Is the Beale Treasure Haunted?

December 8, 2017

Does a ghost guard the famous (or notorious) Beale treasure—an alleged cache of gold and other valuables hidden in 1819 by a Thomas Jefferson Beale and his partners near a historic Virginia inn?

A secret cipher purportedly gives the location, within four miles of that site, Buford’s Tavern, but, despite claims otherwise, it has never been solved. A chance to get directions to the treasure was missed in 1971 when Beale’s ghost—said to haunt the area—reportedly put in an appearance at the inn itself. The story is briefly told in The Ghosts of Virginia (Taylor 1994). Much earlier, I had extensively investigated the treasure tale and published a lengthy report in a history journal (Nickell 1982). Then in 2005 I found myself in the area, specifically inquiring about the Buford’s Tavern sighting.

It had seemed unlikely to me that the ghost of Beale, whom my research indicated was fictitious, would be guarding a treasure that, according to further research, itself never existed. Specifically, historical proof of the existence of a Thomas Jefferson Beale—who with others discovered a fabulous lode of gold and silver more than three decades before the great gold rush (!)—has never been documented. The same is true of the source of the treasure claims, the so-called Beale Papers, whose alleged originals conveniently perished in a fire. My study of the “copied” text showed it to have been written later than alleged, and linguistic analyses pointed to an obvious suspect, one James Ward, who had—very improbably—“solved” one of the three accompanying ciphers (Nickell 1992).

Nevertheless, I determined to follow up on the ghost story. As it happened, Buford’s Tavern at Montvale—once a stopover for travelers heading west—had been acquired about 1967 by James Howell and his wife. They had converted the first floor into an antique shop and the upstairs into their residence. It was they, sometime later, who saw the apparition identified as Beale.

Mrs. Howell recalled (in Taylor 1994, 142-143): “It was dark. We had gone to bed, but we weren’t asleep yet. ‘He’ came down the steps and came to the foot of our bed. He stood there for a few minutes, looking at us, and then went on out the other door.” Mrs. Howell, who had long experienced ghostly feelings about the place, thought “he” was likely Beale because “He was wearing dark clothes and a wide brimmed hat.”

During my visit there I first had a little trouble rousing the elderly Mr. Howell, whose wife had died years earlier. But he graciously took me on a tour of the premises: the Federal-style brick building itself (see photo), and, at the rear, a free-standing chimney from an earlier log structure, as well as some outbuildings. Further back on the property is also an old Buford family cemetery (“National Register” 1990).

Mr. Howell essentially repeated to me his wife’s published version of their apparitional experience. Unfortunately, it tallies with what is known as a “waking dream”: a rather common experience that occurs in the state (called hypnagogia) between being fully awake and asleep, and has features of both. Corroborative evidence comes from the fact that the two were lying abed prior to falling fully asleep, and that they were rather passive about the event (not at all shocked or afraid), as Mr. Howell confirmed to me.

It may seem odd that both had the same waking dream at the same time, but that is not really so unusual, given the circumstances. In this case they were naturally in a similar restive state when, he told me, they heard noises (very likely the creaking of an old structure cooling at night). His wife asked what it sounded like to him, he recalled, and he told her that it was like a man walking down the stairs. Thus, as they began to exchange impressions in their suggestible condition, they soon were sharing a dreamlike occurrence. (See Mavromatis 1987; Baker and Nickell 1992.) Hence there was no revelation from this imagined ghost of the fictitious Beale about the made-up treasure. Nevertheless, the credulous continue to believe—and keep on looking for ghosts and treasure.


Baker, Robert A., and Joe Nickell. 1992. Missing Pieces. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 129-130, 226-227.

Howell, James. 2005. Interview by Joe Nickell, notes in author’s Buford’s Tavern case file, June 4.

Mavromatis, Andreas. 1987. Hypnagogia. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

National Register of Historic Places Registration. 1990. Online at; accessed December 6, 2017. (My article [Nickell 1982] is cited in these papers.)

Nickell, Joe. 1982. “DISCOVERED: The Secret of Beale’s Treasure,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 90:3 (July), 310-324. See also Nickell 1992.

---. 1992. Mysterious Realms. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 53-67.

Taylor, L. B. Jr. 1994. The Ghosts of Virginia, vol. II; reprinted 2004, N.p.: Progress Printing Co., 138-143.