Known as “America’s first female cryptanalyst,” Elizebeth Smith Friedman was a master code breaker who played a pivotal role in both World Wars. For many years, no one knew what she had done, not even her own family. Code breaking wasn’t Smith Friedman’s plan to begin with.
In the mid-1910s she was a 23-year-old college graduate in English literature looking for an interesting job. That all changed when an eccentric millionaire whisked her off to his lavish country estate and recruited her to work on his passion project: finding the secret codes in Shakespeare’s plays.
Smith Friedman scoured the texts alongside a tiny team of self-taught code breakers. They didn’t turn up any hidden messages. But soon the U.S. government came knocking with a slightly higher-priority mission. Perhaps her greatest coup was when she uncovered a Nazi spy ring in South America. J. Edgar Hoover took credit on behalf of the FBI, while Smith Friedman signed an oath to never speak of her achievements and fell into obscurity. Records of what she had done were found in the National Archives annex in College Park, Md.
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Katie Hafner: In 1917, the US was about to enter the first world war. The Germans and their allies were sending telegram and radio messages all over the world at record speeds, carrying secret military intelligence.
And the US was successfully intercepting these messages…
which would have been great if they could actually understand what the messages were saying. Because of course, these messages were all encoded.
Carol Sutton Lewis: To crack these codes, the US government turned not to expert cryptologists, not to military intelligence, but to a team of rookie codebreakers living in the Illinois countryside—
Jason Fagone: She was a code breaking Quaker poet who caught gangsters and hunted Nazis. She also like laid the foundation for the American intelligence community as we know it.
Carol Sutton Lewis: But when the government first tapped her to help the war effort, Elizebeth wasn’t a trained cryptologist, not remotely. She was a 24-year-old poet and English lit major just two years out of college. But she would go on to change the world of codebreaking for decades to come.
Katie Hafner: I’m Katie Hafner
Carol Sutton Lewis: and I’m Carol Sutton Lewis.
Katie Hafner: This is Lost Women of Science.
Carol Sutton Lewis: And today, we’re talking about Elizebeth Smith Friedman.
Carol Sutton Lewis: In the mid-1910s, Elizebeth Smith was not just one of the best codebreakers of her time — she was one of the ONLY ones in the country. And she fell into the career by accident… through poetry.
Nothing in Elizebeth’s early life suggested she’d go on to be a master code breaker. She’d grown up in a Quaker family on a dairy farm in Indiana, the youngest of nine children, and her father hadn’t wanted her to go to college. But like so many of the women in our series, Elizebeth was determined and went anyway. Off to college… to study English lit.
Katie Hafner: Elizebeth’s introduction to codebreaking was completely serendipitous. She was 23 when it happened. She’d just graduated from Hillsdale College in Michigan, and she was looking for a job. But she wasn’t interested in working as a schoolteacher — the only real job for an educated woman at that time. So she went to Chicago to see what she could find.
One day, she went to the library and asked the librarian if she had any tips. She told the librarian she was especially interested in literature and would like something “unusual.”
The librarian told her about a man named George – George Fabyan. He was a multimillionaire who lived outside Chicago on this big estate called Riverbank. He had an array of quirky projects and he also seemed to have an endless amount of money to throw at them. And he had one project in particular that an English lit major like Elizebeth might be able to help with: Finding and deciphering hidden messages in Shakespeare. Ok, he wasn’t the only one. This idea that there were secret codes in Shakespeare had already been circulating for more than a century.
The librarian asked Elizebeth if she should introduce them. Elizebeth told this whole story in an oral history interview in 1973.
Elizebeth Friedman: She said, “Shall I call him up?”And I said, “Well, yes, I wish you would please.”
Katie Hafner: So the librarian called George Fabyan, who was actually visiting Chicago at the time. And he decided to drive over on the spot and meet Elizebeth in person.
Elizebeth Friedman: She introduced us and um, the first words he said to me nearly bowled me over. He said, “Will you come out to Riverbank and spend the night with me?”
Carol Sutton Lewis: Yikes!
Katie Hafner: Yeah, I know. And George Fabyan did turn out to be a bit of a creep later on, making passes at Elizebeth… But at this point, he was actually making her a legitimate job offer. The work would take place on his fancy Riverbank estate, and he wanted Elizebeth to come out and see it so she would agree to work for him.
Elizebeth Friedman: I said, “Oh, sir, I don’t have anything with me to, um, spend the night away from my room,” and he said, “Well, never mind that. We can supply that.”
