Though the genius Alan Turing deserves pity for the ultimately fatal persecution he suffered for his homosexuality, at least he’s since been admired and embedded deep in well-known history for his extraordinary mind and accomplishments. There’s no shortage of writing and talk about him and his life, and his very name has become synonymous with codebreaking and forever associated with the vanquishment of Enigma, the Nazis’ notorious cipher machine.
Besides being taught about Turing and the famous Turing Test in high school, I learned more about Big T from a wonderfully nutty professor in an Artificial Intelligence class I took at university. Especially these days, Turing is revered and given proper recognition – and there’s even a U.K. law named after him, based on his posthumous royal pardon (from an odious homosexual-“crimes” conviction) in 2013.
Shamefully, no teacher in my schooling ever uttered the name of the woman who author Jason Fagone refers to as “the great heroine of the Second World War” and “the most famous codebreaker in the world” of that era: Elizebeth Friedman (nee Smith). Elizebeth’s husband, plant biologist and fellow codebreaker William Friedman, was given much more credit than her, but he isn’t even close to being a standard history topic either. For instance, a book as recent as Stephen Pincock’s 2006 Codebreaker: The History of Codes and Ciphers, From the Ancient Pharoahs to Quantum Cryptography mentions William only three times. Elizebeth isn’t mentioned at all. (I can’t help but associate this void with the long-obscured credit belonging to the awesome ladies of Hidden Figures fame.)
Thank goodness Jason Fagone has written The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, a densely informative and witty biography of the Friedmans’ rise to prominence in American spy defense/offense. History overflows with power couples, which usually involve astute women “behind” prominent men: Olga Ivinskaya and Boris Pasternak, Abigail and John Adams, Coretta and Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst, Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. Sometimes such duos have a darker dynamic, such as the deceptive and abusive pseudo-partnership of Margaret and Walter Keane (of the famous “Big Eyes” paintings). Personally, I prefer “alongside” to “behind,” and Elizebeth was without a doubt alongside – and probably a bit in front of – William. Together they formed a cryptanalytical dream team, and it’s about time both of them got their historical due.
Team Friedman thrived long before the computer age, working out problems and revolutionizing cryptanalysis – in longhand. William was partly responsible for the advent of NSA, and, after the fall of the Nazis, was eventually sent to Bavaria to study the inventions of Dr. Oskar Vierling at Laboratorium Feuerstein. He even was part of a team that searched through Hitler’s hallowed Eagle’s Nest. Despite his lofty responsibilities and accomplishments, Elizebeth “was considered by some of their friends to be more brilliant of the pair,” and she became “a Sherlock Holmes on the trail of fascist agents infiltrating the Western Hemisphere.” Why didn’t I learn about her in school?
Codes and Ciphers and Forebears, Oh My!
Cryptology dates back thousands of years to Mesopotamia and early Egypt. Then Arab thinkers originated cryptanalysis, which, by the 1400s, graduated from letter frequency-based codebreaking via the innovation of Leon Battista Alberti of the Vatican. I learned from Fagone that a Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet from 1500 B.C. contained an encrypted message in which craftsmen camouflaged the recipe for a popular pottery glaze of all things.
In their fascinating 1957 book The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, the Friedmans clarify that “a cipher is different from a code,” explaining that “in code systems, the units or symbols to be translated can be of different lengths…In contrast, the units in cipher systems are of uniform length and bear a uniform relationship to the units of plain text.” They also emphasize a key principle for their science: “[T]wo cryptanalysts working independently should always be able to reach identical answers.”
This principle is crucial to what deserves credit for steering a younger Elizebeth (then surnamed Smith), who had “a fear of being ordinary,” toward her extraordinary destiny. As the First World War broke out she moved to Chicago in search of some kind of success. About to surrender and return to her parents’ home for a second time, she made the momentous decision to view a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio at the Newberry Library first-hand before leaving. There a librarian referred her to a Mr. George Fabyan about acquiring an “unusual” job there. Fabyan studied the Folio regularly, spurred by his belief that it was cipherous and only needed the right people to unlock its secrets. A larger than life, licentious, sexually insatiable Renaissance man, Fabyan ran Riverbank Laboratories (from which the NSA stemmed years later), which featured a bustling, energetic, motley bunch of intellectuals cohabitating at a place called the Lodge. “You can never get sick of too much knowledge,” declared Fabyan, so he intended for his Riverbank to excel in accumulation and origination of all kinds of knowledge.
