When World War I came at last to the United States, the armed forces found themselves in the embarrassing predicament of having no idea whatsoever on how to decrypt the coded messages being sent out by foreign militaries, or how to encrypt their own to keep them safe from discovery. Blind and yelling its secrets into the void, the United States military took an unprecedented step born of desperation: they handed over their treasure trove of untranslated foreign messages to a recently married couple who had organized America’s only center of cryptography research while working at a farcical utopian intellectual community run by an eccentric millionaire.
Their names were Elizebeth and William Friedman, and between them they would break the most top secret codes of several foreign powers, design unbreakable encryption machines, foil rum and drug smugglers, and save the reputation of none other than William Shakespeare.
Elizebeth Smith Friedman (1892-1980) is the steady pulse of our story. While her more famous husband, “The Father of Cryptanalysis,” worked himself into five heart attacks and a chronic depression culminating in thoughts of suicide, she maintained a steady flow of critical work throughout her amazingly varied and unprecedented career, work she was largely forbidden from discussing by government agencies that wanted the credit for themselves. Born in 1892, she seemed destined for the humanities, with a particular facility for picking up esoteric languages. She knew she did not want her mother’s life, weighed down by nine children and so unable to become what she might have been, and so she decided to go to college, where she majored in English literature and graduated in 1915.
Graduation brought her hard against the question that continues to plague English Literature Majors: What Now? She tried being a school substitute principal, found that it didn’t stick, moved back home, and rolled the dice on a trip to Chicago where surely someone, somewhere must have a job for a woman who was interested in languages and the history of English writing. In that bustling new city that symbolized America’s booming twentieth century ethos, rejection was her lot until one day she went to visit a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, the first collection of his works ever published, and while at the library examining it she fell into conversation with a librarian who happened to know of a certain wealthy individual who was desperate for an open-minded English scholar who might be free to work on a special project concerning a secret code hidden in the works of the Bard. Smith responded that, yes, that might be interesting to her. The librarian made a call and soon there came barreling into the library one of the most colorful figures of American entrepreneurship, Colonel George Fabyan.
He was a millionaire in textiles who dedicated himself to finding solutions to the problems that the universities lacked the resources to handle. On his sprawling estate, dubbed the Riverbank Laboratories, he brought in scientific misfits of all varieties, on the understanding that they would press forward on the big questions, and not content themselves with reproducing work that could be done at a standard laboratory. A larger than life individual, he would reputedly often pick up new recruits from the train station in a carriage pulled by his own personal team of zebras, and stalked the grounds of Riverbank wearing a horse riding uniform (he didn’t ride) that matched his title of colonel (he was never in the armed services).
Elizebeth’s job at Riverbank was to support one of Fabyan’s favorite stars, Elizabeth Wells Gallup, the woman who had devoted her life to proving that Francis Bacon wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, and that the evidence was hidden in an abba type code encrypted in the typeface choices of the original folios by Bacon. She waded through different Shakespearean texts, classifying the letters as either italic or normal, typeface A or typeface B. Then she looked at the resulting string of A’s and B’s for secret messages. AAAAA could mean “a”, AAAAB could mean “b”, AAABA could mean “c”, and so on, which allowed the string of binary A’s and B’s to represent brand new sentences.
Fabyan believed strongly in the project, so much so that, when one of his new hires, a neatly dressed geneticist by the name of William Friedman, showed a gift for interpreting strings of code, he transferred him from genetics to cryptography. While there, he and Elizebeth met, shared whispered confessions expressing their suspicions about the validity of Gallup’s methods, and soon married, William out of an abundance of suddenly discovered love, and Elizebeth in the hope that she would come to truly love him some day. Together, the couple confronted Fabyan with their doubts, and requested to be taken off the Shakespeare Project. Reluctant at first, Fabyan finally agreed when he saw that the code-breaking potential of the couple could be put to use for a brand new project that might change the course of US history itself.
With its entrance into World War I, the United States was forced to confront the fact it knew nothing about handling the variety of coded messages between Germany and South America that its listening stations were intercepting. Fabyan got wind of their desperation, and volunteered to take over all code-breaking work for the US government, using Riverbank as a training ground and central cryptography center to which all received messages would be funneled. The idea of an eccentric zebra-carriage-owning civilian taking over all armed force intelligence deciphering is lusciously outlandish today, but at the time there was nobody in the United States better at quickly deciphering codes, and training others to do so, than William and Elizebeth Friedman, and so Riverbank became the code-breaking capital of the United States for a short stretch of time.
With the end of the war, William and Elizebeth left Riverbank to continue their work under more formal governmental auspices. William built up the Signals Intelligence Service for the War Department, bringing code and cipher analysis into the twentieth century through a mathematization of its principles, and an increased use of technology to improve code security and decrease deciphering time.
Elizebeth, meanwhile, did a bit of everything. She officially worked for the Coast Guard, but her work spanned all manner of conundrums too confounding for anybody else to figure out. In particular, she was the central figure in foiling drug and alcohol smugglers who began using radio communications and code signals to coordinate their drop-off schedules, cracking tens of thousands of smuggling messages, speaking in court about the new science of cryptology as an expert witness, and developing an expertise with emerging code techniques that would prove central to her massive, and for a long time entirely unknown, efforts in the Second World War.
The fight against the Axis powers brought Elizebeth the covert opportunity to save an entire continent from fascist upheaval, and her husband the towering success that would seal his fate as the leading light of cryptanalysis. As the technical sophistication of encoding mechanisms grew, so did the challenge of rapid deciphering. The Allies were against two systems deemed uncrackable, the German Enigma device, and the more complicated Japanese Purple system. William had been working on Purple since before the war broke out, and his team’s solving of that device proved critical to the Allied effort to win that war. The solving of Enigma, however, fell to Alan Turing in England and Elizebeth Friedman in the United States. For most of the war, these two groups worked in isolation from each other, departmental rivalries and considerations of security keeping the teams from sharing results. While Turing used the power of his new computational machines to solve the devices, Elizebeth attacked it through methods developed over two decades of cryptological work.
