If we begin at the beginning, we have to go 200 years in the past, but instead, let’s go three-and-a-half hours south, in the present, to start this adventure.
Early on a late-summer day, the green hills of Bedford County in central Virginia are ridiculously verdant, lush with the blur of leaves and needles from the hardwood and pine forests that cover the gently undulating Blue Ridge Mountains. Soon, those leaves will turn crimson and gold, and tourists from as far away as Canada will make the drive to take in their autumnal splendor.
After checking into our rooms at the Days Inn in Bedford, Mason Goad and I find our way up twisty mountain roads to a 220-acre winery called Peaks of Otter for our first appointment of the day. We are to meet with Danny Johnson, who is probably the most-quoted witness to the legend that drives a bit of the economy in this neck of the woods. And it’s not the brightly colored wine he sells that keeps things perking.
Johnson, a spry and voluble 81, knows a bit about the tangled tale of Thomas Jefferson Beale—his family has been here since the 1700s—and though he’s the go-to person for any media outlet covering the Beale legend, he’s not a cheerleader or a salesman. He just states what he knows and gets on with it, which is probably why people have been consulting him about their suspicions about Beale for 50 years: He can be trusted.
That counts for something when the subject at hand is worth about $93 million. You just have to find it—if it’s even there.
“The first deposit consisted of one thousand and fourteen pounds of gold, and three thousand eight hundred and twelve pounds of silver, deposited November, 1819. The second was made December, 1821, and consisted of nineteen hundred and seven pounds of gold, and twelve hundred and eighty-eight pounds of silver; also jewels, obtained in St. Louis in exchange for silver to save transportation, and valued at $13,000.”
Here’s the deal: In 1885, J.B. Ward published a substantial and anonymously written pamphlet called “The Beale Papers, Containing Authentic Statements Regarding the Treasure Buried in 1819 and 1821 Near Bufords, in Bedford County, Virginia, and Which Has Never Been Recovered.”
The document purports to describe how Thomas Beale, returning from a successful mining exploration of the region around Santa Fe, then a part of Mexico, got paranoid and buried a treasure in Virginia with a value—as of gold and silver prices in September 2020—of $93 million, plus an unknown quantity of jewels.
Beale left a locked box with innkeeper Robert Morriss at Buford’s Tavern in Montvale, adjacent to Bedford, with orders to keep it for 10 years and open it if he didn’t come back. Well, Beale never came back, and Morriss opened the box 23 years later and discovered notes and three sheets of hundreds of seemingly random numbers.
With the right key—that is, the document the ciphers are constructed on—anyone can translate the ciphers, locate the treasure, dig it up and, in accordance with modern Virginia law, keep it for themselves, even if it’s on private property.
The Ward document included the author’s breakthrough on page two of the sheets: He or she managed to use the Declaration of Independence to break the code and learn the contents—not the location; that’s on page one—of the cipher. Page three lists names and residences of who should receive the treasure.
How seriously do people take this legend? I ask Danny Johnson as we sit on a picnic table at his winery and fruit farm.
“Dad said people talked to him about it,” says Johnson. “The first time I think I heard about the treasure was in the 1950s.”
Over the past six decades, he’s seen helicopters, backhoes, dynamite (some of it donated by him) and interlopers by the dozens trespass, camp, blow up, dig and leave broke and brokenhearted.
Families have been shattered by the pursuit of the treasure. Fortunes have been lost. In 1983, Pennsylvanian Marilyn Parsons spent her disability check to rent a backhoe to dig up a church graveyard; she was arrested and told by a judge to never set foot in Virginia again.
“Everyone who thinks they know where it is is positive they know where it is,” he says. “And they just won’t give up.”
Mason Goad later tells me the phenomenon of being absolutely sure you know something is called “cognitive bias.” It’s when nothing will change your mind. And he ought to know.
Goad, a 22-year-old Georgia native now living in Arlington and pursuing a master’s in international security at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, is an amateur treasure hunter. It’s a pretty serious hobby—lately, he’s invested in gear to help him search for treasure under water—a hobby that even sent him to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains in search of the famed Forrest Fenn treasure. Goad was absolutely positive he knew where it was based on his reading of the clues.
The treasure was found in June, in Wyoming, by someone else. Blame the excursion West on cognitive bias. But if someone has overlooked a Beale treasure clue, Goad may pick up on it. And the rest will be history. (Cue the evil laugh.)
Johnson says that lately he’s been getting letters from a correspondent in England who has figured things out and suggests the treasure is “on top of that mountain up there,” he says, pointing to the peak across the hollow. Near a small graveyard. Near a church.
Before we depart, Johnson gives us a sheaf of papers with possible cipher translations. We thank him and then head to—where else?—the graveyard near the church at the top of that mountain.
While I drive, Goad reads the allegedly transcribed page one from the gent in England; the first sentence says “look to Oteys place. Two miles look east the cemetery atop Goose Ways.”
After driving for miles along country lanes and gravel roads, we reach Cool Spring Church, on a mountaintop, with a small graveyard. The headstones are ancient, and on many of them you cannot read the names of the interred. We look around at the breathtaking scenery and shrug our shoulders. As we turn to head back to the car, I glance down at an in-ground stone.
