Cracking the Code

Published in March 2014 by The Hillsdale Collegian

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Elizebeth S. Friedman graduated from Hillsdale College in 1915 with a B.A. in English, an annotated volume of Tennyson that she kept until her death, and an interest in Shakespeare that unexpectedly resulted in a long career in cryptography.

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Elizebeth was born on August 26, 1892 in Huntington, Ind. to John Marion Smith and Sopha 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 seeing the Newberry Library’s 1623 Shakespeare First Folio. A librarian mentioned her 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, and a short while later, they fell in love and were married by a Rabbi in Chicago.

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“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 (NSA) historian Betsy Rohaly Smoot. “There was a handful of officers in army who could break and make codes as needed, but Riverbank 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 Army Signals Intelligence Service (SIS), 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 in code breaking.

It was one of the last times the Friedmans would work together professionally. Though they continued to work together on personal projects – which included encrypted Christmas cards and coded love poems that they sent to each other while apart – 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 OSS, 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 that lead to the NSA 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 in particular are beginning to emerge from the file boxes and case files and receive their proper due.

A great-nephew of hers is researching for a biography. ATF – a descendent of the Bureau of Prohibition that counts Elizebeth amongst their forbearers – is naming their auditorium after her in a ceremony scheduled to take place on June 17, Osteika said.

“She really didn’t get the credit she deserved,” Osteika said. “Which is why I’ve spent two years trying to get something named after her, and why this ceremony is such a big deal. It’s the first time, really, that people are going to get a sense of what she did for Federal Law Enforcement.”


(Photos from top to bottom): Elizebeth and her husband, William, at Riverbank; Elizebeth during WWII; with William during the 1960s; and in 1918; . All courtesy of The George C. Marshall Foundation.

Additional information came from the Marshall Foundation, David Joyner’s paper “Elizebeth Smith Friedman, up to 1934,” and the U.S. Coast Guard.