Elizebeth Smith Friedman, Codebreaker

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Elizebeth Friedman (Smith)

Also Known As: "Clara", "Elizabeth", "Smith ;"
Birthplace: Union, Huntington, Indiana, United States
Death: October 31, 1980 (88)
Plainfield, Union County, New Jersey, United States
Place of Burial: Arlington, Virginia, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of John Marion Smith and Sophia Smith
Wife of William F. Friedman ("Dean of American Cryptology")
Mother of Private and Barbara Friedman
Sister of Ethel Leona Thomas; Raymond Francis Smith; Lena Alcinda Kline; Anna Margaret Smith; Clyde William Smith and 4 others

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Elizebeth Smith Friedman, Codebreaker

Wikipedia - Elizebeth Smith Friedman

Elizebeth Smith Friedman (August 26, 1892 – October 31, 1980) was an American expert cryptanalyst and author. She has been called "America's first female cryptanalyst".

Early life and education

Friedman was born in Huntington, Indiana, to John Marion Smith, a Quaker dairyman, banker, and politician, and Sopha Smith (née Strock). Friedman was the youngest of nine surviving children (a tenth died in infancy) and grew up on a farm.

From 1911 to 1913, Friedman attended the University of Wooster in Ohio, but she left when her mother became ill. In 1913, Friedman transferred to Hillsdale College in Michigan since it was closer to home. In 1915, she graduated with a major in English literature. She was a member of Pi Beta Phi. Having exhibited her interest in languages, she had also studied Latin, Greek, and German, and minored "in a great many other things." Only she and one other sibling attended college. In the fall of 1915, Elizebeth became the substitute principal of a public high school in Wabash, Indiana. This position was short-lived, however, and in the spring of 1916, she quit and moved back in with her parents.


Riverbank Laboratories

Elizebeth Smith, began working at Riverbank Laboratories, Geneva, Illinois, in 1916, in one of the first facilities in the U.S. founded to study cryptography. Colonel George Fabyan, a wealthy textile merchant, owned Riverbank Laboratories and was interested in Shakespeare. Elizebeth was trying to get a job and went into the Chicago's Newberry Library where she talked to a librarian who knew of Fabyan's interest. The librarian offered to call Fabyan, conveying Elizebeth's love of Shakespeare, among other things, and Fabyan said he'd be right over. Fabyan soon appeared in his limousine and invited Elizebeth to spend a night at Riverbank, where they discussed what life would be like at Fabyan's great estate located in Geneva, Illinois. He told her that she would assist a Boston woman, Elizabeth Wells Gallup, and her sister with Gallup's attempt to prove that Sir Francis Bacon had written Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. The work would involve decrypting enciphered messages that were supposed to have been contained within the plays and poems.

Riverbank gathered historical information on secret writing. Until MI8, the Army's Cipher Bureau, was created during World War I, Riverbank was the only facility in the U.S. capable of solving enciphered messages. Military cryptography had been deemphasized after the Civil War. During World War I, several U.S. Government departments asked Riverbank Labs for help or sent personnel there for training. Among those was Agnes Meyer Driscoll, who came on behalf of the Navy.

Among the staff of fifteen at Riverbank was the man Elizebeth would marry in May 1917, William F. Friedman. The couple worked together for the next four years in what was still the only cryptographic facility in the country, until Herbert Yardley's so-called "Black Chamber" was established in 1919. In 1921, the Friedmans left Riverbank to work for the War Department in Washington, D.C. Their previous efforts to leave had been thwarted by Fabyan, who intercepted their mail.

Government service

Although Friedman worked closely with her husband as part of a team, many of her contributions to cryptology were unique. She and her team deciphered many encoded messages throughout the Prohibition years and solved many notable cases, including some codes which were written in Mandarin Chinese.

The Volstead Act (1919) forbade the manufacture, sale, import, or export of intoxicating liquors. Prevailing conditions during the period known as Prohibition (1920–33), however, encouraged illegal activity. Further, as radio equipment became less cumbersome, less conspicuous, and more sophisticated, it afforded the criminal element a new means to circumvent the law. To avoid taxes and other fees, criminals smuggled liquor into the U.S.—and, to a lesser degree, narcotics, perfume, jewels, and even pinto beans. Enciphered communications about their criminal activities were relayed by bootleggers and smugglers to protect their operations.

Even though early codes and ciphers were very basic, their subsequent increase in complexity and resistance to solution was important to the financial success and growth of their operations. The extent of sophistication seemed to pose little problem for Friedman; she still mounted successful attacks against both simple substitution and transposition ciphers, and the more complex enciphered codes which eventually came into use.

