Written and presented by Eva Galperin, Fellow of Odd Salon. Eva is a security researcher, privacy activist, and circus aerialist. You can find her TED talk here.
“If Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels, Elizebeth Friedman did everything Alan Turing did only with a pen and a scratch pad instead of a bank of computers the size of a room. ”
In this episode, Odd Salon Fellow Eva Galperin brings us a love story with code breaking, featuring Shakespeare, espionage, eccentric millionaires, and the greatest cryptographer you’ve never heard of.
Elizebeth Friedman began her career as we all wish we could: by accepting the somewhat dubious invitation of an eccentric millionaire. She went on to lead an extraordinary life filled with code breaking in two world wars, busting smugglers, and debunking false codes. Along the way she found her soulmate.
Hi, my name is Eva Galperin and before I begin, I want you to know that this is a love story.
The year is 1916. We’re in front of the Newberry Library in Chicago, where 24 year old Elizebeth Smith is being swooped up by a limousine belonging to a man who has just asked her, “Will you come to Riverbank and spend the night with me?”
Elizebeth is five foot three, youthful, and slight. The man is broad, middle aged, and looms over her. This eccentric, rich, and let’s face it kind of gross man is a textile millionaire called Colonel George Fabian. He’s not actually a colonel – “Colonel” was an honorary title bestowed by the governor out of gratitude after Fabian allowed the Illinois National Guard to use his estate as a training ground.
Riverbank was a 500 acre… or 600 acre… or 350 acre, depending on the source, estate owned by Fabian just a couple hours train ride from Chicago. Riverbank was described as a “Garden of Eden on the Fox River,” and also as a research facility in the style of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park. It was a bit of a science fair and also a bit of a circus. There was a monkey enclosure and a hive of bees in the main house. There was a pair of grizzly bears named Tom and Jerry. It featured an acoustics lab hosting experiments meant to “make cities livable by eliminating the racket made by machines”. About 150 people worked at Riverbank in its heyday.
The pay was terrible, but the food grown on the farm was free, and so was lodging as long as employees lived on site. Fabian had also enrolled a bunch of young girls from a local boarding school for experiments meant to improve their posture. ” They are learning to stand erect and not like anthropoid apes, just learning to walk,” he bragged to a local paper. “I’m trying to improve the human race.” He told them because it was 1916 and coming right out and saying you are a eugenicist was normal and cool.
Once she got to Riverbank, Elizebeth’s job was to assist another Elizabeth, Wells Gallup, in her efforts to prove that Sir Francis Bacon had authored Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets using a cipher that was supposed to have been contained within subtle differences between the fonts in which they were printed in Shakespeare’s first folio, which as luck would have, it was kept at the Newberry Library where our opening scene takes place.
Wells Gallup had already found the messages, of course, but some academics doubted her methods. So Elizebeth’s job was to reproduce her methods and assist in further research. Adding to the kookiness, Wells Gallup also believed that Bacon wrote plays attributed to Kit Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and others in which he had hidden an entire alternate history of the Elizabethan Age, including the claim that Bacon himself was the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester.
Like all the best kookiness, Wells Gallop’s theories had formed around a kernel of truth. Sir Francis Bacon did invent a cipher, referred to as a bilateral cipher because it’s based on two letters, often A and B and replacing the letters of the alphabet like so: AAAAA is A, AAAAB is B, AAABA is C.
Now bear with me here because we’re gonna be talking about ciphers a lot and ciphers are an inherently visual medium, so it gets tricky. In short Elizebeth’s job was to stare at blown up photos of pages of Shakespeare’s first folio and determine which letter form was of the A type or the B type. Once she had assigned a cluster of five letters A and B types that cluster becomes a letter in Francis Bacon’s secret message.
This is an exceptionally tricky task, because for some reason only Wells Gallup seems to really know which letters are A form and which letters are B form and Elizebeth’s work required a lot of correction to get the right results.
While working at Riverbank, Elizebeth Smith met William Friedman, a Russian born Jewish immigrant, originally named Wolf, who started off employed as the head of the department of genetics where he worked with seeds and plants trying to infuse them with desirable properties.
Friedman was in many ways the opposite of Fabian. He was young, one of the few employees at Riverbank Elizebeth’s own age, and slight and meticulously dressed. William was not given over to saying things he didn’t mean. Biographer Jason Fugoni characterizes his presence as refreshing after spending the day in the “blast zone of Fabian’s hype cannon.”
Friedman started out helping with the Shakespeare project first by helping to enlarge photographs of letter forms and then assisting with the ciphers. Elizebeth started to share her doubts about Wells Gallup’s findings with William. She was beginning to believe that there were no hidden codes in the works of William Shakespeare, and Friedman agreed.
