Before Elizebeth and William Friedman, American cryptanalysis did not exist. The best thing we had, theoretically, were the occasional musings of Edgar Allen Poe, and even those were decidedly dilettantish put next to the organized efforts existing since the Elizabethan era in England. When World War I came to the United States, the armed forces simply did not know how to deal with the creation of effective codes, or the deciphering of enemy transmissions, and so took the unprecedented step of handing over sensitive cryptographic work to a civilian married couple who were at the time working at a farcical utopian intellectual community run by an eccentric millionaire.
And thus begins the tale of American cryptography…
Elizebeth Smith is the steady pulse of our story. While her more famous husband, “The Father of Cryptanalysis,” worked himself into five heart attacks and a crippling depression, she maintained a steady flow of work throughout her amazingly varied and unprecedented career, touching on everything from bootleggers to Shakespeare, from grand military secrets to the riddle of Mayan hieroglyphics. Born in 1892, she seemed destined for the humanities, with a particular facility for picking up esoteric languages. And perhaps it was her very esotericism that caught the attention of one of the most vivid characters of early twentieth century American intellectual life, 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 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. 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 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, fell in love, and got married, to spend the rest of their lives together, saving the world, one code at a time.
With the arrival of 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. 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.
In spite of a minor but characteristic act of personal sabotage on Fabyan’s part, William and Elizebeth found their way to legitimate government work, where both were instrumental in establishing an official code-breaking branch of the services. With the end of the war, William continued on, consolidating the department and 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 Department of the Navy, but her work spanned all manner of conundrums too confounding for anybody else to figure out. In particular, she was brought in when drug and alcohol smugglers began using radio communications and code signals to coordinate their drop-off schedules, with tens of thousands of deciphered bootlegger messages to her credit.
It was World War II, however, that brought Elizebeth fame, 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. Fate was on the side of the Allies, for while Friedman labored away for years before the official outbreak of war in harnessing IBM machines to crack Purple, across the ocean Alan Turing was using his own computing systems to charm the secrets from the Enigma device, so that when war came, America was reading Japanese high-diplomatic secrets as fast as they were being broadcast, while England gazed into the hidden heart of the German High Command.
In the breaking of Purple, and therefore in the ultimately successful Atlantic Allied strategy, Elizebeth played her decided part, but her fame rests on something else entirely, 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, 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 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 poured 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, 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: Elizebeth does not, as far as I know, have a full stand-alone account of her life and work. The closest you’ll get is Ronald Clark’s 1977 biography of William Friedman, The Man Who Broke Purple, which has not only an account of their joint life (though perhaps only 5% of the book is given to her accomplishments), but also some neat sections about how different ciphers work, of interest to anybody with an amateur detective inclination up their sleeve.