Elizebeth Smith Friedman was a groundbreaking cryptanalyst who helped bring down gangsters during Prohibition and break up a Nazi spy ring in South America in World War II.

The 2016 film Hidden Figures brought the forgotten Black women who worked at NASA during the Apollo program into the national spotlight. Now PBS is doing the same for Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a Quaker poet who helped pioneer the field of cryptography with her husband, William Friedman, in a new documentary for the American Experience series. The Codebreaker is based on the 2017 book The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by San Francisco Chronicle journalist Jason Fagone. Per the official premise:

The Codebreaker reveals the fascinating story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, the groundbreaking cryptanalyst whose painstaking work to decode thousands of messages for the U.S. government would send infamous gangsters to prison in the 1920s and bring down a massive, near-invisible Nazi spy ring in WWII. Her remarkable contributions would come to light decades after her death, when secret government files were unsealed. But together with her husband, the legendary cryptologist William Friedman, Elizebeth helped develop the methods that led to the creation of the powerful new science of cryptology and laid the foundation for modern codebreaking today.

Director Chana Gazit told Ars she was drawn to the story for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it has taken so long for Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s vital contributions to come to light. “If we missed Elizebeth, who contributed so much in the first half of the 20th century to the safety of this country, who else are we missing?” she said. “It just felt good to be able to portray a brilliant woman with ambition, who wanted a bigger life, who was able to overcome so many obstacles, but also had a rounded life that included the personal as well as the professional.”

To learn more about this extraordinary woman, Ars sat down with Fagone, upon whose book the documentary is based.

Ars Technica: How did you discover Elizebeth Smith Friedman?

Jason Fagone: I had never heard of her. My curiosity was piqued around 2014 after the Edward Snowden disclosures. I started reading about the history of the National Security Agency (NSA), and all roads lead to William Friedman. He’s said to be the greatest American codebreaker of all time, someone who solved secret messages without knowing the key. He is considered to be the godfather of the NSA. When you go to NSA headquarters, there’s a bronze bust of his head outside of the auditorium. I saw that Friedman had a wife named Elizebeth who was also a codebreaker. There wasn’t much other information about her, but how many husband-and-wife codebreaking teams can there possibly be?

So I went looking for more information about her, and that led me to the George Marshall Foundation Library in Lexington, Virginia. I started reading Elizebeth’s papers. She left 22 boxes of her diaries, letters, and codeword sheets. This extraordinary story leapt off the page at me: this story of a woman who was a codebreaking Quaker poet who caught gangsters and hunted Nazi spies and helped win the World Wars, only to be left out of the history books by men and have her contributions covered up. I just wanted to know everything about her and to tell her story in full.

Ars Technica: Much of this wasn’t declassified until around 2008, which might be one reason she escaped notice.

Jason Fagone: There are two main reasons why we haven’t heard her story until now. One is sexism. Elizebeth was a technical master at a time when women were not considered to be technically competent in a lot of fields. She was omitted or even erased from the records for any achievements, by the men in her life. Sometimes those were men who were close to her, like her husband, William, who was horrified whenever he would receive credit for things that Elizebeth actually did. But sometimes the men who took credit from her work were actively seeking to steal it, in particular J. Edgar Hoover.

All through World War II, Elizebeth did a job that the FBI needed to do but had no technical ability to do: monitor radio stations used by Nazi spies in South America, intercept the messages, break the codes, solve the puzzles, and figure out what these spies were doing. The FBI had no codebreaking capacity. She essentially brought this entire gang of Nazi spies to ruin, smashed their network, eliminated the threat. After the war, Hoover came out in public and said, “The FBI smashed these Nazi spy rings in South America, you’re welcome, America.” Elizebeth and the US Coast Guard had actually done that work, but it was a lie that got repeated and written into history books. One of the exciting things to me about writing the book, and seeing this documentary, is that now people are getting the real story.

William Friedman and Elizebeth Smith Friedman as a young couple.
Enlarge / William Friedman and Elizebeth Smith Friedman as a young couple.


Ars Technica: William and Elizebeth seem to have had a marriage of equals; their relationship reminds me a little of Marie and Pierre Curie.

Jason Fagone: Yes, the founding of the NSA is rooted in this love story. Elizebeth and William had a special relationship. They started writing to each other before they were romantically involved. But even then you can see the spark and that they are clicking on the page. They were these two young people who wanted to accomplish great things and leave a mark. After they started to fall in love, they would sign off their love notes with little messages written in code. These are two people who ended up changing the 20th century, and part of the reason that they were able to do that is because they had this remarkable relationship. Their minds were so intertwined that they even spoke to each other in code when they were writing love notes.

Ars Technica: What was the biggest challenge for you in writing about Elizebeth and her work? 

Jason Fagone: I was a little worried, not being a mathematician or a scientist, that I would not be able to understand what she did on a technical level, but Elizebeth herself actually helped me get over that fear. When I was looking through her papers, I found an unpublished manuscript that she wrote, intended for a young adult audience. It was about how to break codes, the way that she did it back then, that is, with pencil and paper. It was essentially a Codebreaking for Dummies book to introduce people to the rudiments of codebreaking as they existed in Elizebeth’s day.

So I went through the book like a student and I did some of the exercises. I felt a little bit like I was learning from Elizebeth, some of the basics of her science and her world. I didn’t want to just hand-wave it away. I really did want to convey what it was about Elizebeth that allowed her to break these codes and solve these messages that so many people could not.

The codebreaker at work.
Enlarge / The codebreaker at work.


Ars Technica: What was it that you think made her so good at codebreaking?

Jason Fagone: I think she was a genius at seeing patterns in what to other people look like noise. She did it again and again, across decades, in so many different contexts. She did not come from a trained math or science background. I had always imagined a codebreaker to be somebody who was a mathematician, but Elizebeth was a poet. She spent her time in college studying Shakespeare and the poems of Tennyson. I think that gave her a fingertip feel for the rhythm of language, the way that words move across the page. I think she also had a natural pattern-matching ability.

Because she came at codebreaking from this unusual angle, it gave her a leg up. It made her, for most of her career, the indispensable woman for the US government. This was in the infancy of cryptology in America. Elizebeth started breaking codes when American codebreaking didn’t really even exist. It was such a young field, it had not set up systems for keeping women out. So she was able to get respect and renown for her achievements in this technical field, even though she was a woman, because there were just so few people doing codebreaking at a high level. The NSA didn’t exist, the CIA didn’t exist, and the FBI was still very young, and it had no codebreaking capacity. It was a crime agency. So a bright young woman with a different way of looking at things could really make a mark. And she absolutely did.

The Codebreaker debuts tonight, January 11, 2021, on PBS’ American Experience at 9pm EST / 8pm CST.

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