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textbook example

Inside a Top-Secret Factory Where Scent Is Made

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textbook example

By Arthur Holland Michel

The concrete and glass headquarters don’t look like much, the sort of personality-devoid architecture you could find in any office park. It’s clever camouflage for the cutting edge Willy Wonka-style labworks within.

I’ve been following the scent of International Flavor and Fragrances (IFF) in Hazlet, New Jersey, for 10 days now. There’s a rumor that one company is responsible for perfecting the distinctive formulas of both Drakkar Noir and Cool Ranch Doritos, and I think I’ve found it. Of course, no one here is going to confirm who’s on the company’s top-secret client list. What I do know is that, with a little badge flashing and credential dropping, I’ve finally found my way in. I’m not sure what I’ll be shown, but I’ve been told I can’t photograph any of it. I’m just here to sniff.

In the spotless, light-filled lobby, there’s a promotional video playing on a loop: a man in a space-age lab coat sticking a loaf of crusty bread into an aroma-capturing device. My nose immediately detects a hint of my first crush’s perfume—a certain citrus with floral notes—and I wonder if her scent originated here. IFF, a multibillion-dollar international corporation, has fingerprints everywhere as the designer of flavor and scent profiles of many of the most popular products on the market, from the fruity rush that dazzles your tongue as you rip the head off a gummy bear to the pine-forest freshness wafting from a freshly cleaned toilet bowl.

The scientists who work here harness natural scents and meticulously reproduce them for commercial use. And they’ve been doing it for a while—the company’s roots go back to 1889, when two residents of the small Dutch town of Zutphen opened a concentrated fruit juice factory. The enterprise grew consistently and benefited from a cunning 1958 merger with van Ameringen-Haebler, a prominent U.S. flavor and scent maker. Back in 1974, IFF scientists created a synthetic version of ambergris, otherwise known as dried whale vomit, long prized as an essential for perfumes. In the ’90s, the company blasted a rose into space just to see if it would smell different in zero gravity. (It did!) Today, I’m hoping to get a peek at the art and chemistry of creating a distinct aroma and find out how they turn all those smells into billions of dollars.

Past reception, the long, dreary hallway feeds into a lush tropical rainforest. Housing some 2,000 plant species, IFF’s greenhouse—one of several dozen such facilities worldwide—is massive and immaculately kept. The humidity here is intense. There are orchids everywhere. I can hear what sounds like a small river. I almost expect to look up and see a macaque swinging over my head. The director of IFF’s Nature Inspired Fragrance Technologies program, Subha Patel, guides me along. This is her operation. “Everything in here has an odor, and you should smell every one of them,” Patel tells me as she parts low-hanging branches to lead me deeper in. This workspace feels like the Amazon (I would know, having grown up in South America).

Patel is soft-spoken and warm. She tells me she’s been with IFF for nearly 37 years, groomed as a protégé of Braja Mookherjee, the IFF scientist who invented much of the technology the company uses to capture the scent of living things. As she talks, it’s clear she adores the plants she cultivates here. Although she has inhaled their blooms every day for decades, she still rel- ishes each aroma. At every step, she stops me. “Smell this,” she says, demonstrating the proper way to coax a plant into sharing its fragrance. She gently clutches its leaves, taking care not to crush them. Then, carefully letting them go, she raises her hand to her nose to take in the fragrance. “Smell this,” she repeats, a few paces later.

I sample a rare orchid from Madagascar labeled “white orchid” (one of Patel’s favorites), ylang-ylang (which smells like a musky animal), patchouli (“popular for men’s fragrances”), guava (which smells like stale cat pee or, as Subha puts it, “different and unique”). The most impressive is the chocolate flower, which could double for a Cadbury bar. It’s from these natural specimens that Patel and her team begin the work of creating an artificial smell or flavor.

IFF

Chocolate—or anything else—smells the way it does because it emits a specific combination of volatile chemicals. It’s part of Patel’s job to decipher exactly what those chemicals are. To capture the scent in order to study its chemical composition, she uses a process called solid-phase microextraction. That’s a fancy way of saying she places a jar over the object and inserts a thin strip of polymer into the glass to absorb the fragrance. This is a delicate process. Patel has to be careful to make sure that no other scents are sneaking in, though she admits that in nature it’s impossible to completely isolate any single aroma—she finds a certain romance in that. The jar system lets the scientists capture the scent of a plant without killing it. “The flower has a better aroma profile when it’s alive,” Patel says, handing me a twig of fragrant cinnamon.

From the greenhouse, the sample goes to the lab, where a team analyzes its chemical composition using gas chromatography–mass spectrometry, a technique you might remember from high school chemistry. First, a machine separates the aroma into its component molecules. Every chemical is then ionized so that it gives off a particular electrical signal. With this data the scientists can see exactly what chemicals are present in the scent and in what proportion. A formula for jasmine, for example, might include methyl benzoate, eugenol, and isophytol. Meanwhile, a cinammony fabric softener will probably contain something called cinnamaldehyde, also known by the more tongue-tying name 3-phenylprop-2-enal.

Of course, plants are only part of IFF’s extensive scent palette. Beyond the greenhouse, the company has also re-created hundreds of living smells, including the aroma of horses, the musk of deer and civets, and the rich bouquet of freshly minted money (which some private clients request for custom perfumes). The technique can theoretically be used for anything: In 1997, IFF announced that it had captured the smell of a mountaintop. But what exactly is it doing with this vast library of scents?

I quickly learn that breaking down the natural scents is just the start. From the lab, an aroma is shipped off to the master artists of the fragrance world: the perfumers and scent design managers. They’re the ones who mix individual aromas, along with other aromatic chemicals, to create the scents that end up in your household sundries and cosmetics. If each smell Patel captures is like a single shade of paint, a finished fragrance is like a whole canvas. But creating an aroma for a cleaning product, for example, isn’t just a matter of making something that smells clean.

“We’re trying to make a tedious experience more interesting,” says Stephen Nicoll, a vice president and senior perfumer. Nicoll joins me, along with Deborah Betz, one of IFF’s keen-nosed scent design managers, in a large neutral-smelling conference room. (Nicoll and Betz experience the world nose first. They talk about fabric softeners the way sommeliers talk about fine wines. And they take pains to cleanse their palates—Nicoll says he takes a week- long smell vacation every year in a remote forest to give his nose a break.)

Creating a fragrance, I learn, is more than hard science: It’s also about psychological and emotional manipulation. Your sense of smell is different from the other physical senses. While the eyes and ears take information and route it through the thalamus before it goes to the parts of the brain that process and interpret it, the nose sends signals directly to the olfactory receptors, which lie in the limbic system, the part of the brain that processes emotions and memory. This is why the faintest whiff of a fragrance can teleport you instantly back to a specific time or place and trigger powerful emotions—like that indelible memory of my childhood crush.

The companies that make household products have a large stake in the specific emotions their items evoke. You’re not going to buy something over and over if it triggers an unpleasant feeling; marketers want you to feel comfortable and content so you become a loyal customer. So Nicoll and Betz’s job is to make sure that when you sniff your freshly pressed shirt each morning, you feel a manufactured nostalgia—the sort of specific, custom-ordered emotion your fabric softener brand wants you to feel.

In fact, IFF has trademarked its own scientific field: aroma science. In 1982, IFF collaborated with scientists at Yale University to carry out the first extensive studies on the effects odors have on human emotions. Within 10 years, researchers had made a number of remarkable discoveries, including the fact that a whiff of nutmeg can reduce a stressed person’s blood pressure. (Take that, pumpkin spice haters!) Peppermint, on the other hand, seems to be something of an aphrodisiac.

To measure a smell’s emotional impact, Nicoll and his team have volunteers sniff aromas in a controlled environment and then fill out a carefully worded questionnaire that measures responses like irritation, optimism, well-being, and arousal. Analyzing the participants’ responses, Nicoll can tell exactly which fragrance to add to, say, a fabric softener so that it makes the consumer feel “cuddly.” (The secret: notes of amber, a sweet, warm tone typically made from a mix of balsams like labdanum, vanilla, and fir.)

