Codebreakers on the Fox: Geneva’s Secret Role in World War I


The year was 1917 and “The Great War” was raging in Europe. In sleepy Geneva, an eccentric tycoon and a team of talented codebreakers were about to change forever the way the United States, and its allies abroad, would communicate in secret and break enemy ciphers.

As part of his estate, George Fabyan created Riverbank Laboratories (left). Here, he funded his scientific interests in acoustics and cryptography. (Geneva History Museum photo)

Editor’s Note: George Fabyan was a wealthy Chicago businessman when he and his wife, Nelle, established their summer estate on the banks of the Fox River, in Geneva, in 1905. Upon their 300-acre estate, the Fabyans established a summer residence in a villa renovated by Frank Lloyd Wright, and they also built what became the first privately owned research facility in the U.S. Among its many specialties, this Riverbank Laboratories pursued greater knowledge in acoustical science and cryptology.

In the following excerpts from his book, “George Fabyan: The Tycoon Who Broke Ciphers, Ended Wars, Manipulated Sound, Built a Levitation Machine and Organized the Modern Research Center,” author Dick Munson explains how George Fabyan, also known as “the Colonel,” and his team at Riverbank not only shaped the Allied victory in World War I but established the foundations of modern cryptanalysis in America and the United Kingdom.

Some 40 miles to the west of Chicago lies Geneva, a small city along the Fox River. Less than a mile downstream in the early 20th century were a few farmhouses and fields that George Fabyan molded into a separate world.

Fabyan oversaw virtually every aspect of the design and operations of the estate and laboratories, which were referred to as Riverbank. The lavish gardens, zoo, and unique architecture –including a lighthouse in the middle of the Fox River, as well as a bell tower – displayed his wacky and creative ways, while the think tank influenced international events and made the colonel seem larger than life.

The Gilded Age tycoon, whose family made a fortune selling dry goods, sponsored and inspired a “community of thinkers” who advanced science in such fields as acoustics, cryptography, genetics and physiology. Considering himself an “ideas man,” Fabyan changed how we wage wars and keep secrets, how we transmit sound and design buildings, and how we stimulate scientific advances. He created perhaps the first independent research center, laid the foundation for the top-secret National Security Agency, and even helped end World War I by capturing foreign terrorists and breaking German codes.

Fabyan’s was a lifelong fascination with secret writings. “Even in his boyhood the colonel was interested in ciphers,” commented the millionaire’s longtime assistant. “They became a ruling hobby with him, and he spent a tremendous amount of money collecting old cipher books, and he frequently used codes to transmit sensitive information associated with his businesses. He also spent a great deal of time trying to find ciphers within the writings of Sir Francis Bacon.

As World War I developed, the United States had little cryptographic capacity. It did, however, have Riverbank, Fabyan, and his colleagues, Elizebeth and William Friedman.

Elizebeth and William met and married at Riverbank. Hired in early 1914 while working part-time at Chicago’s Newberry Library, she initially helped Fabyan find codes within Shakespeare’s writings. A few months later, Fabyan was looking for someone to conduct genetic experiments in Riverbank’s new greenhouse and adjoining laboratory; a Cornell University professor recommended William Friedman, who began testing Mendel’s theories and propagating diverse strains of wheat. William also seemed to enjoy spending time in the lodge with Elizebeth and her colleagues, and he proved to be a talented code breaker. As Elizebeth later wrote: “This work threw us together a very great deal, and we were married within the year.”

Their first challenge came when the British Army, wanting to test its latest cipher machine, asked the American military if it could translate a half dozen of England’s secret messages. The British, who were renowned for their code-writing prowess, claimed “the solution of messages sent by (their new cipher machine) is possible only with a great many messages and that so long a time will be required that messages will lose their value before solution.”

Washington officials accepted London’s challenge, but, lacking their own cryptanalysts, turned to the patriotic Fabyan and his Riverbank colleagues, who were happy to make a transition from literary to military codes. “It looked like an insurmountable task,” wrote Elizebeth Friedman. “A field cipher, used in war, would be utilized a hundred or two hundred times a day, and even if the key were changed every day, there would be a great mass of messages to study. But here we had six short messages, and we were dealing with two alphabets, one moving irregularly against the other and we had no knowledge of either.”

