Byron Preiss’ Treasure Hunt In the Cult Classic “The Secret” Lives On!
In 1982, inspired by the emerging “armchair treasure hunt” niche spearheaded by Kit William’s 1979 “Masquerade,” American fantasy author Byron Preiss published a book entitled “The Secret” containing a set of clues leading to 12 buried treasures.
Before its release, the writer, usually disguising himself as a construction worker, had traversed the length and breadth of North America to hide a set of 12 ceramic casques (hereafter treasure boxes) encased in plexiglass in National Parks, three and a half meters deep in the ground. They each carried a key, which could be exchanged for a precious gem worth one thousand dollars (904 euros).
In “The Secret,” the locations of the treasure hunt boxes would be cryptically embedded inside its pages using a combination of fantastical images drawn by famed fantasy illustrator John Jude Palencor and a series short poems written by Preiss himself.
The story was loosely inspired by immigrants who made their way to the USA, with each picture representing the journeys of different nationalities as they found their home in the Land of Opportunity. Fantasy tales entitled “The Passage to the New World” and “The Vanishing” told of the adventures of the fairy-folk who, like their human counterparts, crossed the oceans to settle in America, bringing with them a collection of 12 precious gemstones.
When it was first released in 1982, “The Secret” sold for 9.95 dollars (9 euros), but by 2018 a paperback copy was worth 1,000 dollars (904 euros)! Initially undertaken as a publicity stunt to promote the new book, Preiss had no idea that his book would single-handedly inspire multiple generations of treasure-hunters to track down his elusive prizes. Over the years, only a handful of casques would be found, in what has become a modern-day treasure hunt of Da Vinci Code proportions.
The first box in the secret treasure hunt, based on the clues in Preiss’ book “The Secret,” was found in 1983, a year after the book was published. ( TheSecretTreasureHunt)
Treasure Hunt Box #1 Found: The Castle: The Chicago Casque
In 1983, Eric Gaslorowski would receive a birthday present from his friend Rob Wrobel which would change his life forever.
Noticing the windmills in one of the images in his brand new edition of “ The Secret ,” Gaslorowski, Wrobel, and another friend, David James, were convinced that it was the Water Tower, an iconic historical landmark gracing the streets of their own beloved city, Chicago. Wrobel explained how:
"It was a tower that had windmills on it. But if you visually took them off, it turned into the Water Tower”.
They were further persuaded when they recognized the silhouette of a famous horseman statue at Congress Drive in the drawing. Analyzing the accompanying poem, which mentioned an “M” and a “B,” they linked it to the composers Mozart and Beethoven whose names were inscribed into a facade at the Symphony Centre. This led the trio down Michigan Avenue to the city’s 319-acre (129-hectare) Grant Park.
It was there that they correctly interpreted one of the poem lines, "L sits and left beyond his shoulder is the Fair Folks' Treasure holder,” connecting the “L” with the statue of Abraham Lincoln. The next clue, “10 by 13 trees along this way,” pointed to a cluster of trees in the distance which indicated an area south of the Art Institute.
With the final hint, “for finding jewel casque seek the sounds of rumble brush and music hush,” the group of friends pinpointed the dig site to a small corner of grass, the “rumble” referring to the nearby train, the “brush” to the Art Institute, and the “music” to the Petrillo Bandshell, an outdoor amphitheater.
After excavating 6 holes without finding a single piece of treasure the friends became disenchanted, opting for a last-resort measure. Wrobel contacted Preiss asking for help. Preiss, in one of his few correspondences with treasure-hunters, responded by sending the teens a picture of freshly dug earth taken at the location. After digging a gigantic trench, they eventually unearthed it, trading the key for an elegant emerald . The first jewel of “ The Secret ” had been awarded, yet it would take treasure hunters over twenty years to find another one!
Zinn, left, and Andy Abrams just before their fateful moment at Cleveland’s Greek Cultural Center in 2004 when they found the second “secret” treasure hunt box. (Marvin Fong / The Plain Dealer )
Treasure Hunt Box #2 Found: The Centaur-Chalice Clue
In 1982, Brian Zinn was browsing the campus bookstore at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was enrolled as a student. Zinn, a life-long puzzle lover nicknamed “Grandmaster of All Games” by his college friends, was immediately hooked when he came across “ The Secret .” Surveying the mysterious tome, he was drawn to a picture of a centaur holding a chalice, posing behind a series of stone arches. He was certain that it referenced Philadelphia, linking a bell-shaped symbol to the Liberty Bell and the arches to the many similar ones found in the Pennsylvanian city. He even walked the city’s streets and combed historical records for further clues.