Another secret: Smells go in and out of style. So IFF takes pains to protect its billion-dollar interest and stay ahead of the curve. To gauge what’s fashionable, Betz and other IFF employees take “trend treks.” Recently, they visited stores and restaurants in New York to see which fragrances and foods are at the forefront. These days, it’s sea salt and cherry blossom, Betz says. And although it’s not advisable to eat your laundry, food scents are increasingly finding their way into home-care products. “Ten years ago,” says Betz, “you would never have thought to see a vanilla scent in a floor cleaner.”

If vanilla floor cleaner is what people want, Nicoll’s job is to give it to them. To avoid contaminating the tests, Nicoll and Betz aren’t allowed to wear perfumes and must wash their clothes with unscented detergents. Today, Nicoll is working on fabric softener, mixing the chemicals and essences Patel captured in the greenhouse. Like a composer, he assembles an olfactory symphony, a fragrance with more than 20 different chemicals. He puts the result onto a blotter, and the members of his team take a deep sniff. Nicoll shows me four drafts he worked on that morning. They are complex and abstract, not recognizable, and yet vivid, evocative, impressionistic; one in particular feels like the future. Like what the “new car” scent would smell like for a next-generation spacecraft.

Once a fragrance is created, it’s vigorously vetted. It gets passed between perfumers, scent design managers, representatives from the customer company, and test subjects—all together, hundreds of noses. And just because a senior perfumer thinks a scent delivers a “clean” feeling, it doesn’t necessarily mean everyday users will agree. So the testing facilities are built to replicate various experiences. There are rows of sinks to test personal-care products, dozens of cell-like rooms to test air fresheners, washing machines that will help researchers assess the cuddliness factor of fabric softeners, clotheslines to test detergents on hang-dried clothes, and functioning latrines to sample toilet cleaners. There’s even a place mysteriously referred to as “the stench room” to test malodors.

After hundreds of test washes and thousands of deep sniffs, a scent is finally ready to be released into the wilds of the supermarket aisle. All told, the whole process, from the capture of a cinnamon twig to the aroma on your fresh-pressed whites, takes about two years and the sweat of a huge number of people.

As I leave the IFF facility, my nose feeling a little bit like it’s about to fall off, I’m awestruck by the enormous amount of energy that’s spent on making the world smell better. Maybe it’s a little unsettling to know that consumer products have such a direct pathway into our emotional zones. Should I be skeptical the next time I put on a freshly laundered shirt and remember my childhood? Should I distrust my emotions when I polish a tabletop and feel uplifted by the lemony scent? Or should I be thankful that these mundane activities are filled with little bits of manufactured—but also very real—joy? After a long day in the lab, I’m too tired to wade into the ethical complexities of every flavor and scent that surrounds me. But I do know this: The intricate way IFF combines chemistry, biology, and psychology fills our world with meaning. And Patel’s mantra to stop and smell stays with me. A few days later, when I toss some clothes in the wash, I do exactly that, reminded that even in a simple dryer sheet, there’s a remarkable story.


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Jean van Eyck, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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The Enduring Mystery of the Ghent Altarpiece, the World's Most-Stolen Painting
The Ghent Altarpiece open
The Ghent Altarpiece open
Jean van Eyck, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Oscar van Bouchaute watched nervously as hundreds of strangers trampled over the crime scene inside Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.

Earlier that day, on the morning of April 11, 1934, van Bouchaute—a church steward—had stepped off the cobblestoned streets of Ghent, Belgium, and into the cathedral to begin his daily rounds. He lit candles, rang the bells, and unlocked doors to prepare for the morning service. He was surprised, however, to find that one parishioner had already made her way inside the church. Somebody, he realized, had left a door open overnight.

According to a contemporary report in the newspaper Het Volk, van Bouchaute panicked and hurried to the cathedral’s sacristy, where the church’s jewels and articles of worship were kept. He counted each precious item and sighed with relief when he realized nothing had been stolen. False alarm, he thought.

He carried on with his duties. At around 7 a.m., he stepped into the cathedral’s Joos Vijd Chapel, home to The Ghent Altarpiece, a 12-panel painting that was widely considered Belgium’s national treasure. A giant shroud was draped over the artwork, protecting it from light and dust. Van Bouchaute began to diligently set up a table of tickets, postcards, and photos for the oncoming wave of art-loving tourists. Then he lifted the drape over the artwork and felt his heart drop.

Two panels—one depicting Saint John the Baptist, another depicting an equestrian scene called The Just Judges—were missing.

Within hours, news of the theft had leaked, and the chapel teemed with members of the public. One journalist estimated that 1500 people showed up. As gossip-fueled whispers bounced off the cathedral walls, church officials watched helplessly as strangers poked and prodded the scene of the crime.

The police did little to stop them. They did not clear the crowd out of the chapel or seal the premises. They did not photograph the crime scene. They did not look for fingerprints or footprints. Instead, when the crowd got too big, Commissaire Antoine Luysterborgh and four other investigators abandoned the chapel entirely. They decided to visit the scene of a different robbery: A nearby cheese shop.

When federal authorities arrived shortly after, they were no more helpful, and their police report equated to little more than a shrug. Three weeks passed with no progress made on the case.

Then Ghent’s bishop, Honoré Jozef Coppieters, received a green envelope in the mail. The writer of the letter inside claimed to have the two paintings—and he wanted a million francs for them.

 
 

The lack of interest by the authorities was notable considering that The Ghent Altarpiece is arguably the most coveted painting ever made. Started by Hubert van Eyck and completed by his brother Jan in 1432, the painting—which also goes by the name Adoration of the Mystic Lamb—has attracted religious pilgrims and art aficionados since the day it was revealed six centuries ago. It has since been stolen, censored, nearly burned, smuggled, and sold countless times.

The Altarpiece’s allure is partly rooted in its size and religious imagery. Originally consisting of 12 panels, the painting sits inside a nearly 12-foot-high hinged framework larger than a garage door. When the gates are closed, the exterior panels depict portraits of the painting’s donors, as well as Old Testament prophets and grisaille (gray-scaled) depictions of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. Near the top, the angel Gabriel delivers news to the Virgin Mary that she will bear a son, an event called The Annunciation.

When the gates of the Altarpiece are opened, viewers are greeted by a sunburst of color. On the wings, Adam and Eve, frail and unidealized, stand nude. Clusters of angels sing and play instruments. At the top, God sits on a throne flanked by Mary and Saint John the Baptist. Below, a field of saints, martyrs, clergy, and hermits assemble in a pasture. A group of judges and knights sit on horseback. All are making a pilgrimage toward the painting’s centerpiece: a lamb standing on an altar. Blood gushes from its chest into a chalice. Below its feet, a stream trickles from the Fountain of Life and flows toward the viewer.

The Ghent Altarpiece was the first major artwork to utilize oil-based paint, a medium that allowed for unprecedented clarity and vivid coloring. Erwin Panofsky, a 20th century art historian, famously said that van Eyck’s eye functioned “as a microscope and as a telescope at the same time.” His attention to tiny details in faraway objects has been interpreted to symbolize the all-seeing vision of God.

“Until the altarpiece was painted, only portrait miniatures and illuminated manuscripts contained such detail,” art critic Noah Charney writes in his book Stealing the Mystic Lamb. “Nothing like this intricacy had ever been seen before on such a grand scale, by artists or admirers.”

"Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?)" by Jan van Eyck
Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?)
Jan van Eyck, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The painting’s uniqueness, however, has invited threats that have made it one the world’s more well-traveled pieces of art. In 1566, Calvinist militants rebelling against Catholic idolatry rammed a tree trunk through the doors of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and attempted to burn the Altarpiece. Guards ferried the painting up to the church tower before the mob arrived. For the next 18 years, the painting was protected in a fortified town hall.

In 1781, Emperor Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire, which encompassed Belgium, censored the panels depicting the naked Adam and Eve, which were replaced with copies covering the couple in bearskin cloths. Then came the French Revolution. During the tumult of those years, France conquered Belgium. The invading French confiscated fine art—symbols of the ruling classes—and sent the central panels of the Altarpiece to the Louvre, which had recently been transformed into a public museum. In 1815, the original panels returned to Ghent after Louis XVIII assumed the throne.

They didn’t stay there long. The following year, six of the panels were stolen again, this time by Saint Bavo’s own vicar-general. The panels traveled down a chain of salesmen and eventually landed in the hands of a Berlin-based art collector, who gave them to the Prussian Kingdom, the forerunner of modern Germany. A few decades later, in Ghent, the bawdy depictions of Adam and Eve were sold to a museum.

