Search for the Golden Hare
Artist Kit Williams published a beautifully illustrated book called Masquerade that contained clues to the whereabouts of treasure buried somewhere in Britain. The prize for anyone smart enough to solve the puzzles was an 18-carat golden hare encrusted with jewels, valued at ₤5,000.
Masquerade Is Published
Kit Williams had always avoided publishing his art in books. He said people flipped through books without really looking at and understanding art as they did when viewing paintings in a gallery.
However, he overcame his dislike of the print genre and began work on his lavishly illustrated book. His trick in getting people to study his artwork closely was to hide clues in the illustrations that would reveal the location of the buried treasure.
The book told the story of a hare called Jack Hare who had been given the task of carrying a jewel from the Moon to the Sun. Carelessly, Jack lost the gem and the reader was challenged to find it.
Hints were spread throughout the book, along with numerous red herrings.
In the book, there are 15 intricate paintings following Jack Hare’s journey from the Moon to the Sun. Surrounding each picture is a border with some cryptic words in it. Opposite each illustration is a page of text.
The publication caught on; it caught on in a very big way. The first print run ran out quickly and so did the second. By the time the presses were finally shut down, two million copies of the book had been sold worldwide.
At the height of the craze, Kit Williams was receiving more than 100 letters a day (some say 200) each claiming to have solved the riddle. For two and a half years, none of them had. Williams must have thought he had created a monster, because the deluge of attention he received caused him to become reclusive.
Later, he told The Guardian “I could not take the razzmatazz. There was pressure on me to do all sorts of things and I just did not want to do that. I felt I lost touch with myself for a little while.”
Solving the Golden Hare Mystery
Apart from Kit Williams only one other person knew the location of the golden hare. This person was Bamber Gascoigne, a highly respected television presenter and author. He attended the burial and placed a new cowpat on top of the spot to disguise the fresh digging.
Williams explained the basis of the puzzle to the highly intelligent Gascoigne, but even he could not solve it despite already knowing the location. Gascoigne was concerned that the conundrum was so difficult that nobody would be able to untangle it.
Readers did not have Gascoigne’s advantage of knowing the foundation of the riddle; they had to crack the fiendishly difficult thing with almost no instructions on how to begin.
Many people believed the solution was to be found in the text, but they were wrong. The solution was only in the paintings.
And, here comes the answer. A cryptically hidden message could be found by studying the paintings and the letters surrounding them; it was “Catherine’s long finger over shadows earth buried yellow amulet midday points the hour in light of equinox look you.” Almost, but not quite, gibberish.
By taking the first letter of each word, we arrive at CLFOSEBYAMPTHILOELY. Now that is gibberish, unless some letters are eliminated and spaces are judiciously applied to yield CLOSE BY AMPTHILL. And, the golden hare was buried in a park near Ampthill, Bedfordshire in Central England. But, where exactly in the park?
Williams gave a clue in the word Catherine, because in the park is a cross on a pedestal commemorating Catherine of Aragon. Her “long finger,” the tip of the monument, casts a shadow at noon on the spring and autumnal equinox. The point of the shadow was where the golden hare was buried.
The Golden Hare Scandal
In February 1982, a man called Ken Thomas wrote to Kit Williams identifying the correct location of the golden hare. But, he had not found the spot entirely by decoding the puzzle. Luck and a distant connection to Kit Williams played a part.
A reporter for The Sunday Times started poking around and discovered that Ken Thomas’s real name was Dugald Thompson who had a business partner named John Guard. You almost need a program to follow this, but Guard’s girlfriend was Veronica Robertson who had once been artist Kit Williams’s live-in partner.
She tipped off Guard and Thompson to the Ampthill Park location and they worked out where the golden hare was buried by following the activities of other puzzle solvers.
When The Times published its expose, Kit Williams was dismayed. He told The Daily Telegraph “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.”
The Puzzle Solved Properly
While Dugald Thompson was pulling off his trickery, two physics teachers had cracked the problem. Mike Barker and John Rousseau had figured out Kit Williams’s clues in the manner the artist intended.
They didn’t write to Williams announcing their triumph, but had gone to Ampthill Park to dig in almost the right spot, but found nothing. They decided to wait until the equinox of March 1982 to pinpoint the exact position.
But, Dugald Thompson found the spot where the pair had dug and sent the location to Williams in the form of a crude map. The artist, totally worn out by the volume of mail, accepted the sketch as a correct answer. Through chicanery, Thompson beat Barker and Rousseau by a few weeks.
As it turned out, Barker and Rousseau were the only people to correctly solve the mystery of the golden hare. They got the bragging rights, but not the money.
- During the height of the Masquerade search, one airline marketed transatlantic tickets to searchers that included a free spade.
- The publishing phenomenon of Masquerade prompted the creation of a whole new genre of puzzle books that have come to be called armchair treasure hunts. The Search for the Golden Horse offered a prize of $500,000 to the first person to solve riddle before May 1989. Nobody did. On the Trail of the Golden Owl (1993) offers a prize of a statuette, as yet unclaimed, made of gold, silver, and diamonds.
- Dugald Thompson put up the golden hare as collateral for a loan to start up a computer game company called Haresoft. To great fanfare, he released a puzzle game called Hareraiser in 1984. The bait was a prize worth £30,000 for the first person to solve the riddle. The game proved to be almost unplayable and it’s strongly suspected there was no solution and therefore no prize would be awarded. In 1988, Haresoft filed for bankruptcy and the liquidators sold the golden hare. It fetched £31,900 at auction and disappeared into private hands.
- “Unearthed Again – Golden Hare that Obsessed a Nation.” John Plunkett, The Guardian, August 20, 2009.
- “Golden Hare Should Be Put on Display, Says Treasure Hunt Author Kit Williams.” Daily Telegraph, July 17, 2009.
- “Masquerade: How a Real-Life Treasure Hunt Obsessed a Nation.” Mark Shields, BBC News, April 6, 2019.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor