- The Washington Times - Monday, December 31, 2001

FORT MEADE, Md. (AP) A seemingly unbreakable code that legend says will reveal the location of a lode of hidden gold in southern Virginia has piqued the interest of National Security Agency cryptologists for decades.
What few of the NSA scientists know, however, is that the agency's patriarch and a pioneering code-breaker of the 20th century spent more than three decades trying to solve the puzzle of the Beale Treasure a pile of gold worth more than $20 million that purportedly was buried in the early 1800s in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Thomas Beale, a Virginia gold miner, is said to have buried the gold and left only three pages of numbers revealing its location.
"It's one of the favorite fireside problems here among cryptologists," said David 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," Mr. Hatch said. "But NSA has never looked at it officially. I refer them to basic textbooks. People cryptanalysis takes a lot of work and practice. There are no shortcuts."
For more than 100 years, professional and amateur code-breakers have tried to solve the puzzle, while others have scoured the hills of Bedford County or dug through the so-called "Bedford Files" at the local library and museum.
The original Beale codes which some people say never existed no longer exist. What does exist is a late 1800s pamphlet telling the incredible tale of a gold miner, his treasure and a Bedford innkeeper.
According to the pamphlet, Mr. Beale gave Robert Morriss, the innkeeper, a lockbox in 1822 containing a letter with no words just hundreds of numbers. Morriss was to hold the box until a key was delivered to decipher the code. The key never arrived, and Morriss finally opened the box in 1845.
He spent years trying to decipher the code, and finally gave it to the pamphlet's anonymous author. The author claimed to break the second page by matching the numbers to the first letters of the corresponding word in the Declaration of Independence.
The anonymous author claims that when finished, one part reads: "I have deposited in the county of Bedford, about four miles from Buford's [an old tavern] in an excavated vault … one thousand and fourteen pounds of gold."
The pamphlet goes on to say that the first page gives more detail on the gold's location, and the third names the lode's owners. But neither of these letters has ever been decrypted.
Many believe the letters are a hoax, with just enough detail to sell the pamphlet in 1885 at 50 cents a copy a hefty sum at the time.
Others believe the tale, and think Beale used an antiquated song of the era to encode the remaining messages.
Since the 1980s, cryptologists at the NSA have been intrigued by the mystery and have gathered informally to try to solve it.
"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 fascinated people for many years."
But few of the code-breakers know that William Friedman, famous for breaking Japanese codes in World War II, worked on the Bedford Files for more than 30 years.
Over the years, Mr. Friedman became obsessed with breaking Beale's code, writing a friend in 1949, "I do not intend by any means to drop the study."
By 1958, he was torn: "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 course of 'easy money.'"
But he never gave up.
"On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I think the story is true and the 'code' is authentic. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays, I think it is all a hoax," he wrote a friend in 1958. "And on Sunday, I try to decide which of these two extremes in faith is the true one."

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