26 Mar 2018

Elizebeth Friedman: code breaker extraordinaire

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:08 pm on 26 March 2018

Elizebeth Smith Friedman was one of the greatest code breakers in history. She put away prohibition era mafia thugs and smashed a Nazi spy ring in World War II – but her story is little known.

Jason Fagone intends to rectify that historical oversight with a new book: The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies.

He came across her story while researching the National Security Agency (NSA) after the Edward Snowden whistleblower story broke in 2013.

Elizebeth Friedman

Elizebeth Friedman Photo: Wikicommons

“I started reading about the history of the NSA. Like a lot of Americans, I didn't know a lot about it. While I was doing that, I stumbled across a web page about Elizebeth Smith Friedman at the library where she donated her personal papers - the George C. Marshall Foundation.”

During WWI Friedman was a teacher in a small town in Indiana. She had studied poetry at college and followed one of the few professional routes open to women then. But she was bored.

So she quit her job and decided to go and look for something more exciting.

She ended up in Chicago where she met a gilded age tycoon George Fabyan.

Fabyan was fabulously wealthy and completely “insane”, says Fagone.

“Fabyan asked Elizebeth to join a team of code-breakers he was assembling. His project was to try and find secret messages that had been written in the works of Shakespeare that he was convinced were there.”

The secret messages turned out to be a wild goose chase.

“Fabyan was kind of crazy, he was insane in some ways, and he just happened to have money so he was able to paper over his insanity.”
It was while working there that Friedman realised she had a genius for deciphering code and met another young code breaker William Friedman.

“He was from a completely different world. He was a Jewish biologist from Pittsburgh and she was a Quaker poet from Indiana.”

Nevetheless the two fell deeply in love and married.

William Friedman went on to found the NSA.

“I thought that was interesting husband and wife code-breakers,” says Fagone.

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Photo: Supplied / Jason Fagone

“They formed this immediate and profound intellectual bond. They would sit across the table from each other 10 to 12 hours a day happily solving puzzles together. They were kind of the only sane people at this place.”

The Shakespeare sleuthing came to nothing, but meanwhile the US had joined WWI.

“We declared war on Germany and the Shakespeare project morphed into the urgencies of war. At that time in the US there was no NSA, no CIA, the FBI was very young and there were very few people in America who knew how to crack code.

“This is the origins of the NSA. It began in the prairie mansion of a crazy rich man.”

Later in the 1920s Friedmans' talents came to the notice of US law enforcement agencies busy fighting a booming bootleg liquor trade during prohibition. 

The coastguard asked her to decipher encrypted messages mafia rum runners were sending each other.

They could intercept them but could make no sense of them.

“She would intercept the radio messages, she would solve them and then sometimes she would testify in court against them in a public trial.

“She would walk into court in a pink hat with a flower pinned to the brim, this petite 5’3” woman, a secret weapon against some of the most fearsome men of her age.  And she became, because of those trials, briefly, a famous person in America.”

Friedman had no particular gift for mathematics. Seeing patterns where others saw chaos was her unique talent.

“She had a genius for seeing patterns in what looked like noise. It is something that doesn’t necessarily depend on mathematical training. Code breaking isn’t really about math - at its core it’s about seeing patterns.”

By the time WWII started Friedman’s gifts were once more in demand. She was approached by the FBI to help hunt for Nazi spies.

“By coincidence the Nazi spies, as they spread out of Germany, carried similar equipment to the rum runners and so Elizebeth, through her work on the rum codes, had ten years expertise.”

She had a hand in uncovering about 50 different Nazi spy networks over the course of WWII but her work went unheralded through a mixture of old fashioned sexism and credit stealing.

“All her life she was around men who either ended up getting the credit that she deserved part of or there were men who actively omitted her from history.

“People like J Edgar Hoover just actively stole credit from her so after WWII Hoover raised his hands and said the FBI alone had caught these dangerous Nazi spies.”

The nature of her war work was so sensitive she was told never to speak of it and until her death she was faithful to that promise.

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Photo: Supplied / Jason Fagone

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