William Friedman made the reasoned assumption – or intuitive or lucky, depending upon your view about the role of science or chance in cryptanalysis – that the London-based sender had used “cipher” as a key word and a related word would be in the second alphabet. The Friedmans tried several combinations before they proposed “machine,” which worked. Within a few hours, they translated all six messages, the first one of which declared boldly: “This message is absolutely indecipherable.” The Riverbank team wired that very message back to Washington, prompting the director of U.S. Army Intelligence to telegraph London: “Please inform Captain Hay of British Military Intelligence that messages enciphered by Plett’s machine have been broken by method of attack different from any considered by inventor, and that system is considered dangerous in presence of enemy.”

London quickly got over its bruised ego because Scotland Yard needed help stopping a German plot to help Indian nationalists break away from England, or at least divert British attention from the western front. Concerned that Hindu spies and terrorists were raising funds and purchasing weapons in the United States, British officials delivered to Fabyan and the Friedmans an attache case packed with intercepted letters.

Many of the messages contained clusters of three numbers, which the code-breakers assumed referred to words in a dictionary held by both the senders and recipients. The first digit, they deduced, pointed to the page in the dictionary, the second to that page’s first or second column, and the final number to the word. By trial and error, they decided “99-2-14” – the 14th word in the second column on the 99th page – was “you.” From there, concluded Friedman, “The code number 99-2-17, which may occur several times, must represent a word, certainly not far from ‘you,’ and since there are but two or three relatively uncommon words (‘young,’ ‘youth,’ etc.) intervening between ‘you’ and ‘your,’ the word is probably ‘your.’”

Using such frequency principles – and without ever seeing the actual dictionary – the Friedmans deciphered virtually every word of the confiscated letters, enough so police could round up 135 Indian plotters. William and Elizebeth traveled in December 1917 to San Francisco in order to deliver incriminating testimony of the German-Indian plot, revealing the conspirators’ detailed plans in their own words.

Fabyan subsequently offered the full services of the Friedmans and their Riverbank colleagues to the U.S. military, and the millionaire noted there would be no charge. Washington was in no position to reject such help since U.S. forces knowledgeable of ciphers were limited to three individuals and since the security of America’s own codes was almost laughable. The War Department’s Telegraph Code, in fact, was published by a Cleveland-based commercial printer with no security clearance, and London officials regularly informed their Washington counterparts that U.S. messages were easily read.

The U.S. government, according to William Friedman, intercepted messages “by various and entirely surreptitious means from telegraphs and cable offices in Washington and elsewhere in the U.S.” Washington typically mailed the notes to Riverbank, but a few highly sensitive texts – and their solutions – were telegraphed back and forth.

Perhaps as important as decoding messages, Fabyan and the Friedmans trained the personnel who would staff the newly formed Cipher Bureau within Military Intelligence, what became known as Military Intelligence 8 (or MI-8). Almost eighty officers – most of whom would later be sent to General Pershing’s headquarters in France – arrived at Riverbank in October 1917 and were housed at the nearby Aurora Hotel. Although Fabyan treated them to fine meals and wines, they endured a six-week crash course on cryptanalysis under the strict tutelage of William Friedman, who had developed a curriculum of pamphlets and worksheets.

On graduation day for his code-breaking cadets, Fabyan assembled the group into two rows outside the Aurora Hotel. At first glance, the resulting photograph appears to be a straightforward shot of the officers and associated Riverbank staff. Yet a closer look reveals some of the men faced the camera while others looked to the left. They formed, in fact, a bilateral cipher.

Those facing forward represented A’s while those turned sideways were the B’s. Reading from left to right, the first five figures symbolized the letter “k,” and the entire group revealed Fabyan’s favorite axiom from Sir Francis Bacon: “Knowledge is power.”

Riverbank’s code-breaking efforts were slowly diverted as Fabyan’s team trained their replacements and MI-8 lured the Friedmans to move to Washington, D.C. A lifetime of chain smoking caught up with Fabyan in the early 1930s. The vibrant and athletic body slowly lost its spark. The gruff and opinionated motivator became increasingly quiet.

With no heir to inspire, Fabyan began to arrange for Riverbank’s shrinkage. Wanting some physical legacy, he decided to donate most of the estate after his wife’s death in order to create a county park. The 69-year-old Fabyan died at his villa on May 17, 1936. His Riverbank colleagues, as requested, stopped the lighthouse’s flashing and they cut in half the chimes from Riverbank’s tower bell.

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