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Eliz­abeth Smith Friedman grad­uated in 1915. Winona Yearbook.

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.

  • Susan Bruch

    I just wanted to add another bit of trivia. While at Hillsdale Elizebeth Smith Friedman was also a member of Pi Beta Phi. I love her story and I’m glad someone finally wrote it for all to read.