“Baconian Biliteral Cipher, on the Estate of Colonel Fabyan,” National Security, and a Fraternity Woman

“Elizebeth Smith, ’15, and Wm. F. Friedman, Cornell, ’13. May 21, (1917). At home.
Riverbank, Geneva, Ill.. where both are engaged on the Baconian Biliteral
Cipher, on the estate of Colonel Fabyan,” is the notice of the marriage of a Hillsdale College Pi Beta Phi member. It appeared in the December 1917 Arrow of Pi Beta Phi.

Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband William

Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband William

The “Baconian Biliteral Cipher, on the estate of Colonel Fabyan” sets my mind buzzing! Elizebeth, became a member of Pi Beta Phi’s Michigan Alpha chapter as a junior, when she transferred to Hillsdale from Wooster College. She must have been an exceptional student, for the chapter letter which appears in the December 1914 Arrow mentions her by name, “We are so happy in having Elizebeth Smith really, truly one of us. She was pledged last year and initiated October 10.”  It was later noted that she was literary editor of the Collegian, in addition to winning second prize in oratory, and being on the commencement program.

Luckily, my friend Penny Proctor, a Hillsdale College Pi Beta Phi alumna, edited a history of her chapter for the 125th anniversary last year. What follows is the entry she wrote about Elizebeth Smith Friedman. (It should also be noted that Penny is an outstanding Hillsdale alumna in her own right; she won the International Amy Burnham Onken Award when she was a senior at Hillsdale). Thanks, Penny for sharing your research!

The National Security Agency and other intelligence-gathering branches of government have been getting a lot of attention lately. That, and the approaching anniversary of her birth (August 26, 1892) make this a perfect time to remember the contributions of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a Pi Beta Phi, to the creation of the NSA.

Elizebeth – who insisted on that spelling of her name to avoid the nickname “Eliza” – joined Pi Beta Phi while a student at Hillsdale College. After graduation in 1915, she accepted a position with Riverbank Laboratories in Chicago for the purpose of researching the bilateral codes of Francis Bacon in the works of William Shakespeare; the project was intended to prove or disprove, once and for all, the myth that Shakespeare and Bacon were one and the same. While there, she met fellow researcher William Friedman, and they married in May, 1917. Work on the Shakespeare project stopped just before the United States entered World War I, when the federal government asked Riverbank to loan out the services of William and Elizebeth to work on cryptography for the War Department and the Justice Department.

They almost immediately became involved in breaking a ring of spies working for Germany while living in the United States. Their plan was to foment revolution in India (still a British possession) and thus distract the United Kingdom from the fighting in Europe. The spies used a code in which numbers related to the page, line and word in a very specific book – and William and Elizebeth correctly deciphered 95% of the messages without having the book in their possession. Elizebeth is also credited with training new cryptanalysts in the newly formed Signal Intelligence Service, the first military department devoted to code breaking.

In 1920, the Friedmans moved to Washington, D.C. where they each accepted positions with different branches of the government. Elizebeth’s projects focused on the increasingly sophisticated communication codes used by bootleggers and smugglers who brought illicit liquor into the county. The smugglers sometimes used multiple types of codes in the same message. Elizebeth not only had great success in breaking these codes, but testified in over 30 trials. Her reputation as an expert witness who spoke with clarity and confidence was so great that at one trial, seven defense lawyers rose as one to object when she was announced as a witness.

In 1934, she helped avert a potential international incident in a smuggling case involving a smuggler’s boat that was sunk by the Coast Guard even thought it was flying a Canadian flag. By decrypting the ship’s communications, Elizebeth was able to prove that, regardless of the flag, the ship was under the exclusive control and management of U.S. citizens for illegal purposes. This effectively resolved the jurisdictional dispute and defused the increasing tension with the Canadian government.

The Canadians were so impressed by her work that in 1937 they asked for her help in the prosecution of an opium smuggling gang in Vancouver. It took only six days for Elizebeth to successfully decipher a code based on the Chinese language, despite the fact that she neither read nor spoke Chinese.

During World War II, Elizebeth gained fame for her pivotal role in unmasking an American feeding information on Navy ship movements to the Japanese. Velvalee Dickinson, known as “the Doll Woman” because she used her doll shop as a vehicle for transmitting data, was convicted of espionage based on Elizebeth’s deciphering of her coded messages. She was also part of the team that broke the famed “Purple” code used by the Japanese.

After the War, Elizebeth worked for the International Monetary Fund, creating communication security systems. She and William also finally completed and published their analysis of the Baconian Bilateral Cipher, concluding definitively that Bacon did not write Shakespeare’s plays. A reviewer in the Chicago Tribune praised it for its “graceful, uncomplicated style and …surprise charges of needle-sharp wit,” adding, “the book is a monument of sanity in a field of scholarship noted mainly for its inscrutability.”

In 1999, William and Elizebeth were among the inaugural honorees named to the “Cryptologic Hall of Honor” at the National Security Agency. (His career was even more distinguished in the field.) In 2002, the NSA named its new OPS1 building the “William and Elizebeth Friedman Building.”

She was fond of telling her staff, “We don’t make them [codes], we break them.” She and William are buried together in Arlington National Cemetery. Their joint headstone bears the inscription, “Knowledge is Power.”



Website: “Women in American Cryptology: Creating the Legacy – Elizebeth Smith Friedman” http://www.nsa.gov/about/cryptologic_heritage/women/honorees/friedman.shtml

Website: “NSA Cryptology Hall of Honor 1999 Inductee Elizebeth Smith Friedman” http://www.nsa.gov/about/cryptologic_heritage/hall_of_honor/1999/friedman_e.shtml

“Enormous Amount of Research by Hillsdale Alumni Went Into Book,” The Hillsdale Alumni Magazine, April 1, 1958, p. 5.

Class News, The Hillsdale Alumni Magazine, June 1, 1956 p. 25.

Class News, The Hillsdale Alumnus Magazine, May 1, 1938, p. 64.

Joyner, David. “Elizebeth Smith Friedman – Up to 1934” Online paper dated 07/30/2013 http://www.wdjoyner.com/papers/elizebeth-friedman_early-crypto-work3.pdf


(C) Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com, 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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