You probably haven’t heard of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, an American whose work cracking codes by hand helped win the Second World War.
Writer Jason Fagone has penned a book about her, and he shared some of what he uncovered about the mysterious heroine on Twitter.
The code breaker was born in 1892 to Quakers in Indiana, and was more into Shakespeare than maths when she was young, graduating from college with an English literature degree.
I want to tell you a story. For 3 years I’ve been researching Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a puzzle-solving heroine of the world wars. 1/ pic.twitter.com/kenkBQQrac— Jason Fagone (@jfagone) September 25, 2017
According to Fagone she began to teach herself to break codes at 23 before quickly becoming one of the greatest cryptographers in America, and probably the first female.
Fagone said he first heard about the little known code breaker on a library website.
Unfortunately, she’s often better known as the wife of one of the first cryptographers at the National Security Agency (NSA), William Friedman.
Her husband was William Friedman, the godfather of the NSA. This guy. 5/ pic.twitter.com/YEeFe3xhiq— Jason Fagone (@jfagone) September 25, 2017
Fagone was given access to a library archive containing 22 boxes of papers about her.
He read her personal letters and code breaking efforts, many of which were done by hand.
Some of her love letters to her husband had also been written in code.
Her personal diaries were there. Also, love letters between her and William. Some written in code. 8/ pic.twitter.com/h83yq1bAuz— Jason Fagone (@jfagone) September 25, 2017
Between the wars, she used her code breaking skills to break up drug rings, summed up in one newspaper with the sub-heading “solved by woman”.
There were newspaper clips. In the 1920s & 30s, Elizebeth used her skills to break up liquor & heroin rings. Testified against gangsters 10/ pic.twitter.com/qUPP7zIfrp— Jason Fagone (@jfagone) September 25, 2017
After the 1920s, there was a gap in the notes and Fagone initially struggled to find what she did during the Second World War.
After two years of looking through wartime archives, he came across a reference to “spy stuff”.
I started searching through archives in the U.S. and U.K. It took me two years to find the answer: 13/ pic.twitter.com/scbfxu0OCs— Jason Fagone (@jfagone) September 25, 2017
During the war she hunted Nazis, intercepting thousands of messages they were sending from south America via radio to Germany, and also working with British interceptors.
This was invaluable to the FBI, who didn’t have the skills to do this alone.
She never got any credit though, which Fagone puts down to J Edgar Hoover, the then-director of the FBI, who took it all in a “publicity blitz” after the war.
And then Elizebeth’s war files were stamped TOP SECRET ULTRA and classified for decades. So Americans never knew that she was a hero. 25/— Jason Fagone (@jfagone) September 25, 2017
Jason Fagone’s book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, is out now.