Women of Consequence – Elizebeth Smith Friedman

I have long acknowledged the importance of libraries in my life, but I doubt Elizebeth Smith was aware of the life-changing effect a trip to the Newberry Library in Chicago in 1916 would have on the course of her life and that of our nation’s history.

Born in Huntington, Indiana in 1892 to Quaker parents, Elizebeth was number ten of ten children.  Her mother was worn out, her father considered her a difficult child, and as a bookish child who wrote poetry, she always felt out of place.  After high school, she persevered and finally convinced her father to allow her to attend college, agreeing to pay him back every penny at 4% interest. Though she longed for an adventurous life, after college she accepted one of the only positions available to women in those days, that of an elementary school teacher.

Elizebeth taught for one year in a small Indiana school, but knew it wasn’t her calling.  She quit her job and moved back in with her parents.  She quickly remembered how challenging it was to live at home and in June of 1916 she forced herself to be brave and took the train to Chicago. Staying with a friend, she spent her days searching for a job, hopefully in literature or research.

After a week with no leads, no money and no connections, she begrudgingly agreed to return home, a promise she had negotiated with her father.  Before boarding the train, she decided to make a stop at the Newberry Library which owned a rare copy of the First Folio of William Shakespeare.  The book had intrigued her when she first learned of it during her college years because it was rumored to contain secret codes.  A young woman librarian noticed how enthralled Elizebeth was with the book and asked if she was interested in Shakespeare.  The two got to talking and realized they had much in common.  The librarian had grown up in Richmond, Indiana, not far from Elizebeth’s hometown.  The conversation was comfortable enough that Elizabeth mentioned she was looking for a job.  

Enter George Fabyan, a wealthy Chicago businessman who visited the library often to examine the First Folio.  The librarian was familiar with his obsession.  She also knew he was looking to hire an assistant.  She contacted Fabyan who came directly to the library where he stunned Elizebeth when he inquired, “Will you come to Riverbank and spend the night with me?”  Despite being taken aback by his question, she decided to trust this stranger.

Elizebeth did not use her return train ticket to Indiana.  Instead, she accompanied Fabyan to Riverbank Estate in Geneva, Illinois.  He had used his great wealth to create an eccentric kingdom, a playground for scientists.  At Riverbank, Elizebeth worked on a project involving looking for the secret messages supposedly hidden in the plays of Shakespeare, written in cipher.

In a bit of kismet, William Friedman, a Jewish geneticist from Pittsburgh, worked with Elizebeth on the project.  They married within a year, forming a strong life-long bond.  Quite simply, throughout their life together everyone thought they were made for each other.  

It didn’t take the couple long to figure out that Fabyan’s theory that Sir Francis Bacon had actually written Shakespeare’s plays was crazy and that Fabyan was crazy too.  But their work would become invaluable. Computers hadn’t been invented yet but working with graph paper and pencils and drawing on each other’s strengths, they discovered methods that became the basis for modern cryptanalysis and none too soon.  

When America went to war in 1917, there was no intelligence community and very few people in the entire nation knew anything about code breaking.  Elizebeth and William were two of them.  George Fabyan saw an opportunity and offered their services to the U. S. government.  William eventually served in France, but Elizebeth spent the war years at Riverbank, providing invaluable service solving messages that had been intercepted from Germany and Mexico.

After World War I, the Friedmans, weary of Fabyan and the oddities his vast wealth allowed him to indulge, left for Washington D.C.   There William went to work for the government while Elizebeth stayed home, raising their two children and thinking about writing children’s books.  That is, until government agents began showing up on her doorstep asking her to break codes, refusing to take no for an answer.  She eventually launched and headed a new code breaking unit within the Coast Guard, initially trying to enforce Prohibition.  Liquor smugglers may have been gangsters, but they were smart gangsters.  They used sophisticated codes and ciphers to hide their operations, until Elizebeth broke these codes.  She subsequently testified in court cases against gangsters, including three Al Capone lieutenants.  During the trial, she grew impatient with the attacks on the validity of her science, requested a black board for the courtroom and clearly and expertly demonstrated the code breaking system.  Through all this, she was mostly unaware of the squad of plain clothes agents deployed to protect her.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Elizebeth left the Coast Guard to work for the U.S. Navy Department.  Due to the misogyny rampant at that time and despite her vastly superior skills and experience, she was assigned to work under an inferior uniformed male officer.  Elizebeth did not allow it to deter her.

