I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Having made a fortune dealing in textiles and dry goods, George Fabyan retired to a luxurious estate and hired top-quality researchers to investigate matters that interested him such as code-breaking and levitation.
The Riverbank Estate
George Fabyan was born in Boston in 1867. His father was in the textile business and George took up that trade, managing the company's Chicago office. He did very well and was soon a multi-millionaire.
Along with his wife, Nelle, he bought a small farm property beside the Fox River near Geneva, about 40 miles west of Chicago. That was in 1905, and over the subsequent years, they added land to create an estate of nearly 600 acres. They hired Frank Lloyd Wright to redesign the farmhouse, which they called Fabyan House. They named the whole estate Riverbank.
The University of Chicago Press lists the amenities: “Bear’s cage, alligator pool, Japanese garden, windmill, greenhouses full of flowers, grottoes, acres of gardens, deer paddock, Indian statue, working quarry, cannons, and Greco-Roman swimming pool.”
There were numerous outbuildings that Fabyan put at the disposal of the researchers he hired to work on his projects. And, what an eclectic mix of projects they were.
The scientists he hired developed a strain of hybrid corn, made some advances in cancer treatment, and worked on developing cattle with lower fat content. But, it was investigations in cryptology that have been the most famous contribution to science. And, that all started with an obsession that William Shakespeare was a fraud.
Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays?
It's widely accepted that Hamlet, King Lear, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and many other classics were written by William Shakespeare. However, George Fabyan was among the small fraternity that believes these dramatic masterpieces came from the pen of Francis Bacon, the English statesman and philosopher.
Fabyan had been fascinated by cryptography since his childhood and he was convinced there must be coded messages in “Shakespeare's” work that had been placed there by Francis Bacon. These clues, if unearthed, would prove that Bacon was the playwright. So, Fabyan hired a team of cryptographers to ferret out the proof he was sure was buried in the text.
His research group found what they were paid to find—Francis Bacon was the author of The Merchant of Venice and the rest of the canon, not the Bard of Avon chap. Trouble ensued.
April 1916 was the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare's death and movie producer William Nicholas Selig was planning a big commemoration. There were going to be films of Shakespeare's play and a biography of the Bard. When Selig heard that Fabyan had proved Bacon to be the author, he sued on the grounds that this would cause his movies to lose money.
Cook Country Circuit Court judge, Richard Tuthill found in Fabyan's favour. Selig was ordered to pay $5,000 in damages for causing a delay in the publishing of Fabyan's book describing his Bacon theory. But then, there was an uproar, Judge Tuthill changed his mind, and another judge quashed the ruling.
Rumours started spreading that Selig and Fabyan, who were friends, concocted the whole lawsuit in order to create publicity for their projects. The Baconian thesis was debunked although there are still adherents to the idea.
Cryptologist Elizebeth Friedman
One of the people involved in uncovering Shakespeare's skullduggery was Elizebeth Friedman.
Born into a Quaker family in 1892, Clara Elizebeth Smith dreamed of going to university. Her father had old-school views a woman in a farming community did not need a higher education; all she needed, in his view, was the ability to manage a household and milk a cow.
Elizebeth refused to accept her father's dictates and announced that she was going to college and would support herself by finding work. Faced with his daughter's adamant refusal to be browbeaten, John Smith loaned Elizebeth the money she needed but charged her six percent interest. She got a bachelor's degree in English literature in 1915; her favourite writers being Tennyson and Shakespeare.
At college, she received an introduction to ciphers, became fascinated with the topic, and started looking for hidden codes in the writing of Shakespeare. These two interests drew her into the orbit of George Fabyan who offered her a job at Riverbank. She joined a team of 150 researchers who were working on Fabyan's pet projects. One of these scientists was a geneticist named William Friedman who had been put to work studying heredity.
Elizebeth got William involved in cryptography and the collaboration blossomed into romance and marriage.
With the search for Bacon's authorship of Shakespeare's work over, George Fabyan turned his codebreakers to military matters. He was convinced that America was going to enter World War I and decided to do his bit to help the war effort.
“The U.S. military, however, had minimal experience of codebreaking. In early 1917, Fabyan established a cryptography team at Riverbank headed by Elizebeth and William. In March 1917, he offered its services to the government to break encrypted Morse code radio messages” (famousscientists.org). Elizebeth turned out to be a genius at codebreaking.
But, the couple grew restless under Fabyan's capricious nature, irascibility, and need to control everything. William joined the army and was sent to France to break German codes and Elizebeth returned home.
After the war, the couple went to Washington where they worked for the government, nurturing its cryptography capabilities. They worked on codebreaking that brought down many organized crime figures and they cracked the codes used by Nazis in World War II.
Acoustic Levitation and Trench Mortars
Meanwhile, back at Riverbank, a team was working on another of Fabyan's interests, making objects defy gravity by using sound waves. A contraption of tubes and strings was built according to a design of Francis Bacon's—yes, him again, but it didn't work. So, Harvard physics Professor Wallace Sabine was hired to oversee the project.
A great deal of time was spent tuning the strings but gravity refused to be defied, so Prof. Sabine moved on to other challenges. He developed a system of aerial photography that was used during World War I to reveal the position of German trenches. From the images, similar trenches were dug at the Riverbank Estate and Sabine and his team tried out new ways of lobbing explosives into them. Out of this work came the trench mortar.
The war finished, Sabine focussed on building a reverberation chamber to be used in testing acoustics. Much of the research done at the Riverbank Laboratories is still relevant today, and the acoustic chamber is still in use.
George Fabyan died in 1936 at the age of 69 and Fabyan House was turned into a museum.
“Some rich men go in for art collections, gay times on the Riviera or extravagant living. But they all get satiated. That’s why I stick to scientific experiments, spending money to discover valuable things that universities can’t afford. You can never get sick of too much knowledge.”
— George Fabyan
- George Fabyan wrote a book entitled What I Know About the Future of Cotton and Domestic Goods. It had a blue cover over more than 200 blank pages.
- Fabyan kept a mummified figure that he moved around the house. In 1982, an expert was called in to examine the mummy and pronounced it a fake. When X-rayed, the linen covering was found to contain some plywood and nails and a single bone.
- The words cryptology and cryptanalysis were coined by William Friedman.
- “Riverbank.” University of Chicago Press, undated.
- “Did Shakespeare Inspire the Creation of the National Security Agency?” Mario Vulcano, stationhypo.com, May 17, 2020.
- “Elizebeth Smith Friedman.” famousscientists.org, undated.
- “Riverbank Laboratories.” City of Geneva, 2000.
- “Out of Success Came Legends of Col. Fabyan.” Katherine Seigenthaler, Chicago Tribune, August 10, 1987.
- “George Fabyan: The Tycoon Who Broke Ciphers, Ended Wars, Manipulated Sound, Built a Levitation Machine, and Organized the Modern Research Center.” Richard Munson, 2013.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor