Solving codes, puzzles, and encryptions can cause you to lose all rational sensibility. It happened to me. While I was a student at University of Virginia I became fascinated by one unsolved encryption story in particular: The undiscovered treasure of Thomas J. Beale. It is the unique knowledge I gained from that time of obsession that fueled my enthusiastic approach to writing The Encryption Game.
THE MYSTERY BEGINS
The story began in the winter of 1820 at the Washington Hotel in Lynchburg, Virginia, where Beale befriended the owner of the hotel, Thomas Morriss. During his stay, Beale entrusted Morriss with a locked iron box, which he said, “contained important papers.” Beale left for the West the next spring.
In May, Beale sent Morriss a letter from St. Louis describing the contents of the locked box: A series of encrypted documents that he wanted kept safe. In the letter, Beale noted that he was off to hunt buffalo and grizzlies and that it might be dangerous. He also instructed Morriss that if he or his business partners failed to come for it, Morriss was not to open the locked box for ten years. Beale also explained that he had left the encryption “key” to the secret papers with another friend, along with instructions for him to present it to Morriss in ten years—1832. Beale never returned to the Washington Hotel.
THE QUEST FOR HIDDEN TREASURE
A visit from Beale’s friend, or a letter containing the encryption key, never materialized at the hotel, and, after a while, the encounter was a thing of the past. Then, in 1845, after twenty-three long years, Morriss decided to open the box.
Inside were three pages, covered in numerical encryptions, and a note written in plain English. The short note explained that in 1817 Beale and twenty-nine others discovered a vein of gold and silver. They mined the site for a year and a half before Beale carried the treasure to Lynchburg and buried it. His partners instructed him to leave the location of the treasure to someone he trusted. Beale chose Morriss.