The name on the undated white stone: Otey.
And isn’t that the north fork of Goose Creek across the valley?
Cognitive bias is taking hold.
We leave the peak and head to the Bedford Museum and Genealogical Library to meet with Jennifer Thomson, genealogical librarian and education director. This gorgeous Victorian brick building on a corner in downtown Bedford houses just about everything that’s ever been published about Beale, Morriss, Ward and the rest, and she’s very happy to bring out box after box of files, magazines and correspondence related to the legend.
While Goad pores over the papers and clippings, Thomson, a California transplant who has been at the museum for 13 years, gives me a tour of the multilevel institution while discussing the Beale phenomenon.
Thomson has noticed over time that there are three types of Beale fans: the ones who want the money, the ones who just want to solve the mystery and the ones who want to know if any of it is true. “I like those the best,” she says. “I’m a history nerd.”
Does she take a lot of phone calls about the treasure? “Occasionally,” she says. “The more annoying ones are the ones that say, ‘I solved it.’ I’m like, ‘If you solved it, alert the media.’”
A document in the archives of no less than the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland was sent to William F. Friedman, who lived on North George Mason Drive in Arlington, from Alfred Perry of Madison Heights, Virginia. Its title, “The Beale Cipher as a Bamboozlement,” is a good indication of what is in the massive 246-page study.
Perry pokes a lot of holes in Ward’s account, but why send the information to Friedman, who died in 1969 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery? Well, according to an obituary by the George C. Marshall Foundation, he was “an American cryptologist, considered by some experts to be the greatest of all time.”
Even the greatest cryptologist of all time banged his head on Beale: “So far as my attempts to produce an authentic reading is concerned, I can most earnestly say I have tried to the best of my ability and now must confess myself beaten.”
But even Friedman could not avoid cognitive bias. “On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I think it is real,” he wrote. “On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I think it is a hoax.”
On the other hand, maybe everyone is using the wrong keys, including the legendary Friedman. Because there may be just one.
“It’s interesting because [Beale] said ‘the key,’ and so, since the Declaration of Independence was used [to decode page two], it seems like that is the key for the others.”
That’s Jenny Kile talking, and it seems to make as much sense as anything else. Kile is a researcher, game enthusiast and treasure hunter who lives in central Pennsylvania. She’s the author of Introduction to Codes and Ciphers, Plus 20 Famous Unsolved Codes, Ciphers, and Mysterious Writings; Mysterious Writings is the name of her longtime blog covering all things coded.
She’s explored the graveyards of Bedford several times, scouting everything she and her husband could find within a 4-mile radius of Buford’s Tavern. “We wanted to see if there was anything there that would catch your eye,” she says. “You just never know.”
She thought there might be a message on a worn tombstone that might provide a clue, but that didn’t pan out. In any case, “I use treasure hunting as a way to go to different places and learn about history. We didn’t find a clue, but we enjoyed our time.”
Her bottom line? “I’m not sure if it leads to a physical treasure or a spiritual one,” she says. Maybe a Mason—she’s a rare female Freemason herself—wrote the Morriss papers to “inspire a quest for truth. Maybe some of the coded ciphers would lead to something more spiritual in nature.”
Her idea is as good as any so far. But now let’s turn to someone who spent four months researching the Beale treasure. In 2018, Lucas Reilly was a senior editor at the media outlet Mental Floss. His 7,000-word exhumation is as exhaustive and comprehensive as it gets.
“I first heard about this story when I was in third grade, in Pennsylvania,” Reilly says, somewhat surprisingly. “The teacher gave the class the second Beale cipher and a copy of the Declaration of Independence and told us to figure it out.
“It’s hard to imagine a roomful of third-graders working on ciphers that even the [National Security Agency] and other codebreakers have never solved,” he says. “I realized later she wasn’t giving us busywork—it was like the old thing about a million monkeys hitting a typewriter and writing Shakespeare.” Cagey teacher, that.
Years later, living in Williamsburg with his then-girlfriend-now-wife for her job as a musician, Reilly recalled the story and thought it would be “a nice, fun, quick article to write.” Then he went down what he called “the wormhole.”
“I was trying to figure out what’s real, what’s verifiable. The one thing I know definitely that is real is that people looking into this get so wrapped up in it that in some cases they change their entire lives. They lose their money; their marriages crumble. I think that’s actually the story here, the people, and not so much the treasure ciphers … It was how this quest captures people that became my focus.”
Even Reilly, 29, was not immune. “I remember I had an epiphany that I couldn’t make this story about whether this stuff is real or not. It drags you down into a pool of historical quicksand. I just want to know the truth. But you just end up pulling more strands and getting more tangled.”
Eventually, he had to stop the research, write the story and publish it. Now, two years later, what does he think?
“My personal opinion is that it’s not real. Just too many fault lines. I don’t think there is a treasure.”
He takes a breath.
“It might say something. I’m open to the idea there’s a coded message. But not a treasure.”