At the outbreak of World War I, Germany attempted to reunite the whole painting by stealing the remaining panels from Ghent. They failed thanks to the heroics of a church custodian who hid the panels between the walls and floorboards of the bishop’s residence. In 1918, that same custodian re-smuggled the panels to a safer location in the countryside.

After the war, the Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to return the six panels to their original home and the Belgian museum returned the nude Adam and Eve. The Ghent Altarpiece was united for the first time in more than a century.

But by April 1934, it was on the move again.

 
 

Bishop Coppieters must have felt a chill run through his veins as he unsealed the envelope.

It is our privilege to inform you that we possess the two paintings by van Eyck which were stolen from the cathedral of your city. We feel that it is better not to explain to you by what dramatic events we now possess these pearls. It happened in so incoherent a manner that the current location of the two pieces is known only to one of us. This fact is the only thing that should concern you, because of its terrifying implications.

In the letter, the ransomers claimed they’d return the Saint John the Baptist panel if the church agreed to send one million Belgian francs. The cash was to contain no traceable serial numbers and to be wrapped in brown paper, sealed with the insignia of the diocese. “We understand that the demanded amount is high,” the letter stated, “but a million can be regained, whereas a van Eyck can never be painted again.”

To signal his agreement to the deal, Bishop Coppieters was asked to publish this ad in the classified section of the local newspaper, Le Dernière Heure: “D.U.A. In agreement with the authorities, we accept your propositions totally.”

(If that scheme sounds straight out of a crime novel, that’s because it was. Years earlier, the French author Maurice Leblanc had introduced the literary world to the character of Arsène Lupin, a cunning burglar and master of disguise who communicated ransoms through newspaper ads, signing each deal with his initials: A. L.)

Illustrations from Le Triangle d'Or by Maurice Leblanc
Illustrations from Le Triangle d'Or by Maurice Leblanc
Maurice Leblanc, Wikimedia (Image 1) and (2) // Public Domain

Bishop Coppieters alerted the police to the extortion scheme. According to Charney, crown prosecutor Franz de Heem stepped in to lead the ransom negotiations and refused to give the criminals a dime. So did the Belgian government. De Heem advised the bishop to place a classified ad telling the ransomers that their proposition was “exaggerated.”

A few days later, a new letter arrived in the bishop’s mail. The ransomers threatened to slice up the paintings and mail in the shards. De Heem and Bishop Coppieters decided to feign compliance, and on May 25, 1934, the bishop published the requested message in the classified section of the newspaper. It was a risky move, but de Heem believed his team had an advantage: The ransomers had made a perplexing, if not foolish, proposition by promising to return the painting of Saint John the Baptist before receiving the money.

On May 29, a third letter arrived at his home. “We have read your answer in the paper of 25 May and take full note of your obligations,” it read. “Observe them conscientiously, and we will preserve ours.” Inside was a ticket for the luggage check at a Brussels train station.

Attorney de Heem and his accomplices rushed to the Belgian capital and presented the ticket at the luggage check, where they received a giant, flat package wrapped in black wax paper—the Saint John the Baptist panel.

Any suspicions that the ransomers were pulling a hoax immediately evaporated.

 
 

With a honeycomb of brass gates concealing his identity, an anonymous man sat inside the confessional booth at the Church of Saint Lawrence in Antwerp, Belgium, and confessed to nothing. Instead, the man began asking the priest a favor. On the other side, Vicar Henri Meulepas listened patiently.

A prominent Belgian family needed some special letters delivered in secret, the anonymous man said. Could the church help deliver them? Father Meulepas agreed.

With that, the man left. Father Meulepas did not know that he’d just been duped into assisting the activities of a criminal.

On June 1, a fourth letter arrived at Bishop Coppieters’s residence explaining how Father Meulepas would be roped into the scheme.

“We ask you to personally hand over the package that contains our commission to Father Meulepas, Saint-Laurentius Church, Antwerp,” it said. “You could let him know that it concerns a restitution of papers and letters involving the honor of one of the most dignified families.” Inside the letter was a vertically torn page from a newspaper, which was to be used as a key for the transaction.

De Heem decided to play along. He visited Antwerp and handed Father Meulepas a package of ransom money, wrapped in brown paper and stamped with the seal of the diocese just as the thief demanded. He also gave Father Meulepas the vertical strip of newspaper.

On June 14, a taxi driver pulled up to the vicarage in Antwerp, knocked on the door, and asked Father Meulepas to show the torn piece of newspaper. The priest handed it over. The driver revealed a second slip of newspaper and pieced the two together. They matched. Satisfied, the driver accepted the holy man’s parcel and drove off.

Within hours, the ransomers—wherever they were—would be seething in rage. De Heem did not put one million francs in the package as the crooks had demanded. Instead, the package contained a piddling (and traceable) 25,000 francs.

A photograph of Arsène Goedertier with images of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and Ghent, Belgium
Arsène Goedertier among images of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and Ghent, Belgium
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Arsène Goedertier: Wikimedia // Public Domain. St. Bravo; Ghent: iStock.

The ransomers were indignant. “It is incomprehensible,” one of them wrote back. “We risked our lives to come into possession of these two jewels and we keep thinking that what we ask is not excessive or impossible to realize.” In other words: We went through so much trouble stealing these! Have you no respect?

The police did not. Over the following weeks, the authorities and the thieves communicated back and forth, but negotiations sputtered. De Heem did not mind. Believing that time was on his side, he stonewalled every demand and waited for the ransomers to make a mistake. The thieves wouldn’t dare destroy The Just Judges now—that would be like stuffing money down a shredder.

But time was, in fact, running short.

On November 25, 1934, Arsène Goedertier, a plump stockbroker with a curly waxed mustache and poor eyesight, collapsed at a meeting of the local chapter of the Catholic Political Party in Dendermonde, Belgium. Goedertier was by all accounts known to be a good Catholic man. An activist and a philanthropist, he was involved with his local church, had co-founded a Christian health service, and helped run two Catholic charities.

Goedertier was rushed to a local inn and then to his brother-in-law’s house. A physician, believing Goedertier had suffered a heart attack, gave him an injection. A priest arrived to offer confession, but Goedertier waved the padre away. “My conscience is at peace,” he reportedly said.

Then, unlike most people with a “conscience at peace,” Goedertier asked his lawyer, Georges de Vos, to step into the room and close the door.

Fifteen minutes later, de Vos emerged. Without saying a word to the people assembled, he walked to his car, drove to Goedertier’s home eight miles outside of Ghent, and stormed into the man’s study. If de Vos had scanned the bookshelves, he would have noticed an impressive collection of Lupin crime novels by Maurice Leblanc. Instead, he turned to the desk and picked up a file labeled Mutualité.

Inside were carbon copies of ransom notes, each ending with a special signature—D.U.A.

 
 

“I alone know where the Mystic Lamb is,” Goedertier had muttered to de Vos, his breathing labored. “The information is in the drawer on the right of my writing table, in an envelope marked Mutualité …”

With that breath, Goedertier died. He was probably still warm as de Vos began rifling through his office.

De Vos found nothing indicating where the missing painting might be located. The only notable object was an incoherent, incomplete handwritten ransom letter—more of a complaint letter, really—that Goedertier had never mailed. “I am the only one in this world who knows the places where The Just Judges rests …” it said.

The Just Judges panel of The Ghent Altarpiece
The Just Judges panel of The Ghent Altarpiece
Wikimedia // Public Domain

According to Charney, de Vos then made a series of odd decisions. He did not inform the police about Goedertier’s deathbed confession or his ransom notes. Instead, he met with four legal colleagues. These men—a district attorney, two court of appeals presidents, and Franz de Heem, the crown prosecutor who had been leading the ransom negotiations—started their own investigation. Their reason for excluding other authorities from the inquiry remains a mystery, and none of them were ever punished for not informing the police.

The lawyers did not find much: There was a fake passport under the name Arsène van Damme. They located the typewriter Goedertier used to type his ransom notes. (Instead of stowing the typewriter away as evidence, the magistrates used it to write their reports.) They found that, days after the initial crime, Goedertier had opened a new bank account and deposited 10,000 francs. They also discovered a key, which was found, years later, to open the rood loft of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.