Katie Hafner: She didn’t even pack a bag. George’s chauffeur took them to the train station, and they got on this train to the Illinois countryside. It was 1916, and Elizebeth was about to start a job that was far more unusual than she had bargained for.
Jason Fagone: Riverbank was, on the face of it, a wealthy man’s country retreat outside of Chicago.
Carol Sutton Lewis: Jason Fagone is a writer who dug deep into Elizebeth’s story in his book “The Woman Who Smashed Codes.”
Jason Fagone: It had these beautiful sort of, uh, gardens; it had a lighthouse along a river… You know, famous people of the day would come and, and visit and stroll the gardens… But there was another half of Riverbank that was essentially like a private scientific laboratory. There were all kinds of laboratory buildings that were scattered around Riverbank that were intended to sort of investigate some of the secrets of nature.
Carol Sutton Lewis: Elizebeth would be working on the investigation that was closest to George’s heart.
Jason Fagone: George Fabyan’s sort of preoccupation, the thing that he cared most about in the world of science was he had this theory —
Carol Sutton Lewis: —the theory that there were secret codes in Shakespeare… AND that…
Jason Fagone: …those encoded messages in the plays would reveal the true author of William Shakespeare’s plays, which he believed was not actually Shakespeare, but was a, a noble of the time named Francis Bacon.
Carol Sutton Lewis: That’s right. Sir Francis Bacon, the 17th century aristocrat and philosopher.
For centuries, thousands of people debated whether or not Shakespeare wrote his own works. Many people thought he wasn’t educated or cultured enough to have been the author of such worldly, sophisticated plays.
Meanwhile, Bacon who was Shakespeare’s contemporary, was worldly and sophisticated. And Baconians
Katie Hafner: But wait, Baconians?
Carol Sutton Lewis: Yeah, Baconians. They tried to prove he was the real author in different ways. One woman thought evidence was buried in Shakespeare’s tomb and asked to pry it open. Another thought secret manuscripts were hidden in panels in Bacon’s old home. And a lot of people thought the proof was in Shakespeare’s plays themselves, written in code. Because Francis Bacon was very interested in codes — he even came up with his own cipher system for encrypting letters. So in the 19th century, a theory started brewing that he’d put coded messages into the plays.
Jason Fagone: This was a pretty widely held opinion, sort of in the early 20th century, but Fabyan really believed it fully, and he believed it so intently that he hired a group of about 10 or 15, Shakespeare scholars and poets and, and brought them to Riverbank and set them on this task of trying to find these secret messages in Shakespeare.
And so that was at, at age 23, she was essentially plucked from obscurity, plucked from her normal life, brought to Riverbank, immersed in this absolute sort of crazy world. That was day zero of her code breaking adventure.
Carol Sutton Lewis: Little did Elizebeth know, this ragtag bunch of scholars and poets she’d just joined would end up being pioneers in something completely unforeseen: the country’s wartime code breaking efforts. But for now, in the mid-1900s, it was all about Shakespeare. That was her assignment: to find those codes!
Katie Hafner: Wait a minute, so how would you even start to look for secret codes in Shakespeare? Read it upside down? Read every other word?
Carol Sutton Lewis: Well, the idea was that Shakespeare’s plays were printed in two slightly different fonts.
The supposed differences were really subtle — but for the sake of picturing how this would work, let’s imagine that, say, one font has a dot under every letter, and the other font has a dash under every letter. So, if you mix up these fonts as you’re writing the play, you could encode a message spelled out in dots and dashes. A kind of binary code made up of just two symbols.
So the Shakespeare skeptics were convinced that by looking closely at the letters used to spell each word in Shakespeare’s works, they could make out two different alphabets and uncover a code from Francis Bacon.
There was just one problem.
Jason Fagone: So, the Shakespeare project turned out to be a wild goose chase, right? There were no secret messages in, in Shakespeare. Fabyan was sort of chasing a delusion.
Carol Sutton Lewis: So Elizebeth realized this pretty quickly. As did one of the men working with her on the project: William Friedman.
Katie Hafner: William was the son of Orthodox Jews who’d escaped pogroms and come to America. And like Elizebeth, he had no background in codebreaking before coming to Riverbank. George Fabyan had originally hired William to work in one of his labs as an agricultural geneticist, but while he was there, William also helped out with the Shakespeare project. And he and Elizebeth worked together closely.
