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The Local 'Codebreaker' Who Brought Down Nazis And Gangsters

Elizebeth Friedman
National Cryptologic Museum
Wikimedia Commons
Elizebeth Friedman and her husband William in an unnamed, undated photo.

Elizebeth Smith Friedman was born to a Quaker family in rural Indiana, but a meeting with an eccentric millionaire who believed that William Shakespeare did not write all those plays would change her life, and the course of history.

While Friedman was brought to an Illinois estate by the wealthy George Fabyan in order to seek the hidden codes in Shakespeare's plays to prove they had been written by Francis Bacon, her ability to recognize sequencing and to "break" codes led her and her husband to play a role in the American military's fight in World War I, the jailing of gangster bootleggers during Prohibition, and again in the military during World War II.

During the Second World War, Friedman's work focused on a massive Nazi spy ring in South America.

Her story, which includes some college years at the College of Wooster in Ohio, is the focus of the newest installment of the PBS anthology series, American Experience. Titled The Codebreaker, the hour-long documentary charts the path of the Friedmans' unlikely Quaker-Jewish interfaith marriage, a love that first bloomed at Riverbank, Fabyan's Illinois estate, and ultimately led them both to the frontlines of history.

Writer-producer-director Chana Gazit joins Cincinnati Edition to talk about.

The Codebreaker premieres Monday, January 11 at 9 p.m. on PBS's American Experience.

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Michael Monks brings a broad range of experience to WVXU-FM as the host of Cincinnati Edition, Cincinnati Public Radio's weekday news and information talk show.