How an Indiana schoolteacher became an American enemy code-smasher

GENEVA, Ill. — A Quaker schoolteacher from Indiana who loved literature, Elizebeth Smith was bored, restless and ready for risks. So she hopped a train to Chicago and visited the Newberry Library to see a 300-year-old book.

She asked the librarian about jobs in literature or research. Moments later, a 6'4" foot man with a grey beard pulled up in a limo. He didn’t just offer her a job—it was an adventure. Together they’d change history.

George Fabyan took her to his estate in suburban Geneva. Her mission — solve a mystery in a rare Shakespeare volume from 1623.

Listen to this story on the "Backstory with Larry Potash" podcast in the player above

While wealthy men spent their money on trips to Paris or fancy automobiles, Fabyan spent his on  research. He thought he could find the secret to immortality but author Jason Fagone says he was most passionate about a secret Shakespeare code.

"Fabyan was attracted to this story because it was the kind of thing that Fabyan loved. It was big, it was flashy, it was the kind of thing rewrite history if it were true," he said. "He could go out and pitch it, he could sell it, he could tell the story. He was really a Barnum-esque salesperson at heart."

Much of Elizebeth Smith’s part of the story was buried for a century by secrecy and sexism, until now.

Learn more about Fagone's book "The Woman Who Smashed Codes" here.

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