There is a treasure buried somewhere in Milwaukee. Not just in Milwaukee, but in nine other North American locations, including (possibly) New York, San Francisco, and Montreal. And it’s not so much “treasure” as hunks of ceramic encased in Plexiglas. But one man’s trash is another man’s marketing strategy.
The treasures were hidden in 1981 by publisher Byron Preiss, as part of his plan to promote his new book, The Secret. Preiss’s fantasy paperback (which predated the identically titled self-help book by a quarter of a century) included a series of puzzles in the form of cryptic verses with matching images. If solved, they’d lead readers to a real-life ceramic bin, or “casque,” containing a key to a safe-deposit box, which held a gem worth roughly $1,000.
The contest was inspired by a similar book—Masquerade by Kit Williams, published in 1979—which offered a golden rabbit figurine to any reader who could decipher its location from clues in the text. The challenge remained a popular mystery until it was solved in March 1982, less than 90 days after the release of The Secret,and helped spawn a literary genre known as “armchair treasure hunts.”
While The Secret never sold as many copies as Masquerade, it did achieve a cult-like status among a dedicated group of puzzle solvers. Within months, 700 people wrote to Preiss claiming to know the location of the bins. It wasn’t until the following year that a casque was actually recovered by three teenagers in Chicago’s Grant Park.
The next puzzle wasn’t solved until 2004, when an attorney named Brian Zinn tracked down a casque in Cleveland from a verse that mentioned Socrates, Pindar, and Apelles (all three names are etched into a pylon at the Cleveland Cultural Gardens). After four hours of digging holes, he found the casque buried next to a wall marking the perimeter of the gardens.
To date, the Cleveland casque is the last known resolved puzzle. “Byron Preiss, according to family and friends, figured all of them would be found upon publication. I don’t think he realized how difficult the poems were,” said James Renner, an author and filmmaker who’s working on a documentary about the book.