She Had a Code: The Secret Life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman

A new PBS film hails the life of an unsung pioneering cryptologist


More than 80 years now separates us from the Second World War. As information about that titanic struggle becomes declassified, we learn more about the highly sensitive and critical work that was done by ordinary citizens with extraordinary minds to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese—work, especially in codebreaking, that was done by unsung heroes who signed agreements not to utter a word about their trade  or its successes during their lifetimes, and who received little or no recognition for it. 

The best known example of this has been the story of British cryptologist Alan Turing. His creation of the machine that broke the German Enigma code would remain classified until the 1970s. His story, and the tragic details of his personal life, would receive widespread recognition mainly through the highly successful play “Breaking the Code” in 1985, and then the 2014 film, The  Imitation Game.

Now comes the much deserved and belated story of Elizebeth Friedman, an American woman who was breaking codes using pencil and paper when Alan Turing was donning his first pairs of pantsDuring her professional career as a cryptanalyst for some 40 years, Friedman led a double life of suburban housewife and secret government codebreaker.

Her story is told in The Codebreakerdebuting Monday night on PBS’s always-interestingAmerican Experience series. Directed and written by Emmy Award Winner Chana Gazit, who also produced the film, it tells the gripping story of one woman’s extraordinary ability to break the most elaborately devised codes by some of the world’s most notorious criminals, as well as America’s enemies during two world wars. If Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astair did, only backwards and in high heels, Elizebeth Friedman did everything Alan Turing did—but with pencil and paper and as a woman in a man’s world, at  half their pay and even less recognition, all while caring for a family. 

Based on a 2017 book by Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, it’s a story as American as apple pie—if apple pie included spies, mobsters, and Nazis. 

Friedman, born Elizebeth Smith in 1892, was one of ten children in a Quaker family in Indiana. After majoring in English literature at Hillsdale College in Michigan, she went looking for a job in Chicago and had a life-changing event at the famous Newbury Library, where she came upon a rare first folio by William Shakespeare, printed in 1623. The librarian, noticing her intense interest in the edition, introduced her to a reclusive, eccentric millionaire named George Fabyan, who was convinced Sir Francis Bacon had planted a code within Shakespeare’s texts suggesting that he was the true author of the great bard’s plays. He hired her to help him get to the bottom of it.

Lab Sleuth

Working at Fabyan’s  private research laboratory at his Riverbank estate outside Chicago, she ultimately did not find evidence of a code in Shakespeare’s texts, but she did become intrigued with the Baconian cyphers of the 16th and 17th century. She then set out to develop her own unique set of code-breaking skills, which in turn brought her into contact with the man who would become her husband, William Friedman, a Russian Jewish immigrant who was heading up a genetics project at Riverbank focusing on the effects of moonlight on crops. He would become her life-partner in ciphers. 

When the First World War broke out, the Riverbank estate became home to the U.S. Army’s Cipher Bureau, which would become instrumental in breaking coded enemy messages. The Friedmans led the effort, developing unique methods of codebreaking and training the next generation of cryptanalysts. In 1921, they left Riverbank for Washington, D.C. and the U.S. War Department.

Prohibition had just been enacted, and Elizebeth went to work for the Coast Guard breaking coded messages among “rum runners'' feeding the immense American appetite for alcohol.Hiring and training scores of cryptanalysts, she and her teamsdeciphered nearly 25,000 messages annually intercepted from shortwave radio transmissions. By piecing together the collected bits of information to predict the smugglers’ next movements, she became a pioneer in what’s now called “strategic intelligence,” figuring out the who, what, when, and where of targeted criminal organizations. In 1931, the Coast Guard approved her idea for creating an officially designated code-breaking unit and made her “Cryptanalyst in Charge.”

By the end of the decade she had become a key witness in major organized crime trials, often at great risk to her own personal safety and those assigned to protect her. One such case involved the prosecution of CONEXCO, the largest rum-running organization in the world, with clients like Al Capone. When her 1933 testimony against “the most dangerous men in the country” provoked credible death threats, a squad of  plain clothes agents was deployed to protect her—all this while she was raising two children.

Secrets in a Happy Marriage

The Codebreaker also provides a glimpse into the strong, life-long marital bond between the Freidmans. In the winter of 1940William suffered a complete nervous breakdown while trying to break a Japanese cipher machine and checked himself into the psychiatric ward of Walter Reed Army Hospital. Elizebeth, despite her heavy workload with the onset of the war, visited him every day during  his three month hospitalization, personally supervising his treatment and recovery. He would, however, suffer with clinical depression for the rest of his life. 

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Elizebeth had left the Coast Guard to work for the U.S. Navy Department, where the common misogyny of the time reared its ugly head. Despite her vastly superior skills and experience, she was assigned to work under an inferior male uniformed officer. It did not deter her. 

Friedman’s target became the Nazi spy network in South America, where fascist regimes supported by a large influx of German immigrants were potentially opening a new front in the war. Juan Siegfried Becker, codenamed SARGO, was the main operative of the Nazi SS in South America, where he was helping to transmit the location of Allied supply and troop shipsto German U Boats. In one instance, Friedman’s code breaking saved the Queen Mary, which had been converted into a troop ship carrying over 8,000 menacross the Atlantic, from the Nazi U-boats. Working with the FBI, her decrypts also helped the Brazilian government round up Nazi spies—full credit for which was taken by its egotistic director, J. Edgar Hoover—even though the main prize, SARGO, had escaped. In a further insult, he designated the decrypts the property of the FBI, erasing Friedman and her team from the official record. 

In the aftermath, SARGO quickly rebuilt his network using  even more sophisticated codes from versions of the German Enigma cipher machines. The Navy asked Friendman to pick up the chase again, and with her help the Allies smashed SARGO’s spy ring without the Germans ever knowing that their codes had been broken. 

Men and Machines

With the Allied victory in the war owing much to the success of the Turing deciphering machine, computers began taking over what Elizabeth had been doing with pencil and paper for over two decades. In 1952, the Truman administration established the National Security Agency, centralizing the government’s signals intelligence-gathering and code breaking effort. Although Elizebeth and William were both publicly recognized as brilliant cryptanalysts, the details of her work defeating the Nazis would remain classified for 62 years, until 2008, 38 years after her death in a New Jersey nursing home. 

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Elizebeth Friedman’s extraordinary life included other smaller successes not covered in the film, such as pressing Congress for more cryptanalytical resources, settling a dispute with the Canadians over a vessel sunk by a Coast Guard cutter, and working with the Canadians on a major opium dealer case that involved her breaking a complicated Chinese code—while not even understanding the language. 

The Codebreaker will certainly whet your appetite to read more about her, starting with the book on which the fast-paced documentary is  based. But that’s not necessary: Elizabeth Smith Friedman comes to life in this very human and poignant broadcast.

The Codebreaker, on American Experience, debuting on local PBS channels starting at 9 PM Eastern Standard Time