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Published April 6, 2012 

Beale Treasure Story
Breaking Beale Cipher No. 1 Explained

  

I will explain a simple technique that you can use to break Beale Cipher No. 1 (hereinafter referred to as B1). And you don't need to be an expert. The technique is based on the well-known method of cryptanalysis called "probable word."  In this case, success depends on several factors: (1) whether B1 is genuine, (2) whether B1 is a book cipher, similar to No. 2, and (3) how lucky you are at guessing words or phrases that Beale used in writing the set of directions found in paper No. 1.
    
The truth of the treasure story isn't the main difficulty, as evidence has been presented on this website showing that the treasure story is likely to be true. Most people who accept the premise that the treasure story could be true also believe that cipher B1 is a book cipher similar to B2, although there is some evidence to suggest that Beale used a different method of cipher for B1. Nevertheless, it isn't difficult to guess words and phrases that Beale most likely used in preparing paper No. 1. The directions most likely contain compass headings (north, south, east, west, northeast, northwest, southeast, southwest), distances (measured in miles, yards, or feet), references to the treasure site itself (depository, vault, excavation, burial site), general references to terrain (road, trail, hill, valley, mountain, creek, branch, rock, ledge, outcropping, cave, tree), and possibly specific landmarks (Goose Creek, Blue Ridge, Porter's Mountain, Peaks of Otter, Day Creek, Fincastle, Buchannan, Bufords). Of course, guessing the right combination of words and phrases is the real challenge. And, this requires patients and a measure of common sense to know when to halt, back up, and possibly start over after it becomes clear that you're on the wrong track.
  
Words and phrases can be substituted anywhere in the cipher text. However, a particularly advantageous place to make trial substitutions is at the beginning of the cipher text. In this case, one knows where the first word of the first sentence begins. Moreover, it is fairly easy to make educated guesses as to how Beale's set of directions might have begun. But when making trial substitutions at locations inside the cipher text, one cannot always be certain where words begin or end.
    
Let's do a little thinking about Beale's set of directions in paper No. 1. It is common for writers to use "parallel constructions." Thus, a construction used in paper No. 2 might be repeated in paper No. 1. Recall that Beale ended paper No. 2 with the sentence "Paper number one describes the exact locality of the vault, so that no difficulty will be had in finding it." Perhaps he ended paper No. 1 with a sentence something like this: "Paper number two describes the contents of the vault so that no difficulty will be had in safely removing it."
  
In Beale's letters of January 4th and 5th, and his letter of May 9th, 1822, he exhibited two forms of writing style: narrative (giving a history of events) and expository (giving directions or advice). Typical examples of expository writing are instructions for performing a task, such as cooking instructions or driving directions. Second person pronouns are often found in such writing, e.g., a writer may choose to personalize a set of instructions with the word "you." It is particularly noteworthy that Beale used the words "you will" a total of 16 times in his letters (six times in his letter of the 4th, two times in his letter of the 5th and eight times in his letter of the 9th). It seems highly likely that the phrase "you will" will be found at least once, perhaps several times, in paper No. 1.
  
When Beale's treasure was buried, it seems likely that the wagons, carts, or pack animals carrying the metal were driven as close to the burial site as possible, and then carried by hand over the remainder of the terrain that could not be traversed with wagons, carts or pack animals. Thus, Beale may have divided his set of directions into two parts: those that could be traversed on horseback and those that could only be traversed on foot. And Beale may have included words in his directions to make these two distinctions clear to Mr. Morriss.
    
It is also worth noting that Beale's directions may bear a similarity to wording found in hiking books. For example, see Allen de Hart's "Hiking the Old Dominion, The Trails of Virginia, 1984, which will give many good ideas for predicting the kinds of words and phrases likely to be found in Beale's set of directions.
     
