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Elizebeth grad­uated from Hillsdale College in 1915 with a B.A. in English, an anno­tated volume of Alfred Ten­nyson that she kept until her death, and an interest in Shake­speare that unex­pectedly led her to become a pioneer in the field of cryp­tog­raphy.
Elizebeth S. Friedman was born on Aug. 26, 1892 in Hunt­ington, Ind. to John Marion Smith and Sophia Strock Smith. As the youngest of nine children, she was only one of two to attend college. In 1911, she left for Wooster College in Ohio, but trans­ferred to Hillsdale two years later.
After grad­u­ation, she traveled to Chicago in hopes of finding work and to see Shakespeare’s “First Folio” at the New­berry Library. A librarian men­tioned Elizebeth to the wealthy and eccentric Col. George Fabyan, who ran a per­sonal research facility in Geneva, Ill. He drove to Chicago that day, hired Elizebeth, and brought her back to Riverbank Lab­o­ra­tories. She became a research assistant to Eliz­abeth Wells Gallup, who hoped to prove that Sir Francis Bacon not only authored Shakespeare’s plays, but also hid a bilateral cipher inside.
One of the geneti­cists on staff, a Russian-born Jew from Pitts­burgh named William Friedman, was brought in to pho­to­graph man­u­scripts. Elizebeth quickly peaked his interest in ciphers. A short while later they fell in love and were married by a rabbi in Chicago.
“If you know any­thing about modern intel­li­gence or cryp­tog­raphy, he’s the big name,” said Col. Rose Mary Sheldon, author of the guide to the Friedman col­lection at the George C. Mar­shall Foun­dation. “He’s the man who invented the word crypt­analysis. That’s how back in the beginning it was.”
The United States entered World War I one month before the Friedmans married. The pair quickly dropped their other projects to train officers in cryp­tog­raphy and to analyze codes sent to Riverbank by the gov­ernment.
“America didn’t have a cryp­to­logic orga­ni­zation prior to World War I,” explained National Security Agency his­torian Betsy Rohaley Smoot. “There was a handful of officers in the army who could break and make codes as needed, but Riverbank was really the only insti­tution doing any form of cryp­tology.”
Even­tually, William was sent to Gen. Pershing’s head­quarters in France, where he began his formal career as a cryp­tog­rapher for the U.S. Army Signals Intel­li­gence Service, Sheldon said. But prior to that, the pair exposed the “Hindu-German Con­spiracy,” in which Germany planned to support an Indian rev­o­lution in hopes of desta­bi­lizing England, and trained mil­itary officers to break code.
It was one of the last times the Friedmans would work together pro­fes­sionally. Though they con­tinued to work together on per­sonal projects like exchanging encrypted Christmas cards and coded love poems, the pair seldom dis­cussed their work at home and never assisted each other in their gov­ernment work.
“Both of them were very good at what they did – and both of them kept the secrets very well,” Sheldon said.
After the war, the pair briefly remained at Riverbank before fleeing Fabyan’s obsessive control in favor of Wash­ington and gov­ernment work. William con­tinued to work for the War Department and SIS while Elizebeth found employment with the Navy, the Treasury Department, and the Coast Guard.
During the interwar period and the Pro­hi­bition era, Elizebeth cracked rum runners’ codes and served as a gov­ernment witness across the country, making her the most famous cryp­tog­rapher in the United States.
The United States Coast Guard credits her with deci­phering over 12,000 encoded radio mis­sions and calls her “one of the most remarkable women to ever work for the U.S. Gov­ernment.”

“Her tes­timony won these cases for the gov­ernment,” said Barbara Osteika, a his­torian at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explo­sives. “Once she talks through the codes, they’re like con­fes­sions.”

While reading through case files, Osteika often found com­ments from pros­e­cutors that read some­thing like, “If it was not for her tes­timony, this case would be lost,” she said.

Elizebeth was pivotal in the case against Con­sol­i­dated Export Company (CONEXCO), “million dollar liquor ring” con­nected to Al Capone, as well as the famous “I’m Alone” case, in which the U.S. Coast Guard scuttled a ship sailing under a Canadian flag and launched an inter­na­tional incident. She was even loaned out to the Canadian gov­ernment in the late 30s to help break a ring of opium smug­glers.

Then World War II began and Elizebeth was “co-opted” by the Office of Strategic Ser­vices, what the CIA calls “America’s first intel­li­gence agency,” Sheldon said.

“That’s when we hit the brick wall,” Sheldon said. “We know she was involved in OSS, we know that one of their biggest cases was broken because of her, but we can’t seem to declassify or find any evi­dence of what she did.”

During World War II, William broke the Japanese Purple encryption, allowing the U.S. gov­ernment to read diplo­matic com­mu­ni­ca­tions leading up to Pearl Harbor.  But that night, when he came home, William only asked, “What’s for dinner, honey?” Sheldon said.

After the war, Elizebeth estab­lished a secure com­mu­ni­ca­tions system for the Inter­na­tional Mon­etary Fund and William con­tinued to serve as a high-ranking crypt­an­alyst for the various security agencies until he offi­cially retired in 1955.

After he retired, the Friedmans traveled to Europe to see friends, New Jersey to see grand­children, and Central America to decipher Mayan glyphs. They pre­pared their library for donation, grew roses, and wrote The Shake­spearean Ciphers Examined, in which the Friedmans debunked the bilateral cipher theory that first brought them together.

After William died in 1969, Elizebeth became the tena­cious defender of his legacy, directing work on his biog­raphy, The Man Who Broke Purple, but also working on a history of the alphabet and her own memoirs. She passed away on October 31, 1980 at the age of 88. The Friedmans are buried in Arlington Cemetery with a shared tomb­stone that appro­pri­ately reads “knowledge is power.”

But their legacy con­tinues. Elizebeth’s con­tri­bu­tions are beginning to emerge from the file boxes and case files and receive their proper due.

 

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