Dec 01, 2021 I Brent Swancer

The Secret: A Bizarre Tale of a Mysterious Treasure Hunt

There has always been the allure of hidden treasure out there beyond our understanding. The thought that some lost stash of gold or gems is just lying out there forgotten and for the taking has always proven to be irresistible, with some people dedicating their whole lives to hunting these down, and with some more successful than others. Stories of lost treasures have captivated us since time unremembered, and they can really run the range of different types. Some were lost by accident, others sequestered away to hide them from the world at large, but then there is perhaps the weirdest species of lost treasure there is; that which was intentionally hidden away and meant to be found as a challenge to those who would take it up. One such treasure turned up in a puzzle book that promised the key to lost treasure, but which has turned out to be a nearly indecipherable cipher and a deep mystery.

In 1982, a children’s book author and publisher by the name of Byron Preiss decided that he would come up with the ultimate troll. He released a puzzle picture book called The Secret, which combines 12 short poems and 12 elaborate paintings by renowned fantasy illustrator, John Jude Palencar, all of which represent events and people from North American history. This all sounds normal enough, but the thing was that this was much more than just a normal picture book, but rather an elaborate puzzle full of riddles and cryptic enigmas that could lead one to treasure if one could figure it all out, but which few have ever found.

The Secret treasure book cover
The cover of the book

The basic premise of the treasure hunt is deceptively simple. One simply has to match the image to the cryptic phrase, which are all mismatched and out of order, and solve the riddles in order to decipher the verses and find a location. At this location will be buried a plexiglass box containing a meticulously hand-painted ceramic treasure box, which Priess called a “casque,” and if one is to find one, they can exchange the key within it for a valuable gem. There were supposedly 12 of these casques buried at disparate locations across the United States and Canada, all planted by Priess himself, usually disguised as a construction worker, and there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason as to where these locations are. The book itself says of these treasures:

The jewels collectively are worth over ten thousand dollars. The treasure casques themselves are of incalculable value, never having been owned by man or woman.

At the time it was all pretty much a publicity stunt for the book, but for some it became a complete obsession, and although Priess himself didn’t think it would take long for all of the treasures to be located, this wasn’t to be the case at all. The problem was, no one could figure out the meandering the rhyming riddles and elaborate, cryptic paintings, and there was no context at all given for how one should even start to approach it all. There were no clues, no hints, no context given at all, and it was a morass of cryptic ramblings. Indeed, it all seemed to be just random nonsense rather than some well-planned puzzle, all of it incredibly obtuse, but nevertheless some people found success. Not long after The Secret was published, a group of young students in Illinois managed to unearth one of the casques in Chicago's Grant Park after six months of digging.

It was proof positive that the treasures really did exist outside of Preiss’ feverish imagination, and when the news hit that one of the gems had been claimed there was a massive hunt for the others. It would not be until 2004 when the second box was discovered by attorney Brian Zinn in the Greek Cultural Garden at Cleveland, Ohio, and by that time there was a mad dash to find the other casques, driven by plenty of Internet chatter. Through all of this, in 2005 Priess himself would tragically die in an auto accident, taking any secrets to the grave with him, but his estate has taken up the duties of rewarding those who find any of the treasure. Making it all more difficult is that Priess died without having kept any record of where any of the casques are located, and leaving no hints or clues to help the curious. He would only leave behind one tidbit, that one of the gems was hidden somewhere in the 220 public parks of San Francisco, California, which caused such a mad dash that the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department even formed its own program to allow treasure hunters into the parks with permits, called the Treasure Rangers. In March of 2019, a treasure hunter from France in the Treasure Rangers program conducted a dig at the top of Huntington Falls, on Strawberry Hill in Golden Gate Park, and unearthed a box that looked very much like one of the casques but it was determined to be a fake. Nevertheless, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is still thought to contain one of the casques somewhere.

images 3
One of the gems

The hunt would go on, with certain factions obsessing over the hidden casques, and the Discovery Channel’s show Expedition Unknown would do two episodes on the phenomenon, digging around without success in St. Augustine, Florida. Amazingly, during the second part of the series in 2019, a Boston man named Jason Krupat discovered a third badly damaged casque, as well as shards of plexiglass and the key within in a Boston ballpark, making him the third and last to find anything of Priess’ lost treasures. He would dutifully be given a gemstone by Preiss’s widow, Sandi Mendelson, and the episodes fueled renewed interest in the treasure, but ever since then, not a single one of the casques has been found, despite numerous forums and sites dedicated to finding them. This is all despite the fact that each gem is only valued at around $1,000, not making it a very financially viable pursuit, but for some the bragging rights are priceless.

To this day, after all of this time, only three of the casques have ever been found, and although it proves that the puzzle is solvable and that they are really out there, no one seems to really have any idea of where the remaining nine are. There is every chance that they will remain hidden out there, or that they have been built over or even destroyed. There is no way to tell, but for those who are willing to put in the work these enigmatic treasures are still out there to find, achieving an almost legendary status among treasure hunters of all ages and taunting us perhaps forevermore. Priess did very little to illuminate any of it, the book itself is long out of print, and these casques may forever remain out there to rot away. In the end it truly is an odd little chapter in the history of lost treasures, and one wonders just what will become of all of it.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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