Her target now became the Nazi spy network in South America, where a large influx of German immigrants supported fascist regimes who were working to open a new front in the war.  In one instance, Elizebeth’s code breaking saved the Queen Mary ocean liner and the 8,000 men on board.  Due to her perseverance in unlocking the Nazi transmissions, the captain was able to maneuver the ship out of the path of German U-boats.  Recognized as the FBI’s secret weapon, she was pushed aside by its egotistical director, J. Edgar Hoover, who stole full credit for all the work done by Elizebeth and her team.  He further designated all the decrypts the property of the FBI, effectively erasing her and her team from the official record.  Her records were stamped “TOP SECRET ULTRA” and classified for 50 years.  Elizebeth, like so many of her female counterparts, was told that as a patriot, she should go home and keep her lips zipped or face perdition.

After all that the Friedmans had sacrificed for their country over the decades, the government did little to reward their dedication.  The forced secrecy was hard on their marriage and William suffered from chronic, long term, serious depression.  Although William was closely involved in the early days of the National Security Agency, when he began to question that perhaps it was becoming a bit too secretive, the agency turned on him.  In 1958 they sent agents to the Friedmans’ home on Capitol Hill and confiscated dozens of papers from their library, some so old they went back to World War I, leaving them angry and humiliated that the government would treat them as security risks after they had spent their careers serving their country.

Elizebeth died in 1980 at age 88.  Her files were not declassified until 2008, requiring her to honor her Navy oath and take her secret life to her grave.  In 1999, she was inducted into the National Security Agency’s Cryptologic Hall of Honor, as “a pioneer in code breaking.” 

Just as she belongs in that Hall of Honor, she belongs of my Women of Consequence list.  I marvel at how from a young age Elizebeth, a young Quaker girl from small town Indiana, found the courage within herself to expand her horizons. Without higher math training or the assistance of technology, she helped win both world wars by breaking enemy codes, while laying the foundation of American cryptanalysis and raising two children. She was certainly a Woman of Consequence for William, caring for him through years of mental distress until his death in 1969. 

And she is certainly a Woman of Consequence for the 8,000-member crew of the Queen Mary and their descendants.  Her amazing story makes me wonder – how many other extraordinary female heroes have been buried by secrecy and sexism.  Hers is a story I will share with my granddaughters, including my granddaughter who shares her name – Elizabeth Smith.  I want them to know her story because while things are better for women than they have been historically, women have yet to achieve true equality and our world suffers for it.  I hope when (and if) my granddaughters have granddaughters, this will no longer be true.

If you want to know more about this fascinating woman, you can check out The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone or tune into the amazing PBS, American Experience, The Codebreaker.

2 thoughts on “Women of Consequence – Elizebeth Smith Friedman

  1. This is an amazing story! I knew nothing of this woman and her work. Thank you for making me aware of this. I will have to request the book. I wonder where her grown children are today and if they are involved in anything to honor their mother’s legacy. Thank you for writing this post!


    • Good morning, Betty. Wasn’t she something??? The book is well researched and well written, but I also highly recommend the PBS special. I don’t have the same kind of brain she did and it was fascinating to see her find the codes.
      I didn’t find much on her children. Her son died in 2010. His obituary stated he was in “educational productions”. At one point, her daughter worked for the U.S. Office of Censorship in Panama.
      Thanks for reading – have a great day!

      Liked by 1 person

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