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TV Highlights (Jan. 11, 2021): 'Codebreaker' tells extraordinary true story
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TV Highlights (Jan. 11, 2021): 'Codebreaker' tells extraordinary true story


Tonight’s “American Experience” (8 p.m. on Channel 10, 9 p.m. on Channel 11, PBS) documentary, “The Codebreaker,” recalls Elizebeth Smith Friedman, an “ordinary” mother of two who proved to be a secret weapon in two world wars and who took on organized crime in ways more effective than Eliot Ness or J. Edgar Hoover.

Her story reads like a fantastic novel. The youngest daughter of a tight-fisted Quaker who believed women had no place in higher education, she became besotted with poetry and Shakespeare. Unable to find work, she fell in with an eccentric tycoon, George Fabyan, who was trying to “decode” Shakespeare’s works to prove that they were really written by Francis Bacon.

Untrained in codes and cyphers, Smith pretty much invented the field of cryptology. Her renown led to work for the military during World War I, when she organized the country’s first code-breakers. During prohibition, bootleggers used elaborate ciphers to indicate where and when they were smuggling contraband liquor. Not only did Smith’s code-breaking lead to many arrests, she essentially mapped out a nationwide network of criminal syndicates, a theory of organized crime that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI did not accept until well into the 1950s.

During World War II, she took on a ring of Nazi spies dispersed all over South America who were using codes to tell Nazi submariners where and when to find Allied cargo ships. Using her gifts, she saved hundreds of ships and thousands of lives.

This tale of a woman and her singular genius may appeal to viewers who liked “The Queen’s Gambit,” Netflix’s 2020 hit.


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