A Critical Analysis of the Briggs Method

by Jeremy Parnell

 

Background
Andrew Briggs, a searcher from the United Kingdom, claims to have found a hidden message encrypted in to Forrest Fenn’s poem. A cipher, he says, developed more than two hundred years ago by Thomas Jefferson to send secret messages to Lewis and Clark, reveals the following:

“Go west. In a short hour you see a big lake, cross it, run south – west. ——————–. Mirror this trail. Aim south and look heading west for a grey ‘F’ sign.”

The blank is a part he couldn’t figure out, but he says the rest leads to a relatively small area of the Rockies. If you can solve the part he couldn’t, you’ll find the treasure chest. He’s published his solve and how it came about in an ebook, Title to the Gold, available at Amazon.

Andrew Briggs is just one of many searchers who claim to have solved Forrest Fenn’s riddle. His method, however, achieved a certain status and piqued the curiosity of more than a few searchers when Forrest Fenn said in a September 14th radio interview that:

“He’s a pretty bright guy. He’s got a lot of it figured out, I… maybe.” (source)

We don’t know what that means. Later in the interview Forrest states that he can’t find the treasure chest after reading Briggs’ email about his solve. There’s been no further clarification as of this writing (9/20/15).

I was curious what, if anything, Andrew Briggs had figured out. Many of us were. Particularly we were confused because he does employ, in part, the Jefferson Cipher (also known as the Lewis and Clark Cipher).The confusion over Briggs’ solve being mentioned so prominently by Forrest Fenn largely stems from a general understanding that ciphers won’t get you anywhere in looking for the treasure. This understanding comes from Forrest himself. Codes and ciphers, he says, “will not assist anyone to the treasure location”. (source)

Still, Forrest Fenn’s statement about Andrew Briggs left a lot of searchers wondering: Should I buy this guy’s book? Is there anything to it?

No one is implying (except for Briggs himself, perhaps) that Forrest Fenn has endorsed his use of the Jefferson Cipher. I won’t even try to figure out in this post what Forrest Fenn meant when he said that Andrew Briggs has a lot of it figured out. Anything I come up with would be pure speculation. However, the use of a cipher is certainly the most controversial aspect of the Andrew Briggs Method and I do think we can apply critical thinking to that much of his solve, at least.

I must confess that before hearing of Andrew Briggs, I didn’t know that Thomas Jefferson was a cryptography enthusiast and built devices to encrypt messages hundreds of years before computers were invented. More information about the Jefferson Cipher can be found here. I was instantly hooked into this interesting aspect of American History that somehow escaped my notice. Hooked, not because I thought that it might actually solve Forrest Fenn’s riddle, but because it was fascinating in general to a fan of history and cryptography like myself.

I should mention that I’m a software developer. I’d like to think that I’m a better software developer than I am a treasure hunter, because at least my software does sometimes work and, so far, none of my treasure hunting adventures have panned out. Early in my involvement in the search for Forrest Fenn’s treasure I came across his seemingly prohibitive statement about ciphers, so I didn’t even try to go down that route. I liked the idea of a simple treasure hunt using a poem that I took to be like the map in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a map with no names but otherwise a point-by-point search (Andrew Briggs disagrees).

I didn’t go down the route of trying to crack Forrest Fenn’s poem like a hacker trying to crack a password, but I could. I do these things for fun. My most recent coding adventure was trying to see if the Martingale Betting Strategy had any advantage over a simulated roulette wheel in Vegas. You can give that a try (spoiler alert: the house usually wins).

Call it a waste of time if you will, but I enjoy wasting time in this way. To me it’s fun. Indisputably, though, Andrew Briggs’ Method can be put to the test using software. I didn’t want to buy his book, but I did want to program a Jefferson Cipher decrypter. What a decrypter does, essentially, is it takes an encrypted string of text, unlocks it using a keyword, and reports back the unencrypted version. Human beings can do this, of course, as Jefferson and Lewis did, but as a program it becomes an automated process, and you can run many iterations quickly. Briggs seemed to be suggesting that words that appeared to be not encrypted actually were. I wanted to test that.

I won’t bore you with indepth details of how the cipher and the decrypter works. It’s only interesting to nerds like me. Still, it’s important to provide the code for fellow programmers to confirm these things on their own. You can find that here.

After coding my decrypter I now had the ability to do what Jefferson and Lewis couldn’t, and what Andrew Briggs didn’t. I could now run as many keywords as I wanted, against as many phrases as I wanted, in very little time at all.

