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Local Mystery Worth Millions

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports that the citizens of Bedford, a small town in Virginia, are trying to solve a mystery code that may be worth millions that has baffled treasure hunters for over a century. It?s known as the Beale Treasure, which is supposed to be a pile of gold worth $20 million which was buried in the hills of Bedford in the early 1800s by a gold miner named Thomas J. Beale.

One man moved his neighbor?s silo a few years ago to dig under it but ran out of money before he could put it back. A woman was jailed for excavating parts of the town cemetery, and the two brothers go to a local orchard to dig more trenches every fall.

The 3 pages of numbers have caught the interest of cryptologists from the National Security Agency at nearby Fort Meade, who have tried to break the codes for the past two decades. ?It?s one of the favorite fireside problems here among cryptologists,? says David A. Hatch, NSA historian for the past 12 years. ?It?s been a recurring element for as long as I?ve been in this position.

?Outside the agency, even, people always ask me if we?ve ever solved it, if I can give them any hints,? Hatch says. ?But NSA has never looked at it officially. I refer them to the basic textbooks. People don?t realize cryptanalysis takes a lot of work and practice. There are no shortcuts.?

For more than a century, professional and amateur code-breakers and cryptologic clubs worldwide have attempted to solve the puzzle, while others scour the hills and comb through the well-worn ?Beale files? at the Bedford City and County Museum and nearby library.

The original Beale codes no longer exist. The codes, along with anyone or any record that can verify them, have been gone since the late 1800s. What remains is a pamphlet published in 1885 that tells an extraordinary story about a gold miner, his gold and a Bedford innkeeper.

According to the pamphlet, Beale gave Robert Morriss, the keeper of a local inn called Franklin House, a lockbox in 1822. Both Franklin House and Robert Morriss existed, according to county records, and Morriss died in 1863, when he was more than 80 years old, 22 years before the pamphlet was printed.

The pamphlet, allegedly written by Morriss? anonymous friend, says Beale entrusted the box to Morriss, telling him to open it in 10 years if no one came to claim it. The pamphlet also includes a letter Beale allegedly wrote to Morriss in May 1822, shortly after he left the box.

?You will find, in addition to the papers addressed to you, other papers which will be unintelligible without the aid of a key to assist you,? Beale wrote, adding that he had sent the key to decipher the papers to someone else.

That key apparently never arrived. The anonymous pamphlet writer says Morriss forgot about the box. When he finally opened it in 1845, he found three coded letters that were filled with hundreds of numbers. After trying to decipher them for a number of years, he turned them over to the pamphlet author, who said he was able to decode the second letter after several years. He finally discovered that if he used the Declaration of Independence and matched each number in the code to the first letter of the corresponding word in the Declaration, and listed all the first letters of these words, it resulted in a letter that starts, ?I have deposited in the county of Bedford, about four miles from Buford?s (an old tavern), in an excavation vault one thousand and fourteen pounds of gold.?

The letter goes on to say that first encoded letter contains the location of the gold, and the third contains the names of the gold miners it belongs to, but neither of these pages of numbers have ever been deciphered, despite the efforts of thousands of treasure seekers and cryptologists.

Many people in this farm town believe it?s a hoax, that the pamphlet writer made up the story in order to sell his pamphlets for 50 cents a copy, a high price in 1885.

Others believe the treasure is real, and use internet sites and the county library for leads, arguing that perhaps Beale used some local song or phrase that is no longer remembered to encode the remaining messages. Since at least the 1980s, cryptologists at the National Security Agency have been intrigued by the mystery and the challenge of the puzzle, gathering at lunchtime to discuss it.

?There were colleagues who were very much interested in the subject,? says David Gaddy, a retired cryptologist and agency employee who remembers the groups. ?It has fascinated people for years.?

What few of them know is that their predecessor, Friedman, the cryptologist who was part of the team that broke the Japanese code machine Purple just before World War II, struggled fruitlessly with the codes for more than 30 years, which haunted him until he died more than 30 years ago.

Buried in a box in the Friedman collection at the Virginia Military Institute?s George C. Marshall Library and Archives are three decades of correspondence between Friedman and treasure hunters, who were counting on his genius to break the code.

In some of the first letters, he is sworn to secrecy by a tight-knit group of friends who believed they had stumbled upon something no one else was aware of. Eventually, dozens of people from all over the country began writing to Friedman, asking for his help.

In the early 1930s, when Friedman was obsessed with the story; he traveled to Lynchburg, Va., to see whether anyone could vouch for the its authenticity. In 1931, one friend wrote that ?everything in (Friedman?s) mind is a jumble, as far as this code is concerned.?

Every couple of months, he would write to his partner, B. E. Meador, saying the codes could not be broken, that he had failed in the task and wanted nothing more to do with it. Then time would pass and he would pick them up again.

In 1949, he wrote an acquaintance, ?I do not intend by any means to drop the study which I initiated sometime ago.? But by 1958 he was again torn. Writing to a man asking for his help solving the secret code, Friedman replied, ?I reached the firm conclusion that the story is a hoax, but one so well-conceived and so well-executed as to deceive most people, especially those whose cupidity drives them to seek a source of easy money.?

At the town museum, staff members get letters and phone calls almost weekly from people inquiring about the treasure or claiming to have solved the codes. One man called recently to ask how to get permission to dig on national park land. Another asked whether the bank was open on Saturday, because he knew where the treasure was and needed to need a place to put the gold. They never heard from him again.

They also see people who come to town and spend their life savings in search of Beale?s treasure, and end up leaving broke and devastated, often still vowing to return next year.?It?s the idea of getting something for nothing that gets them every time,? says Ellen Wandrei, managing director of the museum.

Down the street from the museum is another common stopping place for treasure hunters, a used-book store belonging to Peter Viemeister, author of several books on the subject.?True or untrue, it?s a fascinating story, admirably clever with very few holes in it,? he says. ?Originally, I thought it was nonsense, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought so much of it rings true. I?ve now come down with a very unequivocal ?maybe.??

Several NSA employees say they avoid the group studying the codes because they don?t want to get caught up in the search. Some employees won?t acknowledge they?re working on them because they don?t want to admit they haven?t been able to crack them.

Thirty years after first seeing the codes, Friedman wasn?t any closer to finding the truth. In his last letter written on the subject in August 1958, he told a friend, ?On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I think the story is true and the code authentic; on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I think it all a hoax; and on Sundays I try to decide which of these two extremes in faith is the true one.?

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