When Zinn moved to Boston for law school 3 years later, he lost the book, but this was never a problem. He said:
“I didn’t need to bring the book anymore. It was burned into my memory.”
Over a decade later in 1997, after marriage, having children and securing a successful law job in the city at Saddle Brook law firm, Zinn re-discovered the book in a stack of dusty old law textbooks. He had never stopped thinking about the riddle and the treasure, and upon finding it again he called Preiss, hoping he would confirm that the treasure hunt clues led to Philadelphia.
But Preiss said it was nowhere near Philadelphia, urging the intrepid fortune-finder to look elsewhere. With the emergence of the internet in the 1990s, several websites had cropped up dedicated to finding Preiss’ treasure. Zinn, with the help of his friend Andy Abrams, joined British forum Quest4Treasure.co.uk, becoming part of a bustling online community of treasure seekers .
One day, a user named “johann,” using the researching power of Google, identified the Greek names in the poem Socrates, Pindar, and Apelles as belonging to a wall in an archway at Cleveland’s Greek Gardens, a collection of 23 small gardens that represented the community’s ethnic Finns, Czechs, Italians, Russians, and Greeks.
Hearts beating a little faster, Zin and Abrams contacted the Cleveland Plain Dealer , a local newspaper, who put them in touch with a groundskeeper who gave them blueprints of the garden from the 1930s. After a 9 hour drive from Boston, the duo arrived in Cleveland at 5 am, and although Abrams went straight to sleep, Zinn remained awake until their alarm call at 8 am, adrenaline and excitement pumping through his body.
After meeting the groundskeeper and Plain Dealer reporters, the pair entered the park, immediately recognizing the centaur with the chalice and the fountain from Preiss’ image. Moving behind the fountain, they pondered the final clue: “Beneath the tenth stone, From right to left, beneath the ninth row from the top.” Counting the stones of the fountain from the front, they identified a spot and eagerly started digging, but after 4 hours they had found nothing.
Suddenly Abrams had a eureka moment, counting the stones with his back to the wall. On June 13th at 3:26 pm the treasure was recovered: a battered treasure box, broken and dulled in color by 22 years underground.
Zinn and Abrams discovery would be the cover story of Plain Dealer that week and their names would forever be legendary in treasure-hunter circles. But only a year later, tragedy struck when Byron Preiss died in a car-crash on July 9, 2005 (aged 52), taking the locations of the remaining treasures with him to the grave.
The Krupat family went on a mad secret treasure hunt together and found the third treasure box in . . . (John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe )
Treasure Hunt Box #3 Found: The Witch: The Boston Casque
Following Preiss’ untimely demise in 2005, popularity for the treasure hunt waned, as the remaining 10 prizes essentially became lost. Preiss had never written down where he had buried them nor had he disclosed their hiding places to his widow, Sandi Mendelson, who promised to continue her late husband’s legacy, handing out the precious gemstone awards.
But in 2018, the treasure hunt was once again catapulted into the limelight by the Travel Channel program, “Expedition Unknown.” The show proved to be extremely popular with audiences, with host Josh Gates remarking: “I’ve been making travel adventure shows for 10 years, and I’ve never seen anything like the reaction to that show.”
Inspired by their search for Preiss’ now near-mythical treasure, Molly and Jack Krupat called their father in, puzzle and game designer Josh Krupat, to watch the episode covering “ The Secret .” Soon the family were dedicating every weekend to finding the Boston treasure box, making trips into the city from their home in the suburbs.
Like many others, they initially focused on the area around the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, where a facade inscribed with the names “ Thucydides” and “ Xenophon” corresponded with lines in the Boston verse. However, upon further research, the Krupats began to become convinced that the treasure lay in the North End. The “eighteenth day,” “twelfth hour,” and “lit by lamplight” phrases in the poem seemed to point to Paul Revere’s well-known “midnight ride” on April 18th, 1775, during the American Revolutionary War, when he was tasked with sending intelligence about British troop movements to Charleston, evading the British warship HMS Somerset and British soldiers in a rowboat.
In addition, the face of the woman in the Boston image shared striking similarities with the visage of the Christopher Columbus statue in North End. Standing in the North End and following the instructions to “face the water” with “your back to the stairs,” the Krupat family realized they were directly facing the home plate of the softball field at Langdone Park, but to their dismay a construction site was inconveniently covering the proposed spot.
The Krupats pleaded with the foreman to allow them to search in a lengthy email, but their request was never answered. Six months later, Mitch Cunningham was operating the digger when he hit an object buried in the dirt. On closer inspection, he noticed shards of ceramic and plexiglass, which were swiftly taken to the construction company’s head office.
