Photo: James B. Ward / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

The Mysterious Beale Ciphers Inspired A Centuries-Old Treasure Hunt That’s Still Ongoing

The mysterious concept of buried treasure is nothing new, and has continued to draw the attention of curious adventurers since time immemorial. But few legends of buried treasure have remained quite as tempting and prevalent in the social consciousness as the yet-to-be-solved Beale Ciphers.

Many hidden treasures are accompanied by maps, clues, and stories, but the Beale Ciphers offer something a bit more mysterious: a potentially indecipherable set of three papers, all written in a secret code, which reveal the truth of the legacy, location, and contents of Beale's treasure.

Having been lost to the hills of Virginia since 1820, the treasure is believed to be valued at nearly $54 million in today's US dollars, and contains a luxurious combination of gold, silver, and precious gems. Of the three cipher texts Beale allegedly left behind - later printed into a collection known as the Beale Papers - only one of them has ever been solved, leaving the final two to tempt treasure hunters for centuries afterward in hopes of being lucky enough to discover its long-lost location.

Photo: James B. Ward / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

  • In January 1820, A Mysterious Man Named Thomas J. Beale Arrived In Lynchburg, Virginia

    Little has ever been learned about Thomas J. Beale, where he came from, where he inevitably went, or whether he ever truly existed at all. But his alleged narrative begins in Lynchburg, VA, in January 1820, when he arrived in the small town, unknown by and unaffiliated with anyone there. 

    As soon as he arrived in Lynchburg, he set up residence at the popular Washington Hotel and stayed there through the remainder of the winter. He maintained a rather mysterious disposition toward those he interacted with, revealing little to nothing about his past or future plans. Robert Morriss, the owner of the hotel, recalled Beale's alleged arrival:

    ...Thomas J. Beale, as he appeared in 1820... registered simply from Virginia, but I am of the impression he was from some western portion of the State. Curiously enough, he never adverted to his family or to his antecedents, nor did I question him concerning them, as I would have done had I dreamed of the interest that in the future would attach to his name.

  • Beale Was Very Popular In Lynchburg, But He Suddenly Disappeared After Two Months

    Beale's arrival - along with two unnamed friends who allegedly left a few days after their original arrival - left a mark on Lynchburg's residents, as he was said to be a rather striking man "about six feet in height, with jet black eyes and hair of the same color, worn longer than was the style at that time," and memorably polite and charismatic. He was described as being "a model of manly beauty, favored by the ladies and envied by men" with his "distinguishing feature [being] a dark and swarthy complexion, as if much exposure to the sun and weather had thoroughly tanned and discolored him."

    His particularly polite disposition led to his becoming well known throughout Lynchburg, so his sudden disappearance at the end of March 1820, without explanation or any apparent plans to return, left people puzzled. No one in Lynchburg heard from him again for two years.

  • Two Years Later, Beale Returned To Entrust A Locked Iron Box To Hotel Owner Robert Morriss

    Nearly two years after Beale suddenly disappeared, he returned just as mysteriously - to the likely surprise of the townspeople. After resuming his residence at the Washington Hotel, Beale had an additional request to make of Robert Morriss, the hotel's owner, regarding the protection of a locked box made of iron, allegedly containing a collection of extremely valuable papers.

    Beale gave Morriss the sealed box to watch over, with very specific instructions to hold on to the box until he, or one of his friends, returned to retrieve it. If he did not hear from Beale after 10 years, Morriss was to open the box and follow the instructions left inside.

    Beale never returned.

  • When Morriss Opened The Box 23 Years Later, He Found Strange Ciphers And A Note From Beale
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    When Morriss Opened The Box 23 Years Later, He Found Strange Ciphers And A Note From Beale

    Even though Morriss was instructed by Beale to open the sealed box once a decade had passed, Morriss waited nearly 23 years to follow through with his promise. Some speculate that this was because Morriss still hoped Beale was alive and would return to claim his papers.

    In the box, Morriss found three papers covered in inexplicable numbers - and a note.

    The note revealed the truth about the contents of the box - and the reason for Beale's secrecy around it.

  • The Note Morriss Found Inside The Box Explained The Origins Of An Unknown Treasure

    Before Thomas Beale first arrived in Lynchburg in 1820, he and a group of 30 other men made a journey west from Virginia to an area outside of Santa Fe, NM, with the intent to earn money by hunting wild game.

    When they were getting ready to head farther north, one of the men came across what appeared to be gold in a ravine nearby. Further investigation, with the help of the rest of the group, concluded that not only was it one bit of gold, but a piece of an entire mine's worth. The men excavated the area for the next 18 months, and then decided it would be safest to relocate the gold they'd already collected back east in Virginia, where they were all from.

    It is possible that it was during Beale's first stay in Lynchburg that he hid the first half of the treasure; with his return two years later, he presumably stashed the remainder. It is believed that the entire stash of treasure contains "2,921 pounds of gold, 5,100 pounds of silver, and $1.5 million in precious stones" valued at nearly $54 million today. Morriss was then left with the box containing the truth about the stash's whereabouts.

  • Beale’s Note Said He Buried A Fortune Somewhere In Lynchburg

    In addition to explaining the origins of the treasure that Beale and his team had discovered, the note Morriss found within the sealed box also explained that this very same treasure was, in its entirety, hidden somewhere nearby Lynchburg. The problem was, the note didn't specify where exactly this was - only that Morriss had to solve the ciphers contained within the box to uncover the details of the treasure's location.

    Morriss set to work attempting to decipher the three number-strewn letters, but to no avail. After decades of painstaking work, Morriss had gotten no closer to learning the truth about the treasure.