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"The Gold Bug" first appeared in two installments of the (Philadelphia) Dollar Newspaper in June of 1843. Poe won a $100 prize for his submission of the story to a contest held by that periodical's editors. It quickly became the most popular of his works, surpassed only by "The Raven" as a commercial success.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator, a physician on whose word we can presumably rely. It concerns an extraordinary treasure hunt, conducted by its main character, William Legrand, that took place many years before the present time of the narration. Legrand, we are told, was a descendant of an old Huguenot family from New Orleans. Like Poe himself, Legrand was well-educated, but having experienced some unspecified reversal in his financial fortunes, he was, at the story's start, a poor man. He was also something of a misanthrope, living in voluntary seclusion in a small hut that he built on Sullivan's Island a short distance from the Atlantic Coast city of Charleston, South Carolina, with his servant, the freed slave Jupiter, and a Newfoundland dog. We are told in advance that Legrand was given to sudden mood swings, alternating between enthusiasm and melancholy.

Legrand was visited at his abode by the narrator on an unusually cold day in October, and the narrator was at first pleased to find his host in an elevated mood. Legrand was excited by his recent discovery of a rare "gold bug" (a "scarabaeus or beetle), that had distinctive markings on its shell. He could not produce the specimen at the time, however, because he had lent it to a lieutenant at nearby Fort Moultrie. Legrand said that he could draw a picture of the insect for the narrator, but finding no paper in the drawer of his writing desk he took a scrap of what turns out to be parchment from his pocket. Legrand completed his sketch and handed it to the narrator, but as the guest held the parchment in his hand, Legrand's dog entered the room, jumped on the narrator, and the paper came close to a fire that had been lit to warm the hut on this unseasonably cold afternoon. What the narrator saw was not the outline of an insect, but the image of a death's head or human skull. Legrand was disconcerted by this turn of events. But as he was about to throw drawing in fire, Legrand noticed something. He locked the drawing in his desk drawer without further comment. The prudent narrator sensed that his presence had disturbed Legrand and left.

About a month later, the narrator was visited in his Charleston offices by the ex-slave Jupiter. He bore a written message from his master which asked the narrator to come at once to Sullivan's Island. Legrand gave no reason for the request beyond indicating that business of the "highest importance" was at hand. For his part, Jupiter was convinced that Legrand had gone mad, ascribing this dementia to Legrand's having been bitten by "de goole bug" when they first found it. The narrator agreed to go to the island, but when he saw a scythe and some shovels in Legrand's skiff, he became alarmed; he nevertheless went to Sullivan's Island to prevent this madman from doing harm to himself or others. Arriving at Legrand's humble abode, the narrator found his friend in an excited state of mind. Legrand proclaimed that the gold bug would make his fortune and then asked the narrator to accompany him and Jupiter on a nocturnal expedition to the mainland. By this juncture, the narrator was sure that...

(This entire section contains 1599 words.)

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Legrand has indeed gone insane. When he asked about the purpose of their excursion, Legrand's reply was merely "'we shall see.'"

The three-man party proceeded in the skiff to the nearby mainland. With Legrand swinging the dead gold bug on a string attached to a stick, they used the scythe to cut through dense vegetation and finally arrived at a tall tulip tree. Legrand ordered Jupiter to climb the tree up to a certain branch, taking the gold bug with him. On the seventh branch up, Jupiter found a human skull nailed into the bark. Legrand directed him to drop the gold bug through the skull's left eye socket. The gold bug landed on the ground, Legrand marked its location with a wooden peg, and then used additional pegs to triangulate a spot some distance away from the tulip tree. The three dug a deep hole with the spades they had brought at the appointed spot, but they found nothing.

Just as they are about to leave, Legrand was struck by the thought that Jupiter may have dropped the bug through the skull's right eye socket, rather than the left one. He commanded Jupiter to shimmy up the tree again, and drop the bug through the correct socket. When the bug landed on the ground Legrand repeated the pegging procedure, marking a spot on the ground several yards from the first. The men dug down, but this time they found a large treasure chest, filled with gold and precious jewels, along with the skeletons of two men. The treasure was so heavy, that it requires several trips to move it from the mainland to Legrand's cabin on Sullivan's Island. This task completed, Legrand and the narrator appraised the booty and reckoned its value to be in excess of $1.5 million.

The story, however, does not end here, for in its second part, the narrator recounts Legrand's complicated explanation of the events of the story thus far and reveals how he "solved" the riddle of the buried treasure and its exact location. Legrand disclosed that he found the gold bug near the remains of an aged row boat. When the bug bit him, Jupiter handed him a piece of "paper caught up in a nearby bush" to staunch the wound and he then placed it in his pocket. It was this same sheet of paper, actually parchment, on which he drew the sketch of the gold bug for the narrator. What the narrator saw, however, was a skull on the other side of the parchment, and it was only because of the sheet's accidental exposure to the heat of the fire warming the hut that this death's head image became visible. Legrand noticed that his drawing was on the other side of the parchment just as he was about to throw it into the fire, and placed it in his writing desk for further investigation.

After the narrator's departure on that cold October day, Legrand took the parchment out again. In addition to the skull, he uncovered an image of a young goat, or kid. Knowing that the parchment was found near a decrepit long boat, Legrand reasoned that the kid might be a symbol of the infamous pirate Captain Kidd, who frequented the waters around Charleston many years ago. He recalled that Kidd was rumored to have buried a huge amount of treasure during his criminal career, that these rumors had persisted for years, and that no such treasure had ever been found. To Legrand's mind, then, there was cause to believe that the parchment might hold clues to the location of the pirate's booty.

Legrand then told the narrator that he found a set of additional symbol markings on the parchment. He recognized that the markings might be a cryptogram, in which each symbol stands for a letter of the alphabet. Legrand reasoned that because Kidd's was not an educated man, the cryptogram was probably in English and not overly complex. Using standard puzzle-solving methods (and his explanation presents the reader with a fast lesson in the ABCs of cryptogram solution), Legrand first developed a table based on the normal frequency distribution of letters and letter combinations, and then substituted letters of the alphabet for each symbol. After further adjustments for blanks between words, he arrived at a message that read: "A good glass in the bishop's hostel in the devil's seat---forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes---northeast by north---main branch seventh limb east side---shoot from the left eye of the death's head---a beeline from the tree through the shot fifty feet out."

From here, Legrand reported, he tried to determine what Kidd meant by "bishop's hostel" and the "devil's seat." Based on information supplied by an aged female slave, Legrand deduced that, "Beesops Castle" was not a man-made structure, but a rocky outcropping. On a solo expedition to the scene, he found the "devil's seat" to be a place on the rocks where it was impossible for him to maintain his balance except in one position. Taking this position and using a "good glass" or telescope, Legrand saw a clearing in the treetops, and the white spot on the branch of the largest tree in view, which was, in fact, the skull. He confirmed this by noting that the skull was visible "from no other attainable point of view than that afford by the narrow ledge upon the face of the rock." Legrand then explained that the skeletons belonged to two of Kidd's men, who were killed by the pirate captain after digging the trench in which the treasure was buried so that they would never reveal its location. Why did Legrand take the gold bug along with him? The answer is that the gold bug itself was superfluous: Jupiter could have dropped any small, heavy object through the left eye socket and realized the same result. But Legrand was disturbed by signs that the narrator doubted his sanity, and decided to punish him with "a little bit of sober mystification."