Anti-prohibitionists provided Friedman and her team of cryptanalysts with numerous opportunities to hone their codebreaking skills during her employment with the U.S. Treasury Department. She was one of the people who led the cryptanalytic effort against international smuggling and drug-running radio and encoded messages, which the runners began to use extensively to conduct their operations.

In 1923, Friedman was hired as a cryptanalyst for the U.S. Navy. This led to a position with the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Prohibition and of Customs, which in 1927 established a joint effort with the Coast Guard Intelligence Division to monitor international smuggling, drug-running, and criminal activity domestically and internationally. The smugglers and runners used encrypted radio messages to support their operations, presuming they would be able to communicate securely; however the unit was able to decrypt the messages. From 1927 to 1939, the unit was critical during a very active period of smuggling in the United States, and so was eventually folded into the U.S. Coast Guard. Friedman solved the bulk of intercepts collected by Coast Guard stations in San Francisco and Florida herself. In June 1928, she was sent to teach C.A. Housel, stationed with the Coordinator of the Pacific Coast Details, how to decrypt the rumrunners' messages. Under her teaching, Housel was able to decode 3,300 messages within 21 months. In October and November 1929, she was then recruited in Houston, Texas, to solve 650 smuggling traffic cases that had been subpoenaed by the United States Attorney. In doing so, she decrypted 24 different coding systems used by the smugglers.

Friedman's work was responsible for providing decoded information that resulted in the conviction of the narcotics-smuggling Ezra Brothers.

While working for the U.S. Coast Guard, the Bureau of Narcotics, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the Bureau of Prohibition and Customs, and the Department of Justice, she solved over 12,000 rum-runners' messages in three years.

Friedman also perceived the need for a more dedicated effort against suspected communications. By 1931 she was among people who convinced Congress of the need to create a headquartered, seven-person cryptanalytic section for this purpose. As her cryptanalytic responsibilities began to mount, Friedman sensed the need to teach other analysts cryptanalytic fundamentals, including deciphering techniques. By relieving her of a part of the burden, this allowed her time to attack the more atypical new systems as they cropped up and expedited the entire process from initial analysis through to solution. It also allowed her to stay one step ahead of the smugglers.

In addition to her cryptanalytic successes, she was often called to testify in cases against accused parties. The messages she deciphered or decoded enabled her to implicate several smugglers operating in the Gulf of Mexico and on the Pacific Coast. She subsequently testified in cases in Galveston and Houston, Texas, and New Orleans, Louisiana. Her efforts in 1933 resulted in convictions against thirty-five bootlegging ringleaders who were found to have violated the Volstead Act. Ringleaders were directly linked with suspected vessels as a result of the information arising out of her analysis.

The next year she played a major role in settling a dispute between the Canadian and U.S. governments over the true ownership of the sailing vessel I'm Alone. It was flying the Canadian flag when it was sunk by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter for failing to heed a "heave to and be searched" signal. The Canadian government filed a $350,000 suit against the U.S., but the intelligence gleaned from the twenty-three messages decoded by Friedman indicated de facto U.S. ownership just as the U.S. had originally suspected. As a consequence, the true owners of the ship were identified and most of the Canadian claim was dismissed.

The Canadian government sought Friedman's help in 1937 with an opium dealer problem which evolved into an outstanding case. She complied and eventually testified in the trial of Gordon Lim and several other Chinese. Her solution to a complicated unknown Chinese enciphered code, in spite of her unfamiliarity with the language, was key to the successful convictions.

Friedman left her mark on the fate of Velvalee Dickinson, whose path to and role in espionage are noteworthy. Following high school and some college, Velvalee married the head of a brokerage firm that had Japanese-American clients. The Dickinsons' interest in Japan grew so much that they joined the Japanese-American Society, where they began to rub shoulders with members of the Japanese consulate. When the brokerage firm's success suffered a downturn, so too did the Dickinsons' role as proponents of good Japanese-American relations. At some point, the couple became spies for Japan. Velvalee became a major player, and her successful doll shop was a cover for her espionage. Known as the "Doll Woman," she corresponded with Japanese agents using the names of women she found in her business correspondence. Her correspondence, which contained encoded material addressing significant naval vessel movement in Pearl Harbor, was analyzed and solved by Friedman. This analysis resulted in a guilty verdict against Dickinson.

World War II

During World War II, Friedman's Coast Guard unit was transferred to the Navy where they were the principle U.S. source of intelligence on Operation Bolívar, the clandestine German network in South America. Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour that brought the U.S. into the war, there was concern that Germany could eventually attack the U.S. via Latin America. The Nazi authorities also saw Latin America as a potential opportunity to out flank the U.S. While the FBI was given responsibility for countering this threat, at the time, the one U.S. agency with staff experienced in detecting and monitoring clandestine spy transmissions was the Coast Guard, due to its earlier work against smugglers, and Mrs. Friedman’s team was its sole cryptoanalytic asset.

