In the 1930s, Elizebeth Smith Friedman became America’s and indeed the world’s best-known codebreaker. She inflicted severe damage on the interests of organized crime and at times needed to be protected by bodyguards. The evidence she gave in criminal trials describing how she cracked encrypted messages passing between mobsters made her a newspaper sensation.
Later, during World War 2, she broke coded messages sent on Germany’s Enigma machines. These messages revealed a plot by the Argentinian government to help Germany replace South American governments with Nazis, giving Germany bases from which to attack America. Her discoveries allowed the western allies to thwart the Argentinian and German plans.
Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s wartime codebreaking work was so secret that she was forbidden to mention it in public. She died many years before government archives were brought to light showing what she had done. During and after World War 2, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI took the credit for work Elizebeth and her U.S. Coast Guard team had carried out.
Clara Elizebeth Smith was born into a working class Quaker family on August 26, 1892 in the small city of Huntington, Indiana, USA. She grew up there on her parents’ small farm.
Elizebeth’s father, John Marion Smith, was a farmer, Civil War veteran, and Republican politician. He had traced his American family back to 1682, the year one of his ancestors arrived on the same ship as William Penn, the Quaker nobleman and writer after whom Pennsylvania is named.
Elizebeth’s mother was Sopha Smith (née Strock). She ran the home and cared for the family’s nine children – Elizebeth was the youngest.
Elizebeth was often quarrelsome – a trait she picked up from her father.
Educated at local schools in Huntington, Elizebeth applied to several colleges hoping to study for a bachelor of arts degree. This angered her father, who believed women should marry at a young age. Elizebeth told her father she was going to college, whatever he might say, and she would pay for her own education by finding work.
Her father relented and loaned her the money she needed, but charged her six percent interest. Elizebeth took the loan, but for the rest of her life she resented what she saw as her father’s meanness in charging her interest.
In 1911, age 19, Elizebeth Smith enrolled at Ohio’s Wooster College, 200 miles from home, to study Greek and English literature.
She earned money working as a freelance seamstress – her room was always full of dresses she was working on.
In 1913, after her mother was diagnosed with cancer, Elizebeth transferred to Hillsdale College, Michigan, which was only 100 miles from home. She completed her bachelor’s degree in spring 1915, majoring in English literature with minors in languages and applied sciences.
William Shakespeare and Alfred, Lord Tennyson were her favorite authors. In philosophy classes she was inspired by the Christian humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam, of whom she wrote:
Erasmus himself was famous for declaring:
Cracking Codes at College
Elizebeth got her first taste for ciphers at Wooster College. Her interest in Shakespeare’s plays led her to investigate the long-standing controversy about their true author. Suspecting this was Francis Bacon, Elizebeth studied Shakespeare’s works carefully, searching for hidden meanings and codes. This got her interested in the theory of cryptography – the field that deals with writing and breaking codes.
Shortly after graduating, Elizebeth took a job as a substitute high school principal in Wabash, Indiana, 20 miles from her hometown. She soon realized that day-to-day school-life was less gripping than she had hoped. She quit the job after a year and returned to her family’s home in Huntington.
At college, Elizebeth had been infamous for her argumentativeness, often disputing her work with her professors. She now began bickering incessantly with her equally quarrelsome father. It was clear the two could not live under the same roof. In June 1916, Elizebeth boarded a train for Chicago where she hoped to find a thought-provoking job – ideally as a researcher.
Who Really Wrote William Shakespeare’s Plays?An employment agency sent Elizebeth to Newberry Library. There she learned that an eccentric millionaire by the name of Colonel George Fabyan was seeking a cryptographer to analyze Shakespeare’s works to prove they were written by Francis Bacon. This aligned so closely with her own interests that it seemed almost too good to be true.
Colonel Fabyan offered Elizebeth a job and she moved to Riverbank, his 600 acre estate in Geneva, Illinois. There she found about 150 other researchers studying a wide range of subjects for the capricious Colonel Fabyan.
At Riverbank she soon met the man who would become her husband, William Friedman, a Ph.D. qualified geneticist hired by Colonel Fabyan to study the principles of heredity. William was Jewish and had arrived in America as a young boy with his family fleeing famine and persecution in Russia.
Elizebeth and William were each paid the same very low salary, $30 a month. On the plus side, Colonel Fabyan provided accommodation and meals. Elizebeth introduced William to cryptography and soon they were searching together for secret messages in Shakespeare’s plays.
