Female Code Warriors

By Joseph PeschelOctober 28, 2017

Female Code Warriors

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone
Code Girls by Liza Mundy

TWO NEW, WELL-RESEARCHED popular histories — The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone and Code Girls by Liza Mundy — reveal the roles female American cryptanalysts played in cracking secret messages from 1917 through the end of World War II. Fagone’s book is a biography of Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s professional and personal life, while Mundy’s book reveals the work of thousands of female codebreakers and their influence on modern intelligence gathering. During Friedman’s heyday, cracking ciphers meant, for the most part, breaking pencil-and-paper encrypted messages. But by World War II, military and diplomatic encryption systems were using more sophisticated devices: encryption machines like the German Enigma, the Japanese Purple, and the American SIGABA. Codebreakers were compelled to reverse-engineer machines that would help crack those encrypted messages.

Fagone portrays Friedman as a premier American codebreaker, on a par with her husband, the better known (at least in the world of secret messages) William Friedman. Elizebeth, like William, broke encrypted messages during World War I and World War II. Between the wars, Elizebeth also cracked the messages of rum runners and bootleggers. Fagone depicts her not only as a cryptological genius but also as a loving wife, the intellectual equal of William, but emotionally sturdier.

Born in Indiana, Elizebeth Smith was one of nine children. Her mother decided on the unorthodox spelling of her name because, Fagone speculates, “her ninth child named Smith would want something to set her apart in the world.” Elizebeth was educated at Wooster College in Ohio, where she studied English literature; she graduated from Hillsdale College in Michigan in 1915. Back then, an educated American woman might teach at the high school level or below; as Fagone puts it, such a woman “taught, had kids, retired, died.” So, Elizebeth taught school. But soon after beginning her professional life as a teacher, Elizebeth went to work for Colonel George Fabyan, an eccentric millionaire, at his research facility, Riverbank Laboratories, in Geneva, Illinois.

Elizebeth met Fabyan in 1916, at the library. She was 23 and deceptively diminutive. Bearded and towering more than a foot above her, Fabyan — having been expelled from his chauffeur-driver limousine “like a clog from a pipe” — asked her, “Will you come to Riverbank and spend the night with me?” Elizebeth didn’t know what he meant by the invitation or what Riverbank was. She protested that she didn’t have anything with her, to which he replied, “That’s all right. We’ll furnish you anything you want.” This was Fabyan’s way of offering her a job.

To call Colonel Fabyan eccentric is an understatement. His military title was honorary, but he relished using it. At Riverbank, Fabyan funded and conducted research on genetically engineered seeds and acoustical levitation devices. He also funded a department that tried to prove, through secret messages in the text, that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Fagone calls Riverbank “a bizarre institution now abandoned, a place that helped create the modern NSA but which the NSA knew little about.” Elizebeth agreed to work with Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup, who led the department (and whom Mundy, in Code Girls, calls “a crank of the first order”). William Friedman, a geneticist, joined them, working on the so-called Bacon ciphers.

Elizebeth and William started courting at Riverbank and married in late May 1917. Neither Elizebeth nor William really believed that Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays — decades later, they co-wrote a book that proved he did not. Fabyan didn’t pay much, only $30 a month, and some months he paid nothing. Fabyan took credit for his workers’ discoveries and was generally a terror to work for. But a job was a job, and the Friedmans learned cryptanalysis — the art of analyzing and reading secret communications without knowledge of the system or the key. It could be arduous and debilitating mental work.

In addition to admiring Elizebeth, Fagone is clearly enamored with cryptology and enjoys describing ciphers. “There were two main animal kingdoms of cipher,” he writes, “‘transposition’ and ‘substitution.’ A transposition cipher was like Scrabble, a jumbling of the same letters into a new order. A substitution cipher was a swapping of letters.” Fagone includes samples of such encrypted messages and explains basic methods for “breaking” or “cracking” them. Even though this is not a “how-to” book, Fagone depicts, in a table in chapter four, simple frequency analysis, which amounts to evaluating language patterns: the frequency of individual letters like E and T, which are the most common in English, and letter combinations such as TH and THE. It’s a bit odd that Fagone refers to “smashing” codes in the book’s title and five times in the text, since the usual jargon is “cracking” or “breaking,” but that’s a minor quibble. The enthusiastic Fagone even includes, in the acknowledgments, a message to his wife and daughter encrypted with a Myszkowski transposition cipher, which crypto enthusiasts may want to try cracking. (No fair using a computer — the Friedmans didn’t have one.)