So after puzzling over tons of these pages, Elizebeth and William figured out that the whole project was bunk.
No secret messages emerged from the text. But something else did. She and William fell in love. Riverbank briefly seemed like some remote fairyland. They rode bikes, swam in the pool, strolled the grounds…
Elizebeth Friedman: We always had pitchers of ice water and fresh fruit with fruit knives by our bedside when we went to bed. We really led the life of the, what you might call the minor idol rich.
Katie Hafner: That sounds so idyllic, but the world around them was changing, and even though they were off on this remote estate, that change was about to reach them.
Elizebeth Friedman: The world began to pop! Things began to happen.
Carol Sutton Lewis: In 1917, the U.S. entered World War I. And it wasn’t fought quite like other wars.
Jennifer Wilcox: This was the first time that the military had the ability to communicate with their forces across great distances without having to physically carry a message by courier or run a cable or a telegraph line to their individual headquarters and things like that.
Carol Sutton Lewis: Jennifer Wilcox is the director of education at the National Cryptologic Museum.
Jennifer Wilcox: Now with radio, all they have to do is listen in and they can pick up that radio signal as well. So that really increased the need for cryptography. If you can’t stop the enemy from getting the message, you need to make it so that they don’t understand the message. Which meant that on the flip side, you have to be able to break those messages to understand what the enemy is doing.
Carol Sutton Lewis: It wasn’t just a war of weapons and force anymore. It had this other dimension to it: code and codebreaking.
The US military wanted to understand the messages sent between their enemies. The problem was there were almost no codebreakers in the U.S. There was no real need for them before this war. But…
Jennifer Wilcox: ...there was a very small select group of people working on this at a place called Riverbank Laboratory outside of Chicago, Illinois.
Carol Sutton Lewis: George Fabyan was an ambitious man. As passionate as he was about his oddball Shakespeare theory, he had bigger dreams. As tensions built in the lead-up to World War I, George anticipated the government would soon need codebreakers. And so he actually recruited more people to his codebreaking team, so that by the time the US entered the war, he’d have a whole little unit trained and ready to go. As Elizebeth wrote in her memoir, George Fabyan liked being powerful, and he wanted to be needed by the government.
And when the time came, in April 1917, the government didn’t really have a choice.
Jason Fagone: Because the military has nobody else to turn to, they turn to George Fabian and they say, can you lend us your code breaking team to start working on these military messages?
And he says, yes, of course, they’re all yours. And so, for the first six to 12 months of the war, the bulk of America’s military code breaking was handled by these sort of poets.
Katie Hafner: So, a month after the US entered the war, Elizebeth and William quietly got married. And they began their married life in a new role: as the heads of George’s new, military code-breaking unit.
And soon Elizebeth and William were training military officers to do this work too. So Elizebeth, this English lit major, is suddenly a key player in military operations.
Jason Fagone: Elizebeth, she didn’t really have time to pause and think about what was happening. It was so fast. Many, many years later, when she was looking back, and people were asking her, “How did you do this incredible thing? How did you transition from being a poet to being a champion codebreaker almost overnight?” She was never able to really give a satisfying answer. All she ever said was kind of, “Nobody would believe it unless you had been there.”
Katie Hafner: But she and William themselves were brand new to this, and codes were getting more complicated — I mean enemy armies, of course, weren’t using Francis Bacon’s cipher—WIlliam and Elizebeth had no one to teach them!
The only guidance they had was one manual an army officer had published in 1916, just a year earlier, with helpful little tips, like… how frequently different letters occurred in different languages and things like that. So if it’s a really basic code where the original letters have been replaced with substitute letters, you can guess what each letter really is based on how often it appears in the code.
Jason Fagone: It was not a very highfalutin sort of theorizing environment of, of thinking about how to do these incredible things. They were just sort of in a, in a very nitty gritty way, trying to solve the problems that were put in front of them. But, you know, in the process of churning through all of these puzzles, they figured out some tricks essentially that made the work easier. And it was those, those tricks, those methods that turned out to be enormously important.
Carol Sutton Lewis: Up to this point, codebreaking was not a rigorous, methodical practice. It was more like any kind of puzzle that you just work at until the solution comes to you. But Elizebeth, William, and their team were developing methods for codebreaking that could make it more systematic and more efficient. They used statistics to figure out what kinds of encryptions they were dealing with. They stacked different coded messages on top of one another so they had a better chance of picking out a pattern.