None of it made sense. Goedertier didn’t need money. He died with 3 million francs in the bank. He was closely connected to Ghent’s Catholic church and was the type of person who might be expected to give money to the diocese, not take it. Plus, he was in no physical shape to steal two large paintings. He could barely see. There was no chance that he could have stolen the painting. But no clues indicated who his confederates might be.

When the police were notified of Goedertier’s deathbed confession one month later, they took up the case and bumbled it further. For one, they neglected to interview the man who heard Goedertier’s confession, Georges de Vos. They also failed to inform the diocese about the confession for another four months.

This sloppiness seemed to be part of a pattern. They failed to interview a woman who told newspapers that she had seen lights flicker inside the Vijd Chapel the night of the theft. They never investigated the local post offices, despite knowing where the ransom letters came from. They never examined any of the 13 ransom letters for fingerprints. Nor did they ever question the men who were with Goedertier the day he died.

They did, however, interview Goedertier’s wife.

She admitted that her husband had made strange comments about The Ghent Altarpiece. “If I had to go looking for the panel,” he once said, “I would look on the outside of Saint Bavo.” On another occasion, she heard him mutter something about the painting being moved, not stolen. (Decades later, another investigator discovered that Goedertier had made a similar statement to a fellow broker: “If you move something, it is not stolen.”)

These utterances mirrored a tantalizing sentence in Goedertier’s last unmailed letter: "The Just Judges are in a place where neither I nor anyone else can take it without drawing the public's attention." This convinced the police that the panel might be hidden in plain sight, but their searches of the cathedral showed no trace of the painting. In 1937, they closed the case and officially deemed the panel “lost.”

But a single utterance from Goedertier’s 13-year-old son, Adhemar, ensured that the intrigue would not fade.

A year before the case was closed, Adhemar Goedertier died of chronic health issues. The death was a tragedy for a family still mourning the loss of a father and husband. It also introduced a new wrinkle in The Just Judges mystery. As the ailing teenager dozed in and out of consciousness on his deathbed, he kept muttering the same words: Police … thieves … police … thieves.

 
 

On the night the Saint John the Baptist and The Just Judges panels were stolen, Cesar Aercus was reportedly busy stealing cheese. According to Charney, at approximately 1 a.m. on April 11, 1934, Aercus was strolling toward the scene of his own crime when he stopped near Saint Bavo’s Cathedral. A black car was parked outside. A large man, shrouded by an overcoat, paced nervously by the vehicle. Aercus knew suspicious behavior when he saw it and watched from the shadows. Suddenly, a second man emerged from the church with a shrouded plank tucked under his arm. The men hurriedly stuffed the slab into the backseat and the driver turned the key.

The car faltered.

Aercus took this as his cue. He strolled across the street, approached the men, and asked if they needed help starting their car. The duo grumbled and told Aercus to buzz off. The car jumped into gear and sped away.

The city center of Ghent in Belgium, showing St Bavo's Cathedral to the right
The city center of Ghent in Belgium, showing St Bavo's Cathedral to the right
iStock

At least, that’s the story Aercus told the police 13 years later, in 1947, during a plea bargain. It’s unknown if his story is true. Aercus was a crook and had good reason to tell a juicy story; providing this kind of compromising information could shorten his jail sentence. But an investigation years later revealed information that corroborates some of his story: That same night, a shopkeeper reported hearing a car sputtering around that same time at the same place.

Whatever the story’s validity, police did nothing with Aercus’s report. Perhaps by 1947 the authorities weren’t interested in reopening a closed case. After all, just a few years earlier, the Germans had attempted to re-open it—and they had failed.

At the dawn of World War II, the Belgian government sent the entire painting—with the exception of the missing The Just Judges—to a hideout in southwestern France. In 1942, Germany stole it. The Nazis believed they had a legitimate claim to the painting and wanted to give the complete work to Hitler as a gift. Josef Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, assigned Oberleutnant Heinrich Köhn of the Nazi Art Protection Department to search for the final missing piece.

Köhn traveled to Ghent and interviewed dozens of people, including Goedertier’s family and Georges de Vos [PDF]. (Shortly after his interview, de Vos mysteriously died in a movie theatre. It's unclear whether foul play was involved.) Regardless, after years of searching, Köhn failed to find The Just Judges. He was sent to the front lines as punishment.

Had Köhn known about Aercus, perhaps his fate might have been different. Because when Aercus walked over to the car on that fateful night, he reportedly recognized both of the faces inside. In 1947, he revealed at least one of their identities during his plea bargain. One man was named Polydor Priem, a local smuggler. The identity of the second person, however, has vexed people ever since. There’s evidence that it could have been Goedertier, but we can never be sure—the police never wrote a name down.

 
 

From 1956 to 1991, Commissaire Karel Mortier—Ghent’s chief of police—investigated the mystery of the missing The Just Judges panel during his free time. He’s the person responsible for discovering the files on the Aercus plea bargain and Köhn’s report to Nazi leadership. Over decades, Mortier collected so much information on the The Just Judges heist that it took up a reported 26 feet of filing space. But some of the most interesting information came out of what he didn't find.

When Mortier searched the Ghent city archives for records of the theft, he could not find most of the files relating to the case. The same was true when he searched the cathedral archives. It’s possible that the records were lost or destroyed during World War II, but the lack of a breadcrumb trail led Mortier to another conclusion: a cover-up. Local authorities and some members of the church, he believes, might have been complicit.

But complicit in what, exactly? Nobody is sure. In his book, Charney expounds on one popular theory. As a patron of the Catholic Political Party, Goedertier had special access to the movers-and-shakers of Belgium's church. In fact, as a boy, he attended the same school as Bishop Coppieters. Charney suggests that a group of wealthy Catholic investors—Goedertier was a stockbroker, remember—had lost money in a bad investment. With the help of police, church members stole the painting in hopes that Belgium’s government would step in and pay the ransom.

The theory explains the amateur and bookish nature of the heist and the reason the ransomers never threatened to sell the panel to a different bidder—the church members wanted the painting returned to Saint Bavo’s. And perhaps that’s why Goedertier never considered it stolen: It was in the hands of a church member who cared about it.

But that’s just a theory. Critics have poked holes in the logic of that story. (For one, a ransom request of one million francs seems awfully low considering how much money could have been lost in a group investment—especially since the painting was valued at 12 times that.)

Other theories are more colorful: Along with further conspiracies of police collusion, there are theories that say the painting is buried in the tomb of Albert I near Brussels. Some say there’s a secret code written in Goedertier’s ransom letters. Others say the plot involves the Knights Templar, Nazi grail hunters, and a secret treasure map that could lead to the Arma Christi: the nails, whip, and other instruments used to crucify Jesus.

“I have been confronted with the wildest theories,” Mortier once told De Morgen.

The interior of St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium
The interior of St Bavo's Cathedral
iStock

Armchair investigators have looked tirelessly for the missing panel. Saint Bavo’s Cathedral has been searched at least six times since World War II. Mortier himself supervised a partial X-ray of the cathedral and found nothing. In 2008, investigators searched an old well below a parking garage. In 1995, an amateur detective illegally dug up Goedertier’s skull and questioned it during a séance. (When interrogated, his bones held their ground.)

The truth is, there are too many potential avenues to explore because there are too many unresolved facts that raise eyebrows. Take this one.

In 1938, a lawyer approached the Belgian minister of the interior, Octave Dierckx, claiming to represent an anonymous client who possessed The Just Judges. In exchange for the panel, the anonymous person demanded half a million francs. Belgium’s Prime Minister turned it down.

One year later, a Belgian art conservator named Jef van der Veken began making a copy of The Just Judges, a replica he’d eventually give to Saint Bavo’s Cathedral as a replacement. It sits there today.

Some detectives think it’s odd that van der Veken chose to work on the missing panel without any prompting from the church. Weirder yet, he began working on it just months after the failure of the 1938 ransom attempt. Was van der Veken the lawyer’s anonymous client? Was this ransom attempt some scheme to pass a forgery off as the original? Did van der Veken have access to the original panel and use it as a reference for his painting?

The questions go on. There is, however, one thing about van der Veken’s copy that everyone agrees is baffling: On the back of the panel, written in Flemish, is this cryptic poem.

I did it for love
And for duty
And to avenge myself
I borrowed
From the dark side.