The Gist of the Andrew Briggs Solve
I don’t want to get into the logic that Andrew Briggs uses to reach his conclusions except to say that I disagree with nearly all of it. I don’t want to be too critical and say it’s nonsense. It simply resembles the justifications used by a lot of searchers. For all I know, he can be as right as anyone else. It goes like this: Forrest Fenn mentioned something, somewhere, and therefore my interpretation is justified. Or, lining words up like this makes the most sense for some reason or another. I don’t want to be too critical because we all do that, and it’s not really essential to the core of his solve. I want to be fair and keep an open mind in applying my tests. As they say, the proof is in the pudding. Never mind how you get there, does it work?

I think it’s a fair summarization of his method to say the following:

  1. Andrew Briggs identifies which phrases from the poem are the nine clues (what he calls Forrest Fenn’s first layer of security) and devises his own phrases as answers.
  2. Andrew Briggs then applies the Jefferson Cipher to these answers using keyword phrases he came up with after trying “hundreds” of keywords. (he calls the cipher Forrest Fenn’s second layer of security).
  3. There are other layers of security, but they follow from the second layer being confirmed by yielding meaningful hidden phrases.

 

The confirmation of his answers to the nine clues, again, comes in the form of hidden messages revealed by the cipher.

Example: Andrew Briggs identifies “Tarry scant with marvel gaze” as a clue. He then decides “Spiderman” is the answer for various reasons (according to Briggs: “a Native American trickster spirit the Lakota called Inktomi”). He then applies the cipher using his special keyword phrase and out comes “VYDEOZ”. This is, according to Briggs, his “eureka” moment that led to other meaningful phrases being revealed in a similar fashion.

Essentially, according to Briggs, “… multiple sections of meaningful text were produced that logically described a set of sequential geographical directions. It seemed to me that the odds against this happening by chance were astronomical.”

Odds. Vegas. OK, we can test that.

Testing the Andrew Briggs Method
Again, I didn’t want to buy his book. I did, however, want to see what came out of a Jefferson Cipher when applied to words in Forrest Fenn’s poem. I picked one that everyone generally agrees is likely to be a clue: “Blaze”. Andrew Briggs tried “hundreds” of words. I wanted more. To paraphrase Neo in the Matrix, “I need words. Lots of words.”

I ended up downloading a flat text file of over 109,000 of them to plug into my system.

I ran my decrypter against the words, attempting to decrypt Blaze using each of the 109,000+ as a potential keyword candidate. Here are the results.

I didn’t know what to expect, keeping an open mind. Generally, if you try to decrypt an already unencrypted word you can expect to get something that looks encrypted. Blaze is a human readable word, not obfuscated in any way. If something human readable came out of the decryption process, it’s easy to think that maybe there was an encryption after all. Like Briggs, I found most of the results to be unintelligible.

Still, “accomplished” yielded a phonetic version of “aches” (“aiykes”) which is how I imagine one would be who’s “done it tired” and now was “weak”. As I scrolled further I noticed clearer words. “Amen” yields “ahour” or “a hour” if you want to be generous. This was sufficient to demonstrate potentially hidden directions as Briggs might be using, so I stopped scrolling. I encourage you to check for more hidden messages. I moved on to other things.

Having satisfied myself that I might find hidden messages randomly, I then thought that this isn’t a fair test. Maybe Briggs was employing some other means in his solve. I didn’t want to, but my curiosity often causes me to spend money on a wide variety of things; I bought the book.

The Andrew Briggs Method, described above under gist, is actually very easy to test with the tools I created. The premise he puts forth is that the discovery of additional directional messages, hidden by the cipher, confirm that his choices for answers to the clues are correct. We can employ counterfactual reasoning here and falsify that premise: The discovery of additional directional messages hidden by the cipher in other random phrases demonstrates that his conclusion may not be correct.

OK. Let’s try some crazy ideas.

One of the clues Andrew Briggs identified is “where warm waters halt”. The answer to that clue, he decided, was “Rattlesnake Springs”. Among other hidden phrases, he felt that because the TTLESNA yielded “on green”, this was meaningful, and confirmed his choice.

For our test, we need to see if messages come out of phrases that Briggs didn’t use, running keywords that Briggs didn’t use.

Let’s substitute Briggs’ location of Rattlesnake Springs with a different one. Because I found it amusing that someone was digging in Central Park for Forrest Fenn’s treasure, let’s try that. Most would consider New York to be an odd choice because it’s nowhere near the four states Forrest Fenn has greenlighted.