But this wasn’t a long-term arrangement. The government didn’t want to rely on this random millionaire out in the prairie to do all its codebreaking, so within months, it created its own unit in Washington.
Katie Hafner: Meanwhile, Elizabeth and William were also starting to think about moving on from their work with George Fabyan. George turned out to be a moody and controlling man. And kinda creepy. He made sexual advances at Elizabeth when William was away. They were fed up.
And this might have been the end of Elizebeth’s codebreaking career. The government had cut her out, and the war ended in 1918 anyway. But it turned out her country still needed her. Because even though the war was over, the government was about to have a new problem on its hands: alcohol.
Katie Hafner: 1920 marked the start of Prohibition.
Jason Fagone: In the beginning of Prohibition, I think there were some like normal dudes, who just happened to have a boat and they would, you know, they would sneak some shipments around and they liked to be out on the water and they weren’t like necessarily terrible guys.
Katie Hafner: But within a few years, organized crime had taken over.
Jason Fagone: …and this is the rise of the mafia of, of the mob. And at that point they were making so much money that they were able to hire cryptologic experts to create really secure codes for them to protect their communications and their shipments by creating these sort of ingenious systems of, you know, radio networks. where they would they would send, encoded, radio messages from a ship to a pirate radio station on shore.
And by doing that, these rumrunners, you know, who worked for Al Capone or whoever else, were able to sort of run circles around the Coast Guard.
Katie Hafner: This is what actually brought the Coast Guard knocking on Elizebeth’s door in 1925. She and William were living in Washington D.C. He was working for the Army, and she had left her work as a codebreaker to work on some books and start a family. But the Coast Guard needed someone like her, someone who could help them crack the rum runners’ codes.
Jason Fagone: And at first they’re basically bringing these packets of puzzles to her doorstep. And she’s sort of like, taking care of her infant kid, and, and breaking codes at home. And then like bringing the, the solved puzzles back to the treasury.
Katie Hafner: The Coast Guard was actually part of the Treasury back then. Anyway, every time Elizebeth dropped off a packet of solved codes, they’d give her a new one.
And it was tough for her to keep up.
Jason Fagone: …and the gangsters are getting wealthier and wealthier and more violent.
Katie Hafner: In 1931, Elizebeth convinced the Coast Guard to let her lead her own code-breaking unit.
A role like this in the U.S. government was pretty unheard of for a woman at the time. And it was a much more public-facing one than Elizebeth’s wartime codebreaking work. Not only was her unit just smashing through thousands of codes, but they were also testifying against the mob.
Elizebeth Friedman: I was called to give testimony on the messages that had been sent between these people at sea and those on shore in the smuggling operation. And the messages, once they were deciphered, were as plain as day.
“Send me so many cases of this and so many cases of that” and, uh, they were very, very explicit messages. And, of course, I was attacked and said that this was just made up, it didn’t really exist and so on. Well, I, in some case I remember I called for a blackboard and demonstrated a simple message that was going through.
Jason Fagone: Over and over, there’s this, this spectacle, which was covered by newspapers of the day. It was kind of like an irresistible story. You would have this like Washington, DC mother walk into a courtroom and basically like, stare down guys who worked for Al Capone and explain just what code breaking was, how she did what she did, how, how she sort of stole the words of these gangsters from their own lips.
Katie Hafner: So for a time, Elizebeth was a media sensation. She’d become such a formidable codebreaker that the government gave her a security detail.
But then, Prohibition ended. She kept working for the Coast Guard busting organized crime rings but by the end of the decade, she’d largely disappeared from the public eye. She and William went back to their quiet life in their house in DC.
Carol Sutton Lewis: And this is where many accounts of her career end….
But in 2014, Jason was reading up on the history of the NSA, and he found some offhand mentions of Elizebeth’s work. And he just wasn’t buying the idea that her career had ended in the 30s. Because World War II was just around the corner.
Jason Fagone: It didn’t seem plausible to me that she just would’ve been allowed to sit out World War II even if she had wanted to, because she was like the secret weapon for the government, right?
Carol Sutton Lewis: Cracking the right codes could easily change the course of the war. And the U.S. understood this. Whereas in the First World War, the government scrambled to find even a handful of codebreakers, this time, decryption was a top priority, and early on, they recruited thousands of codebreakers. And most of these were young women straight out of college. That’s partly because men were focused on the actual fighting… but also because, in a way, codebreaking was seen as women’s work.