 
 

Additional Source: The Disappeared Judges.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Image: iStock.
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The Quest to Break America’s Most Mysterious Code—And Find $60 Million in Buried Treasure
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Image: iStock.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Image: iStock.

A set of 200-year-old ciphers may reveal the location of millions of dollars’ worth of gold, silver, and jewels buried in rural Virginia. For the past century, the quest to break these codes has attracted the military, computer scientists, and conspiracy theorists. All have failed. Which raises the question: Are the ciphers and the treasure even real?

 
 

The medium gazed into the crystal ball and looked deeply into the past. The year was 1898, and the room in which he sat was dimly lit. But inside the mysterious orb, the year was 1819, and the scene was about to become blindingly bright.

The medium claimed he could see into the upper bedroom of Paschal Buford's tavern, an old watering hole below the Blue Ridge Mountains near modern Montvale, Virginia. The room was dark. Shades blanketed the windows and a wad of paper was plugged into the door's keyhole. Inside, a lone frontiersman named Thomas J. Beale eyed a pair of saddlebags resting on the bed.

Gently, he opened them. Light burst through the room. The medium shielded his eyes and shrieked.

“Jewels, by gosh! Diamonds! Rubies! Pearls! Emeralds!!”

Inside the crystal ball, Beale stared at the gems, smiled, and gingerly tucked the saddlebags under a pillow. The light receded.

Back in 1898, Clayton Hart watched the medium with jittery anticipation. Clayton’s brother George, a skeptic, stood nearby in silence. The two were trying to gather potentially life-changing information: Seventy-nine years earlier, Thomas Beale had reportedly buried millions of dollars of riches in the foothills near Montvale. The readings were the Hart brothers’ last-ditch effort to divine its location.


The Peaks of Otter tower over the purported location of Beale's treasure.
iStock

Lucky for them, the medium claimed to see the pioneer's every move: Beale had arrived at Buford’s tavern on horseback with a rifle resting on his lap, a pair of pistols on each hip, and two jewel-filled bags slung from his saddle. Five covered wagons followed him, some hauling iron pots of gold and silver. After resting at Buford's, Beale and his men buried that gold, silver, and jewels deep in the Virginia woods, approximately four miles from the tavern.

As the medium described its location, Clayton clung to every syllable.

Months later, under the cover of nightfall, Clayton and George steered a buggy full of shovels, ropes, and lanterns into Montvale. Joining them—reluctantly—was their trusty medium. Clayton hypnotized the mystic, who led the brothers up Goose Creek, over a fence, and across a burbling stream to a slumped depression in the earth.

The medium pointed to the dirt. “There’s the treasure!” he said. “Can’t you see it?”

Guided by lanterns and moonbeams, the Hart brothers dug. Hours passed. The hole deepened and the sky reddened. As daybreak loomed, tendrils of morning fog began to roll between the ridges. Clayton Hart thrust his pick into the red, iron-rich dirt and heard a hollow thud.

The brothers exchanged glances. Clayton dug frantically. When a large rock emerged, the brothers excitedly flipped it over. Nothing was below it.

The medium (who had refused to help all night, opting instead to lounge on a bed of dead leaves) was re-hypnotized and told to explain himself. He pointed to the roots of an oak tree just feet away and exclaimed: “There it is! You got over too far! Can’t you see it?”

The Hart brothers, exhausted and annoyed, left.

One week later, Clayton returned to that same spot with dynamite. The sky rained dirt, pebbles, and the splintered remains of that old oak tree—but no gold.

These events, described in a pamphlet written by George in 1964 [PDF], convinced the Hart brothers that mesmerism was not the path to fortune. If they wanted to discover Thomas J. Beale’s buried treasure, they’d have to search like everybody else: By solving a puzzle.

 
 

Beale's first cipher, revealing the location of the treasure.
Lucy Quintanilla

If the numbers above mean anything to you, congratulations: 2921 pounds of gold, 5100 pounds of silver, and $1.5 million of precious jewels—together valued at approximately $60 million—are yours for the taking, because you just cracked a cipher purported to reveal the location of the treasure Thomas J. Beale buried nearly 200 years ago.

The backstory of Beale’s treasure has been re-hashed countless times: Beale was a 19th century adventurer who supposedly discovered gold and silver on a hunting trip near the modern New Mexico-Colorado border. He lugged the riches home to Virginia and buried them, reportedly concealing the details—the location, contents, and heirs of the treasure—in three separate ciphers. So far, only one of those codes, Cipher No. 2, which describes the contents of the treasure, has been decrypted.

The codes are basic substitution ciphers. Each number represents a letter of the alphabet, which can be found by numbering the words in a “key” text. (Take the cipher [87 118]. If the key text is Mary Roach’s book Stiff, just number each word in her book. The 87th word starts with “h.” The 118th word starts with “i.” Therefore, the code spells “hi.”)

As long as a key is available, a substitution cipher is a safe, simple way to encrypt a message. The trouble with Thomas J. Beale’s ciphers, however, is that we don’t have the keys.

For the past two centuries, attempts to solve the Beale codes have been a guessing game. In the late 19th century, an anonymous amateur cryptanalyst stumbled on the key to Beale’s second cipher—the Declaration of Independence—and revealed this opening sentence:

I have deposited in the county of Bedford, about four miles from Buford’s, in an excavation or vault, six feet below the surface of the ground …

The message describes the treasure in detail and ends with this maddening sweetener: “Paper number one describes the exact locality of the vault so that no difficulty will be had in finding it.”

So far, it’s been nothing but difficulty.

Amateur and professional cryptanalysts have desperately searched for the lost key texts, consulting the Louisiana Purchase, Shakespeare’s plays, the Magna Carta, the Monroe Doctrine, the United States Constitution, "The Star-Spangled Banner," the Lord’s Prayer, the Songs of Solomon, the Book of Psalms, old local newspapers, and even the thrilling text of the Molasses Act of 1733. “Cryptanalysts say a second-grader could break the ciphers if he lucked in on the documents on which they are based,” journalist Ruth Daniloff writes [PDF]. Until that happens, the other two ciphers will remain an unintelligible jumble of numbers.

That’s a problem. Like all good riddles, the Beale codes have an addictive quality that curious people can’t resist. But unlike most riddles, solving them could make you a millionaire. Because of those stakes, the codes have the potential to consume—and ruin—people’s lives.

 
 

They come with metal detectors and magnetometers, Geiger counters and dowsing rods, backhoes and pickaxes, psychic mediums on speed dial and sticks of dynamite stuffed into their back pockets. They come motivated by a quirky Virginia state law that says buried treasure is finder’s-keepers (even if it’s discovered on private property). They come gripped by a monomaniacal belief that they—and only they—know where Beale’s treasure hides: the foothills, a farm, a cave, a grave, a cistern, a creek, an abandoned road. One treasure hunter insists it's buried at a local visitors’ center, right under the ladies room.

For these treasure hunters, a survey of the past 70 years of newspaper headlines shows a bleak pattern:

MAN HOT ON THE TRAIL OF THOMAS BEALE’S TREASURE.

FOLLOW-UP: MAN WRONG.

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.

Like the Hart brothers, many treasure hunters trespass under starlight. In 1972, The Washington Post reported that local landowners regularly fired warning shots at strangers tip-toeing on their property. “People would sneak onto their land and blow big holes out of the ground and leave them that way. Cows would step in and break their legs,” Ed Easterling, a local Beale expert, says. “Most people here have resented it.”

The federal government owns swaths of land near Montvale—the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail weave through the peaks near town—and it doesn’t take kindly to unpermitted treasure-digging either. In the early 1990s, a Pennsylvania church group tore up the Jefferson National Forest on federal holidays, believing they’d elude the fingerwagging of rangers if they worked on the government’s day off. (They were caught and forced to re-fill the pits.)

A map of some of the possibilities of the location of Beale's treasure.
Lucy Quintanilla

Even those considerate enough to ask for permission are treated with hesitation, says Danny Johnson, a local farmer and winery owner. “A guy will sign a contract, saying he’ll put the land back in shape after digging. Then they go broke and leave! Then the landowner has to go and put their land back.”

A lot of treasure hunters, Johnson mentions, appear to go broke.

The guy who cracked the second Beale cipher is among them. Upon breaking the code, the anonymous cryptanalyst rode a wave of adrenaline that, according to one 19th century author, compelled him “to neglect family, friends, and all legitimate pursuits for what has proved, so far, the veriest illusion.” Peter Viemeister, a Bedford-based author who wrote the book The Beale Treasure: A History of a Mystery, said, “Once you get the Beale treasure in your system, it is hard to get it out. You could get possessed by it. Like drugs or gambling, it can lead a vulnerable person to stake everything on a dream.”

Families have crumbled, bank accounts have evaporated, and jobs have disappeared. One man, Stan Czanowski, spent $70,000 over seven years on dynamite and bulldozers. In the early '80s, one treasure hunter bankrupted himself after blasting rocks for six months. (He abandoned town still owing the local motel money.) An editor at the American Cryptograph Association spent so much time focused on the ciphers that he was fired. The researcher Richard Greaves, who investigated the Beale story for decades, called it “possibly the worst decision I ever made. If I would have devoted all the hours spent pursuing this treasure legend to the study of medicine, I would easily have become an accomplished neurosurgeon.”

Which makes it all the more painful to consider that Beale’s treasure—the ciphers, the story, the gold, the silver, and the jewels, even Thomas J. Beale himself—might all be a big, fat hoax.

 
 

In April 1817, Thomas J. Beale and a party of about 30 men reportedly left Virginia and moseyed west with the goal of hunting buffalo, grizzlies, and other critters frolicking in the wild frontier. When Beale’s party reached Santa Fe—then Spain’s domain—his crew split up and aimed for what is now the Colorado border. There, in a ravine, they discovered gold and silver. Over the following year, they mined thousands of pounds of precious metal.

The bonanza kept Beale looking over his shoulder. He knew his men were in hostile territory and eventually “decided that it should be sent to Virginia under my charge, and securely buried in a cave near Buford’s tavern, in the county of Bedford,” he wrote.

A mule train plodded east to St. Louis, where Beale exchanged some ore for jewels. When he arrived in Virginia, he buried the haul not in a cave as intended, but in a grave-sized plot about four miles from Buford's tavern.

Beale would repeat that trip once more before returning west for good in 1821. Prior to his final journey, he lodged at the Washington Hotel in Lynchburg, Virginia and befriended the hotel’s owner, Robert Morriss. As the story goes, before leaving, Beale handed Morriss a iron lockbox and advised him to open the box if he failed to return. Morriss didn’t know it, but that box contained the three ciphers.

That detail isn’t as fanciful as it may sound. Exchanging secret messages was common in the early 19th century—many men, especially veterans of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, had basic ciphering skills—and it’s likely that Beale and Morriss knew something about secret codes. But Beale never sent a key. And after 10 years, he failed to return.


Morriss would spend nearly two decades attempting to unravel the codes. In 1862, a year before his death, he handed the materials to an anonymous acquaintance who lucked onto the Declaration of Independence as a key. In 1885, that unknown man enlisted the help of James B. Ward to publish a pamphlet telling Beale's story. In 1885, “The Beale Papers” was published as a thin blue booklet. The price was $0.50.

It has created controversy ever since.

 
 

If that whole story sounds fishy, that's because it is.

To start, the story of Beale's trip west overflows with damning anachronisms. If history books are to be believed, Beale’s men found gold more than 30 years before precious metals were discovered in that region. Furthermore, there are no records documenting a party of Beale's size—one that almost certainly would have been arrested for trespassing on foreign soil—going west.

There are also problems with the ciphers. As Dr. Todd Mateer of the N.S.A. notes in a 2013 paper for the journal Cryptologia, if you decrypt Cipher No. 2 with the original Declaration of Independence, you don’t get:

I have deposited in the county of Bedford about four miles from Buford’s ...

You get:

A haie deposoted tn ttt eointt oa itdstrrs aboap thrr miles troa baaotts ...

Beale’s letters are suspicious, too. In 1982, the linguist Dr. Jean Pival compared Beale’s prose to the writing of the pamphlet’s anonymous author and found that both used reflexive pronouns incorrectly, copied the prosody of the King James Bible, and overused negative passive constructions such as never to be realized and never be told. “The striking similarities in the Ward and Beale documents argue that one author was responsible for both,” Pival wrote. Further scrutiny by the myth investigator Joe Nickell showed that Beale’s letters contained words such as stampeding and improvised, terms Beale never would have used—because they did not exist when he wrote the letters.

This evidence (and much more) has convinced most casual observers that the treasure story, the codes, and even the character of Thomas J. Beale are part of a canard designed to sell pamphlets. In other words, the reason nobody has found Beale’s treasure is because there is no treasure to find.

Beale enthusiasts refuse to accept this. In fact, when they first encountered these anachronisms, few dropped their shovels or chucked their maps; rather they picked up books and dove into special archives rooms to start a new hunt—a search to find counter-evidence in the historical record that would pile doubt on the doubters. It’s here, in this madcap search for a factual knockout punch, that doing research on the Beale treasure story can become just as addicting as searching for the treasure itself. Because when you don’t find what you’re looking for, you might keep looking … and keep looking … and keep looking … until you can no longer afford to stop.

 
 

Jennifer Thomson drops a stack of nine books on my table at the Bedford County Museum and Genealogical Library with a thud. “That’s everything we have on Beale,” the resident genealogical librarian tells me. She recedes to a back room, and I begin leafing through the books—only to be startled by a sudden plop.

A 9-inch stack of manila folders stuffed with papers has materialized on my desk. “Oh, sorry,” Thomson says. “And these.”

She repeats this back-and-forth dance three more times. “And these ... Oh, and these ... Ahhh, yes! And finally—these.”

On this last assault, she sympathetically places the folders on the table, smirks, and whispers: “Have fun!

I look down. I can no longer see the desk.

The materials held at the Bedford Genealogical library near Montvale, Virginia are a mixed bag of serious historical research and total crackpottery: There are copies of ancient maps, genealogies of people related to the treasure story, unpublished academic papers, handwritten letters, manifestos alleging the National Forest Service is engaged in conspiracy, “solutions” to the ciphers, and tortured sketches that evoke A Beautiful Mind. It would take weeks to consult it all.

Beale's second cipher, which revealed the contents of the treasure.
Lucy Quintanilla

Some people wave off Beale-ievers as nutters, but, looking at these materials, I think that’s lazy. People with legitimate talent have done legitimate work on the mystery. One of the top Beale experts, Dr. Stephen M. Matyas, was a skeptical IBM cryptanalyst with dozens of digital security patents. (He wrote a 700-plus page two-part book; one section was entitled The Hoax Theory Deflated.) Another Beale investigator, Victor Theyer, was a professional writer with proven research skills: He once found a missing woman who had been AWOL for nearly five decades. Dr. Albert C. Leighton, a professor of cryptology history, was a Fulbright Research Scholar who cracked a cipher linked to Pope Gregory XIII that had baffled codebreakers since 1573.

“Some of these people who come in here digging for it, heck no, I wouldn’t call them nuts,” Bedford County’s sheriff told The Ledger-Star in 1989. Thomson agrees. “There are people who want to solve the historical part of it—just to see if it’s accurate—and most of them are good, normal people just trying to solve a mystery.”

Many of these researchers believe the inconsistencies can be explained away. The archival research they’ve done to achieve this aim is, in some cases, hard to deny.

Take the criticism that silver and gold hadn't been discovered yet. The specifics, they point out, are blurry. Beale researchers have dredged up old reports showing rumors of precious ore swirling decades earlier, with small traces of gold possibly being discovered before Beale’s trip.

The lack of evidence that Beale went west? Carl Nelson Jr., an ex-C.I.A. agent, combed through old newspapers from St. Louis—what would have been Beale’s last checkpoint before the frontier—and discovered a postmaster’s notice in an October 1817 copy of The Missouri Gazette for an “S. T. Beall” and an 1820 notice for a “Thomas Beall” in The Franklin Intelligencer. As for Beale's ability to avoid arrest, researchers point to the Adams-Onis treaty of 1819, which redrew the border between the United States and what was called “New Spain.”

The rebuttal to the clunky cipher solution is impressive. Stephen Matyas researched this discrepancy and compiled one of the world's most complete collections of Declaration of Independence copies. From 1776 to 1825, the Declaration appeared in more than 350 publications, each of which made slight alterations to the text: Unalienable over inalienable, mean time over meantime, institute a new government over institute new government. A single extra word or space, Matyas argued, can corrupt a decipherment. Choose the wrong version and your solution will resemble alphabet soup.

