Her father didn’t approve of her ambition to receive a college degree, but Elizebeth Smith Friedman defied him anyway. She vowed to pave her own path. In between her rigorous studies on Shakespeare and classical literature, Elizebeth worked as a seamstress to earn money to pay for tuition.
During a course in philosophy, she found herself spellbound by the works of a Renaissance scholar, Erasmus. She wrote in one of her papers, “he believed in one aristocracy – the aristocracy of intellect.” As her biographer noted, Elizebeth felt liberated by this concept. It wasn’t the amount of wealth or status that defined her, it was the power of her ideas.
After graduation, Elizebeth was admiring a rare version of Shakespeare’s work at the Newberry Library in Chicago when she noticed a limousine pull up to the entrance. George Fabyan, a multimillionaire businessman, emerged from the car and proceeded to approach her about working for him at his vast Riverbank Estate, which housed the first privately-owned research facility in the United States. Fabyan had a passion for hidden code and believed Shakespeare’s plays were actually authored by philosopher Francis Bacon. He hired Elizebeth to assist him with cipher research in an attempt to uphold his theory.
As World War I raged throughout Europe, Fabyan allowed the federal government to use Riverbank Laboratories as the official cryptology center. Here, Elizebeth specialized in decoding encryptions for the War Department and taught army officers to do the same. In the 1920s, federal government agents recruited her to decipher codes for the Coast Guard, which carried the heavy weight of fighting piracy and stopping rumrunners at sea during the height of the Prohibition era. Between 1926 and 1930, Elizebeth solved 20,000 smuggling messages each year, armed with only a pencil and paper. In 1931, her work allowed federal agents to raid the headquarters of a liquor ring in New Orleans, which led to the arrest of hundreds of smugglers – including four members of Al Capone’s infamous gang. In his prosecution, the Special Assistant to the Attorney General hailed the arrest of “the most powerful international smuggling syndicate in existence.” His key witness was a five-foot-tall code master: Elizebeth Smith Friedman.
As if that wasn’t enough, Elizebeth reached the peak of her career in World War II. She built and managed her own codebreaking team, which was the first to be run by a woman. Initially, her team thought they were deciphering codes used by gangsters, but soon realized these messages were actually being sent by Nazi spies who were delivering intelligence through South America.
Elizebeth found herself leading a team of Nazi spy hunters. Working alongside British codebreaker Alan Turing, her efforts led to the dismantling of every Nazi spy network in South America. Among them was SS spy Johannes Becker – who the FBI considered the most dangerous spy in the Western Hemisphere.
Even though Elizebeth put gangsters in prison and disrupted Nazi spy rings, her name remained in the fog of history for too long while others took credit for her accomplishments. Recently, along with Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, I introduced a bipartisan resolution in the United States Senate to recognize and honor the life and legacy of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, as part of our continuing focus on successful women in science, technology, education, and math fields.
I was proud to sponsor this legislation, and I am honored to share her story with Nebraskans. Elizebeth continues to be a beacon of inspiration for women who serve our country in positions of national security. As we close out Women’s History Month, I hope her story will encourage more women to take up this mantle in STEM careers.
Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s undeniable talent and invaluable contributions to our national security will never be forgotten.
Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you next week.