These women worked in crowded rooms, doing hard code breaking work, like Elizebeth had done back in World War I. But even though Elizebeth had earned a lot of fame and respect for her work, the actual task of puzzling over codes with a pencil and paper, looking for a clue, wasn’t glamorous. It was slow and often tedious … and I find this hard to imagine, but apparently, by World War II, it was seen as sort of secretarial work.
Anyway, at the start of the war, you have all these codebreaking women working in and around Washington DC, and Jason just couldn’t see how Elizebeth could have been right there, working in the same city, and not involved at all.
Jason Fagone: So I spent about a year and a half, hunting through the National Archives Annex in College Park, Maryland, looking for Elizebeth’s World War II record.
Carol Sutton Lewis: And he found it. In some dusty box in the National Archives, was a collection of plastic-bound folders with hundreds of messages that Elizebeth decoded during World War II.
And he figured out what she was doing: hunting down Nazi spies in South America.
Jennifer Wilcox: Most people don’t think about South America when they’re thinking about World War II because those countries were actually not combatant countries, but, as it turns out, the Nazis are down there trying to get these countries to openly side with the Third Reich.
And so there were spy- Nazi spy networks, being established down there. Pressure was being put onto South American governments to uh, aid the Nazi Party. And so getting that information was very valuable in protecting US and Allied concerns in this hemisphere.
Carol Sutton Lewis: And Elizebeth was on it. By this point, the Coast Guard had been absorbed into the U.S. Navy, but she was still working in her same old codebreaking unit, cracking codes. And she was on top of everything that the Nazis were talking about in South America.
Jason Fagone: She knew what they were gossiping to each other about. She knew what the names of their girlfriends were back in Germany.
There was, one grandmother in Germany who was using the clandestine radio network to urge her, her son, who was a Nazi spy in, Rio de Janeiro to remember to brush his teeth. And, and in addition to those windows into the personal lives of these spies during war time, you get, you know, these incredibly sort of dire and ominous, messages from the SS, you know, targeting Allied ships, sending coordinates to Nazi U-boats so that they would be able to obliterate and, and sort of murder everybody on, on board.
Katie Hafner: The messages sent around by the South American spies were using pretty classic methods of encryption, like book ciphers. What’s a book cipher? A book cipher is what it sounds like. The secret key is an ordinary book. Say, for example, you get a sequence of numbers, like 10-4-27. You’d take your book, flip to page 10, go line 4, and scan for the 27th letter on that line. Ok let’s say it’s a P. That’s the first letter. Elizebeth and William had actually developed a system for breaking these without even needing the book!
But the Nazis had developed much more sophisticated methods of encryption. They were encrypting with machines. So you might have heard of the Enigma machine. In fact I have to tell you, someone I know actually owns an original Enigma, and it just sits in his library in his house These are usually things you see in the Smithsonian. It blew my mind when I saw this thing. I was at a party and there it was and I asked him about it and he goes, Oh yeah, my Enigma.
Anyway, these machines could encrypt messages under layers and layers of code, making them incredibly hard to break. But Elizebeth was able to crack some of these messages too.
Stuart Boersma: She was the first in the US as far as I know.
Katie Hafner: Stuart Boersma is a professor of mathematics at Central Washington University. He was at a cryptology conference a few years ago, when he saw a presentation about Elizebeth Friedman.
Stuart Boersma: – this woman who I’d never heard of, even though I was interested in cryptology and the history of cryptology, it just kind of blew me away that how come nobody knows about this person?
Katie Hafner: So he started reading up, and learned that Elizebeth had cracked Enigma messages, a feat she shared with only a handful around the world, most famously of course Alan Turing and the whole Bletchley Park crowd in the UK. A team of Polish mathematicians had done it even earlier.
Stuart Boersma: A lot of people refer to like the Enigma, as if there’s one machine, but there were many different iterations of Enigma from the original commercial version well before World War II, to even, you know, during World War II, there are many different types of Enigma that were developed and just improved upon as the war went on.
Katie Hafner: Elizabeth broke one called the Enigma D.
Stuart Boersma: And broke with really very little, as far as I can tell, very little intelligence from any other agency.This is before I think there was any communication with the folks at Bletchley, for instance.
Katie Hafner: She had a couple of things working in her favor. First, the messages that she worked on came from a relatively simple machine.
