Elizebeth Smith Friedman
Born in Huntington County in 1892 as the youngest of nine children, Elizebeth Smith was different from the start. Her mother specifically named her Elizebeth with an ‘e’ between the ‘z’ and the ‘b’ so that no one would be able to shorten her name to Eliza.
In 1915, she graduated from Hillsdale College in Michigan with a degree in English literature. Her first job was as a high school principal in Wabash, but she wanted to find a job doing literary research. She traveled to Chicago and worked for Colonel George Fabyan, who believed that William Shakespeare’s plays were coded works actually authored by Sir Francis Bacon. While working at Fabyan’s Riverbank Lab, Elizebeth met William Friedman. Together they worked on the Shakespeare theory and they married in 1917.
At the start of the first World War, the Friedmans’ work turned to assisting the government with codes, and they moved to Washington, D.C. They began to decipher war codes while also laying the foundation of cryptography. As a woman in the field, Elizebeth struggled to gain the credit she was rightly due for her work. William was succeeding, but she was doing the same work for less pay and less credit.
They worked together on military cryptography until 1921. Elizebeth went to work for the Navy for a couple of years before deciding to settle down and start a family. As she was raising her daughter and son, she took on freelance work. During Prohibition, she deciphered radio transmissions and codes rum-runners used to smuggle alcohol into the country. In 1925, she went to work full-time for the IRS and Treasury Department and, in 1927, for the Coast Guard. She was called as an expert witness to testify in many high-profile federal cases, which earned her national renown.
She continued her government work during World War II. Much of what she did remains classified, but over the years more light has shone on her achievements, including the deciphering of the German Enigma code machine, which marked a major turning point in the war.
After the war, Elizebeth was out a job, but was glad to go into private consulting, to write, speak, and to have time to be with her family. She and William even co-wrote a book on the Sir Francis Bacon Shakespeare theory. William died in 1969, and Elizabeth spent the following years organizing their private cryptographic materials that were eventually donated to the George C. Marshall Research Library in Lexington, Va.
Elizebeth died on October 31, 1980, and was buried beside her husband in Arlington National Cemetery.
Since their deaths, the Friedmans’ work has been on display at many museums, and published as books, journals and magazine articles. In 1999, they were inducted into the National Security Agency’s Cryptologic Hall of Honor. In 2014, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives dedicated its National Headquarters Auditorium to Elizebeth for her pioneering work in cryptanalysis.