From Literary to Military Cryptanalyst
Elizebeth and William found no codes or hidden messages. They began to doubt the value of their research. Both were ambitious people who wanted to achieve something worthwhile. They suggested to Colonel Fabyan that other work might be more fruitful. Fabyan flew into a frightening rage – a disturbing and recurrent aspect of his behavior – and ordered them back to their Shakespeare work.
Elizebeth left Riverbank at the beginning of 1917 to be with her dying mother. Following her mother’s death in February, Elizebeth returned to work.
In late 1916, Fabyan became convinced that America would soon enter World War 1. The U.S. military, however, had minimal experience of codebreaking. In early 1917, Fabyan established a cryptography team at Riverbank headed by Elizebeth and William. In March 1917, he offered its services to the government to break encrypted Morse code radio messages.
In April 1917, when America entered World War 1, all its military codebreaking work was carried out at Riverbank by Elizebeth, William, and a team that grew to 30 people.
Elizebeth and William married quietly in May 1917. The ceremony was performed by a rabbi. When William told his mother he had married Elizebeth, his mother collapsed in shock, ashamed that her son had married a ‘Shiksa’ – a pejorative term for a non-Jewish woman. William’s mother never came to terms with her son’s marriage, which upset both William and Elizebeth.
A Dirty Secret
Soon after starting their war work in early 1917, Elizebeth and William decided to join the military. They were fed up of Fabyan’s unpredictable temper and controlling attitude. They sent letters to Washington D.C. offering their codebreaking services, but never heard back.
Later they learned that Fabyan had intercepted and read their incoming mail. He had destroyed job offers sent to Elizebeth and William by the military. They also learned that Fabyan had installed hidden microphones to spy on them and thwart their plans to escape from Riverbank.
In early 1918, William finally made it into the Army Signal Corps. He was sent to France in May 1918, as a first lieutenant tasked with decoding German Army messages. Elizebeth dearly wished to accompany him, but the Army refused this: working near the enemy’s lines was for men only. She remained at Riverbank, breaking codes there.
The war ended on November 10, 1918.
Although the war was over, William was ordered to stay in France. Elizebeth, her loathing for Fabyan reaching fever pitch, left Riverbank quietly without telling Fabyan. She headed back to her hometown where she found work in the town library. She also managed to make peace with her father.
In April 1919, William arrived back in America. He and Elizebeth reluctantly resumed work with Fabyan, but this time they lived in the nearby town of Geneva rather than on his Riverbank estate.
Elizebeth Friedman Breaks Organized Crime Codes for the Government
At the end of 1920, the Friedmans escaped Fabyan forever. They moved to Washington D.C. where they began working for the Army Signal Corps on January 3, 1921.
In April 1921, Elizebeth resigned to become an author and start a family. She continued with some government work from home. William continued in the Army, his fame as a cryptologist growing rapidly.
In 1925, Elizebeth, became a special agent of the U.S. Treasury. She agreed to work for them as a cryptanalyst on condition that she work from home.
This was the era of Prohibition. The Treasury was fighting organized crime gangs who were smuggling alcohol into America by the shipload. Some of the larger crime syndicates had started using highly sophisticated codes several layers deep, more complicated than any code seen in World War 1. The gangsters were also changing codes frequently: if the government broke a code, the work was quickly obsolete.
In her first three months, Elizebeth decoded messages that had remained unbroken for the previous two years.
In 1927, Elizebeth began working with the Bureau of Prohibition and of Customs. She attacked codes used by organized crime gangs, cracking over 12,000 messages in three years and decrypting 24 different major codes. Working from home was no longer practical and Elizebeth traveled around the USA helping customs agents.
She was the Customs Bureau’s sole cryptanalyst and by 1930 was in danger of burning herself out. Code breaking is exhausting, painstaking work; it makes demands on the intellect that have driven many codebreakers to mental illness. Some years later, during World War 2, the demands of his job pushed Elizebeth’s husband William into a distressing illness.
In 1931, she was made Cryptanalyst-in-Charge, U.S. Coast Guard; she received funds to recruit three junior codebreakers to help her. This gave her more time to work on cracking particularly challenging codes.
Elizebeth gave evidence in a number of high-profile mobster trials. Her work came with risks: the government provided her with bodyguards several times. Newspapers and magazines ran features on her and she became famous. She regretted this, because she felt her work was best done in the background.
Her evidence helped put a large number of mobsters in jail. Defense lawyers would attempt to have the court rule that her evidence was “incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial,” because nobody could understand what she had done – she might have made the messages up herself rather than decoding anything. Elizebeth showed the defense lawyers were wrong, at times using a blackboard to explain the basics of her codebreaking to the court.
Elizebeth never consumed alcohol during Prohibition. However, she did not agree with the law – she believed it gave organized crime its first foothold in America.