It became clear that they needed to find a way to remove themselves from this crazy project, but how? Enter World War I, or specifically: the United States entered World War I with almost no cryptological capabilities. In previous wars codebreakers and code breaking had mattered less, but now messages went out over the radio and those messages were all encrypted.
If you wanted troop movements, diplomatic negotiations, or reports of spies, sure, you could just pull the information out of the air, but then you had to decipher it. When the US joined World War I , the war department had a military intelligence division that was made up of 17 officers. So Fabian offered deciphering services to the US government for free, and suddenly William and Elizebeth were in charge of breaking codes for the US government in war time. Messages came every day by mail and telegram.
Elizebeth Smith is often credited with teaching William Friedman cryptology, or the art of breaking codes, but Elizebeth always insisted that they learned together. Over the next year, Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman, under tremendous pressure, revolutionized the science of cryptology in the United States.
They were breaking substitution ciphers, the kind of code you’re familiar with if you’ve ever seen a secret decoder ring to make secret messages, by swapping out one letter for another. All of their work depended on frequency tables, and shortcuts specific to the languages in which the messages were sent.
These days, code breaking relies heavily on math and machines. But Elizebeth always talked about the work as a kind of art.
“The skeletons of words, leap out and make you jump.” Elizebeth later says to a biographer from the NSA. before long Elizebeth and William had reached the limits of the us government manual for setting up field decryption offices, the hit manual, and started inventing methodologies of their own. George Fabian published eight pamphlets on deciphering messages based on the cryptologic methods invented at Riverbank, including notably a general method for solving book ciphers without a copy of the book, usually six of the eight pamphlets were attributed to William Friedman, but the couple always told everyone they were a joint effort.
The original notes for the pamphlets, which are archived, have both of their writing all over them. In a 1918 letter to Elizebeth, William referred to the publications as “our pamphlets”.
Among their accomplishments, Elizebeth and William kept the British government from making a major security mistake. Sir Charles Wheatstone’s cryptograph also known as the Playfair Cipher invented in the mid eighteen hundreds, was a small cipher machine, which was being manufactured by the British army.
It was used by the allied forces and no one among the British, Americans, or French had been able to decrypt the cipher. Playfair is a digraph substitution cipher, which is like the mono alphabetic substitution ciphers we all know and love – your secret decoder ring – except that it replaces pairs of letters with other pairs of letters, a digraph.
So the Playfair Cipher had 625 possible digraphs, as opposed to the typical 25 possible monographs you have in a mono alphabetical substitution cipher. This is gonna be harder to break. A digraph substitution cipher is generally based on a keyword, a sort of initial setting that determines how the plain alphabet will line up with the cipher alphabet.
The keyword was regularly changed and required an adjustment corresponding on the machine to interpret the message. To make sure that the code was truly undecipherable, five telegram messages were sent to William and Elizebeth. In approximately three hours, the Riverbank code breakers had decoded all five messages, the first of which read “this cipher is absolutely indecipherable”. The army had used exceptionally weak keys, “cipher” and “machine”, which gave the codebreakers the toehold they needed to decrypt the messages. The 11,000 Playfair devices that had all been built and were ready to go were never used.
Oh, and one more thing happened while these two were breaking codes at Riverbank: they fell in love. In May of 1917 Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman snuck away from Riverbank for the day and got married in Chicago. The wedding was Jewish. Elizebeth’s family was Quaker, but she never had a whole lot of concern for what they thought about her choices. William’s mother cried and cried because her son had married a shiksa.
Elizebeth moved from the cottage where she was staying to the windmill on the property where William lived, and together, they began plotting what to do next. In late 1917, the US government created the Army Cipher Bureau to do its code breaking, and the flow of intercepts stopped arriving at Riverbank.
Sensing that he was losing his influence in the government Fabian became increasingly pushy and controlling. William wrote to the army about a commission. Elizebeth wrote to the Navy. For months they heard no answer. Fabian’s papers collected many years later indicate that he had intercepted the mail and wrote back himself, answering that the Friedmans were not available. Instead of allowing the love birds to run off, to join the war effort Fabian arranged for William and Elizebeth to teach cryptography to army officers where he could keep them under his watchful eye. Just in case a watchful eye was not enough. It was around this time that he reached peak creep and placed listening devices in the classroom in order to spy on their plans.
Shortly after classes ended. William finally convinced Fabian to let him join the Army on the condition that he returned to Riverbank once the war was over. He accepted a first lieutenant’s commission and concentrated on breaking into the German code books for the last five months of the war. But Elizebeth stayed behind while William went to Europe, breaking codes with the Colonel, breathing down her neck.
