Elizebeth Smith Friedman was an author and one of America’s pioneer cryptologists. If the word rings a bell, it’s because cryptologists are often featured in war stories (most recently, The Imitation Game) albeit hardly ever as women. Dating back to centuries ago, cryptology is the analysis and deciphering of codes used to communicate via secret messages: a science which the American government relied on heavily in the early 1900s.
Elizebeth was born to a family of Quaker farmers in 1892, the ninth of ten children and one of only two siblings to obtain a college degree. Fascinated with languages, she graduated from Hillsdale College in Michigan with a major in English literature and minor degrees in Greek, Latin and German.
After working as a substitute headmistress in a local school, in 1916 Elizebeth took up a position in Chicago’s Newberry Library – she was a lover of literature, and the library held an original Shakespeare folio. She was working at Newberry when she was interviewed for a job at Riverbanks Laboratories. Funded and built by retired Colonel George Fabyan, the laboratories were dedicated to the exploration of “obscure sciences” and employed researchers to advance the study of sound waves, genetics, and cryptanalysis.
Elizebeth captured her interviewer’s attention when she mentioned her love of Shakespeare’s work. Fabyan, an eccentric millionaire determined to prove that Shakespeare’s plays had in fact been written by Francis Bacon, hired Elizebeth so that she might find and break secret codes which he thought existed in Shakespeare’s work and would prove Bacon’s authorship.
As World War I raged throughout Europe, Riverbanks Laboratories became the country’s official cryptology centre for the American government. There, Elizebeth met William Friedman, a geneticist who not only fell in love with her, but also with her work on the decoding of secret writing. He would become her lifelong partner and collaborator, and in 1917, the couple started working together for the American government, decoding messages from Riverbanks Laboratories and training army officers to do the same.
In 1921, the Friedmans moved to Washington, D.C. to work for the War Department. This was only the beginning: in 1923, Elizebeth was hired as a cryptanalyst for the U.S. Navy, which in turn led to a position with the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Prohibition and Customs.
Throughout the 1920s, the American government was involved in a strenuous fight against organised crime, which was at the core of the Prohibition Era. Thanks to Friedman’s efforts and teachings, thousands of secret codes were deciphered and contraband operations were blocked. Working from international reports and intelligence obtained undercover, via wiretaps, informants and surveillance, Elizebeth broke codes and solve encrypted messages, both written and transmitted on the radio. Her work often supported the FBI by providing strategic intelligence for operational planning and necessary to build cases against organised crime leaders. She deciphered over 12,000 rum-runners messages, solved 650 smuggling traffic cases and decrypted 24 different coding systems used by smugglers.
Her achievements during Prohibition are exceptional but her career reached its pinnacle during World War II, when she helped decipher several Enigma machines while training army officers and aiding both the American and the Canadian government with domestic and international operations.
Shortly before and after the attack on Pearl Harbour, Elizebeth was assigned to the Coordination of Information’s operation. She spent the rest of the war serving as a civilian cryptologist under the direction of the Navy. She kept working until 1946, when a post-war restructuring of the whole government law enforcement branch forced her to resign a few months before her retirement eligibility.
Never one to slow down, Elizebeth returned to her first love and together with William focused on the project that had first brought them together: the analysis of Shakespeare’s work. This culminated in the 1957 publication of The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, a comprehensive analysis of a cryptographic approach to the Bard’s work which maintains that his plays were in fact written by him, and not Bacon.
After Wiliam’s death in 1969, Elizebeth dedicated the rest of her life to collecting her husband’s work into the most extensive private collection of cryptographic material in the world, housed in the George Marshall Library in Lexington, Virginia.
She died in 1980 in obscurity, her achievements overshadowed by the work of her male colleagues in the world of cryptography and law enforcement.
But Elizebeth was an exceptional individual with a pioneering brain who for over thirty years deciphered thousands of secret codes, armed only with pen, paper, and a basic knowledge of maths. An enduring fascination with cryptology and a recent renewed interest in her work will hopefully bring her the recognition she has long been due.