclosed in the box with the ciphers written in 1822, but it contains the word stampede”, which was not seen in print until 1844. However, it is quite possible that the word was in common usage in the Wild West at a much earlier date, and Beale could have encountered it on his travels.
Evidence in favor of the probity of the ciphers comes from historical research, which can be used to verify the story of Thomas Beale. Peter Viemeister, searched for evidence to prove that Thomas Beale existed. Using the census of 1790 and other documents, Viemeister has identified several Thomas Beales, who were born in Virginia and whose backgrounds fit the few known facts. Most of the details we have about Beale concern his trip to Santa Fe and there is evidence to corroborate his discovery of gold.
For example, Jacob Fowler, who explored the American southwest in 1821-22, noted in his journal that the Pawnee and Crowe tribes “speake on the most friendly terms of the White men and Say they are about 35 in number” – this number is similar to the size of Beale’s party. Also, there is a Cheyenne legend dating from around 1820 which tells of gold and silver being taken from the West and buried in Eastern Mountains?
Consequently, the tale of the Beale ciphers continues to enthrall code breakers and treasure hunters. However, anybody who might be tempted to take up the challenge of the Beale ciphers should take heed of some words of caution given by the author of the pamphlet:
“Before giving the papers to the public, I would 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 … Never, as I have done, sacrifice your own and your family’s interests to what may prove an illusion; but, as I have already said, when your day’s work is done, and you are comfortably seated by your good fire, a short time devoted to the subject can injure no one, and may bring its reward.”
Regardless, there have been many attempts to break the remaining cipher(s). Most attempts have tried other historical texts as keys (eg. the Magna Carta, various books of the Bible, the U.S. Constitution, the Virginia Royal Charter, etc), assuming the cipher texts were produced with some book cipher, but none have been recognized as successful to date. Breaking the cipher(s) may depend on random chance (as, for instance, stumbling upon a book key if the two remaining cipher texts are actually book ciphers); so far, even the most skilled crypt-analysts who have attempted them have been defeated. Of course, Beale could have used a document that he had written himself for either or both of the remaining keys, thus rendering any further attempts to crack the codes useless.
To find out more about codes and ciphers, visit the following . I found them very interesting:
In case you do not believe any of what I wrote above , please check Beale Ciphers Analyses by Ron Gervais :http://www.angelfire.com/pro/bealeciphers/index.html
It says it provides a Freeware, analyses, and links to websites presenting hypotheses of the Beale Ciphers, including a summary of their arguments. The objective is to fill a void: a repository of serious efforts to study and analyze the ciphers.