Elizebeth was convinced to move in to the Lodge and work with a Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup, author of 1899’s The Bilateral Cypher of Sir Francis Bacon Discovered in His Works and Deciphered by Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup, and who, subscribing to the Baconian theory of William Shakespeare’s true identity, strove to solve what she thought were ciphers in the very letters of the plays’ texts. Gallup didn’t originate the theory, and she was far from being the only proponent of it. The cast of Baconians include William Stone Booth, Walter Conrad Arensberg, Dr. Wallace McCook Cunningham, Maria Bauer – even, it seems, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain.
Gallup based her approach to deciphering the Folio on Bacon’s De Augmetis Scientanium of 1623. She approached the text as a letter-representation cipher, working in the same way as binary code years before binary code was conceived. The key was noticing and following different-shape letterforms until a “biformed alphabet” could be determined and relied on. Here’s an excerpt from Gallup’s supposed unlocked text: “Queen Elizabeth is my true mother and I am the lawfull heire to the thronw. Finde the cypher stories my books containe. It tells great secrets, every one of which, if imparted openly, would forfeit my life. – F. Bacon.”
Tasked to verify Gallup’s findings, Elizebeth doubted the theory and suspected that a genius such as Bacon hiding unimpressive messages would be nonsensical. As Fagone humorously puts it, “it would be like God creating a galaxy simply to tell a knock-knock joke to some distant deity, enciphered in the shapes of stars.” Soon Elizebeth met William Friedman, who also worked at the Lodge, enlarging Folio pages for analysis and studying fruit flies. Once he became involved with the Gallup work, he agreed with suspicious Elizebeth.
During their post-war careers, the Friedmans were hired by Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who was Doubleday’s vice president at the time, to test a cipher system from the old Bacon-was-Shakespeare camp. The dream team debunked it with minimal effort. Determined to correct such mistaken, misguided and mishandled cryptanalysis, they debunked it in print in The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined decades later. It’s an awesome, engrossing book, but The Woman Who Smashed Codes doesn’t really get into it much.
In it the couple criticizes Fabyan for pushing Gallup’s study in order to prove “Baconian authorship by hook and occasionally by crook,” and, fairly emphasizing that they didn’t think that Gallup acted erroneously rather than fraudulently, they present their undeniable case against the basic absurdity of a cipher-happy fake Shakespeare:
Over and over again the serious and open-minded examiner of Baconian theories is faced to ask himself how it can be asserted that one great genius wrote Bacon’s works, and allegedly the Shakespeare plays, as mere vehicles for the fundamentally more important secret messages; yet the secret utterances, now at last deciphered, are poverty-stricken in intellectual content.
Perhaps the most amusing tidbit in Fagone’s book is an example of the Friedmans’ demonstration of erroneous deciphering: “IF HE SHALL PUBLISH” also could be interpreted as “IN HER DAMP PUBES.”
Elizebeth and William drifted from the Bacon/Shakespeare project, as well as drifted from George Fabyan. As Fagone writes, early on Elizabeth had “figured out within a week or two that she was dealing with a half-crazy individual of unlimited funds and a split personality.” It became evident that the man was tyrannical, manipulative, moody and verbally abusive. However, thanks to him, William and Elizebeth met, and from then on a remarkable, fateful relationship would develop.
Eventually, William fell in love with Elizebeth, but was hesitant to reveal his feelings to her. Though Elizebeth felt much affection for William, love developed much slower for her. Of their romance Fagone goes on about love and its evasion of language, risking bathos but, as far as I’m concerned, hitting a narrative homerun with this passage:
When you fall in love, you develop a compact encoding to share mental states more efficiently, cut noise, and bring your beloved closer. All lovers, in this light, are codebreakers. And with America going to war, the two codebreakers at Riverbank were about to become lovers.
