12 Casques & 12 Keys


Planet Earth: undeniably gorgeous and endlessly interesting. She’s extraordinarily good at providing fodder for a series on natural beauty. How fortunate are we to live on a planet teeming with stunning scenery and adorable critters? We take it for granted, but we could easily inhabit a drab and dreary orb.

In addition to its magnificence, Earth is really good at something else: hiding treasure.

The rocks and soils created over billions of years of tectonics and erosion make the crust of our planet a massive sandbox. Good for planting crops, trees, and digging holes. Buried treasures have captured the attention of humans for thousands of years, from the Holy Grail to Montezuma’s Treasure to Blackbeard’s Booty. Few things can conjure excitement in an adventurer more than the addition of “Earth” and “X marks the spot.”

In the winter of 1981-1982, writer, editor, and publisher Byron Preiss decided to produce a modern-day treasure hunt. He hid 12 casques – ceramic vessels – that contained 12 keys in 12 cities across North America. In November 1982, Preiss published a book called The Secret. Not to be confused with the 2006 book of the same name about the pseudoscientific “Law of Attraction,” Preiss’ book provided 12 cryptic verses and 12 paintings by famed illustrator John Jude Palencar.

The idea is simple. Pair a verse with a painting. Follow the path laid out by the duo. Dig up the treasure. Find the key and one could turn it into Preiss in exchange for a precious gemstone. Easy as that.

The cover of the 1982 publishing of The Secret by Byron Preiss

Three teenagers uncovered the first casque in Chicago’s Grant Park in 1983, just a year after the book was published. Their find proved the treasures real, but also that they might not be as challenging to obtain as readers first feared.

Then more than 20 years passed.

As the internet bloomed, searchers began to congregate data. Through collective efforts, most diehard enthusiasts believe that all 12 cities have been identified and matched with the proper verses. The paintings seemingly contain hidden instances of coordinates, as well, lending credibility to the metropolises in question. The locations: Boston, Charleston, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Montreal, New Orleans, New York, Roanoke Island, Saint Augustine, and San Francisco.

Despite knowing the general regions to search, the hunt went cold after the discovery in Chicago.

The Chicago image from The Secret

Verse 12 (Chicago)

Where M and B are set in stone
And to Congress, R is known
L sits and left
Beyond his shoulder
Is the Fair Folks’
Treasure holder
The end of ten by thirteen
Is your clue
Fence and fixture
Central too
For finding jewel casque
Seek the sounds
Of rumble
Brush and music

In 2004, after two decades without new paydirt, two men found the casque in Cleveland.

Things became significantly more difficult in 2005 when Byron Preiss died in an automobile accident. Preiss had not left exact written locations of the containers, though his family still had access to the gemstones if subsequent keys might emerge. Preiss buried all the troves in public parks near human-made objects. He knew people would need to dig to find the casques, so he did not want people destroying pristine areas. The downside of these locations is that they frequently change; cities often refresh or overhaul parks. If a casque location was disturbed beyond the point of the game being viable, Preiss was no longer around to offer some errata. Plus, people who had some info about the locations have kept their mouths shut. Suddenly, the prospect of finding the remaining 10 treasures became a lot sketchier.

Some wondered if any of the hides would ever be found after Preiss’ death.

If you’re a fan of Expedition Unknown, you might know the answer to that wonderment.

In 2019, a tremendous string of serendipity led to the discovery of the third casque in Boston. A family spent months working on the verse and image paired for the city and believed they had ascertained its position. To their dismay, as they pondered how to get to the hiding spot in the very public park, the city closed it to completely revamp the area. Construction fences surrounded the park and excavators moved in. The father of the family walked to the site and spoke to the foreman, telling him he believed a hidden treasure lurked where they dug. The foreman thought he was nuts, but promised to contact the family if they found anything.

To everyone’s delight, the workers found broken shards of the casque. The family contacted Expedition Unknown, who went to the park to help excavate the disturbed dirt. It’s a rare instance of these types of treasure shows actually reaching a eureka moment. They managed to recover most of the plexiglass case that surrounded all the ceramic casques, parts of the casque itself, and two broken halves of the key!

Think of the timing that went into this find. Had this family been weeks later in solving the puzzle, or if the city had been a bit earlier in remodeling the park, the casque would have been lost forever. And Preiss would not be around to acknowledge the situation. Have other locations already lost their treasures?

The Mountains Are Calling family recently spent time in the Houston park where most hunters believe that casque lies. It was tremendous fun to tour the locations, matching the image and verse to a potential landscape. According to all reports, the layout of Herman Park in Houston has undergone significant alterations in the last 40 years. Were we walking over a hidden chest or has it been excavator meal for decades already? Either way, the excitement of the notion permeated our walks.

Do you have what it takes to dig up one of the remaining nine casques from The Secret? Will the fourth casque turn up in another two decades, based on the current average between finds? Or will another one even turn up at all? Check out the Further Reading and Exploration section below for links on how you can arm yourself with 40 years of searching knowledge.

Even if you never find the booty, the hunt is always a great way to explore this gorgeous home of ours!

Further Reading and Exploration

The Secret by Byron Preiss

The Secret (a treasure hunt) – Wiki Compendium

The Secret – 12 Treasures

Decoding “The Secret: A Treasure Hunt” – Atrocity Guide

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