In early September, things took an interesting turn. Danny Johnson received an email—we can’t say from whom without permission, and so far we don’t have it—that begins, “Please see attached file Sir Danny.” That’s followed by a few cryptic pieces of advice—enhanced by the apparent English-as-a-second-language writing: “Protect this hill with all your might and power … Find the Twin Oaks … on the mountain side.”
And then: “Castleton Johnson deserves recognition for this.”
Castleton Johnson? That got Danny Johnson’s attention: That’s his great-great-great-grandfather. “He fought in the War of 1812,” Johnson says. “This all fits the time period.”
Then the bombshell: “I do believe,” the author writes, “Captain Castleton Johnson is Thomas J. Beale, and I think he deserves recognition for what he did for he definitely changed the lives of many people during his time.”
The writer includes a “translated” cipher of page one, which suggests “Beale” was an alias and that Castleton divided the treasure and gave it to locals, including Native Americans who lived in the area. Such an action would have changed everything for the region.
So where is the treasure now? This is all new to Danny Johnson. He has no idea where the treasure is, and, in short, he hopes no one ever finds it, even if it’s there.
The next day, Mason Goad and I take in the National D-Day Memorial, a somber 50-acre circular shrine to Operation Overlord, the code name—codes are everywhere around here—for the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Congress agreed that the memorial was appropriate in Bedford when it authorized it: The tiny town of 3,200 suffered 19 casualties in the attack, proportionally the most of any U.S. community.
While Goad heads back to Arlington, I divert to the Booker T. Washington National Monument, a 199-acre site in Hardy, on the outskirts of Bedford, where Washington lived for nine years as a child slave. The tiny wooden cabin he and his family lived in, which was also the kitchen for the tobacco plantation, is still there, along with splendid if solemn interpretive signs describing the conditions of the educator and author’s young life.
The drive from Hardy back to Arlington takes me through Montvale. Nothing remains of Buford’s Tavern except the ruins of the chimney, which is a popular landmark for sticking the point of the compass and measuring 4 miles around. Yes, Danny Johnson’s Peaks of Otter Winery is inside the 4-mile radius.
I punch the GPS and tell it to avoid highways; I want to meander for a bit on these scenic mountain roads. The voice from the dashboard tells me to take the next left, Route 741 to Beale Trail Road, and I have a silent laugh. I’m on Beale’s trail, all right: We’re about to connect with none other than Goose Creek Valley Road.
After a few miles, I pull over to put the top down and enjoy the afternoon sun before heading to the country roads that will eventually take me to hateful Interstate 81. As the convertible’s black fabric top pulls back, the street sign in front of me comes into view.
I blink my eyes. I blink again. I emit a short gasp.
“Otey Farm Road.”
Otey’s place. Goose Creek.
With a small pang of regret, I point the car in the direction of I-81 and give it gas. I might not have found Beale’s 200-year-old treasure, but I think I know where it is. And it isn’t going anywhere. You have to believe me.
We Found Gold!
Factoid: Bedford is Virginia’s fifth-largest county by population, with 79,000 residents.
“Bedford County has a diverse economy with a wide variety of industries,” Nicole S. Johnson, director of tourism for Destination Bedford VA, tells us in an email. “Some of the largest industries are advanced manufacturing, engineering, research, agriculture, and food.” (Nicole is not related to Danny: “I wish I was!” she says. “Love those Johnsons! They’re just not my Johnsons.”)
Tourism, as you might expect, “is an important local economic driver, with direct travel expenditures by visitors to Bedford exceeding $117 million in 2018, an increase over previous years. Visitors come from all over the world to experience the Blue Ridge Parkway, Peaks of Otter and Smith Mountain Lake, and also to see the National D-Day Memorial,” she says.
Over the years, the Beale mystery has drawn attention to the region via international media outlets. Danny Johnson recalls some 14 different television crews, including the BBC, the Travel Channel and a team from Seoul, Korea.
Local efforts to play off of the treasure’s notoriety are tastefully few: Danny Johnson makes a Beale Treasure line of wine (including an apple-strawberry concoction called “Strawberry Shortcake”), and in 2017, the area’s first craft brewery/restaurant opened in town. Beale’s Brewery uses the treasure story to make its signature brew: Beale’s Gold. So there is gold in Bedford, and you can take it home in six-packs.
Can You Solve Our Cipher?
We asked amateur treasure hunter and codebreaker Mason Goad to make a custom cipher for Northern Virginia Magazine. Can you break it? The key is the standard English alphabet.
Dvoo dszg wl blf pmld? Blf hloevw gsv xrksvi. Xlmtizgfozgrlmh zmw dv slkv blf vmqlbvw gsv kfaaov. Kovzhv wl mlg ulitvg gl ivmvd blfi hfyhxirkgrlm gl Mligsvim Eritrmrz Nztzarmv.
Hint: This uses the atbash cipher method.
Answer: Well what do you know? You solved the cipher. Congratulations and we hope you enjoyed the puzzle. Please do not forget to renew your subscription to Northern Virginia Magazine.