AmazonWhen Elizebeth Smith Friedman was solving hidden messages from a subpoenaed trunk in Houston, Texas, she didn’t expect to find evidence that would help save the United States face in the international community — and more than $300,000 related to a case that happened off the coast of Louisiana.
But the 1915 Hillsdale College alumna did. The event propelled America’s first female cryptanalyst — codebreaker — to national prominence, says G. Stuart Smith, a journalism professor at Hofstra University, who wrote about his great-aunt in “A Life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman,” released Friday.
Friedman’s ground-breaking work would become the model for law enforcement and anti-terrorism strategy for analysis and information sharing in the 21st century. She created a code system for an agency that would eventually evolve into the CIA and helped lead a Coast Guard unit that was the first U.S. team to break messages from the German Enigma code machine (like from the movie “The Imitation Game”). Additionally, she deciphered the messages of alcohol smugglers during Prohibition and World War II spies.
And, of course, the liberal-arts student’s interest in the early science of cryptanalysis started with William Shakespeare.
Friedman grew up on a farm in Indiana in a Quaker family. She first caught an interest in codebreaking during college at Wooster College, when she learned of the theory that Francis Bacon had written Shakespeare’s works and hidden a cipher in them to declare so.
Friedman later transferred to Hillsdale College, where she studied English, joined Pi Beta Phi, and served as literary editor of The Collegian. In 1938, the college would award Friedman with an honorary doctor of law degree for her work in the Treasury Department.
After college, she worked as a librarian in Chicago, Illinois, because it had a Shakespeare folio, but the owner of Riverbank Laboratories, an estate of a wealthy man interested in investigating diverse topics, recruited her to do research on ciphers in Shakespeare. Her supervisor wanted to prove that Bacon, who had invented the bilateral cipher, had hidden one inside the bard’s text, proclaiming Shakespeare to be a pseudonym.
There, Elizebeth Smith met William Friedman, whom she would marry, and introduced him to cryptanalysis. William Friedman became involved in the Shakespeare research and would eventually surpass his wife in fame when he led the team that broke the Japanese Purple code, which predicted an attack on the United States prior to Pearl Harbor.
With the outbreak of World War I, the Friedmans’ employer had the couple train codebreakers for the military, and they deciphered messages for various federal governmental departments from Riverbank, helping to convict conspirators. William Friedman eventually made his way into the Army, and Elizebeth Friedman into the Navy — and shortly thereafter, the Coast Guard and Bureau of Foreign Control.
There during Prohibition, Elizebeth Friedman became the first cryptanalyst to use hidden messages to catch smugglers, cracking more than 12,000 rum-runners’ messages. Friedman also testified in many trials, gaining her national publicity, which she often decried. Her work led Congress to approve a seven-person cryptanalytic team for her to teach and lead.
During this time, Friedman deciphered the messages in the trunk that led to the revelation that a ship flying a Canadian flag and sunken by the U.S. Coast Guard for not complying with heed and be searched signals was actually owned by an American. The Canadians’ claims against the United States decreased following the revelation, and the Canadian government later secured Friedman’s help with opium-smuggling codes.
Friedman’s work was far more secretive during World War II. At the start, her cryptanalytic team moved from the Treasury Department to the Navy with the Coast Guard, and she became second-in-command in her unit to a man with less experience because she was a woman.
Nonetheless, her team was the first in the United States to crack the so-called unbreakable Enigma codes made from a German machine that changed its pattern every day.
Friedman also helped to take down Velvalee Dickinson, an infamous Japanese spy known as the Doll Woman. She discovered Dickinson had used the names of clients from her New York doll store to send encoded material, which Friedman deciphered, to Japanese agents.
At the end of the war, the Coast Guard let Friedman go, and she became a consultant to create a communications security system for the International Monetary Fund.
In retirement, Friedman and her husband, as masters of their craft, returned to the project on which they skeptically worked when they fell in love and wrote an award-winning essay and book that destroyed the arguments claiming Francis Bacon had written Shakespeare
G. Stuart Smith’s journey through the life of Friedman is short but packed with raw information from 50 pages of sources. Many quotations from Friedman’s memoirs and interviews show her wit and intellect contrast with the frequent reminders of Friedman’s accomplishments and, at times, challenges in working in a man’s world. Although descriptions of the codes Friedman tackles could be confusing, the storytelling of the Friedmans’ love story, how she tackled the cases she faced, and her rise to national attention keeps the reader hooked.
While Friedman cracked the codes of smugglers, spies, and Shakespeare, Smith’s “A Life in Code” cracks open the incredible story of this Hillsdale alumna.