Saturday, September 4, 2021

Elizebeth Smith Friedman - Code Breaker Extraordinaire


This month I’m writing about a different town called Geneva--Geneva, Illinois. 

Back in the early 20th Century, Col. George Fabyan started an organization in Geneva, Illinois called Riverbank Laboratories to study cryptography. One of its employees was Elizebeth Smith, a bright young woman who originally was hired to assist two sisters in their attempt to prove Sir Frances Bacon had actually written Shakespeare’s plays. The work involved decrypting enciphered messages that were supposed to have been contained within the plays and poems. 

 When WWII broke out the decryption activity turns to deciphering coded messages sent by Germany to their troops. Additionally, the U.S. government sent staff to Riverbank to train them in cryptography. Among the Riverbank Staff who worked on this endeavor was William F. Friedman. He and Elizebeth worked closely together and in 1917 they married and became well-known in the deciphering crowd as a kind of "power couple" in breaking down codes. 
Riverbank Labs in Geneva IL

After WWI, radio equipment became more sophisticated and the ciphers more complicated. Regardless, Elizebeth found she had a knack for breaking down the codes that drug runners on the west coast and in Florida were sending. By now, she was working for the U.S. Coast Guard and trained their officers. As a result of her work, 35 convictions were brought on bootleggers who were directly linked to suspicious vessels.     

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, The Coast Guard unit Elizebeth worked with was moved into the Navy where they focused on the underground activity of the Germans in South America that included plans to invade the U.S. from the south. 

The couple in later years.

After she and her husband retired, they returned to her original work on the Bacon/Shakespeare project and came to the conclusion that Bacon did not write the plays. 

You can read more about her fascinating life in her biography A Life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman written by her great-nephew, G. Stuart Smith.

Elizebeth passed away on October 31, 1980, and posthumously received several recognitions. 

By the way, her mother spelled her name with an e instead of an a because she hated the idea people would shorten the name to Eliza and she did not like that name.

Deciphering codes has always fascinated me. What is something you know little about, but would like to know more?

Wikipedia:, including all photos except the book cover. 

Kane County newsletter

Pam Meyers is a Wisconsin girl currently living in Illinois. She lives with her two rescue cats who are named after her characters in one of her books. She enjoys reading, watching some reality TV shows (She's picky about which to watch) and movies. Pam is involved in her church as a small group leader. When she isn't writing, you can often find her nosing around in her hometown of Lake Geneva for new story ideas.

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  1. I'm not familiar with Elizebeth. Thanks for sharing. I think cryptography is very interesting, but I'm not good at it.

  2. Thanks for posting! There is always some tidbit among these posts that I find intriguing and think that I'd like to find out more. Sometimes I Google for more info, but nothing has really stirred a passion to know "all there is to know". Maybe I'm just a "know a teeny bit about many things but nothing in depth about anything" girl.

  3. I really enjoy the stories of the people in our past, Pam. This was fascinating.