Stuart Boersma: In particular, it didn’t have the plug board. So if you’re familiar with the pieces of Enigma there’s one piece in the front of the machine called the plug board, which the German military added that feature to the commercial machine and that plug board does make it a lot more complicated.
Katie Hafner: So no plugboard, that made it a bit easier. And second, the people who had configured this machine…had made a mistake.
Stuart Boersma: In the sense that they had their machine set up the exact same way every time they encrypted a new message and that’s a big no no. The big power of the Enigma machine is that every message you encrypt you can put it at a new starting position and essentially it becomes a different cipher every time you send a message. But this person or this entity, sent about 60 or 70 messages, all using the same starting point or the same key.
Katie Hafner: Thanks to that slip-up, Elizabeth had everything she needed to crack the codes. The actual messages, in this case, turned out to be not so interesting. Still, just cracking the codes was impressive.
Stuart Boersma: But she went well beyond that. She used the fact that she decrypted those messages. She then looked at the information she had and she could then deduce how the internal wirings of this machine was built.
In other words, She could figure out enough information that she could almost reproduce this entire machine on her own.
Katie Hafner: So, the Enigma machines looked kind of like a typewriter, with a keyboard on top, but underneath it there were a few rotors and each of those rotors had all the letters of the alphabet on it.
Stuart Boersma: and a wire kind of randomly strung from one letter on the right to one letter on the left.
Katie Hafner: To change the code, you have to change the wiring.
Stuart Boersma: And until somebody could actually capture one of these machines, they didn’t know how these were wired together. And that’s what made this sort of a big secret cryptologic machine. She just, she deduced how two of those rotors were wired, which was a pretty amazing feat.
Katie Hafner: Cracking Nazi codes—those created by Enigma and simpler ones too—it gave Elizebeth incredible power. Not all the messages were mothers reminding their Nazi sons to brush their teeth. Some of them were of vital tactical importance, and in March, 1942, Elizebeth cracked a particularly important message. It revealed that the Nazis were planning to attack the Queen Mary—an Allied ship, carrying more than 8,000 US soldiers. But thanks to Elizebeth’s codebreaking, the captain was warned in time and managed to evade the attack and get the ship safely to port.. By methodically undermining the Nazis’ plans at every turn, her unit’s work ultimately helped bring down the entire Nazi network in South America.
But as critical as Elizebeth’s work was, few people knew she was doing it.
Jason Fagone: She was a combatant in what Winston Churchill talked about as the Secret War, the shadow war, not a war of soldiers, but a war of languages and codes, conspiracies, radio transmitters, cipher machines. This is the war that was being fought under the surface, but was being fought to affect that hot war and give the commanders of the hot war an edge. And, it was the biggest secret in the world, probably.
Carol Sutton Lewis: In the end, this woman who was a master of breaking secrets and making the unseen seen… was largely unseen and unrecognized herself.
Jennifer Wilcox: Like anybody who is involved in, uh, code breaking she had signed that she would not discuss her duties with anyone, and she kept that.
Carol Sutton Lewis: When the Nazi spy ring came down, the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover, took credit for the takedown, without even a nod to Elizebeth’s code breaking unit at the Coast Guard.
Jennifer Wilcox: Hoover liked publicity and so he was actively out there saying Look at what we’ve got. He actually would strip off the Coast Guard and Navy, um, nomenclature and Elizebeth’s signature on these things and put down FBI serial numbers on them to claim that this was FBI information and “oh, look how great the FBI is. We broke this spy network in South America.” And so, Elizebeth, who’d signed this non-disclosure form, couldn’t really say or do anything about that.
Katie Hafner: You might think that’s why Elizebeth has been lost to the historical record. She signed an NDA. End of story. But
Stuart Boersma: When people took oaths of secrecy when they were doing intelligence work during the war, it seems like all the women really took that seriously and never talked about it for their whole lives, whereas the men, you know, they have memoirs or they get books written about them. And for some reason they are not held to any of those secrecy requirements. Her husband is a good counter example. He worked in the army as opposed to the coast guard where Elizabeth worked.
But his work was all top secret too. A lot of people know about him and still nobody knows about Elizabeth. So I, I think there’s a, a gender issue there somewhere.
Katie Hafner: : Maybe pretty close to the surface, in fact, but in any event, long after the war was over, and she’d retired from codebreaking, Elizebeth kept quiet. No one ever knew what she had been up to in World War II. She was a lost woman of science…even to her own grandson.
