Weird Wednesdays: The treasure of Bedford County

The “Weird Wednesday” column is brought to you by a staff writer who is obsessed with factoids, history bits and freaky information to get you over the weekday hump.

According to legend, Bedford County has about $43 million worth of gold, silver and treasure buried within the Earth, (Photo courtesy of Visit Bedford Virginia)

I’m a sucker for big mysteries. What kid hasn’t grown up wishing for secret passages in their house, hidden messages in old books and fabulous treasures to be found in their very own backyard? Partly, I blame the “Nancy Drew,” “Hardy Boys” and “The Babysitter’s Club” books, because those lucky bastards only had to walk two steps from high school drama and run into some giant conspiracy. Ah well, a girl can dream – and live her mystery kid fantasies vicariously through “Gravity Falls.”

Then again, the main doctrine of this column is that the world is weirder than you’d think.

If you’re looking to pay off your student loans, then look no further than Bedford County, Virginia. According to legend there’s about $43 million worth of gold, silver and treasure buried within the earth, just waiting for someone to find it. And all you need to do is translate a bunch of incomprehensible ciphertext from over 100 years ago.

Ciphers are a common and easy way to transcribe a message into a form that can’t be read at a glance. Whether you’re passing notes to your classmates or encrypting a secret message to prevent enemy interception, it’s one of the most common forms of deception known to humanity. The most well known forms of ciphers used for basic encryption are a straightforward number-to-letter cipher (1=A, and so on) or a Caesar Cipher (A=E, B=F, etc., or any particular shift of letters down the line.)

Of course, the more you want to keep a message hidden from someone, the trickier you make a cipher. Vigenere’s ciphers are a very good way to encode a message to a specific person, since it can only be translated using a specific keyword to create the cipher square – or using a lot of finicky math, which not very many people enjoy.

Back to the treasure. The Beale Ciphers, as they’re known, aren’t your standard stick-a-coded letter-in-your-neighbor’s-mailbox kind of deal. In an age of Wolfram Alpha, after decades of cipher-solvers and mathematicians and with entire internet forums dedicated to the cause, nobody has been able to conclusively translate the entire set of Beale Ciphers – or, more importantly, the second one, which contains the exact location of the aforementioned fabulous treasure.

Frankly, I can’t blame them. If you were to look at them, the Beale Ciphers are pretty much a string of two and three-digit numbers, (supposedly) hiding the location of a very large chunk of change buried somewhere in Virginia.

The story behind these papers borders somewhere between realistically strange and ludicrously fantastic. According to a single pamphlet published in the 1850’s titled “The Beale Papers,” some random dude named Thomas J. Beale found himself a mine full of gold, silver and precious metals in the Colorado desert in the early 1800s. After he and 30 of his closest friends dug it up, Beale was charged with burying the haul in his home state of Virginia. (Why they didn’t use a bank is beyond me, but it probably had something to do with taxes.)

After completing this task, Beale checked himself into the Washington Hotel in Lynchburg, Virginia, and, after making friends with several of the local ladies and the hotel owner Robert Morriss, left as soon as he arrived, entrusting Morriss with a padlocked iron box and a vow to keep it safe. Then Beale disappeared, never to be seen again.

After about 23 years of awaiting Beale’s return and presumably using the box as a doorstop, Morriss decided to open up the little vault. Inside was a letter detailing Beale’s escapades, along with a set of three ciphers, meticulously encrypted. According to the letter, the first cipher detailed the location of the treasure, the second detailed the contents and the third listed the rightful owners of the treasure, as well as their families. Supposedly a cipher key was to be sent through the mail, but wherever Beale was, the postal service wasn’t working, because it never arrived.

It was in the later 1800s when a pamphlet detailing this story, as well as the ciphertexts, was published, by a supposed friend of Morriss’ named James B. Ward.

So began the arduous process of translation. The second set of ciphers, which describe the tantalizing value of the treasure, can be translated using the Declaration of Independence. (Eat your heart out, Nicolas Cage!) Each number in the cipher corresponds to a word in Declaration, making it fairly straightforward.

The other ciphers are trickier. Considering how many particular published written works there are out there, it might be harder to find exactly the right book, speech, newspaper or restaurant menu Beale used that may or may not correspond to the code.

The ciphers may even be the stuff of nonsense. Statistical analysis of the number code have shown that certain numbers that would correspond to common words (such as “the,” “a” or “and”) don’t show up often enough. In the letter written by Beale, words such as ‘improvise’, which wasn’t common in the English language in the 1820s, are used. There are even arguments that Ward himself made up the story, if only to sell his sensational pamphlets.

Whatever the case is, the treasure (which may or may not exist) has yet to be found. If you miss out on getting an internship this summer, maybe grab a shovel and head down to Bedford County – you might just strike lucky.

Oh, and don’t forget:  

MJ CSY XVERWPEXIH XLMW, CSY LEZI XSS QYGL XMQI SR CSYV LERHW. LEZI E ZIVC AIMVH AIHRIWHEC!  


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.