When World War I broke out, there was no federal intelligence community, no CIA, FBI, or NSA. There was Elizebeth Smith Friedman.
The 1915 Hillsdale alumna remains one of history’s all-time best code breakers, influential in the development of America’s intelligence-gathering bodies. Her expertise brought officials from the FBI, U.S. Navy, and Treasury Department knocking at her door, and she became a champion of world wars.
But she was forgotten until recently, according to Jason Fagone, an American journalist and author of “The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies,” which came out Tuesday.
“Her whole career,” Fagone told The Collegian, “she was called in to fix things.”
Friedman was an English major who became the “mother of cryptology,” unlocking the codes of World War I enemies, rum-runners during Prohibition, and Nazi spies.
Fagone describes Friedman’s incredible life, often overshadowed by her husband, William Friedman, who helped break the secret messages of Japan’s Purple code machine — including one that predicted a major attack on the United States before Pearl Harbor.
Although Fagone briefly mentions Friedman’s experience at Hillsdale — she transferred here in 1913 from Wooster College in Ohio when her mother fell ill — Friedman’s journey to become one of the top cryptanalysts in the country stemmed from her liberal-arts education. Her code-breaking career, in fact, began with Shakespeare.
After college, Elizebeth Smith did not know what she wanted to do, but she was looking for adventure. She sought work in Chicago but was unsuccessful until visiting the city’s Newberry Library to view an original First Folio of William Shakespeare on display. There, a librarian connected her with George Fabyan, the eccentric millionaire invested in scientific projects that sought to change history and perfect the human race.
At Fabyan’s Riverbank Laboratories, Smith found work attempting to prove that English philosopher Francis Bacon had written Shakespeare’s works and hidden proof in the text, using a code called a cipher. There, Smith met her future husband, and they bonded over their disbelief in the Bacon theory, which they would debunk together in a book at the end of their lives.
That experience introduced the Friedmans to cryptology, underdeveloped in America when World War I broke out. Fabyan had them learn to crack codes for the U.S. military, reading the limited materials available and creating their own decoding methods. By the war’s end, they were some of the most experienced cryptanalysts in the United States and were teaching others this scientific way of unlocking secret messages.
The Friedmans eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where they continued their work in codebreaking for the military. When Elizebeth Friedman became pregnant, however, she left work to raise her daughter and then her son and write a book on codebreaking for beginners and children. The government, however, came knocking.
Because of Friedman’s rare skillset, the Treasury Department’s Coast Guard sought her help decoding messages from rum smugglers, gangsters, and kingpins of organized crime. She started working from home, breaking 12,000 codes per year. The cryptanalyst-in-chief eventually put together a team of seven people to smash those encrypted messages — an early NSA.
Come World War II, the pressures of her job continued to build, but Friedman and her team dominated. She was the first in the United States to break the German Enigma code (as in “The Imitation Game,” the movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the code-breaker Alan Turing), and she even broke a second variation of the machine, leading the Allies to victory in World War II’s invisible war of spies and secret messages.
In total, Friedman cracked 4,000 codes that helped take down the fascist spy network in South America, which contributed to the “greatest spy roundup” in U.S. history, said J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director who often took credit for the work Friedman and her team did in secret.
Despite little formal training in mathematics, Friedman fell into cryptology with a love for using the critical thinking she developed in college to pursue further work in the science.
“Codebreaking is about seeing patterns,” Fagone said. “I think Elizebeth had some experience in finding patterns in lines of poetry in her literature background she got at Hillsdale. That served her well in codebreaking.”
“Knowledge is power,” a phrase adapted from Bacon, was the motto of the Friedmans. Their ability to unlock knowledge was the key to saving lives, preventing coups, and winning wars.
It’s also the reason why Elizebeth Friedman’s story is only gaining recognition now. Although she indexed her husband’s records and donated much of her own work and letters for the Marshall Library in Virginia, her secretive work during World War II was not made public until between 1988 and 2000.
“I thought there would be a biography on her, and there wasn’t,” said Fagone, who began research in fall 2014. “I started reading her letters, and — oh my gosh — I was hooked. It seemed like an important American story that hadn’t been told.”
In “The Woman Who Smashed Codes,” Fagone finally brings justice to Friedman’s story. Compelling and humorous, the book provides a clear picture of the witty and tenacious Hillsdale graduate and the impact she had in the early development of America’s intelligence-gathering state.