It was April 21, 1916 and the people of Chicago were enjoying a beautiful Spring day, their city's grueling winter behind them and the unrelenting heat of summer a few months ahead. The Chicago Cubs baseball team had opened their first season at the two year-old Weegman Park the day before and, despite the Cubs' fifth-place finish the previous season, hopes ran high for a return to the World Series. Overall, 1916 was a grand year for a city intent on burnishing its broad-shouldered reputation. This would be the year a young Carl Sandburg published a poem in which he described his city as the "hog butcher for the world," something any visitor who ventured anywhere near the slaughterhouses during warm weather could have guessed from the odor that pervaded the country's second-largest city. That didn't stop the Republican Party from coming to hold their quadrennial convention that summer, when they would nominate the Supreme Court's Chief Justice, Charles Evans Hughes, as their candidate for the Presidency.

April 21st was also the day that Cook County Judge Richard Stanley Tuthill would rule on a case that had been argued before him over the previous two weeks. The ruling, although much less well-known than the baseball game at what would soon be called Wrigley Field, would grab headlines, not just in the Windy City but across the globe. Judge Tuthill had ruled that William Shakespeare was a fraud, and that philosopher, scientist and inventor Francis Bacon was the true author of all those plays, poems and sonnets.

Now let's be clear that although the ruling was covered in newspapers around the world Oxford University, the publisher of "The Complete Works of Shakespeare," was not racing to change the title to "The Complete Works of Bacon." Nor was the Royal Shakespeare Company removing the Bard's name from their marquee. That's because what every member of the press corps knew - and wasn't shy to say in print - was that trial was, in fact, nothing but a publicity stunt conceived by two men; movie producer William Selig and millionaire George Fabyan.

Chicago Tribune, April 22, 1916

Fabyan was a former Bostonian who had inherited a successful cotton goods manufacturing company. With the inheritance he bought large estate in Geneva, Illinois which he called Riverbank Labs. There he reveled in his financial ability, as he once said, for "...spending money to discover valuable things that universities can't afford." Those valuable things included research into such mainstream endeavors as acoustics and genetics. (The acoustics lab is still regarded today as one of the world's best.)  Other investments, such as the search for the elusive perpetual motion machine, were less regarded by mainstream scientists. Such scoffing seemed only to embolden Fabyan, who also funded the work of a fellow Bostonian named Elizabeth Wells Gallup. Mrs. Gallup had written extensively about her belief that a secret code had been placed in the First Folio, an early printing of the Bard's work. This code, when properly deciphered would prove Bacon's authorship of the writing attributed to Shakespeare.

However far-fetched the theory may have seemed to most people it was based on one universally accepted fact: that Francis Bacon had invented a way to hide secret messages inside any text. He called it a Biliteral Cipher, and it should look familiar to anyone who has ever worked with computers, specifically in binary code.

Bacon's Biliteral Cipher

Every letter of the alphabet, known as the plaintext, is represented by a group of five a or b (sorry, U and V, but you have to share) which make up a binary code.  The plaintext "A" is represented as aaaaa, the plaintext "B" would be aaaab, and so on.  Using this code Bacon demonstrated how easy it is to hide a secret message that is the exact opposite of the one the public would read.  Let's take the message STAY WHERE YOU ARE as an example.  Using Bacon's cipher one would write out the message so it looked like this:


Notice that some of the letters are bold and italicized.  Next we organize the letters into groups of five:


The last step is to use the table to convert the groups of plaintext into the deciphered message. So STAYW is hiding the code aabab (two letters in normal font, one in bold/italic, followed by a letter in normal font, ending with a bold/italic letter) which we convert to the letter "F." HEREY is ababa which converts to "L," and OUARE is babba which is "Y."  The decoded message? FLY, the exact opposite of the original plaintext message. Computer-savvy readers will also note the similarity between the Biliteral Cipher and ASCII code, although Bacon was two bits shy. (Nope. Not going to apologize for that.)

Now the notion that Bacon wrote Shakespeare had been around for decades. There was even a magazine for believers called Baconiana (which today can be read on the Francis Bacon Society's website.) Mrs. Gallup (who had attended the Sorbonne and was no intellectual slouch) fell sway to this theory, as did many prominent people of the day including Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Henry Miller, and Helen Keller.  At Riverbank (and on Fabyan's dime) Gallup would pursue that truth - scientifically - by having a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio photographed and analyzed for passages whose plaintext hid Bacon's Biliteral cipher.