The couple wrote back and forth often discussing what to do about Fabian and Riverbank. We know about this because most of the letters survive and are archived, but there are suspicious gaps. Elizebeth writes that she doesn’t feel safe, but the letters in which she elaborates do not survive. William’s letters imply that Fabian made inappropriate advances to Elizebeth while William was stationed in France, but there are no details. Only that whatever Fabian did made William uncharacteristically and violently angry. At the end of the war, most soldiers were immediately sent home, but William had to stay in France for several more months to write a classified summary of his code breaking work. By then Elizebeth had had enough.
She decided to leave riverbank. She stealthily packed a bag and boarded a train to Indiana. She found a job in a library in Huntington, not unlike the librarian position she was looking for when Fabian first waylaid her at the Newberry Library in Chicago and set all of these kooky events in motion.
The letters that Fabian sent to William and Elizebeth at this time were blistering. He demanded their return to Riverbank and insisted their “vacations” had gone on for long enough. Fabian wheedled. He charmed. And he made threats. He even tried to divide and conquer the Friedmans by suggesting that just Elizebeth could return to Riverbank without William having to resume his job.
Yeah. That didn’t get him anywhere. In early 1919 William returned home from Europe and was discharged from the Army. William and Elizebeth traveled around looking for work. But wherever William applied, a telegram would arrive from Fabian, demanding their return. Beaten down, the Friedmans agreed to come back to Riverbank, but only if they could live in their own house in nearby Geneva, get a raise, and if they would be allowed to question Gallop’s theories about the Bacon ciphers. In a move that will surprise no one, Fabian kept none of his promises. The raises never materialized, Fabian kept right on suppressing criticism of Wells Gallup’s theories, and he moved to deny William credit for his work combining statistics and cryptology.
Finally, the Friedmans had reached their breaking point. They agreed to take a government job, packed their things up in secret and confronted Fabian and told him that they were leaving on the next train and their decision was final. They thought Fabian would explode, but the whole thing turned out to be a bit of an anti climax after years of bullying and brow beating, Fabian, just, he just smiled and wished them well. In her diary, Elizebeth expressed relief at having escaped without getting their throats cut.
The Friedmans went to Washington, DC to work for the Army Signal Corps, with regular paychecks and a non- deranged boss. Together, they produced the first scientifically constructed set of pencil and paper codes and ciphers and army history. In the spring of 1922, Elizebeth resigned from the army saying she planned to stay home and write some books.
She started on a whimsical book about code breaking aimed at teens and curious adults, and also on an illustrated children’s history of the alphabet. But before long she’d taken a job with the Navy. “I didn’t want to work for the Navy, but they were just sitting on my doorstep all the time, and the only way to get rid of them was to go there for a while until they found someone else.”
Which she did until she got pregnant and left. She gave birth to a daughter, named Barbara, kept working on her books, and then had a son, John Ramsey, three years later. She was approached to work for the Treasury Department Bureau of Prohibition – and this is at the height of alcohol prohibition. And she accepted the job because they let her work from home. She broke lots of rum runner codes intercepted over the radio by the Coast Guard. In fact, in her first 90 days at work, she solved two years worth of backlogged messages. In 1931, Elizebeth convinced Congress to create a headquartered seven man cryptoanalytic section for code breaking, where she trained a bunch of new analysts.
In 1937 Elizebeth assisted the Canadian government in catching an opium smuggler Gordon Lim by deciphering a code written in Mandarin without actually speaking Mandarin at all.
The interwar years were a particularly interesting time in William and Elizebeth’s marriage and their careers, because for a brief while Elizebeth gained some public notoriety. William’s work for the government was almost entirely secret, but Elizebeth’s work included testifying about her code breaking efforts at the trials of the gangsters and smugglers she helped to outsmart. Newspapers and magazines wrote a series of what Elizebeth laughingly dismissed as “girl codebreaker” profiles about her. The tone of these pieces was admiring, but also a bit patronizing. Oh, look, a woman breaking codes! How novel, how strange, like some kind of talking dog.
During this time, William was moved to the new Signal Intelligence Service, SIS, with the War Department, where he was tasked with training the next generation of code breaking experts. His first four students were ready to begin decrypting communications between Japanese diplomats in just two years. Having acquired the knowledge that America was to read their secret messages, the Japanese began using Red, a new electro-mechanical cipher machine. In turn the Army charged Friedman’s group with breaking the new, more complex cipher in 1935. And by 1936, they’d succeeded. Red was replaced with Purple, which used a switch similar to what you would find on a telephone’s automatic exchange.
It took 18 months, dozens handling statistical analysis and William working obsessively day and night before the machine, of which they had no parts to study until after the war, was recreated and the code was broken. They read coded messages sent to Tokyo from the Japanese ambassador to Berlin. This is stuff that changed the course of the war.
