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Friedman, Elizebeth (d. 1980)

Friedman, Elizebeth (d. 1980)

America's "premier" cryptographer who devised a code system for the Office of Strategic Services and deciphered messages from German spies in Allied lands during World War II. Born Elizebeth Smith; died in 1980; graduated from Hillsdale College, Michigan, 1915; married William Friedman (a cryptographer), in May 1917; children: John Friedman; Barbara Friedman .

Elizebeth Friedman never planned a career as a codebreaker, and as a young girl probably never imagined herself testifying against smugglers. After graduating from Hillsdale College in Michigan with an English degree, she went to work at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Through a member of the library staff, she obtained a position as well with George Fabyan, the eccentric millionaire who ran the Riverbank Laboratory, a think tank located on a 600-acre estate west of Chicago. At Fox Hill, Fabyan supported a stable of top scientists who worked on whatever projects he found interesting, from cryptology to plant genetics. Elizebeth was teamed with Elizabeth Wells Gallup , a woman who had convinced Fabyan that Francis Bacon was the real author of Shakespeare's sonnets and plays, and that Bacon had hidden a number of coded messages in the original printed copies. (Gallup also claimed that Bacon was the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I and the rightful heir to the throne.) At Fox Hill, Elizebeth met William Friedman who at the time was performing experiments in plant genetics and also assisting on the Bacon project. In 1916, he left his work in genetics and joined Elizebeth in studying everything they could find on secret writings. "We had a lot of pioneering to do," Elizabeth later recalled. "Literary ciphers may give you the swing of the thing, but they are in no sense scientific. There were no precedents for us to follow."

In May 1917, at the height of World War I, Elizebeth and William married and began working on decoding diplomatic messages from unfriendly powers that were sent to Fox Hill from the government. For a year, Riverbank was the only organization in the country capable of carrying out work on secret messages. In late 1917, when the U.S. Army created its own Cipher Bureau, Fabyan arranged for the Friedmans to conduct classes in cryptography for the army officers. When the classes ended, William left for France, where he served as a lieutenant in the army.

In 1920, the Friedmans broke with Riverbank and went to work for the army for a six-month trial period as civilian "code experts," and in 1921 began military contract work in Washington D.C. Early in 1922, the War Department hired William permanently as chief codebreaker, and he went on to become recognized as the greatest maker and breaker of secret codes and ciphers in history. His papers brought cryptology into the scientific age, and the team he trained and headed broke into Japan's highest diplomatic cipher just before World War II. Overworked to the breaking point during World War II, William suffered bouts of depression that required hospitalization. After the war, William served as a top-ranking cryptanalyst in various agencies, including the National Security Agency. He retired in 1955 but continued to work on special and highly secret missions.

Elizebeth's career advanced in the 1930s, during Prohibition. In 1927, now the mother of two, she became a "special agent" on loan from the Department of Justice to the Coast Guard and Navy. Her job was to unravel the secret messages sent by rumrunners to establish rendezvous points and prices and to send warnings. Although the early messages were simple to decipher, as time went on and more sophisticated syndicates took over the distribution network, the coding systems became more complex and difficult to break. In three years, she and her staff solved 12,000 messages using dozens of different schemes. During the 1930s, her work led to a number of important convictions of narcotics traffickers, but also put her family on edge. Her daughter remembers being quite aware of the dangers her mother faced. "I remember Dad jesting once, when Mother was late getting home, that she might have been taken for a ride," she recalled. During World War II, Elizebeth devised a code system for the Office of Strategic Services, and deciphered messages from German spies in Allied lands.

Although the Friedmans shunned publicity and never discussed their work, even with each other, their passion for cryptology spilled over into their home life. William created cipher games for the children and sent holiday greeting cards with cipher messages. The couple were well-known for their progressive dinner parties, which would begin at a restaurant where the guests would have their first course and divide into teams. "While they were eating," recalled the Friedmans' son John, "the restaurant owner gave them a piece of paper containing a clue about the next place to go. They'd go to five or six restaurants.… The first team to return home, won a prize."

Late in her career, Elizebeth set up a secure communications system for the International Monetary Fund. After their official retirement, the couple returned to the Shakespeare problem, which had lured them into cryptography in the first place. In 1955, they published an award-winning book, The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, in which they included a hidden biliteral cipher. On page 257 of the book, buried in an italicized phrase, using two different typefaces, they offered their opinion on the lingering controversy. The cipher read, "I did not write the plays. F. Bacon."


Chiles, James R. "Breaking codes was this couple's lifetime career," in Smithsonian. Vol. 18, no. 3. June 1987, pp. 128–144.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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