Mrs. Gallup was not a photographer, but as luck would have it Fabyan has just brought to Riverbank a bright young geneticist named William Friedman from Cornell.  Friedman had been hired to work on developing a strain of wheat that would grow in an arid environment, something Fabyan thought would come in handy in places such as Palestine. When Gallup learned that Friedman's hobby was photography, she drafted him onto her team. Friedman likely would have volunteered, anyway, as he had become smitten with a lovely young librarian who was working for Gallup. Her name was Elizebeth Smith (whose parents deliberately spelled her name with an "e" to set it apart.) What happened next is the kind of stuff you can't make up, because no one would believe the story. But the following is all true.

A snippet of The Tempest, from the First Folio

Gallup used enlargements of Friedman's photographs to measure and quantify the slant of each letter to determine which were "a" and which were "b" in Bacon's cipher. When mathematics failed to provide a definitive answer she let intuition rule, and from that process came forth decipherings such as "Bacon had writ these works" and other revelatory passages that proved Baconians right. While Friedman and Smith mooned over each other, Gallup collected the evidence and by early 1916 was ready to publish her great work exposing the fraud that was Shakespeare. That's when Fabyan was hit with the lawsuit filed by Selig, the producer, whose film company was about to release films based on four of Shakespeare's plays in celebration of the tercentenary of the Bard's death on April 23rd. The suit claimed that the reputation of Shakespeare "would be shattered" by Gallup's "alleged decipherings" and the public would not go to see his movies. Selig asked the court to rule that Shakespeare was the real author.

In early April, as the Cubs decamped from spring training in Florida and headed for their North Side ballpark's National League debut, Judge Tuthill gaveled the trial of William Shakespeare into session. Sadly the official transcript of the trial has disappeared from Cook County records. My father, who wrote extensively about the history of cryptology, made several efforts to find the transcript, but to no avail. In the early 1990s PBS sponsored a "Mock Trial Determine the Authorship of Shakespeare's Works," but no mention was made of the Biliteral Cipher which was the foundation of Mrs. Gallup's claim of authorship. In J. Ajlouny's play, The Trial of William Shakespeare (recently published by the Fresh Ink Group) the author has the audience play the role of the jury after hearing evidence presented in his courtroom re-creation. But little time is spent on the claim of a hidden cipher. In my similarly titled play, published by Eldridge Plays & Musicals, I included a trial scene with the Biliteral cipher presented as a key defense. (Somehow, Tony Award committee missed its one production.)  Ultimately, all any of us can do is surmise what was said in Judge Tuthill's courtroom. That's a real shame, because both Fabyan and Selig (two men both known for having dynamic personalities) choose to act as lead counsels for their side, meaning some great theatrics have likely been lost to history.

What has not been lost is the remarkable series of events that followed Judge Tuthill's ruling which, as we can see from the press clipping above, resulted in precisely what both Fabyan and Selig had set out from the start: gobs of free publicity for Selig's films. And many seemed to have had a good laugh over the idea that Chicago had legally declared Shakespeare a fraud. One wag, tongue firmly in cheek, asking if the ruling meant the city was not obligated to change the name of Shakespeare Avenue to Bacon Avenue. Other Chicagoans were not so sanguine, most notably the other Cook Country judges. On May 2, 1916, just ten days after Tuthill's verdict, they reversed his ruling, thus restoring Shakespeare to his literary perch.

So how do we get to Pearl Harbor from here? To tell the next part of the story we need to back up just a little. Friedman's doubts about Gallup's deciphering methods had been growing since he got pulled into her Bacon project. By the time of Tuithill's ruling, he was almost regretting accepting Fabyan's original offer to come to Riverbank. I say almost, because soon after the trial he married Gallup's lovely young assistant, Elizebeth Smith. Around that same time Fabyan made him the "Director of Riverbank's Department of Codes and Ciphers." Such was the genius of George Fabyan, who recognized that the Bacon skeptic possessed an extraordinarily sharp analytical mind that could be leveraged in the field of cryptology. Friedman would reward Fabyan by writing a renowned and, in some cases, groundbreaking series of papers that put Riverbank on the map.

The timing of the publication of Friedman's papers could not have been more perfect. In early 1917 a telegram (known as the Zimmerman Telegram after the German official who sent it) was decoded by British Intelligence.  It was an offer, by Germany, to give Mexico large portions of the southwestern United States if the U.S. were to declare war against Germany, which it did in April. Fabyan immediately offered the services of his Department of Codes and Ciphers to the War Department, which they gladly (and with no small amount of desperation) accepted. Almost immediately Friedman was challenged with another coded German message, this time to Indian activists agitating for independence from England. With that success William enlisted and went to France, where he worked directly for General Pershing. His decoding of intercepted German wireless messages is said to have resulted in the saving of thousands of Allied lives. After the war he continued writing, quite literally inventing the new field of cryptanalysis.

