Edgar Allen Poe fancied himself a cryptographer. Like many of his contemporaries, Poe played with the acrostic (1 2). He did a great deal to popularize the cryptogram, he published (and may have authored) the "William Tyler" cryptograms, and in his famous story "The Gold Bug", Poe introduces a theme that has been hovering at the back of the public imagination ever since: solve the puzzles and find the buried treasure. Were it not for this idea, the mystery of the church at Rennes-le-Château right remain unknown outside that small French town. The village priest, Abbé Berenger Sauniere, went from genteel poverty to wealth vastly beyond his previous means. Did he find a treasure during a renovation of the church in the late nineteenth century? A set of mysterious coded parchements comes into play, of course, with the usual dispute about their authenticity. Even if true, the message is peculiar:

When you consider that the author had 426 letters to play around with in the manuscript, you wonder why the message he created is so stilted, difficult to read and ambiguous in its meaning. It is also surprising, to me at any rate, that a person who has gone to some trouble to conceal a message in a parchment has made it so plainly visible and what’s even more surprising has made it clearly legible. The whole point of a secret message is to prevent the wrong people from getting hold of it. There are several interpretations as to the author’s intentions:

  • The message is merely a red herring designed to waste people’s time by forcing them to try to solve a little code which is no more than a meaningless tract of text.
  • The message is a key to be used in the decipherment of something else which is a good deal more complicated.
  • The message was inserted for the specific purpose of gaining the reader’s attention and in so doing making sure he continues to look for the real message concealed within the parchment/s.
  • The message contains some small fragment of information to inform the reader that he is the true recipient. Rather like a name on an envelope.
  • The last possibility is that all the letters of this message form an anagram making up either a whole or partial alternate message.

The wiggle room in the Remmes-le-Château mystery inspired the best-selling Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which purports that the mystery revolves around not treasure but the secret of the Merovingian bloodline (hint: Jesus is involved) and which in turned inspired the recent best-seller The DaVinci Code. The sheer ambiguity of it all (and a dash of Borges) seems to have inspired Umberto Eco‘s fabulous novel of wheels within conspiratorial wheels, Foucauld’s Pendulum.

Sauniere’s church is odd, and Sauniere’s riches puzzling, but it’s the mystery that inspires the real conspiracy theorists (link via MeFi). Why not? Would Oak Island be anything more than a somewhat puzzling archaelogical site with a handful of (probably spurious) inscribed stones if it weren’t for the oft-mentioned possibility that there’s pirate treasure down there? No one seems concerned with whether it’s Captain Kidd‘s (though Kidd didn’t spend much time in the region) or Blackbeard‘s (Teach spent no time in the region at all; as he claimed he’d buried his treasure where only he and the Devil could find it, however, Blackbeard is a sort of buried pirate treasure default option). Details don’t matter — it’s just pirate treasure, a maritime Lost Dutchman’s Mine. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, and six lives have been lost trying to recover a treasure that probably doesn’t exist.

In order to make sure the treasure is out there, it helps if it’s been buried recently and with some publicity. In 1979, British artist Ken Williams buried a gold pendant in the shape of a hare worth some six thousand pounds, then constructed an elaborate series of puzzle paintings in the style of children’s book illustrations leading to its location; the book he published, Masquerade, was a huge hit. Sadly, the winner cheated, beating out people who had solved the puzzle properly by a matter of days, but future puzzle books, with ever escalating prizes, had precautions built into their rules. A whole genre of "armchair treasure hunts" sprung up, proving particularly popular in England, with prizes ranging from cash to a thousand bottles of Scotch (shades of Canadian Club ads). Americans will have less luck finding armchair treasure hunts, although celebrity magician David Blaine has written book containing one written by puzzle game whiz Cliff Johnson that comes with a $100,000 prize. More historically minded Americans can tackle the Beale Cryptograms. The Beale papers exhibit a suspicious number of anachronisms, and nobody has ever found proof of the existance of their purported author. They were probably invented by the man who publicized them, J.B. Ward, but some credit Edgar Allen Poe himself. Poe reported the first trans-Atlantic flight in 1850; would he have invented something so mundane as three thousand pounds of gold and five thousand pounds of silver buried in a stone vault in the Virginia foothills? Solve the puzzle, and perhaps we’ll know for sure.