Truly love is a riddle, a mystery, an enigma.
A Riddle, A Mystery, An Enigma
In 1917 a secret communication which became known as the Zimmermann telegram was intercepted by Great Britain and shown to President Woodrow Wilson. Arthur Zimmermann, the German Foreign Minister, had written to Mexico about a potential alliance against the United States. That same year Scotland Yard relayed messages that were suspected of containing German plans for fomenting a Hindu revolution. As if destiny knew that time was ripe for the Friedmans to flex their expertise, a Riverbank team ended up breaking code for all of the major departments of the government, including the navy, during the First World War. In his enjoyable prose style Fagone describes the essential glee that Elizebeth felt when in her element: “Now Elizebeth had to shake the words until they spilled their letters. To rip, rupture, puncture, chisel, scissor, smash, and scoop up the rubble in her arms.” Elizebeth herself expressed the nervous thrill of the process with a similar flourish: “The skeletons of words leap out, and make you jump.”
As William and Elizebeth developed new techniques for codebreaking, Fabyan, seeing their drift from him widen, started a school to teach army men codebreaking before deployment to France (for the American Expeditionary Forces) to keep the couple around. Regardless, once they both became tired of “Fabyan’s skullduggery,” as Elizebeth put it, they accepted a job offer from the army in 1921.
Radical innovation and improvement of deciphering methods were in serious demand by the World War II era. (Over 10,000 machines were in widespread use then, after all.) While Elizebeth excelled at her work and wrote books, William outwitted cipher machines, such as Japan’s “Red” and “Purple,” and he became integral to the American Black Chamber, a secret cryptography department. He also worked on developing America’s Converter M-134 machine, later known as the SIGABA.
Though William tinkered with breaking Enigma, that victory was to belong to Turing, as mentioned earlier. The ingenious poly-alphabetic cipher machine was comprised of multiple electric wheels marked with letters, a keyboard and an alphabetical “lampboard.” Each time a key would be established by arranging the wheels’ starting letters at certain initial positions. Enigma could be set up at the start in 158 million million million possible combinations. This passage should strike anyone dumb with the magnitude of cipherous power that Enigma had far before the gargantuan 7090 was a glimmer in IBM’s eye:
How many possible keys existed? Depending on the model of Enigma, the number of keys might be as large as 753,506,019,827,465,601,628,054,269,182,006,024,455,361,232,867,996,259,038,139,284,671,620,842,209,198,855,035,390,656,499,576,744,406,240,169,347,894,791,372,800,000,000,000,000. Each one of those keys produced a unique set of 16,900 alphabets before repeating.
What a far cry(ptology) from the mid-1400s, when Leon Alberti came up with a groundbreaking cipher disk that went beyond the Arab strides in the coding field. Just imagine the capability of cryptological technology that exists today.
What really amazed me about The Woman Who Smashed Codes is how ably and fluently the author presents and explains very complicated details and inner workings of cipher machinery, different types of codes and cryptology in general. Many passages soared far over my head, but the magnetic brilliance of them mitigated my shame for my ignorance.
Elizebeth’s Noisy Ghost
President FDR worried about Nazi presence in South Africa, and the danger of attack and/or corrosive influence, so the race to foil and thwart Nazi spies intensified. From 1940 to 1945, Elizebeth became a counterspy against German spies, under direction of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. Meanwhile, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover launched undercover operations in South America. Spies proliferated. Even writers Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl performed clandestine work for Britain, whose intelligence filled Hoover with jealousy. This was the time when FDR established the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the CIA precursor, for foreign-intelligence operations.
Elizebeth matched wits against the best spy the Nazis had: Johannes Becker (alias “Sargo”), a high-ranking SS officer whose counterpart was Gustav Utzinger (aka “Luna”). This sphere of spyhood involved secret Nazi radio stations hidden in South America, evinced by intercepted correspondence between that continent and Berlin and Hamburg.
1942 is the year that Elizebeth really burgeoned professionally. She had become a formidable hunter of Nazis, so to speak. Here’s how Fagone puts it:
…Elizebeth’s eye had adjusted. In the dark, lights out, she was watching them now, one letter of the alphabet at a time. She had the Nazi brain in a jar on her desk, alive and glistening, electrodes running out to her pencil.