Let's review a couple of additional things. Each cipher number in cipher B1 represents one letter in the English alphabet, and each letter in the alphabet can be represented by several different cipher numbers. When a trial substitution is made, each occurrence of each affected cipher number is replaced by its associated letter. For example, if you intend to substitute the word "START" are the beginning of cipher No. 1, perhaps thinking that Beale began his set of directions by saying something like "Start by locating the cave northwest of Buford's near the foot of the Blue Ridge," then each occurrence of the number "71" is replaced by the letter "S," each occurrence of the number "194" is replaced by the letter "T," and so forth. The process continues by making additional substitutions, based on your own intuition, until a point is reached when it is no longer possible to find words that "fit" and make sense in the partially decoded cipher text. If you happen to make the right guesses, you will never reach a point where additional words won't "fit" and make sense. But if you make wrong choices you will eventually reach a point where words won't "fit" and make sense, and that is your clue to stop and back up.
  
But this is also the point where people, at least some people, have made serious mistakes. Instead of stopping and backing up, they continue, most often making substitutions that in turn make no sense. Some are so captivated by their own solutions that they permit themselves to "break the rules." They may allow a cipher number to decode as two or three different letters, basically whatever is needed, wherever needed. Or, they resort to anagramming the decoded letters, hoping to find a rearrangement that seems to make some twisted sense, but most often just pure nonsense. So a word of caution is advised: "Don't fall in love with your own solution" and "know when to let go."
  
The technique can be best described by way of an example. Suppose that we start with the first 40 cipher numbers in B1, as follows:    
71, 194, 38, 1701, 89, 76, 11, 83, 1629, 48, 94, 63, 132, 16, 111, 95, 84, 341, 975, 14,
    
40, 64, 27, 81, 139, 213, 63, 90, 1120, 8, 15, 3, 126, 2018, 40, 74, 758, 485, 604, 230,
The cipher numbers that repeat in these first 40 numbers are "63" and "40." They are written in boldface so that they can be more easily identified. Except for numbers "63" and "40" the rest of the cipher numbers do no repeat within these first 40 numbers.
     
Now we try to find one or more sentences that appear to be sentences that Beale may have actually used in preparing his paper No. 1, and which overlap the occurrences of cipher numbers "63" and "40." This is not as easy as it may seem, and a bit of work is needed to juggle the words in order to accomplish the task. After studying the problem for about an hour I was able to come up with the phrase "The vault is located west of Buford's about ...." If the letters in this sentence fragment are aligned under their corresponding cipher numbers, the trial substitution looks like this:
71, 194, 38, 1701, 89, 76, 11, 83, 1629, 48, 94, 63, 132, 16, 111, 95, 84, 341, 975, 14,
T    H     E    V      A    U    L    T    I       S   L    O    C     A    T     E   D   W    E      S
  
40, 64, 27, 81, 139, 213, 63, 90, 1120, 8, 15, 3, 126, 2018, 40, 74, 758, 485, 604, 230,
T    O   F    B    U     F     O    R    D      S  A   B   O    U       T    
      
If this sentence fragment happened to be correct, then every occurrence of every cipher number in this list of forty would also be correct everywhere else in the cipher text. That could be a tremendous advantage in allowing B1 to be successfully decoded.  
      
Now, if we consider the first 100 cipher numbers in B1, the repeats (depicted in boldface) look like this: 
71, 194, 38, 1701, 89, 76, 11, 83, 1629, 48, 94, 63, 132, 16, 111, 95, 84, 341, 975, 14,
  
40, 64, 27, 81, 139, 213, 63, 90, 1120, 8, 15, 3, 126, 2018, 40, 74, 758, 485, 604, 230,
    
436, 664, 582, 150, 251, 284, 308, 231, 124, 211, 486, 225, 401, 370, 11, 101, 305, 139, 189, 17,
  
33, 88, 208, 193, 145, 1, 94, 73, 416, 918, 263, 28, 500, 538, 356, 117, 136, 219, 27, 176,
  
130, 10, 460, 25, 485, 18, 436, 65, 84, 200, 283, 118, 320, 138, 36, 416, 280, 15, 71, 224,
After a bit of additional thinking and juggling of words, I came up with the following completed sentence: "The vault is located west of Buford's about four and one quarter miles up the trail to Fincastle." If the letters in this sentence are aligned under their corresponding cipher numbers, the trial substitution looks like this:
71, 194, 38, 1701, 89, 76, 11, 83, 1629, 48, 94, 63, 132, 16, 111, 95, 84, 341, 975, 14,
T    H      E   V       A    U   L   T     I       S    L    O    C     A    T     E   D    W    E     S     
  