I ran “Central Park NY” and here are the results. Again, feel free to look for your own hidden messages. It’s half the fun.

Amazingly “unearth” led credence to the poor guy in New York. It yields, in part, “iris”. Look quickly down!

Attorney yields, in part, “blue”. Are we looking for a blue lake? Didn’t Forrest Fenn say he checked with an attorney about land rights, on the off chance that someone might find the treasure? Wasn’t Blue Lake in Taos the subject of a huge legal battle over Native American land rights?

Look for more. These are real, complete, words revealed on terms that Forrest Fenn might have used, albeit on a very strange location.

Let’s try another one, farther away. “Paris FR”. Here’s the results. Brief scan, “valuable” yields “u ford”. Again, directional. Should we ford a river? Should we look under the rusted Ford?

Let’s try one from Briggs’ area. “London UK”. Here’s the results. “Adaptive” yields “move”. Didn’t he say he rewrote his poem several times, adaptive? “Amicus”, an adviser, yields “beauty”. Have fun looking at any word starting with “cli-” as it renders “ice-” and a potentially useful suffix.

Forrest Fenn’s neck of the woods. “Santa Fe”. Here’s the results. “Debtors” yields “owl&mom”. Is Forrest’s mom the wise one? Didn’t he say in the book how long it took his parents to pay off their home?

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, not even close. It’s just some of the ones I found when briefly looking. I ran, but didn’t even check, Antarctica for your enjoyment. Here’s the results. It only takes a few minutes to run each of these. I can’t imagine how long it would take Lewis.

Long story short, there’s a lot of words or almost words in these decrypted results. There’s others that can easily be interpreted into a meaningful phrase with a little creativity.

My favorite, by far, is when I ran “My Back Yard” (results) and found that “acquiesce”, which means “accept something reluctantly but without protest” yields “lvlguffymc”.

Naturally, this can only mean that I must look for a level area (“lv”) of Guffey, Colorado (first autocomplete result that popped up when Googling “guffy”). M = mile. Roman numeral C = 100, second placement. OMG, there’s a Bull Moose Restaurant & Bar about a mile from State Highway 9 (nine clues!) off 102! This must be the home of Brown!

In addition to real words, Andrew Briggs uses similar coded fragments to form his hidden message. To be fair, maybe not as poorly as I did in Bull Moose Restaurant & Bar example.

Conclusion
If you’re still with me, following Andrew Briggs Method will indeed yield human readable patterns, possibly because human beings are hardwired to see patterns in random data and likely because the cipher has a finite number of combinations using the alphabet. However, we’ve also demonstrated that patterns are found, many of them clear and complete directional words, employing other keywords that Briggs didn’t use, ones that Forrest Fenn might have, on phrases that aren’t ones that Andrew Briggs says are confirmed by the discovery of hidden messages. The presence of these other hidden messages force us to accept one of the following conclusions, for one of them must be true:

  1. Either Forrest Fenn encrypted all of these meaningful patterns into the solve, OR
  2. Forrest Fenn encrypted some of these patterns, and the appearance of any others is merely coincidental, OR
  3. Forrest Fenn encrypted none of the patterns, and thus all appearances are coincidental.

 

I’ll leave it up to you to decide for yourself which of the above statements is true.

Summary
If you are into ciphers and finding hidden messages, there’s plenty to enjoy here. I imagine some of you might like the idea of using a cipher to solve Forrest Fenn’s riddle. If so, I’ve done some of the ground work for you already. The results files are there for your enjoyment. Anticipating that someone might request it, I even ran the entire poem against the 109,000 plus keyword candidates, in case you’re looking for the “word that is key”. Here’s part of that (rather large) data dump.

I imagine most of us were sweating Forrest Fenn’s statement a little, even if just a little. What the heck did he mean? I don’t know, but for those of you who were concerned I hope that I have given at least a little cause to be skeptical that it has anything to do with codes or ciphers. There’s plenty of reasons not to buy Andrew Briggs’ book. I don’t know him, but he seems like a decent guy. Still, the only thing I found interesting is the use of the Jefferson Cipher, which is tested here. Everything else is pure speculation, in my opinion. You can find enough of that on the blogs. If you really want to spend $10 for no reason, I accept PayPal donations at jeremysdropbox@gmail.com Or, you can save your money and just send me a thanks if anything I said here helps.

Best of luck,
Jeremy Parnell

P.S. Mr. Briggs. If you read this and you’d like me to alter my software to devise another test, I would be happy to explore that option.