Last night on the History Channel we had yet another outstanding episode of Brad Meltzer′s Decoded as they looked into the mysteries of the Declaration of Independence. Mysteries you ask? Well, for starters, the actual original ′fair-copy′ document is missing! Nobody has a clue to its whereabouts. There are other unanswered questions and a few myths as well. For example, while most of us know that the Second Continental Congress actually voted to declare independence on July 2, 1776, the actual document was not signed until August 2. Was Thomas Jefferson the actual author? What about the hand-print on the back of the copy in the National Archives? Perhaps most importantly, what about these rumors of a treasure of gold hidden by a secret code based on the Declaration of Independence?
The Decoded team first heads to the National Archives where they speak with Trevor Plante, a historian. He confirms that most of the existing copies from 1776 were part of a limited run of 200 known as the Dunlop Broadsheets. TV producer Norman Lear purchased one at an auction for $8 million dollars. That particular copy was discovered by accident by a person who bought a painting at a flea market for $4, just to use the picture′s frame. The Declaration of Independence lay behind the painting!
Plante also went into the subject of authorship, saying that Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft, which was then edited by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Some people believe that Thomas Paine was the actual author of the first draft, and that Jefferson did the initial edit. That the mysterious hand-print on the back is that of Paine′s, who placed it there in protest.
But the juicy story last night concerns an article published, and later a book, in 1885 by a newspaper in Lynchburg, Virginia about the Thomas Jefferson Beale Papers. A set of three coded messages that allegedly lead to a treasure of $65 million dollars in gold! The second of the 3 Beale Papers has been successfully decoded using the Declaration of Independence. Each word is numbered and the first letter of each word corresponds to the numbered code in Beale′s writing. However, the other two papers do not follow the same pattern, so the treasure has yet to be discovered.
According to the newspaper account, the Beale Papers were written in 1819 through 1821. As the Decoded team tries to unravel this mystery, they first learn that there may be a connection between the Beale Papers and Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote a story, ′The Gold Bug′, which seems to follow the exact same plot. We learn that Poe most likely knew Thomas Jefferson while attending his college. But the team also discovers that the newspaper which published the story, and later a book, may have done so purely for publicity and improving sales. The publisher, John William Sherman, had written many dime novels in those days, often using historical incidents in his stories.
A cryptology expert, David Oxford, demonstrates the Beale code to the team, and also shares with them decoded versions of the other two Beale Papers using a standard code-breaking technique known as ′frequency′, solving a cipher based on the most commonly used letters. This leads us from Virginia, where everybody thought the treasure was buried, to New Orleans, which is where the other two papers say is the actual location. Historian Brad Andrews confirms to the team that there was indeed a man named Thomas Jefferson Beale, and shows an arrest warrant he issued for the notorious pirate, Jean Lafitte.
Lafitte was the scourge of the Gulf of Mexico, operating out of his stronghold at Barataria in the Mississippi Delta. Jean Lafitte is perhaps best known in American history for helping General Andrew Jackson defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. So could the treasure of gold be the booty of Lafitte? Did Thomas Jefferson Beale steal or confiscate it himself? If so, then why bury it and then leave clues to its location? Nobody will know as the location indicated in the first and third Beale Papers is submerged under the Mississippi River now.
This is why I like the History Channel′s program, Brad Meltzer′s Decoded, as it sheds new light on the Declaration of Independence, making its history more alive and interesting. If you have not watched it yet then what are you waiting waiting for?