40, 64, 27, 81, 139, 213, 63, 90, 1120, 8, 15, 3, 126, 2018, 40, 74, 758, 485, 604, 230,
T    O    F    B    U     F     O    R    D     S  A    B   O    U      T    F    O     U     R     A  
  
436, 664, 582, 150, 251, 284, 308, 231, 124, 211, 486, 225, 401, 370, 11, 101, 305, 139, 189, 17,
N      D     O     N     E     Q      U    A      R     T     E     R      M    I      L     E     S     U     P      T 
  
33, 88, 208, 193, 145, 1, 94, 73, 416, 918, 263, 28, 500, 538, 356, 117, 136, 219, 27, 176,
H    E    T     R     A     I   L    T    O     F     I      N    C     A     S      T     L     E     F
  
130, 10, 460, 25, 485, 18, 436, 65, 84, 200, 283, 118, 320, 138, 36, 416, 280, 15, 71, 224,
                         U           N           D                                            O            A    T
The first part of the sentence "The vault is located west of Buford's" could be correct, but the last part of the sentence "four and one quarter miles up the trail to Fincastle" doesn't seem to flow smoothly and I question whether Beale could accurately estimate a distance of "four and one quarter" miles. So this should be seen as an early indication that I'm not on the right track. Perhaps I need to back up and try to complete the sentence in a different way.
 
Instead, I decided to start over. Again, after a bit of thinking I came up with the sentence "From Bufords, travel west on the trail that leads to Fincastle."
71, 194, 38, 1701, 89, 76, 11, 83, 1629, 48, 94, 63, 132, 16, 111, 95, 84, 341, 975, 14,
F    R     O    M      B    U   F    O    R      D    S   T    R     A    V     E   L    W    E      S
  
40, 64, 27, 81, 139, 213, 63, 90, 1120, 8, 15, 3, 126, 2018, 40, 74, 758, 485, 604, 230,
T    O   N    T    H     E     T    R    A      I   L   T   H     A       T    L    E    A      D     S  
436, 664, 582, 150, 251, 284, 308, 231, 124, 211, 486, 225, 401, 370, 11, 101, 305, 139, 189, 17,
T      O     F     I      N     C     A     S      T     L      E                          F                  H
I also came up with a third sentence and sentence fragment "On the trail to Fincastle, you cross Day Creek at one mile from Bufords. Cross over the creek and go ...." The substitution looks like this:
71, 194, 38, 1701, 89, 76, 11, 83, 1629, 48, 94, 63, 132, 16, 111, 95, 84, 341, 975, 14,
O    N     T    H      E    T    R   A    I       L    T    O    F     I    N     C   A    S     T     L 
  
40, 64, 27, 81, 139, 213, 63, 90, 1120, 8, 15, 3, 126, 2018, 40, 74, 758, 485, 604, 230,
E    Y    O   U    C     R     O    S    S      D  A   Y   C     R      E     E   K     A      T     O    
  
436, 664, 582, 150, 251, 284, 308, 231, 124, 211, 486, 225, 401, 370, 11, 101, 305, 139, 189, 17,
N      E     M     I      L      E     F     R     O     M     B     U     F      O     R    D     S     C      R    O  
  
33, 88, 208, 193, 145, 1, 94, 73, 416, 918, 263, 28, 500, 538, 356, 117, 136, 219, 27, 176,
S    S    O     V     E     R  T    H    E     C      R    E    E     K     A      N     D    G     O
    
130, 10, 460, 25, 485, 18, 436, 65, 84, 200, 283, 118, 320, 138, 36, 416, 280, 15, 71, 224,
                         A           N          A                                             E             A   O  
The beginning looks good, but the letters "A _ N _ A" and "E _ AO" don't seem to be combinations readily found in words expected to occur in Beale's set of directions. So it seems likely that this substitution is on the wrong track. 
  
Well, this is the general idea for how to apply the "probable word" method. If you're lucky, you might get somewhere with it.
  
For those of you who would like to share information, you can send me your trial substitutions via email available on this website, and I will post your contribution on this web page. Imagine if one or two hundred visitors to this website were to take up the challenge and contribute a beginning substitution to B1. Among such a list it just might happen that someone is on the right track.
  
Good Luck.
  
  
  
  
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