Her years of analytic struggle resulted in the solving of three different levels of Enigma devices which unveiled forty eight different radio circuits and allowed the deciphering of over four thousand clandestine messages and led to nothing less than the shutting down of a potential Second Nazi Front in South America, the true story of which has only been revealed within the last decade. The Nazi government realized that one way to keep America from bringing its formidable might directly to bear on the European front was to open up a second direction of conflict, emanating from South America. Accordingly, it sent a wave of spies into Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, tasked with setting up radio transmitters for the relaying of information about US troop and ship movements, and with developing small cells of fascist sympathizers who could work towards swinging the continent towards a Nazi alignment.
Elizebeth was sworn to never speak of her work on the project for the rest of her life, and in the absence of her account, the FBI was ready to swoop in and steal the credit…
The Coast Guard began picking up evidence of increased encoded South America-German radio traffic and put Elizebeth on the task of breaking the code and producing plain text translations. She and her team threw themselves at the seemingly impossible task of backwards engineering from sheets and sheets of garbled text the design of the devices which produced them, succeeding not only in discovering the letter order on the wheels employed by the Enigma devices, but the circuitry that connected them and thereby produced encoded text. As a result, she could read transmissions of deep cover Nazi spies almost as fast as they broadcast them, and made the mistake at first of sharing her results with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which was desperate to make good on its promise to President Roosevelt to shut down a possible South American front.
Against her advice, the FBI went into South America, guns ablazing, and caught a number of, but not nearly all, German spies, which they patted themselves loudly on the back for in public, and in the process tipped off the Germans that their code had been broken. As a result, the remaining spies switched their keys and encoding devices, and Elizebeth lost months as she set about the task of re-solving them from scratch. She had learned her lesson, however, and future decrypted messages were kept strictly out of the FBI’s orbit, which allowed for an organized approach that ultimately shut down the Nazi spy rings in Argentina and elsewhere, and removed an entire continent from the United States’s list of concerns. Elizebeth was sworn to never speak of her work on the project for the rest of her life, and in the absence of her account, the FBI was ready to swoop in and steal the credit, J. Edgar Hoover hiring none other than Frank Capra to direct a special about the FBI’s supposed role in the war that ignored utterly Elizebeth Friedman and her team’s efforts.
Elizebeth Friedman’s last round of fame, then, came not from the five year struggle that broke an intercontinental Nazi spy ring, but from an oddity that briefly caught the American attention, the so-called Doll Woman case. Velvalee Dickinson had been using letters about doll shipments to routinely broadcast messages about fleet movements to South America for transference to Japan. The messages read innocuously enough, being accounts of different dolls Dickinson had in her collection, but there was something off enough in the wording to catch the attention of the government, which forwarded the case to Friedman, whose breaking of the code and suggestions for the gathering of secondary evidence led to a prosecution. In 1944, the doll woman was found guilty of espionage, fined $10,000, and sent to jail for a decade, in a case that broke all the papers.
Ultimately, on the strength of intelligence gathered through the breaking of Enigma and Purple, the Allies won the war, and Americans settled down to the manic thrum of the 1950s. For Elizebeth, the post-war period was devoted to research about the topic which brought her into cryptography in the first place, the Shakespeare conspiracy. Together with William, she sifted through every theory, every scrap of evidence, and subjected each to the cryptanalytical rigor wrought of the previous two decades. They wrote a book on their findings, The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, which amounted to a decisive and thorough-going refutation of all Shakespeare conspiracy theories, and which went on to win general acclaim from the literary and scientific communities. Its success was a gratifying public capstone to a career lived largely and necessarily in secret.
At home, however, the story was decidedly more grim. William, deep in the heart of the developing intelligence community, found himself increasingly at odds with the organization that would become the NSA. Its desperate need for security, and willingness to go to seemingly any lengths to gather information, made him doubt the purity of his work, and sent him into a deep depression only relieved by shock therapy. At a particularly low point in 1958, Elizebeth watched as NSA agents knocked on the door and proceeded to confiscate any papers or personal effects in the house that agency’s new sense of secrecy deemed too dangerous to rest in civilian hands. It was an insult aimed directly at the couple who had never flinched before a sacrifice of time, brainpower, or money, if it would help the security of their country.
Victim of multiple heart attacks, growing yearly more bitterly conservative in his estimation of the use of computers in cryptology, and feeling repudiated and left behind by the department he had conjured from nothing, William died in 1969. For the remaining eleven years of her life, Elizebeth compiled their work, hoping that by gathering it and placing it in the hands of a public institution, she could make up somewhat for the cult of secrecy that had plagued her husband to his death. That collection now rests at the Marshall Research Library in Virginia. Elizebeth Smith Friedman died in 1980.
FURTHER READING: For decades, the closest you could get to a biography of Elizebeth Friedman was Ronald Clark’s 1977 biography of William Friedman, The Man Who Broke Purple, which is a great book about how ciphers work and the history of cryptography, but which figures Elizebeth for perhaps 5% of its pages. Then, in 2017, Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies was published, and while a part of me cringes every time I read that title that nowhere contains Elizebeth’s actual name, the work he did in uncovering Elizebeth’s role during World War II is exemplary and brings to light a story that would otherwise still not be known. Well-written, and a true page turner for all the coding details it goes into, it’s a library necessity.
Lead image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia