What’s the best way to make sure you’re remembered decades after your death? Write something weird and mysterious. Not just mysterious, mysterious and in a secret code. Possibly a fake secret code that no one could ever possibly decipher. Tie it to a fake buried treasure that no one will ever find and people will spend their entire lives trying to figure out your clever little joke. I guess that’s one way to achieve immortality. Here are five weird cryptological mysteries that amateur code-breakers have been obsessed with for generations.
The Beale Papers
In 1822, a man named Thomas Beale supposedly left three letters with an innkeeper in Lynchburg, Virginia, to be sealed in an iron box for no less than ten years, at which time it could be opened if he hadn’t returned for them. The letters were in code, a long series of numbers, and he claimed they would reveal the location of some treasure he’d acquired out west and buried nearby, somewhere in Bedford County. Beale never returned and never sent the key to the ciphers.
Decades later, the innkeeper published the letters in a pamphlet, hoping someone would be able to decipher them (he’d tried and failed). The second letter was eventually found to be a book cipher using the U.S. Declaration of Independence as the key. Deciphered, it describes a buried vault and the rather exciting amount of gold contained within – it would be worth tens of millions of dollars today. However, the location would only be found in the first letter. Neither the first nor third letters have ever been deciphered. It hasn’t stopped treasure hunters from digging up random bits of Virginia ever since – it’s possible the whole thing was fabricated by the innkeeper to bring in tourist business.
The Codex Seraphinianus
Italian artist Luigi Serafini created this book in the mid 1970s. It’s really more of a work of art in the form of an encoded, surreal book than any kind of actual secret message. In fact, Serafini is still alive, but he won’t tell what the book means.
What it looks like is an encyclopedia from another dimension. Each chapter seems to coincide with some basic subject area, like plants, mechanical things or games. They are depicted with bizarrely detailed images showing strange hybrid creatures or things metamorphosing into other things. The accompanying text is not very enlightening – it is written entirely in a constructed language.
While there wouldn’t really be any point in deciphering the literal meaning of the Codex, it has been an inspiration for surrealists and other fans of the weird for 30 years now.
The Zodiac Letters
The Zodiac Killer wasn’t content to be remembered for his mysterious coded correspondences, so he hedged his bets and also murdered a bunch of people in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. His ranting letters to local newspapers were self-aggrandizing and supposedly contained coded clues that would help people figure out his identity. Some of the letters were decoded, but several were not, and the decoded clear text did not reveal his name. Today, the Zodiac murders are considered an open case – no one was over arrested for the crimes.
You can have a crack at decoding the Zodiac letters yourself — they’ve all been posted online, along with the parts that have been decoded and advice from cryptologists.
The Kryptos Sculpture
This code is more fun than mysterious. Artist James Sanborn created the sculpture outside the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Contained within it are four secret codes designed as a sort of test for agency’s master spies. Three of the four have been cracked, but the fourth remains a mystery. It’s been 20 years since the sculpture was unveiled, and no one can figure it out, even though it’s sitting in the one place in the U.S. with a steady supply of talented code-breakers.
Sanborn will reveal that he intentionally made the fourth code the hardest, and that it is superencoded (that is, a code that’s been encoded itself, so you have to decipher it twice). The other three solutions and parts of the sculpture itself are rumored to offer clues, such as a compass rose and longitude/latitude coordinates, but it still resists cracking.
The Voynich Manuscript
This bizarre book is supposedly centuries old, and is named after a rare book dealer who acquired it helped make it famous. It is, in some ways, quite similar to the Codex Seraphinianus, in that it has illustrations of plants, animals and practices that don’t seem to exist on our planet (the top image, of some nude women bathing in a tub made from the stem of a giant plant, is from the Voynich Manuscript). The whole thing is accompanied by a completely impenetrable text of squiggly symbols, almost 200,000 of them.
It’s been suggested that the book was written by Roger Bacon, a renowned theologian, philosopher and scientist who lived in the 13th century, although speculation swirls around other obscure historical figures, along with the usual rumors that the book is a fake. In any case, it seems unlikely that anyone is going to decipher it now, so it will continue to serve much the same function as Serafini’s Codex: a fetish object for people who love weird, mysterious things.