Elizebeth Smith Friedman

Ashley Angelucci

Known as “America’s first female cryptanalyst,” Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s pioneering work in the field of codebreaking helped the country through pivotal moments in the 20th Century. A career that started with decrypting Shakespeare’s plays turned into cracking thousands of codes and ciphers during World War I, Prohibition, and World War II using only pencil and paper. Her contributions, even as they were overlooked during her lifetime, set the stage for generations of codebreakers to come.  

Born to a Quaker family in the small town of Huntington, Indiana on August 26, 1892, Elizebeth Smith was the youngest of ten children. Daughter to Sopha and John Smith, Smith always knew that she wanted to live an extraordinary life. Her passion for poetry inspired her to pursue her education. Smith had a challenging relationship with her father who did not approve of her, or women in general, going to college. However, she jumped at the opportunity when he agreed to pay for her schooling if she paid him back with six percent interest. She would be one of two children with the privilege to attend college in her family.  

Smith graduated from Hillsdale College in Michigan with a major in English literature in 1915. Her love for Shakespeare and languages remained a constant in her life. Smith took a teaching job in a small Indiana school after graduation where she remained for one year. Smith headed to Chicago in June 1916 to look for a new job but was unsuccessful. Before leaving the city, she stopped at the Newberry Library to see one of Shakespeare’s first folios printed in 1623. The librarian took notice of Smith’s interest in the folio and insisted on putting her in contact with an individual looking for someone with knowledge of Shakespearean works. Little did she know, this introduction would change the course of her life completely.  

George Fabyan, a wealthy industrialist, took Smith to his Riverbank estate in Geneva, Illinois to tell her what the job entailed. Fabyan was determined to prove that there were secret messages in Shakespeare’s plays revealing that author Francis Bacon wrote them instead. Along with a small team, Smith accomplished her first lesson in working with ciphers, where she used a magnifying glass to try to spot differences in the fonts. She was surrounded by other scientists and academics that Fabyan brought to Riverbank, which he used as his “private think tank” to make discoveries and breakthroughs. Being at Riverbank changed Smith’s life in more ways than one.  

Smith met William Friedman, a geneticist at the estate. After spending time together, Smith brought William onto her team to help break the Shakespearean codes. They worked together to show there was no evidence that Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays, while growing closer professionally and romantically. The couple married in Chicago in May 1917, just after the United States entered World War I. Now using her married name, Smith Friedman worked with her husband at Riverbank to decrypt every single secret message sent to them by the Navy. Trailblazing her way through the field as an expert and teacher, Smith Friedman successfully trained the first generation of codebreakers for the military.  

After World War I, Smith Friedman and her husband moved to Washington, DC where they worked for the Army Signal Corps. Yet, Smith Friedman’s salary was much less than her husband’s and she only kept her position for one year. Discouraged by the feeling of not being valued at her job, she took a break from codebreaking to give birth to her daughter in 1923 and her son soon after. However, that changed when the Coast Guard urgently requested her expertise in 1925. Illegal trafficking of alcohol during Prohibition created a massive black market for mobsters bringing supplies in by sea that the Coast Guard was not equipped to contain. Smith Friedman singlehandedly decrypted two years of messages the rumrunners had sent and figured out their plans, preventing further illegal activity. By 1931, the Coast Guard created its first official codebreaking unit led by Smith Friedman. She became the key witness for many court cases to convict some of the most dangerous men in the world like, most famously, Al Capone.  

By 1940, Smith Friedman juggled working, caring for her children, and helping her husband, who had a nervous breakdown from the stress of his own codebreaking job in the Army. He had been secretly involved in breaking Axis codes before the US even entered the war. After Pearl Harbor in 1941, Smith Friedman’s unit shifted to Navy command, forcing her to take a secondary position compared to her previous status, assigned with monitoring communications between a Nazi spy ring in South America and the German High Command. Smith Friedman uncovered secret messages under a spy’s codename, SARGO, who was revealing the locations of Allied ships to German U-boat captains in the Atlantic. In 1942, Smith-Friedman decoded messages concerning the Allies’ largest supply ship, the Queen Mary, saving 8,000 men on board and an invaluable number of supplies. With Smith Friedman’s efforts, the United States was eventually able to break up the spy ring and eliminate the Nazi threat in the Western Hemisphere. 

Like other codebreakers during the war, Smith Friedman had to sign an oath promising her silence of her wartime accomplishments until death. She had to watch as J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI Director at the time, take credit for her and her team’s successes. When her unit was disbanded in 1945, Smith Friedman worked for the International Monetary Fund, but continued to keep codebreaking in her life by publishing a book with her husband further disproving the theory Bacon authored Shakespeare’s plays. When her husband grew ill, she cared for him until his death in 1969. She dedicated her time thereafter to gathering his life work into a library until she passed away on October 31, 1980 in New Jersey. In 2008, the government declassified documents revealing Elizabeth Smith Friedman’s World War II contributions in South America, as well as documents revealing the codebreaking work of other women during the war. Smith Friedman’s codebreaking methods paved the way for future generations and helped the nation prevail in tumultuous times.