3 of History's Most Fascinating Armchair Treasure Hunts (Plus One You Can Try Yourself)
By A.J. Jacobs
There’s reading for pleasure—but there’s also reading for treasure.
If you want to do the latter, you can pick up one of several books that contain hidden clues that lead to a buried treasure or cash prize. The genre is sometimes called “armchair treasure hunts,” and yes, my new book The Puzzler includes one.
Here are three of the greatest armchair hunts in history—along with the inside story of the $10,000 contest in my own book.
This gorgeous 1979 British book kicked off the era of the modern armchair treasure hunts. Written and illustrated by artist Kit Williams, Masquerade is a series of fantastical images—such as the sun dancing with the moon—that contained clues to the location of a real-life treasure buried somewhere in England: a golden rabbit about the size of a paperback book and worth several thousand pounds. The search for the treasure drove the world wild—or at least a certain portion of the world.
As an article in the literary journal Hazlitt describes it, “Masqueraders dug up acres of countryside, traveled hundreds of thousands of miles … and occasionally got stuck halfway up cliffs or were apprehended by police while trespassing on historic properties.” Desperate treasure-seekers wrote Williams voluminous letters both lauding him and threatening him. A group of hunters appeared at his doorstep at 3 a.m. Another, disturbingly, sent him a disembodied, blood-covered plastic hand.
After two years of ransacked gardens, the rabbit was finally found. It was dug up in a park in the county of Bedfordshire near a monument to Catherine of Aragon, underneath the tip of the shadow she casts at noon on the equinox. The discovery itself was a little messy, since the man who found it apparently had gained inside information about the general location from an ex-girlfriend of Williams’s. And not everyone was convinced the search was over: As author Bamber Gascoigne wrote in his fantastic book Quest for the Golden Hare, some hunters continued their “own pursuit of the hare quite regardless of the news that it had been found. Their own theories had come to seem so convincing that no exterior evidence could refute them.”
2. The Secret
This 1982 book was America’s answer to Masquerade. Inspired by Kit Williams’s caper, a New York-based writer named Byron Preiss created the book The Secret (not to be confused with the woo-woo self-help megahit The Secret, which promises to make every 5-foot-5-inch accountant an NBA superstar if he just visualizes it hard enough). This Secret is a fantasy book that contained hints to 12 treasures buried around the United States and Canada—little boxes containing precious or semiprecious gems. The clues were hidden among the poems and images that illustrated a story about mythical creatures called “Fair People,” who had supposedly been driven into hiding when the Europeans came to the Americas.
So far, three treasures have been found: one in Cleveland, one in Chicago, and, most recently, one in 2019 in Boston. That leaves nine for treasure hunters to obsess over.
And obsess they do—on websites, podcasts, YouTube channels, and episodes of a reality show. Preiss died in a car accident many years ago, but thousands of fans still try to get inside his mind. And things can get pretty heated.
There are hoaxes (people pretending to find one of the treasures) and trolls who are banned from forums. One Secret hunter agreed to email with me, so long as I didn’t use his name, explaining, “While 99 percent of armchair treasure hunters are perfectly normal people, there are a few who are literally insane yet computer-literate enough to post on forums, harass people, etc.”
Perhaps there’s so much passion because the solutions are so convoluted. As one hunter told me, “The brain of Byron Preiss worked in fairly mysterious ways.” The Boston cache was found in a waterfront park thanks to obscure clues like “All the letters Are here to see”; this apparently referred to the A-to-Z signal flags of Old Ironsides, which is docked across the water from there.
3. David Blaine’s Mysterious Stranger: A Book of Magic
Magician and endurance artist David Blaine’s 2002 book Mysterious Stranger: A Book of Magic was part memoir and part history of magic. But it also contained in its text and images were hints to a $100,000 treasure.
The book’s elaborate series of hidden clues were designed by Cliff Johnson, who had created a legendary puzzle video game called “The Fool’s Errand.”
To give you just a sense of the intricacy: If you removed certain sections of the text, you found the words “Horrible Imp Costume.” This is an anagram of “Cherubim Metropolis,” a coded phrase for Los Angeles (since cherubim are angels). That meant the treasure was in Los Angeles. Another three words, “Murder Be Man,” referred to “Numbered Arm,” which meant to look at the tattoo on Blaine’s arm in one of the book’s photos. The number of the tattoo was linked to the address of a house. Near the house was a tree with a fake rock at its base. Inside the fake rock was the treasure—a 24-karat golden orb the size of a gumball—and a congratulations note for winning the additional $100,000 cash.
The treasure was found after about 16 months by a mother-son team. They also got poison oak, for which Blaine apologized.
4. The Puzzler Hunt
As a puzzle-obsessed kid, I loved my copy of Masquerade, so when I decided to write a book about the history and science of puzzles, I knew I had to pay homage with a secret contest of my own. However, I didn’t want to cause property damage, so I decided there would be no buried treasure. The prize would be $10,000.
At first, my plan was simple. There would be a secret code in the introduction. The first to crack it would get the prize. But then I met some puzzlemakers at the MIT Mystery Hunt who had more elaborate ideas. The Mystery Hunt is an annual event where thousands of incredibly smart people converge on Boston for around 48 (but once as long as 75) hours of hardcore nerdery. It’s a race to crack some of the hardest puzzles you’ve ever seen. They don't even have instructions. One puzzle was a box of doughnuts ... and the doughnuts had USB flash drives stuffed inside. Another was a yoga tutorial video for strange poses with faux-Dutch names.
I teamed up with one of the puzzlemakers—Greg Pliska—to create original puzzles for The Puzzler, but also to head up the $10,000 contest. He brought in four other puzzle makers. It grew bigger and more complex … and it just kept growing. And growing.
The result is the Puzzler Hunt. You still have to find the hidden code in the intro. But once you put it into the website, you’ll find dozens of wild, mind-bending puzzles.
We are releasing one puzzle per weekday—we started on May 3 and will end on June 1. But you have time to catch up. You just have to solve all 22 puzzles in order to enter the final round, which begins at 12:01 p.m. ET on June 4. The final round is a speed round. The first to finish that wins the $10,000.
The theme is great historical puzzlers, so the first puzzle is this one, an homage to Arthur Wynne, inventor of the crossword.
Here’s another, a baffling twist on Wordle.
The intro is free on the website. You don’t have to buy the book (though I hope you do, since I’m hopeful you’d enjoy it). Otherwise it might be considered an illegal lottery, and I would be spending time at Rikers Island. Full rules can be found at contest.thepuzzlerbook.com.
The puzzles were created by Greg Pliska, Matt Gruskin, Guy Jacobson, Tanis O’Connor and Max Woghiren.
There are currently more than 1500 contestants (including at least one billionaire!). But it’s not too late to join—you can catch up on the previously released puzzles at your leisure. Even if you don’t win the money, I recommend it. The aha moments are worth more than $10,000.
For more history and puzzles like these, check out A.J. Jacobs’s book The Puzzler, available now from Crown Publishing. You can order it here. Copyright A.J. Jacobs. All rights reserved.