The Story of Elizebeth Friedman, the Pioneering Cryptologist Who Thwarted the Nazis & Got Burned by J. Edgar Hoover

Elize­beth S. Fried­man: Sub­ur­ban Mom or Nin­ja Nazi Hunter?

Both, though in her life­time, the press was far more inclined to fix­ate on her lady­like aspect and home­mak­ing duties than her career as a self-taught cryp­to­an­a­lyst, with head­lines such as “Pret­ty Woman Who Pro­tects Unit­ed States” and “Solved By Woman.”

The nov­el­ty of her gen­der led to a brief stint as America’s most rec­og­niz­able code­break­er, more famous even than her fel­low cryp­tol­o­gist, hus­band William Fried­man, who was instru­men­tal in the found­ing of the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency dur­ing the Cold War.

Renowned though she was, the high­ly clas­si­fied nature of her work exposed her to a secu­ri­ty threat in the per­son of FBI direc­tor J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover cred­it­ed the FBI, and by exten­sion, him­self, for deci­pher­ing some 50 Nazi radio cir­cuits’ codes, at least two of them pro­tect­ed with Enig­ma machines.

He also rushed to raid South Amer­i­can sources in his zeal to make an impres­sion and advance his career, scup­per­ing Fried­man’s mis­sion by caus­ing Berlin to put a stop to all trans­mis­sions to that area.

Too bad no one asked him to demon­strate the meth­ods he’d used to crack these impos­si­ble nuts.

The Ger­man agents used the same codes and radio tech­niques as the Con­sol­i­dat­ed Exporters Cor­po­ra­tion, a mob-backed rum-run­ning oper­a­tion whose codes and ciphers Elize­beth had trans­lat­ed as chief cryp­tol­o­gist for the U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion.

As an expert wit­ness in the crim­i­nal tri­al of inter­na­tion­al rum­run­ner Bert Mor­ri­son and his asso­ciates, she mod­est­ly assert­ed that it was “real­ly quite sim­ple to decode their mes­sages if you know what to look for,” but the sam­ple decryp­tion she pro­vid­ed the jury made it plain that her work required tremen­dous skill. The Mob Museum’s Jeff Bur­bank sets the scene:

She read a sam­ple mes­sage, refer­ring to a brand of whiskey: “Out of Old Colonel in Pints.” She showed how the three “o” and “l” let­ters in “Colonel” had iden­ti­cal cipher code let­ters. From the cipher’s let­ters for “Colonel” she could fig­ure out the let­ter the rack­e­teers chose for “e,” the most fre­quent­ly occur­ring let­ter in Eng­lish, based on oth­er brand names of liquor they men­tioned in oth­er mes­sages. The “o” and “l” let­ters in “alco­hol,” she said, had the same cipher let­ters as “Colonel.” 

Cinchy, right?

Elizebeth’s biog­ra­ph­er, Jason Fagone, notes that in dis­cov­er­ing the iden­ti­ty, code­name and ciphers used by Ger­man spy net­work Oper­a­tion Bolí­var’s leader, Johannes Siegfried Beck­er, she suc­ceed­ed where “every oth­er law enforce­ment agency and intel­li­gence agency failed. She did what the FBI could not do.”

Sex­ism and Hoover were not the only ene­mies.

William Friedman’s crit­i­cism of the NSA for clas­si­fy­ing doc­u­ments he thought should be a mat­ter of pub­lic record led to a rift result­ing in the con­fis­ca­tion of dozens of papers from the cou­ple’s home that doc­u­ment­ed their work.

This, togeth­er with the 50-year “TOP SECRET ULTRA” clas­si­fi­ca­tion of her WWII records, ensured that Elize­beth’s life would end beneath “a vast dome of silence.”

Recog­ni­tion is mount­ing, how­ev­er.

Near­ly 20 years after her 1980 death, she was induct­ed into the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency’s Cryp­to­log­ic Hall of Hon­or as “a pio­neer in code break­ing.”

A Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency build­ing now bears both Fried­mans’ names.

The U.S. Coast Guard will soon be adding a Leg­end Class Cut­ter named the USCGC Fried­man to their fleet.

In addi­tion to Fagone’s biog­ra­phy, a pic­ture book, Code Break­er, Spy Hunter: How Elize­beth Fried­man Changed the Course of Two World Wars, was pub­lished ear­li­er this year.

As far as we know, there are no pic­ture books ded­i­cat­ed to the pio­neer­ing work of J. Edgar Hoover….

Elize­beth Fried­man, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Watch The Code­break­er, PBS’s Amer­i­can Expe­ri­ence biog­ra­phy of Elize­beth Fried­man here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Enig­ma Machine: How Alan Tur­ing Helped Break the Unbreak­able Nazi Code

How British Code­break­ers Built the First Elec­tron­ic Com­put­er

Three Ama­teur Cryp­tog­ra­phers Final­ly Decrypt­ed the Zodi­ac Killer’s Let­ters: A Look Inside How They Solved a Half Cen­tu­ry-Old Mys­tery

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her June 7 for a Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain: The Peri­od­i­cal Cica­da, a free vir­tu­al vari­ety hon­or­ing the 17-Year Cicadas of Brood X. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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