And Fagone’s hyperbolic, oddball prose and brash analogizing shine particularly when describing Elizebeth’s deft, assassin-like penetration of the enemy’s stealthy darkness:
[A]ll through the war, she dissected fascists in the dark. If you were her adversary you never felt the blade go in. You bled slowly, painlessly, for months or for years, from tiny internal wounds, and then sometimes there was a terrible morning when you woke up groggy and confused, and your kidney was sitting in a bowl of ice on the counter.
She also dug up evidence that Argentina, via blackguard Juan Peron, was in cahoots with Germany. This discovery of non-neutrality came to be known as the Hellmuth Affair. Unscrupulous itself, the FBI gave Argentina an “out” by propping up the story of Siegfried Becker to a spectacular, mythic level and giving the Argentine police credit for exposing and nabbing him. Utzinger also was arrested, thanks to Elizebeth’s and the Coast Guard’s work. (However, both Becker and Utzinger were freed after that crook Peron became president.)
This behind-the-scenes-behind-the-scenes work was stricken from posterity by egomaniacal Hoover, who beefed up credit for his overrated FBI. He wrote “How the Nazi Spy Invasion was Smashed” for The American Magazine, and a corresponding documentary, The Battle of the United States, was produced. Fagone points out that, besides Hoover’s burial of the facts, “Elizebeth’s tendency to minimize her own contributions…is one reason that her role in the war would go undiscovered for so many years.” Whether one wants to view the cover-up as sexism or stolen fruit, the obscurity wasn’t due to vast ignorance. Fagone explains:
The British knew it. The navy knew it. The FBI knew it. But the American public never did, because Elizebeth wasn’t allowed to speak. She and every other codebreaker who worked on ULTRA [Allied intelligence] material was bound by oath to keep the ULTRA secret.
Thankfully, acknowledgement of Elizebeth Friedman resurged in the 1990s. Fagone’s analogy of Elizebeth as assassin reappears in the following passage:
…because women went looking for Elizebeth’s ghost, and because her ghost was making noise in the archives…The ghost cried out from unexpected places. Three of the index cards in William’s collection contain brief, verifiably true comments about how J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI took credit for feats of spycatching actually performed by Elizebeth and the coast guard…Each card is a knife slipped between the ribs of Hoover, Elizebeth’s patient revenge.
“A Love Story”
The Woman Who Smashed Codes is more than a biography about the woman who smashed codes. It’s almost as much William’s story as Elizebeth’s. What’s more, in the early pages the author himself calls the book “a love story.” During his preparation Fagone explored love letters, diaries and writings to reveal the personal, romantic depth of the Friedmans, providing a fine portrait of two remarkable and dedicated lovers.
By the time they were an official item, William went to France to break code for the AEF while forlorn Elizebeth remained at Riverbank. William’s heartsickness and deep self-doubt from their being apart is told in a particularly touching way. Surely the couple’s hearts grew fonder in each other’s absence.
A dedicated, doting husband, William struggled with anxiety and depression (to the point of being kept at Walter Reed for treatment), and the enduring care of Elizebeth proved to be a lifeline more than a few times. Amidst their heroic, stellar talents and responsibilities, the two geniuses referred to each other as “Lover-Husband,” “Wonder Girl” and “Dearest Woman in the Universe.” (Love devises the cutest codenames, doesn’t it?) In the Kama Sutra there are references in the 44th and 45th chapters touting the practice of cryptography by couples, so – way to go, Friedmans!
Surprisingly, the book doesn’t address another codebreaking couple, Parker and Genevieve Hitt. (Unless I missed something.) It’s no small fact that Genevieve, during her mostly self-taught and temporary stint at official cryptology, once attended Riverbank Laboratories and became colleagues with none other than William Friedman. Nonetheless, Team Friedman is indeed a special case. Thanks to Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes, the apparently full story of their symbiotic excellence is available to all – including, hopefully, many more history teachers and their classes.
– David Herrle