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The Quest to Break America’s Most Mysterious Code—And Find $60 Million in Buried Treasure

Thomas J. Beale discovered gold and silver out west nearly 200 years ago. He brought a huge amount of precious metals -and gems- back to Virginia and buried it, then recorded the location in a series of ciphers, a numerical code using three different keys. So far, only one key has been discovered, and it only revealed a description of the treasure -not its location. Ever since, people have been digging for the treasure, because Virginia law says it's finders keepers, whether or not you own the land or even have permission to dig. Virginia landowners are not happy about the occasional invasion.

There’s the Chicago refrigeration contractor, certain he had broken the ciphers in five days, who convinced local officials to dig up a graveless patch of a cemetery, only to find clothes hangers (metal) and horseshoes (unlucky). There’s the Texas man who drove to Virginia, wife and kids in tow, simply to borrow a local roadmap that he believed would lead to the treasure. (It didn’t.) There’s the Massachusetts man who jumped out of bed, jolted by a dream, and drove bleary-eyed toward the Blue Ridge Mountains to test his prophecy. There’s the Oklahoma psychic who surveyed the Goose Creek Valley from a helicopter. There’s the Virginia Supreme Court Justice who scouted the location by bicycle; the Washington state man who hired armed guards; the anonymous man who kept an armored truck idling on a nearby road.

Beale treasure hunters are overwhelmingly male, though locals still chatter about one Pennsylvania woman, Marilyn Parsons, who cashed a disability check in 1983 and rented a backhoe to test her theory that the treasure was buried in an unmarked plot of a church graveyard. When she unearthed a coffin handle and human bones, she was arrested and advised to never step foot in Virginia again.

There are real questions about the treasure. Is it still there? Was it ever there? Could the whole story be a hoax? Was there even a man named Thomas Beale? And even if the treasure isn't real, how about the code? Archives have plenty of information about the treasure hunt, but no definitive answers, and every inquiry brings up more questions. Read the story of Beale's treasure and the folks who've searched for it at Mental Floss.  

(Image credit: Flickr user Virginia Hill)


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