A Code Breaker in the Attic: Discovering the Hidden Life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman
By Amy Butler Greenfield
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
It’s not every day that you discover a code breaker in your attic, but that’s what happened to me. When I was just a kid, I investigated some dusty boxes in the attic and found a profile of Elizebeth Smith Friedman in a 1937 Reader’s Digest. She was one of the best code breakers in American history, and it was during World War I that her career first took off. As it did for so many women, the war gave her opportunities beyond her wildest dreams.
I was amazed by all that she had achieved, and I wanted to know more. Now I’ve had the chance to dig into her archives and records to get the full story, I’m even more impressed by her.
Born in Indiana in 1892, young Elizebeth Smith was sickly and small for her age, but she had a good mind, especially when it came to languages. Teaching didn’t suit her, but in 1916 she found a job at Riverbank, an estate and research center owned by George Fabyan, an oddball millionaire.
Fabyan believed that there were secret messages encrypted in Shakespeare’s First Folio, and he hired Elizebeth Smith to search for them. She soon decided that this was a crackpot’s mission, but she liked learning about ciphers and codes.
Through her work, she also met William Friedman, a Russian-born scientist who became her husband and code-breaking colleague.
In early 1917, Fabyan ordered the two of them to start a general “Department of Ciphers” at Riverbank,. He then offered their services to the U. S. Army, just as the country entered World War I.
Back then, the United States military had very few code breakers, and most of them were soon deployed in France. Eager to find more talent, the army sent an officer to investigate Riverbank. When the place passed muster, Elizebeth and William became the country’s main domestic code-breaking team. Impossible as it seems, their small team was responsible for decrypting secret messages for not only the War Department, but also the State Department, the Justice Department, the Navy, and even the Post Office.
Every day, encrypted messages were sent to Riverbank by railroad and telegraph, arriving by the sackful. Elizebeth and William had to get up speed fast. Working long hours, they used every known principle of cryptanalysis to break the messages in their possession. When that failed, they invented new methods. As Elizebeth later put it, they “became the learners, the students, the teachers, and even the workers all at once.”
Amazingly, they could crack almost any message within two hours. Elizebeth loved the moment when a solution emerged. “The skeletons of words leap out, and make you jump,” she later wrote.
As the Friedmans made their startling breakthroughs, they also made a name for themselves. In late 1917, they also created the main cryptography school for the U. S. Army, training a new generation of code breakers in their innovative methods. Yet there was trouble on the horizon, in the person of their boss, Fabyan. Determined to keep tight control over his star employees, Fabyan refused to let the U.S. Army hire Elizebeth and William directly. In time, the Army tired of this gamesmanship and established its own decryption centers elsewhere. But Fabyan kept the Friedmans trapped at Riverbank through devious means, reading their mail and destroying any offers that came for them.
In 1918, William found a way out of Riverbank. Obtaining a commission as an army officer, he left to serve as a code breaker in France. As a woman, however, Elizebeth was not eligible for that kind of opportunity. While there were openings for female nurses and female bilingual telephone operators at the front, the U. S. Army was not prepared to send a female code breaker there, no matter how good she was.
This policy frustrated both Friedmans, who preferred to work as a team. It also had serious, long-term repercussions for Elizebeth’s life and career. After her husband left, Fabyan harassed her. Her only way out was to go home to Indiana. While cooking and scrubbing floors for her widowed father, she began—as she put it—“to realize what it meant to be a champion swimmer stranded in the Sahara.”
As I sat in the archives, reading their World War I letters, I was deeply moved by the loyalty and love that Elizebeth and William had for each other. She never reproached him for going to France without her, and he did his best to try and find a way for her to join him on the code-breaking team there. Neither of them, however, could easily find a way to overcome the discrimination that Elizebeth experienced.
By the time William came home in 1919, the army considered him “our wizard on Code.” He was at the top of his game, writing papers that would transform cryptology. Elizebeth, meanwhile, was aware that her skills had atrophied for lack of practice. By the end of the war, she was known mostly as William’s wife, and she believed that “the task of catching up to him” was “altogether hopeless.”
In this, she underestimated herself. Like other women of her generation, Elizebeth would use her wartime experience as a springboard to later triumphs. In the 1920s, when the Coast Guard needed to break the codes of the rumrunning gangs, experienced code breakers were still in short supply. Elizebeth was one of the few available, so the Coast Guard ended up hiring her, and her star began to rise. Soon she was breaking thousands of messages every year and honing her skills to an extraordinary degree. By the late 1930s, she was one of the world’s most famous code breakers, and in World War II she would use her talents to break Nazi spy rings.
With a record like that, why didn’t she get into the history books? That’s a story for another time, but suffice it to say that women didn’t always get fair treatment in code-breaking. That was a hard truth that Elizebeth Smith Friedman learned in World War I, and it remained true for the rest of her life. Luckily, she refused to let it stop her.
Amy Butler Greenfield writes acclaimed books about history, art, science, and spies, including A Perfect Red and The Woman All Spies Fear. A popular speaker, she has appeared on PBS’s American Experience and at the International Spy Museum, the Los Angeles Public Library, and UK intelligence agency GCHQ. Visit her at www.amybutlergreenfield.com.