But it also changes the course of William’s life. William spent three months recovering from a mental breakdown after Purple. And although he received the go ahead to return to active duty, he was discharged from the Army returning to civilian life while simultaneously training more personnel and organizing the breaking of new cipher systems.
The war took its toll on him. He suffered from depression and sought future hospitalization and psychiatric treatment. He would continue to fight bouts of depression and exhaustion for the rest of his life. In the meantime, Elizebeth had her own part to play in the secret war beginning with Velvalee Dickinson.
Following high school and some college Velvalee married the head of a brokerage firm that had Japanese American clients. The Dickinson’s interests in Japan grew so much that they joined the Japanese American society, where they began to rub shoulders with members of the Japanese consulate. When the brokerage firm success suffered a downturn, so too did the Dickinson’s role as proponents of good Japanese American relations. At some point, the couple became spies for Japan. Velvalee lead became a major player and her successful doll shop was a cover for her espionage. Known as “The Doll Woman”, she corresponded with Japanese agents using the names of women she found in her business correspondance.
This would be her downfall. Her correspondence, which contained encoded material addressing significant Naval vessel movement in Pearl Harbor, was analyzed and solved by Elizebeth. Velvalee Dickinson was tried and found guilty of espionage in 1944.
But Elizebeth… Elizebeth was just getting started. Working for the Coast Guard she led a team that evesdropped on German spies as they discussed the movement of Allied ships in South America. This was high stakes business.
As Americans fought in World War II they were afraid that Axis powers would try to conduct Nazi backed coups in South American countries. In 1942, Elizebeth worst fears appeared to have come true. Cover transmissions from the Nazis abruptly stopped, a sign that her targets had discovered they were being spied on.
As it turned out, FBI director Jay Edgar Hoover, eager to make a career defining move had tipped off Nazi spies to the US’s intelligence activities by hastily raiding sources in South America. Elizebeth was left to deal with the aftermath. Even after Hoover’s gambit set her efforts back by months, Friedman’s response was to do what she’d always done. She just red redoubled her efforts and got back to work.
Elizebeth and her team were an analog bunch. They used pen and paper to break three separate Enigma machine codes, a feat that was being duplicated in Britain by cryptologists in Bletchley Park using some of the very first code breaking computers. If Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels, Elizebeth Friedman did everything Alan Turing did only with a pen and a scratch pad instead of a bank of computers the size of a room. By December, 1942, her team had cracked every one of the Nazi’s new codes. In doing so, she and her colleagues unveiled a network of Nazi-led informants led by Johannes Siegfried Becker, a high ranking member of Hitler’s SS. Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile eventually broke with Axis powers and sided with the Allied forces, largely thanks to Elizebeth’s intelligence efforts. Elizebeth never spoke up about the work she did during the war. For one thing, it was classified. And for another Jay Edgar Hoover, who was busy taking all the credit, he used his reputation as a successful Nazi hunter to build the FBI into the organization that would later try to blackmail Martin Luther King into killing himself.
As for Elizebeth, she went to work for the International Monetary Fund where she became a consultant and created communications security systems.
But wait, didn’t I tell you, this was a love story. It still is. After decades of work, inventing much of America’s code breaking capabilities, the Friedman’s retired together. William Friedman ended his career in the military as a Colonel, the rank George Fabian have had always pretended to. In their retirement they wrote a book together and it was titled “The Shakespearean ciphers examined: an analysis of cryptographic systems used as evidence that some author, other than William Shakespeare wrote the plays commonly attributed to him”, which was published in 1957. It won awards from the Folger Shakespeare Library and the American Shakespeare Theater and Academy.
In this book, the Friedmans dismissed Baconians such as Mrs. Wells Gallup with such technical proficiency and finesse that the book won far more acclaim than others addressing the same topic. The work that Gallup had done earlier operated on two assumptions. One was that Bacon had invented a bilateral cipher and that the cipher used in the original printed Shakespeare folios employed an odd variety of type faces. Writing and researching the book allowed the Freemans to revisit the work that had first brought them together at Riverbank.
More than four decades of distance had given those days enough of a nostalgic gloss that the book’s treatment of their abusive former boss who had died in 1937 and his deluded Shakespearean scholar who died in 1934 is less scathing than you might expect. The Friedmans, however, could not resist a barb or two. In a classic demonstration of their life’s work, they buried a hidden Baconian cipher on a page of their publication. It was an italicized phrase, which using the different type faces expressed their final assessment of the controversy. “I did not write the plays. F Bacon.”
Their book is regarded as the definitive mic dropping work on the subject.
CREDITS: This episode was written and performed by Eva Galperin, and recorded by Kate O’Donnell in Oakland, California. The Odd Salon Podcast is produced by Annetta Black and Tre Balchowsky.
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