Chris Atchison: Nothing was allowed to be really talked about. And my grandmother quite frankly, never mentioned any of it to anybody. And I’ve checked with other cousins that knew her and they said, “Nope, not a word.”
Carol Sutton Lewis: Chris Atchison lived with his grandparents for a few years in D.C. in the 1960s. Chris wasn’t entirely clueless about her career. He knew that she’d been a codebreaker for the Coast Guard. His mom had mentioned that. But cracking Nazi spy messages? Helping to save ships carrying thousands of soldiers? He just had no idea what a big deal she was.
And to Chris and the rest of her family, Elizebeth was just a regular person. She was a mother, a grandmother… But looking back…it fits.
Chris Atchison: If she was against something, it was really funny to listen to because she had this voice —she was the sweetest person until you backed her up against a wall. Then she, she had this thing: “NOOOOO!” So she had a tremendous force of will, and I think that her story reads that way.
Carol Sutton Lewis: And in photos of a younger Elizebeth, Chris sees hints of who his grandmother would become.
Chris Atchison: If you look at early portraits of her, you can see there’s a determination her in her eyes, in her, in her lips. She appears to be unamused and she’s just like, she was cut from a different cloth.
Katie Hafner: Elizebeth died in 1980, when she was 88 years old.
But her work lives on. Codebreaking today is a very different beast. In Elizebeth’s time, if you got your hands on the secret key or cracked it, you could decipher a message. But since then, mathematicians have developed methods for encryption using public keys. Very counterintuitive, and involves some very sophisticated math, but you can protect a message even when everyone in the world can see the encryption key. So not much of what Elizebeth did is relevant today. And today’s encryption probably won’t look much like the encryption of the future. That’s kind of the nature of codebreaking. A perpetual arms race between codemakers and codebreakers, developing ever more sophisticated methods to disguise and reveal their messages. The encryption is ephemeral but at any given time, incredibly important.
It’s impossible to know how world events might have shaped up differently without Elizebeth Smith Friedman—a woman who, at 23 years old, followed a strange rich man to the middle-of-nowhere Illinois in the hopes of finding an interesting job. If she hadn’t, what would the world look like? Nazi spy rings operating unchecked? Thousands of soldiers killed? Well, that’s maybe a little hyperbolic, and Elizebeth herself would never be that dramatic.
Chris Atchison: Oh, she would… she would just go, “Oh, it wasn’t a big deal. I was just doing my job. That’s what people are supposed to do.” She would not be prideful. She would not be boastful. She would just go, “Yeah, I was doing my job. That’s all.”
Katie Hafner: Lost Women of Science is hosted by me, Katie Hafner.
Carol Sutton Lewis: And me, Carol Sutton Lewis. Samia Bouzid wrote and produced this episode, with help from our senior producer, Elah Feder.
Katie Hafner: Lizzie Younan composes all of our music. We had sound design from Alvaro Morello and Erica Huang, who also mastered this episode.
I also want to thank Jeff DelViscio, chief multimedia editor at our publishing partner, Scientific American, my co-executive producer Amy Scharf, and Deborah Unger.
Carol Sutton Lewis: We had fact checking help from Danya AbdelHameid. Lost Women of Science is funded in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Schmidt Futures. We’re distributed by PRX.
Katie Hafner: You can learn more about Elizebeth Smith-Friedman at our website, LostWomenofScience.org, and please consider clicking on that all-important donate button. We had a story recently in the New York Times and someone saw it and gave us $100. We can’t get over it. $200 gets you a Lost Women of Science tote bag. But seriously, any donation would thrill and delight us. See you next week.
The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone, Dey Street Books, 2017.
Elizabeth’s unfinished memoir, Internet Archive, 1966
Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s recovery of the wiring of two rotors from an enigma D machine, Stuart Boersma, Cryptologia, September, 2022 (behind a paywall)
The Woman All Spies Fear: Code Breaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and Her Hidden Life Hardcover, Amy Butler Greenfield, Random House, October 2021
The Cryptanalyst Who Brought Down the Mob, Text by Chad Bowers, Illustration by Deborah Lee, web comic (PBS) 2021.
Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars, Laurie Wallmark (author), Brooke Smart (illustrator), Abrams Books for young readers, 2021.
Jason Fagone, journalist and the author of the Woman Who Smashed Codes
Jennifer Wilcox, director of education at the National Cryptologic Museum
Stuart Boersma, professor of mathematics at Central Washington University
Chris Atchison, grandson of Elizebeth Smith Friedman