Prohibition ended in 1934, but smuggling did not. Alcohol smuggling continued, with gangs trying to evade tariffs. Narcotics and jewelry smuggling were also rife.
Elizebeth continued her work, all the while wishing she had a lower public profile. With the rise of Nazi Germany she was about to get it.
Breaking Nazi Codes
Elizebeth’s greatest contribution to World War 2 was to crack three of the Nazi’s infamous Enigma encryption machines. These machines were transmitting encrypted messages between South America and Germany.
She did this without the huge electromechanical computer invented by Alan Turing. This was possible because the German agents in South America:
- used somewhat less sophisticated machines than those used by the Germany military
- wrote messages over periods of time without changing the key, giving Elizebeth an entry point to breaking the code and deciphering the wiring of the Enigma machine transmitting it
She was also helped by the fact that radio operators in Germany sometimes made crazy blunders, such as transmitting the message “OK Hello” repeatedly for 15 minutes, offering a marvelous opportunity for a codebreaker to reveal the wiring of the Enigma machine sending the messages.
Uncovering a Plot to Nazify South America
Elizebeth learned that Argentina was co-operating with German schemes to overthrow other governments in South America and replace them with ones sympathetic to the Nazis. The Nazis hoped to develop South American bases to attack the USA from the south.
The fact that Elizebeth and her codebreaking team were reading messages between Argentina and Germany was one of the great secrets of the war – Elizebeth never talked about it. It was vital that neither Germany nor Argentina should realize their messages were being read.
This created a problem. America wanted to show the Argentinians that it knew exactly what they were up to. However, this needed to happen without the information source becoming known.
The solution again came from Elizebeth. She decoded a message revealing that a junior Argentinian diplomat was going to travel by sea from Argentina to Spain. Her work had previously shown that this man was working for the Nazis.
The Americans shared this information with the British, whose marines kidnapped the diplomat from the ship he was on, confiscated materials he was carrying to Germany, and took him back to the United Kingdom for questioning. The results of the interrogation were sufficient to hide the fact that Elizebeth and her team were the true source of information about Argentinian-German cooperation.
America told the Argentinian government that it knew all about its activities. A large force of American warships turned up a few miles from Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires. The result was that, in January 1944, the Argentinian government broke off all relations with Germany and Japan and started arresting suspected German agents.
All of this was the product of Elizebeth and her team’s work.
Personal Details and The End
In May 1917, at age 24, Elizebeth married William F. Friedman, who was 25. She introduced him to cryptology and he became an eminent cryptographer, rising to head the Army codebreaking team that deciphered the Japanese wartime Purple code – a crucial breakthrough.
Elizebeth and William had two children: Barbara, born in 1923, and John Ramsay, born in 1926.
When World War 2 ended, Elizebeth’s codebreaking days ended too. She continued in employment for a year, archiving the work she and her team had carried out. In September 1946, at age 54, her duties with the U.S. Coast Guard were complete.
After William’s retirement, he and Elizebeth returned to the work that had first brought them together. In 1957, they published a book The Shakespeare Ciphers Examined decisively refuting the claim that Francis Bacon authored Shakespeare’s plays or that there were hidden messages in them.
Elizebeth’s favorite hobby in retirement was gardening and she also enjoyed playing the piano.
William died in 1969, after which Elizebeth lived at different times with her daughter and her son.
Elizebeth Smith Friedman died of arteriosclerosis on October 31, 1980, in the Abbott Manor Nursing Home in North Plainfield, New Jersey. She was 88 years old.
Her ashes were spread over her husband’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. Their shared headstone bears the inscription Knowledge is Power, a phrase coined by Francis Bacon, whose theorized Shakespeare cipher first brought the couple together. A cryptanalyst to the end, Elizebeth had the letters of Knowledge is Power carved in slightly different fonts so that, in addition to saying Knowledge is Power, they encoded her husband’s initials: WFF.
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"Elizebeth Smith Friedman." Famous Scientists. famousscientists.org. 4 Sep. 2019. Web. <www.famousscientists.org/elizebeth-smith-friedman/>.
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Transcipt of Elizebeth Smith Friedman interview with NBC Radio, May 25, 1934
Cipher on the William and Elizebeth Friedman tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery is solved
G. Stuart Smith
A Life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman
McFarland & Company, 2017
The Woman Who Smashed Codes
Dey St., 2017
Original black & white photos of Friedman courtesy of the George C. Marshall Foundation
Image of Erasmus courtesy of Wellcome Collection under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.
Image of Enigma Machine courtesy of Alessandro Nassiri and the Leonardo da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.