The Krupats’ email was finally answered, and they were given permission by the company to recover the rest of the treasure. Tailed by the Expedition Unknown team, the crumbling treasure box (casque) and its accompanying box were jubilantly recovered alongside the fabled key. The following Tuesday a ceremony at the Brooklyn Historical Society, which included the Chicago and Cleveland discoverers, took place in honor of the find, and the family were dutifully given an exquisite green gemstone by Preiss’s widow Sandi Mendelson and her two daughters.
Nine treasure hunt boxes from Preiss’s book are still hidden and probably another will be found one day . . . ( Microstocker.Pro / Adobe Stock)
The Nine Remaining Unfound Treasure Hunt Boxes
After 30 years, only 3 casques have been found, yet a strong interest in the Preiss treasure hunt “legend” remains, and a variety of locations have been suggested as the x that marks the spot.
Linking the Chinese face of the first picture to the Asian immigration of San Francisco and the table post outline to one of the city’s famous cable cars, many assert that the casque treasure box is buried near the Chinese pavilion near Huntingdon Falls. In South Carolina, the lion image has been connected to African immigration to Charleston, with the pattern on the lion’s forehead interpreted as a map of Charleston, and a hanging object with the outline of Fort Sumter.
A crack in the window in the shape of Roanoke Island, North Carolina , graces image 3, and in image 6, the tapering flag of the conquistador matches the bend of the Tolonato River in Florida, whose eastern side houses the renowned Fountains of Youth Park.
The drawing of the clock in image 7 has been traced to New Orleans, where 3 similar clocks adorned with roman numerals can be found as well as a mask that depicts famous New Orleans jazz singer Louis Armstrong. In Milwaukee, the juggler picture mirrors the posture of the Solomon Juneau Monument in Juneau Park, and the locust shadow to Locust Avenue. The New York casque is known to be linked to the last artwork, the lady’s face relating to the Statue of Liberty and the 12 Russian onion domes to the St Nicolas Russian Orthodox Church on 97th street.
Texas’ Hermann Park is allegedly home to one of the keys. Two weeks before his death, in his last communication with one of his cherished readers, he responded to a picture of a path in Hermann Park, sent to him by a prospector, writing how “it would not be a waste of time to dig there.” It confirmed a long-held belief that the single-star in image 8 referred to Texas, the ‘lone-star state’.
There is even one box purportedly lying in Montreal, Canada, with the design of the lampposts outside George Stephen’s House bearing resemblance to the “leg-eater” dog of image 10, and the golden square directing adventurous treasure-seekers to the Golden Square Mile, a historic Montreal neighborhood.
Cover of 1982 book “The Secret” by Byron Preiss, which continues to inspire people on the secret treasure hunts still hidden in its pages and images. ( Byron Preiss )
The Search Continues…
Perhaps the greatest irony of the entire treasure hunt was Preiss’ genuine belief that the clues and hints he had provided were too easy. Having not provided any context or direction on how to solve them, the imaginative author didn’t realize they would turn out to be impossibly hard to decipher.
Since then, devotees have spent endless hours discussing them on internet forums, scrutinizing thousands of historical records, and even using ground-penetrating radar in a monumental effort to uncover the 9 remaining casques in the hopes of achieving legendary status in the treasure-hunting community, despite the many difficulties and obstacles.
Indeed, Preiss’ perplexing riddles continue to stump his acolytes, and as time marches on the aging casques are becoming harder and harder to recover. For example, Sid Keller and Jason Brad Berry are confident they have located the casque in Hermann Park, Texas, but they claim it has become unrecoverable after being engulfed by tree roots. Getting digging permission is also another notable problem, as casques believed to be buried in Florida and Roanoke Island are not permitted to be excavated by the authorities, and it’s also not financially viable, the prize fund being a meagre 1,000 dollar (904 euro) gem.
But Preiss always stated it wasn’t about the treasure. Jack Renner, director of the 2018 documentary “The Secret of Preiss,” has said: “Byron did this because he wanted kids to go out and see the places they are from.” One of these kids, Andy Abrams, recalls how his friend Brian Zinn “ was like a kid at the Christmas tree in Christmas morning” upon hitting the Philadelphia casque. It may well be true that Preiss only wanted to encourage adventure, but Zinn’s child-like delight upon finding the hidden treasure surely attests to Preiss’ deeper motivation: to bring fantastical storybook endings to the real world.
Top image: American fantasy author Byron Preiss published “The Secret” in 1982 containing a set of treasure hunt clues leading to 12 buried treasure boxes, so far 3 have been found! Source: junce11 / Adobe Stock
By Jake Leigh-Howarth
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