GeeK: [ISN] Hoax or hoard? Mystery code holds out promise of millions to some

From: InfoSec News (isnat_private)
Date: Tue Jan 01 2002 - 23:15:12 PST

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    By Laura Sullivan 
    Baltimore Sun 
    Posted December 26 2001, 10:16 AM EST 
    BEDFORD, BA. -- Danny Johnson stands in his apple orchard overlooking
    the mountain ridges of this small southern Virginia town that have
    tempted and forsaken treasure hunters in search of secret pots of gold
    for more than a century.
    He shakes his head and laughs. He recalls one man who moved his
    neighbor's silo a few years ago to dig under it but ran out of money
    before he could put it back; the woman who was jailed for excavating
    parts of the town cemetery; and the two brothers who arrive on his
    doorstep each fall to dig more trenches between his apple trees.
    But the promise of great wealth, rooted in a 150-year-old fantastic
    tale and three coded messages, has seduced more than treasure seekers
    with shovels.
    Cryptologists from the National Security Agency at Fort Meade have
    also taken on the challenge, huddling in lunch groups to try to break
    the codes over the past two decades.
    What few of them know, though, is that their predecessor, William
    Friedman, one of the greatest cryptologic minds of the 20th century
    and patriarch of the agency, spent more than three decades trying to
    solve the puzzle, which haunted him until he died more than 30 years
    What they have all been looking for is the Beale Treasure, a pile of
    gold worth $20 million purportedly buried in the hills of Bedford in
    the early 1800s. At the heart of this treasure hunt is the tale of a
    Virginia gold miner named Thomas J. Beale and three pages of numbers,
    which believers say are coded messages about the fortune. ``It's one
    of the favorite fireside problems here among cryptologists,'' said
    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 said. ``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,'' even on treasure hunts, he said.
    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.
    Johnson, a good-natured man with a thick Southern accent and hearty
    laugh, has from time to time had fun with treasure hunters by spray
    painting rocks in his orchard gold.
    ``Honest to goodness, people go crazy hunting for them pots,'' Johnson
    said. ``They get real paranoid. When you talk to these people, these
    treasure hunters, they believe it so strong they can almost make a
    believer out of you.''
    The original Beale ``codes,'' if there ever were such a thing, no
    longer exist. They, along with anyone or any record that can verify
    the story, have been gone since the late 1800s. What does exist 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, but
    Morriss appears to have 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 trusted someone else to send
    the key to decipher the papers in 1832.
    That key apparently never came. The anonymous pamphlet writer says
    Morriss forgot about the box. When he finally opened it in 1845, he
    found three coded letters that appeared only as hundreds of numbers.  
    After trying to decipher them for a number of years, he turned them
    over to the pamphlet author, who writes that he was able to decode the
    second letter, after he, too, worked on it for 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
    (open bracket)reportedly an old tavern(close bracket), in an
    excavation vault one thousand and fourteen pounds of gold,'' silver
    and jewels.
    The letter goes on to say that first encoded letter contains the
    whereabouts of the gold, and the third contains the names of the gold
    miners it belongs to _ neither of which have ever been deciphered,
    despite the efforts of thousands of treasure seekers and
    Dozens of theories abound. Many in this farm town believe it is a
    hoax, that the pamphlet writer made up the story, a perfectly
    concocted tale with just enough truthful detail to sound plausible, to
    sell his pamphlet for 50 cents a copy, a hefty price in 1885.
    Others, perusing Internet sites and the county library for leads, want
    to believe the story is real, arguing that perhaps Beale used some
    local song or phrase no longer in existence to encode the remaining
    messages. Since at least the 1980s, though, cryptologists at the
    National Security Agency have been intrigued by the mystery and the
    challenge of a puzzle, gathering to discuss the problem.
    ``There were colleagues who were very much interested in the
    subject,'' said David Gaddy, a retired cryptologist and agency
    employee who remembers the groups. ``It has fascinated people for
    What few of them know is that their predecessor, Friedman, the
    cryptologist who with a team of others broke the Japanese code machine
    Purple just before World War II, struggled fruitlessly over the codes
    for more than 30 years.
    Buried in a box in the Friedman collection at the Virginia Military
    Institute's George C. Marshall Library and Archives is three decades
    of correspondence between Friedman and treasure hunters, who were
    counting on Friedman's genius to show them the way to the gold.
    In some of his first letters, he is sworn to secrecy among a
    tight-knit group of friends who believed they had stumbled upon
    something no one else was aware of. As the years pass, though, dozens
    of people from all over the country began writing to Friedman, asking
    for his help.
    In the early 1930s, Friedman was engrossed, even obsessed, with the
    story; he traveled to Lynchburg, Va., to see whether anyone could
    vouch for the story's authenticity. In 1931, one friend wrote that
    ``everything in (open bracket)Friedman's(close bracket) 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, assuring him, ``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 sternly replies: ``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.'''
    It is ``cruel,'' he continues, ``because it has led to the wasting of
    much time on the part of many people.'' Most of the locals around
    Bedford are all too aware of the tale's allure.
    At the town museum, staff members get letters and phone calls almost
    weekly from people inquiring about the treasure or claiming to have
    solved it. One man called recently to ask how to get permission to dig
    on national park land.
    Another called several weeks ago asking whether the museum staff could
    make sure the bank was open on Saturday, because he knew where the
    treasure was and was going to need a place to put all the gold. They
    never heard from him again.
    But they also see people who come to town and spend their life savings
    in search of Beale's pots, 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,'' said 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 a fascinating story, admirably clever with very
    few holes in it,'' he said.
    ``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 former NSA employees said they always avoided the group
    studying the ``codes'' because they didn't want to get caught up in
    the search. Hatch, the historian, said a number of employees won't
    acknowledge that they are working on them because they don't want to
    confess they haven't been able to break them or say for sure that they
    are just a jumble of meaningless numbers.
    Or perhaps, he adds, they just don't want to share the gold if they
    find it. ``What do I think?'' he said with a laugh. ``I think someone
    will get there and find a note from Beale that says, `Made you
    look.''' Thirty years after first seeing the codes, Friedman wasn't
    any closer to finding the truth either. In his last letter written on
    the subject in August 1958, Friedman 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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