Two Famous Real-Life Treasure Hunts, One Is Still Waiting to be Found
If you've been sitting at home staring at the same four walls for well over a week now due to COVID-19, you might be in the mood for a good treasure hunt. Over the years, there have been two of note.
In August 1979, English author, artist and illustrator Kit Williams, created the book that started what are known as "armchair treasure hunts," Masquerade. During the early 1980s, the book sold over a million copies and was translated into eight languages.
Masquerade provided clues to the location of a bejeweled, golden hare that Williams had hidden somewhere in Britain. The clues were in the form of text and 15 illustrations that described the journey of a hare named Jack Hare who was carrying a treasure from the Moon to her lover, the Sun.
Williams created an actual 18-carat gold hare, adorned with jewels and placed it inside a ceramic, hare-shaped casket that would foil would-be treasure hunters with metal detectors. Inscribed on the casket were the words, "I am the keeper of the jewel of Masquerade, which lies waiting safe inside me for you or eternity."
Williams buried the hare's casket on easily accessible public property, and to give readers outside the UK a fair chance, he accepted solutions by mail.
The book set off a searching frenzy in Great Britain, with searchers descending on Haresfield Beacon, Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire and Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. Then, in March 1982, Williams received a drawing that correctly identified the location of the hare.
Unfortunately, the sender, "Ken Thomas", was actually a man named Dugald Thompson who was friends with a man whose then-girlfriend had once lived with Kit Williams. The men used her knowledge to correctly guess the location of the hare.
The hare was buried beneath Catherine of Aragon's Cross at Ampthill Park at the exact spot touched by the top of the monument's shadow at noon on either the vernal or the autumnal equinox.
Thompson discovered the hare's casket in dirt piles that had been left by two men who actually solved the puzzle, physics teachers Mike Barker, who taught at William Hulme's Grammar School, and John Rosseau who taught at Rossall School. While digging in the right spot, Barker and Rosseau had failed to detect the casket.
Amazingly, even after the treasure was found, thousands of people refused to give up looking for it, and they continued pursuing their own theories as to where the hare was.
The solution to the puzzle lay in drawing a line from the left eye of whatever was depicted in one of the drawings, human or animal, through the longest digit of its left hand or paw. Extended out, the line would intersect one of the letters that appeared on each of the drawing's borders.
The process was then repeated with a line drawn from the left eye through the longest digit on the left foot, the right eye through the longest digit on the right hand, and lastly, the right eye through the longest digit on the right foot.
The message thus revealed was:
CATHERINE'S LONG FINGER OVER SHADOWS EARTH BURIED YELLOW AMULET MIDDAY POINTS THE HOUR IN LIGHT OF EQUINOX LOOK YOU.
The bolded letters are actually an acrostic that says:
Additional clues were included in the illustrations. One illustration, in which the Sun and Moon are dancing around the Earth, shows their clasped hands pointing to the date of the spring equinox.
Of Dugald Thompson's deception, Kit Williams said, "This tarnishes Masquerade and I'm shocked by what has emerged. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to all those many people who were genuinely looking for it. Although I didn't know it, it was a skeleton in my cupboard and I'm relieved it has come out."
Thompson added insult to injury when he formed a software company called Haresoft, and offered the jeweled hare as a prize if anyone solved its computer game, Hareraiser. Users quickly realized that the text and graphics in the game were meaningless, and the company went bankrupt in 1988.
The bankruptcy forced the sale of the hare in December 1988, and it was sold at Sotheby's London for $37,705 (£31,900) to an anonymous buyer. Since then, the hare was displayed in 2012 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The Forrest Fenn treasure
While Masquerade spawned a number of imitators, probably the best known is The Thrill of the Chase: a Memoir by Forrest Fenn. On March 25, 2020, a Colorado man named Michael Sexson, 53, became the fifth person to die while pursuing this treasure.
Forrest Fenn was an Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War, and when he returned home to Santa Fe, New Mexico, he founded the Fenn Galleries which displayed native American art.
While Fenn became wealthy, in 1988, he received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. This spurred him to hide a treasure chest containing what Fenn claims is $2 million worth of gold nuggets, rare coins, jewelry and gemstones somewhere in the mountains north of Santa Fe.
The bronze chest itself dates to the 12th century, is 10" by 10" by 5" and features reliefs of knights scaling walls and maidens throwing flowers.
Fenn dodged his death sentence, and in 2010, he self-published the book, The Thrill of the Chase: A Memoir which contains clues to the location of the treasure chest. The book also contains a poem with nine clues pointing toward the treasure.
Besides Michael Sexson, Randy Bilyeu went missing in January 2016 while searching for the treasure. His body was discovered in July of that year.
On June 9, 2017, Jeff Murphy, 53, of Batavia, Illinois died when he fell 500 feet down a steep slope while searching for the treasure. Just five days later, Pastor Paris Wallace of Grand Junction, Colorado was found dead while searching for the treasure along the Rio Grande River.
Just a month later, on July 28, 2017, Eric Ashby, 31, was found dead along Colorado's Arkansas River. He had moved to Colorado specifically to look for the treasure.
Fenn's treasure has been featured in a number of books and documentaries. It was the inspiration for Douglas Preston's 2004 novel The Codex, and it was portrayed in a 2018 episode of Buzzfeed Unsolved: True Crime entitled, "The Treacherous Treasure Hunt of Forrest Fenn."