Buried Treasure: The Beale Ciphers




Imagine this situation in an eighth grade classroom:
Teacher: Ok, I know it is early on Monday morning, but let's open our mathematics books to page 198.

Students: Groans and moans.

Teacher: This morning we are going to build a foundational understanding of cryptography. After our studies, you will be well versed in the basic algorithms that comprise the formation of ciphers.

Students: Algo what? I thought that word meant tall in Spanish or something--no wait that is alto. This sux!!!

Teacher: Now class, before I have a full scale riot on my hands, we are then going to apply our cryptographic knowledge to a practical project. You are going to try to solve a 180 year old mystery that involves buried treasure worth millions of dollars, hidden texts, and secret messages.

Students: suddenly, everyone is sitting erect, pencils in hand, and are attentive to the teacher Wow--let's roll...

Ok, this story never happened, but it would have been a dream day in eighth grade for me. As a child, stories of buried treasure always captivated my attention. Tales of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine to Blackbeard the Pirate, provided many imaginative trips when I was in elementary school (contributing to my limited intelligence). One my favorite hidden treasure story complete with rumors of lost precious metals and secretly coded maps is called the Beale Ciphers.

Tale Summary From Wiki:
The Beale ciphers are a set of three ciphertexts, one of which allegedly states the location of a buried treasure of gold and silver estimated to be worth over 30 million US dollars in the present time. The other two ciphertexts allegedly describe the content of the treasure, and list the names of the treasure's owners' next of kin, respectively. The story of the three ciphertexts originates from an 1885 pamphlet detailing treasure being buried by a man named Thomas Jefferson Beale in a secret location in Virginia in 1820.

Beale entrusted the box containing the encrypted messages with a local innkeeper named Robert Morriss and then disappeared, never to be seen again. The innkeeper gave the three encrypted ciphertexts to a friend before he died.

The friend then spent the next twenty years of his life trying to decode the messages, and was able to solve only one of them which gave details of the treasure buried and the general location of the treasure. Since the publication of the pamphlet, a number of attempts have been made to decode the two remaining ciphertexts and to find the treasure, but all have resulted in failure...

The code that was broken was very simple. The coded letter contains a serious of numbers that corresponds to a word (the first letter is used) in the written key. Using the Declaration of Independence in this manner, the second letter was decripted.

I invested a good amount of time as a young man trying to break those darn cipher codes. Combining my interest of history with treasure hunting, I tried every old poem and book that I could find--hoping that I would find the magic key to break the code. Unfortunately, I was never successful.

In retrospect and similar to the students in the dialogue above, I instantly became interested in a difficult school subject. My interest in the Beale Ciphers resulted in me spending a lot of my free time doing a form of math, and this experience showed me the type of academic investment and discipline required for complex problem solving.

After thinking about my future and the challenge of assisting three kids through college, perhaps I need to find a good shovel, buy a map of Virginia, and dust off those Beale Cipher books again--I am sure I was so close to breaking that code...

6 comments:

copswife said...

Man, that'd be awesome! Finding treasure, I mean.

mappchik said...

I have a math-brained 14 year old. If I can get him hooked on this...



...sorry - got lost in daydreams of a dinner conversation with him about math & history, rather than things related to video games and comic books.

Slamdunk said...

Haha. Dinner conversation Mappchik--I have a few years before having those again.

Currently during meals here, I am too busy dodging flying mac and cheese or other food to say anything useful...

tellmewonders said...

Wow, thanks for the encouraging comments. Not one, but two!

Ha, I don't leave comments on the blogs that I'm sure would myteriously die if they realized that people actually read the stuff they wrote.

And gee, treasure. Sounds like such a far-off word that I've never really thought about it before. I don't even know what I'd do with a hundred dollars, so I certainly don't know what I'd do with a treasure chest. But neat idea. :D

BreakingCodes said...

And the dream of finding the elusive treasure continues in the comments posted at "The Beale ciphers: Proceed at your own risk."

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