As for the consistent language and the linguistic anachronisms in the pamphlet? That’s nothing, researchers say. Have you ever heard of an editor?

Some of their most remarkable work is genealogical. Researchers discovered that there was not one, but at least two Thomas Beales living within 20 miles of Montvale, Virginia during the early 19th century—and there’s a curious wrinkle in their stories. In the early 1800s, one of them dueled a Lynchburg, Virginia man named James Risque. Afterward, Beale reportedly fled town. Risque, who suffered a nonfatal gunshot wound to the gut, would stay and raise a family that included a grandson named James B. Ward; the same James B. Ward who would later help publish "The Beale Papers."

What this all means is anybody’s guess. Not every crumb of information passes the courtroom test, though each discovery has undoubtedly helped Beale-ievers deflect criticism—and has encouraged an ecosystem of theories to bloom.

Indulge here in a small sample platter:

It’s a hoax perpetrated by James B. Ward! (Ward’s children denied this. His daughter “believed the story as she believed the Bible," reported the Lynchburg News in 1934.) No, it's a Freemason plot! (Beale hunter Brian Ford argued that it’s a “brilliantly-crafted Masonic allegory that teaches its moral, not just by stating it but by having the reader pursue or be tempted to pursue an illusion.”) The treasure is real … but was dug up decades ago! (“We know that in the late 1800s people were working in the Montvale area doing construction, and the next thing you know: They’re rich!” Thomson tells me.) The federal government found the treasure! (“[I]t has long since been removed by an N.S.A. task force disguised as U.S. Forest Service workers,” treasure hunter Frederick W. Chesson wrote.) It’s all a cover-up! (The treasure was stolen from the Confederate Treasury and it’s now hidden in—wait for it—Jerry Falwell’s attic!)

 
 

The list goes on. For people like Nick Pelling, a British computer programmer who runs the website Cipher Mysteries, the speculation makes his eyes roll. “I don’t think anything in it corresponds to historical fact,” he says of the Beale story. “Discussions about the Beale have lost a lot of focus, lapsed into argumentation based on the minutiae of the pamphlet.”

Pelling belongs to the third species of Beale hunter. In his view, the endless bickering over the story's historical authenticity distracts from the true mystery: the codes. The real treasure isn’t what’s buried underground, but what’s buried in the numbers.

That's been the opinion of cryptanalysts for nearly a century. In the 1930s, William F. Friedman, leader of the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service, or S.I.S.—the forerunner to the N.S.A.—spent his leisure hours attempting to untangle the Beale codes. He took them so seriously that his legal counselor drafted an agreement in case he solved them.

He never did, of course. In a letter, Friedman wrote: “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 Friedman never quit. Instead, he included the ciphers in the S.I.S training program. According to Frank Rowlett, an S.I.S. cryptologist who helped crack Japan’s PURPLE cipher machine during World War II, the trainees concluded the ciphers were phony. Friedman’s wife Elizebeth, also an accomplished cryptanalyst, dubbed them as a lost cause with a “diabolical ingenuity specifically designed to lure the unwary reader …. In fruitless research … or searching for a key book.” Friedman himself shrugged: “On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I think it is real,” he said. “On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, I think it is a hoax.” (Sunday, it appears, was a day of rest.)


The U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service, which used the Beale ciphers as a training exercise, in front of their vault in 1935. At center is William F. Friedman (standing, dark suit). Frank Rowlett stands at the far right.
Courtesy of National Cryptologic Museum, National Security Agency

Other cryptologists of the era approached the ciphers with similar ambivalence. Herbert O. Yardley, whose 1931 tell-all book The American Black Chamber revealed the workings of America’s cryptography units, believed the Beale ciphers could be solved—but also admitted they looked “a bit fishey.”

That attitude would reign among professional cryptanalysts until January 1970, when Dr. Carl Hammer, Director of Computer Sciences at Sperry-Univac, made a startling revelation at the Third Annual Simulation Symposium in Tampa, Florida. He had analyzed the Beale ciphers with a UNIVAC 1108 computer and compared the codes to the musings of a random number generator. The results showed signs of an intelligent pattern.

“Beale Cyphers 1 and 3 are ‘for real,’” Hammer concluded. “They are not random doodles but do contain intelligence and messages of some sort. Further attempts at decoding are indeed warranted.”

 
 

At Fort Meade, Maryland, a few hundred yards from the barbed wire fences surrounding N.S.A. headquarters, the National Cryptologic Museum library holds a printout of Hammer’s computer analyses from 1965 [PDF]. It’s an unassuming, carefully folded stack of perforated paper. If you stood at the window of an eight story building and unfurled it, the scroll would tickle the sidewalk. Its only distinguished feature is a stream of faded, indecipherable text:


Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Image: iStock.

Hammer’s discovery, buried in a potpourri of text like this, reignited professional interest in the Beale ciphers. In 1969, an organization he kickstarted—later called the Beale Cipher Association, or B.C.A.—hosted a symposium in Washington, D.C. in an attempt to pool the best minds to tackle it.

Well, some of the best. Approximately 70 people showed up. The club attracted big names in the intelligence community such as Carl Nelson Jr., who had helped the C.I.A. intercept communist signals in a secret tunnel under Berlin; big names in data processing such as Per Holst, the Chief of Research at Massachusetts Foxboro Laboratories; and big names in government, including a U.S. District Judge and the Governor of Minnesota.

It also attracted people who, to put it kindly, had vivid imaginations.

With the aroma of Sanka wafting through hotel conference rooms, the B.C.A. symposiums presented a delicate balance of serious academic theories and New Age hocus pocus. Presenters raved about confusion matrices, 10x10 Hogg-Hugerman networks, and the application of neural networks to computer algorithms. Other presentations included a talk on inductive geodetic reasoning—a fancy way of saying, “If I hid treasure, where would I bury it?”—and a lecture on how to improve your dowsing rod accuracy. (One tip: Hug a tree.)

Over the following decade, the B.C.A. grew to boast more than 200 members from places as close as Michigan and as far as Holland. It hosted three more symposiums and published a quarterly newsletter, both of which presented sober scholarship and half-baked whataboutism.

Hammer, for his part, cared little for the treasure story. He saw the Beale ciphers as a cryptologic puzzle that could advance the field of computer programming. “I think it is fair to say that this effort has engaged at least 10 percent of the best cryptanalytic minds in the country, and represents much more than the value of the treasure even if it should be just as described,” Hammer told The Washington Post in 1979. “And not a dime of it should be begrudged; the work—even the lines that have led into blind alleys—has more than paid for itself in advancing and refining computer research.”

But for those who still cared about the treasure, the B.C.A. was a vital place to foster community. Beale researchers have always been a solitary, if not paranoid, bunch. They share a passion but rarely share detailed insights or leads with each other. “Why give away secrets only to find that someone else has found the treasure using your information?” Stephen Matyas once said. The consequence of keeping these ideas private, however, has turned the decoding process into a time-sucking vortex, with hundreds of researchers wasting hours as they test possibilities somebody else already ruled out. The B.C.A. was an organized attempt to overcome this atmosphere of distrust and streamline the search.

That said, most people's "solutions" made Thomas J. Beale sound like a hepcat who had been couchsurfing at a bad beat poetry club.


Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Image: iStock.

Then, in 1980, James Gillogly, a computer scientist at the think tank RAND and the president of the American Cryptogram Association, discovered an even stranger message in the first Beale cipher—just not the kind the B.C.A. was hoping for.

 
 


Lucy Quintanilla

The alphabet never looked so depressing. If you decode Beale's first cipher with some versions of the Declaration of Independence, as James Gillogly tried in 1980, you'll get gobbledygook—with the exception of this pseudo-alphabetical string in the middle of the code. Gillogly published his discovery in a Cryptologia essay called “A Dissenting Opinion" and calculated the chance it could occur randomly was 1 in 10,000,000,000,000.

Gillogly offered two interpretations: that the message is buried under a second level of encryption; or that this measly string of text was the intelligent pattern Hammer's computer had detected. That is, the codes are almost certainly a hoax.