Before we continue with William's story, we first need to note that Elizebeth was no mathematical slouch. She lent her estimable decoding skills to the Navy and then to the Bureau of Investigation (as the FBI was known during Prohibition) to help smash rum-running rings operating off the coast of Florida and in Houston. Later, she would be instrumental in busting a narcotics ring operating out of San Francisco. Elizebeth was often called upon to testify at the resulting trials, a sometimes dangerous act given the systemic violence of smugglers. She did all this during an era in which women were not always welcome in the fields of math and the sciences. Or law enforcement, for that matter.

Now let's get back to William. Along with his groundbreaking writing on cryptographic theory, he spent a great deal of time studying the flaws in a new kind of code machine, an electro-mechanical device that used rotors to generate the cipher. In much the same way that companies seeking higher levels of cyber security will hire hackers, Friedman exposed the flaws in the machine's original design.  Then, in collaboration with Frank Rowlett, a mathematician he had hired in 1930, he went and created a version that was so good it became the United States' highest security cipher machine in World War II.

Late 1930s version of a rotor-based code machine


Friedman would become the stuff of legend when, before the outbreak of hostilities between the United States and Japan, he and his team broke the Japanese cipher known as PURPLE by building a replica of the machine without ever having seen one. I'm going to say that again, because it is an extraordinary achievement to build a copy of something, in this case an extremely complex cipher device, using only intercepted messages to surmise how the device might have been built. How those decoded messages got used was another matter.  As the Wiki page on Friedman reports, "One such intercept was the message to the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., ordering an end (on December 7, 1941) to negotiations with the US. The message gave a clear indication of impending war, and was to have been delivered to the US State Department only hours prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The controversy over whether the US had foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack has roiled well into the 21st century."


Friedman's accomplishment was not without its costs.  As explained on his Wiki page, " 1941, Friedman was hospitalized with a "nervous breakdown," widely attributed to the mental strain of his work on PURPLE." Friedman recovered, and continued to contribute to the war effort. To further the Allies advancements in code-breaking his team would trade one of their replica PURPLE machines for details on how the British broke the German ENIGMA code.  (That effort, led by Alan Turing, would later be dramatized in the Oscar-winning film "The Imitation Game," starring Benedict Cumberbatch.  I include his picture here because Cumberbatch is my wife's favorite actor, so I figure maybe now she'll read one of my blogs.)


Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

(Courtesy of STUDIOCANAL UK)


After the war, Friedman became the chief cryptologist for a new government agency built for the Cold War: the National Security Agency, or NSA. While leading the agency's cryptologic efforts, he also continued to write textbooks, some of which are still used today to train young cryptologists. By 1956, when Friedman retired, the rotors and gears of the Enigma and PURPLE machines had been supplanted by vacuum tubes in the first mainframe computers. Tubes would later be retired by discrete transistors, and those by semiconductors.

Retirement?  William and Elizebeth didn't retire the way most people do. It had always bothered them how the Biliteral Cipher, which was the very first binary code (and the foundation of all modern computing) had been misused by Mrs. Gallup. With Elizebeth once again by his side, William Friedman returned to the First Folio and together they wrote a book called "The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined" which exposed the flaws in Gallup's methods. There is something very satisfying about this final chapter in their lives, one that not only reflects their great devotion to each other, but to the facts.


Author's Note, September 17, 2018

I am delighted to report that a new book has recently been published about Elizebeth Friedman.  Titled The Woman Who Smashed Codes it is by Jason Fagone.  Here is a nice review of the book from the Brain Pickings website.  I wrote Mr. Fagone about how I developed and interest in the subject from my father, and Jason wrote back:

"David, hi -- thanks so much for this note. I saw your father's name often in my research for the book! I think he wrote some of the early historical pieces about Riverbank and the cryptological advances there. And I know that William Friedman corresponded with the American Cryptogram Association over the years and admired their work. It's very cool that you have followed up on his work with contributions of your own. Once you hear the story it's kind of hard to get out of your head. I feel like there are a lot of us who understand this from first-hand experience."

Indeed it is, Jason.  I wish you every luck with the book.  As I told him in my introductory email "I should not be surprised if Hollywood came calling, I’ve always felt their story was worthy of a cinematic treatment (Emily Blount or Emma Stone as Elizebeth?)"