Friedman’s team remained the primary U.S. code breakers assigned to the South American threat and they solved numerous cipher systems used by the Germans and their local sympathizers, including three separate Enigma machines. One turned out to be an unrelated Swiss network, but the other two were used by Johannes Siegfried Becker (codename: ’’Sargo’’), the SS agent who headed the operation, to communicate with Germany. Over the course of the war, Friedman’s team decoded 4,000 message sent on 48 different radio circuits. The work of Friedman's Unit 387 (Coast Guard Cryptanalytic Unit) was often in support of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and J. Edgar Hoover, and was not always credited. After World War II, Hoover began a public media campaign that claimed that the FBI led the code-breaking effort that resulted in the collapse and arrest the German spy network in South America, including the publicity reel called "The Battle of the United States."

After World War II, Friedman became a consultant to the International Monetary Fund and created communications security systems for them based on one-time tapes.


After retirement from government service, Friedman and her husband, who had long been Shakespeare enthusiasts, collaborated on a manuscript entitled "The Cryptologist Looks at Shakespeare," eventually published as The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined. It won awards from the Folger Shakespeare Library and the American Shakespeare Theatre and Academy. In this book, the Friedmans dismissed Baconians such as Gallup and Ignatius Donnelly with such technical proficiency and finesse that the book won far more acclaim than did others that addressed the same topic.

The work that Gallup had done earlier for Col. Fabyan at Riverbank operated on the assumption that Bacon wrote Shakespeare and used the bi-literal cipher he invented in the original printed Shakespeare folios, employing "an odd variety of typefaces." The Friedmans, however, "in a classic demonstration of their life's work," buried a hidden Baconian cipher on a page in their publication. It was an italicized phrase which, using the different type faces, expressed their final assessment of the controversy: "I did not write the plays. F. Bacon."[citation needed] Their book is regarded as the definitive work, if not the final word, on the subject. Ironically, it was the Riverbank effort to prove Bacon wrote Shakespeare that introduced the Friedmans to cryptology.

Following her husband's death in 1969,[21][22] Friedman devoted much of her retirement life to compiling a library and bibliography of his work. This "most extensive private collection of cryptographic material in the world" was lodged in the George C. Marshall Research Library in Lexington, Virginia.[23]

"Our office doesn't make 'em, we only break 'em," said Friedman to a visitor who tried to sell her code-making assistance. The NSA notes that she did "break 'em" many times over a variety of targets. Her successes led to the conviction of many violators of the Volstead Act.[1]

Personal life

The unusual spelling of her name (it is more commonly spelled "Elizabeth") is attributed to her mother, who disliked the prospect of Elizebeth ever being called "Eliza."

In 1917, Friedman married William F. Friedman, who later became a notable cryptographer credited with numerous contributions to cryptology, a field to which she introduced him.

They had two children, Barbara Friedman (later Atchison) (born 1923), and John Ramsay Friedman (1926–2010).

Elizebeth Friedman died on October 31, 1980, in the Abbott Manor Nursing Home in Plainfield, New Jersey, at the age of 88. She was cremated and her ashes spread over her husband's grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

Posthumous recognition

Friedman's contributions received increasing recognition after her death. In 1999, the year of its creation, she was inducted to the NSA Hall of Honor, and in 2002 NSA's OPS1 building was dedicated as the William and Elizebeth Friedman Building during the Agency's 50th Anniversary Commemoration.

In April 2019, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution "Honoring the life and legacy of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, Cryptanalyst".

Works and publications

with William F. Friedman, Riverbank Publication Number 21, Methods for the Reconstruction of Primary Alphabets, 1918, in Methods for the Solution of Ciphers, Publications 15-22, Rufus A. Long Digital Library of Cryptography, George C. Marshall Library, 1917-1922,:pdf p. 279

ISK (Bletchley Park); Unit 387 (Coast Guard Cryptanalytic Unit) (1944). Coast Guard Unit 387 and Bletchley Park Liaison. Coast Guard Cryptanalytic Unit / National Archives UK.

Jones, Leonard T.; Friedman, Elizebeth (1945). History of Coast Guard Unit 387 (Cryptanalytic Unit), 1940-1945. National Archives and Records Administration.

Friedman, William F.; Friedman, Elizebeth S. (1957). The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined: An Analysis of Cryptographic Systems Used As Evidence That Some Author Other Than William Shakespeare Wrote the Plays Commonly Attributed to Him. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. OCLC 718233.

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Elizebeth Smith Friedman, Codebreaker's Timeline

August 26, 1892
Union, Huntington, Indiana, United States
October 31, 1980
Age 88
Plainfield, Union County, New Jersey, United States
Age 87
Arlington, Virginia, United States