“I visualize the encryptor selecting numbers more or less at random, but occasionally growing bored and picking entries from the numbered Declaration of Independence in front of him, in several cases choosing numbers with an alphabetical sequence,” Gillogly wrote. In other words, a prankster was practicing his ABCs.

For the B.C.A., the news was deflating. Hammer could not deny Gillogly’s discovery but disagreed with his conclusion. It didn’t matter. Over the coming decade, enthusiasm at the B.C.A. waned. “Jim Gillogly’s article basically says ‘Give up,’” Pelling says. “And when one of the most respected historical codebreakers in the world says, ‘Pffft, don’t even try,’ a lot of codebreakers will say, 'You know, I trust Jim on this one.'”

By 1999, the Beale Cipher Association had dissolved. Today, many of its members are dead. Any centralized attempt to decode the Beale ciphers has faded with them.

Pelling is one of the few who insists there is still work to be done. Like Carl Hammer, he believes the "Gillogly string" is a sign that something lurks in the message, a code beneath the code. “The presence of a pattern is presence of a signal,” Pelling says. “The Gillogly strings are evidence that there is something going on. The level of improbability is so high that this is not a freak chance ... It’s just that the solution is one step sideways, and we don’t know where that step is.”

But computers might.

 
 

There are hundreds of supercomputers in the United States. At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the supercomputer Titan has a memory of 693 tebibytes and is capable of running at a speed of 27 petaflops, or approximately 27,000 trillion calculations per second. Which begs the eternal question: Shouldn’t computers have solved this sucker by now?

“I get this all the time,” Pelling says. “For Every. Single. Cipher.”

Computers aren’t magic. To decode a cipher, a human must write a program that can break it—and that means a human must understand how that individual cipher ticks. This becomes especially difficult when a code contains typos (the Beales certainly do) or requires a two- or three-step process (the Beales certainly might). “The computer is not the answer," Hammer said at a Beale Cipher Association Symposium in 1979. "Even if it does all the work, we still have to find the type of work for it to do.”

To do that, a programmer has to grapple with two basic cryptologic concepts.

First, repetition. It’s easier to crack a cipher if the code contains repeated symbols. The short cipher [16 43 97 64] is impossible to crack without a key because it could signify nearly any four letter word. Now compare that to [16 43 43 16]. The repetition narrows our options. The code is clearly a palindrome—it could signify Anna, or Otto, or Elle, or deed, or peep, or poop, or sees, or noon, and so on. The problem is, without added context, we can never be sure which answer is correct. This problem is called unicity distance: When a cipher is too short, we might find multiple solutions.

These two principles are what convinced the great William F. Friedman to give up on the Beale ciphers decades ago: “I saw no hope at all of solving a cipher text so short and with so few repetitions of even single numbers,” he wrote. The first Beale cipher is 520 characters long and contains a whopping 299 unique symbols—an impossibly low rate of 1.74 repetitions per character. Friedman lamented: “[T]he application of scientific principles is impossible.”

Beale's third cipher.
Lucy Quintanilla

That, of course, hasn’t stopped cryptanalysts from assaulting the Beale ciphers with every vocabulary word you can find in a cryptology textbook: higher-order homophony, super-encipherment via a keyphrase, Chi-square values calculated on a vector, concatenation, 2-gram statistical analyses, visible outer cipher and hidden inner cipher, beam search approaches.

In 2014, this last method was used by a Ph.D. student named Malte Nuhn and two fellow researchers at Germany’s Aachen University. They were developing an algorithm intended to improve the accuracy of machine translations, and they occasionally tested the strength of their program by feeding it ciphers such as the Zodiac-408 and the Beale Cipher No. 2.

The Zodiac-408 cipher, created by the eponymous serial killer in 1969, is the easiest of the four Zodiac codes. It’s 408 characters long and contains 54 unique symbols. Originally, it took one week to solve. Nuhn's program, however, solved it in three seconds [PDF].

Meanwhile, the Beale Cipher No. 2—the longest and most repetitious of the Beale ciphers—took eight CPUs roughly 30 hours of work. The program muscled the correct solution with just 5 percent error. It was the first time a computer had automatically deciphered a Beale cipher without any reference to the key.

For fun, Nuhn and his colleagues fed the program the two unsolved Beale ciphers, which contain far less repetition and are much shorter. Nothing intelligible appeared.

“Maybe the algorithm is still not good enough,” Nuhn says. “Or maybe it’s because there’s nothing there.”

 
 

Treasure hunters. Researchers. Cryptanalysts. The Beale treasure mystery has defeated everybody who has approached it—and yet, despite it all, people regularly claim to have found the 'X' that marks the spot.

One Pennsylvania steelworker made 36 trips to Bedford County before asserting that he found an empty treasure vault under an abandoned icehouse. In 1989, the treasure hunter Mel Fisher, who previously discovered 40 tons of gold and silver in the Florida Keys, failed to find Beale’s loot but insisted he dug in the correct place. (“The treasure has been moved!” he reportedly grumbled.) Earlier, a 19-year-old high school graduate phoned journalists to tell them he had dug up the treasure and sent it to South America for smelting. "He was positive he found it," writes Estes Thompson for the Norfolk Ledger-Star. "But he was the only one who was."

The press has breathlessly reported countless claims of the codes being broken, sometimes with head-spinning results. In February 1974, after an an auto mechanic alleged he had solved the ciphers, the Roanoke World-News published two contradicting headlines on the same day.

CODE BROKEN, BEDFORD TREASURE A HOAX, MAN SAYS

CACHE LEGEND GENUINE, LOCAL AUTHORITY INSISTS

Such claims usually occur when a hunter has exhausted all other possibilities. Take Colonel J. J. Holland: Over his lifetime, Holland drove more than 150,000 miles—and spent untold dollars on gasoline, lodging, and digging equipment—pursuing Beale’s treasure, reports Norfolk’s The Virginian-Pilot. He passionately believed in the treasure's existence, and he spent the final three years of his life scribbling solutions during the midnight hours. But as his health crumbled, and any chance of finding the treasure evaporated, the wheezing Colonel made a stunning reversal that negated two decades of work: He claimed that the treasure was fake and that he had cracked the codes.

This is a familiar theme. Some Beale hunters would rather declare the mystery solved than admit defeat. The pursuit, after all, is more than a hobby or preoccupation—it's an obsession ingrained within one's identity. To declare the case closed not only validates the effort made, but validates life’s chosen purpose.

Perhaps that explains why so many people have gone to such great lengths to verify their theories. In the 1960s, the author Pauline B. Innis, an expert on the Beale mystery, received desperate telegrams, letters, and calls from people in places as far as Ethiopia. Once, a man dressed as an FBI agent demanded that Innis hand over her Beale files. Another time, somebody attempted to bribe her into spilling her secrets with a complimentary jar of pickles.

And perhaps it explains why most Beale hunters never dig at all.

“The people who think they know for sure where something is, they are the most likely not to dig at all because they don’t want to burst their dream,” Beale expert Ed Easterling says. “They enjoy the euphoria of knowing—well, thinking they know—where it is. Because if they go and it’s not there, it would take their dream away.”


Bedford County, Virginia
iStock

One time, Easterling received a call from one of these treasure hunters. The man explained that Jesus had revealed the location of the treasure in a dream. Easterling patiently listened, contacted the appropriate landowner, and secured the man permission to dig. He never showed.

One year later, the same man called with an update: Jesus had changed his mind. The treasure was elsewhere.

Easterling was less sympathetic the second time. “I’m a Christian. And knowing Jesus, I know that he’s not flippant,” he laughs. “I think if Jesus ever tells somebody where the treasure is buried, then that’s where it would be!”

Few people know as much about the Beale mystery as Easterling. He's lived near Montvale since his boyhood. He’s talked with old-timers and collected the oral history of generations who’ve lived there. He's studied brittle, yellowing maps and has wandered the woods looking for the overgrown stagecoach roads that Beale would have traveled upon. He wrote a book about the treasure (which he hesitated to publish, fearing it could spread an obsession that could destroy families). He's confident that Beale’s treasure is buried somewhere below his feet. He even owns a 2-box metal detector, just in case.

But when I spoke to Easterling over the phone last fall, he sounded resigned. “I’ve had so many people tell me, ‘I know exactly where it’s buried,’” he sighed. “I pay no attention when I hear that anymore.”

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