Back in the early 20th century, there was no Central Intelligence Agency, no National Security Agency. But there were the Friedmans. They became two of the few great codebreakers in the United States. Another couple, Parker Hitt and Genevieve Young Hitt, also broke ciphers. Parker Hitt wrote The Manual for the Solution of Military Ciphers, published in 1916. Army Colonel Joseph Mauborgne was another codebreaker of some repute, having executed the first break of the British army’s field cipher, Playfair. The United States did have a War Department, with a Military Intelligence Division (MID), led by Major Ralph van Deman, but it had only 17 officers and no codebreakers. Radio and other wireless transmissions had changed the way diplomats and soldiers communicated, and, unfortunately, the US government had no way to intercept ordinary unencrypted messages, let alone break the ciphers of foreign powers. So, in March 1917, Fabyan offered Riverbank’s services to break encrypted messages for the government.

About a month later, after Congress declared war, the War Department sent US Army Chief Signal Officer Joseph Mauborgne to evaluate Riverbank’s suitability for cryptanalysis operations. In preparing for Mauborgne’s arrival, Fabyan added clerks, stenographers, and translators to the newly created Riverbank Department of Ciphers, headed by the Friedmans. After Mauborgne made his report, Riverbank’s Department of Ciphers not only cracked messages for the government, but it also trained the military’s cryptanalysts. What’s more, William Friedman wrote several cryptanalysis manuals, known as the Riverbank Publications, some co-written by Elizebeth, though Fabyan tried to take the credit. In 1918, William enlisted in the army and traveled to France, where he worked as a cryptanalyst. Elizebeth wanted to join him, but the army told her that, as “a mere woman,” she “could not follow to pursue my ‘trade.’” She continued to break codes and train cryptographers, meanwhile enduring sexual harassment by Fabyan at Riverbank, unbeknownst to William.

After they finally left Riverbank, the two continued to crack secret messages, William for the army and Elizebeth for the coast guard, which was then part of the Treasury Department. Their annual salaries were considerably more than the pittance Fabyan had paid them: William received $4,500 and Elizebeth $2,200, although their jobs and qualifications were similar. Fagone notes that William was paid as a signal corps lieutenant and Elizebeth as a civilian, but he doesn’t remark much on the gender disparity, a topic Mundy treats in great detail.

After the war, Elizebeth cracked the messages of organized gangsters. Her expert testimony as a cryptanalyst helped convict many bootleggers and rum runners. At that time, the FBI was in its infancy and remarkably inept, but that didn’t keep J. Edgar Hoover from trying to get headlines. For her part, Elizebeth preferred to remain anonymous, a spy of sorts. In July 1931, the Treasury Department cleared her to lead a codebreaking team of her own, which would break codes for all Treasury agencies. She was given a new office, funds to hire staff, and a new title: Cryptanalyst-in-Charge, U.S. Coast Guard, with a pay raise to $3,800 per year. It was the first unit of its kind and the only codebreaking unit in the United States ever to be run by a woman — “another pioneering moment for Elizebeth.”

After prohibition ended, many criminal organizations switched to smuggling drugs like heroin and morphine, so Elizebeth cracked their messages, too. By 1938, “Elizebeth was now the most famous code breaker in the world,” Fagone writes. When the Friedmans weren’t decrypting messages for the government, they taught their children simple ciphers. They sent Christmas cards with cryptograms to their friends and organized live cipher-solving games at parties that became famous in their social group throughout the 1930s.

Even though “pencil-and-paper ciphers” were still employed in World War II, machine ciphers were being used by the Allies and by the Axis powers. In the United States, Elizebeth broke the pencil-and-paper ciphers used by Nazi spies in South America while William was overseas breaking Japanese ciphers. Codebreaking was grueling work, but Elizebeth withstood it better than her husband. William had been working on breaking the Japanese cipher machine Angooki Taipu B, called “Purple” by the Americans. Eventually, under the strain, he had a nervous breakdown. Elizebeth visited him at Walter Reed hospital as often as she could. After he was released “into Elizebeth’s arms,” he returned to the army in April but wasn’t “quite the same, and never would be.” Within a few weeks the army gave him an honorable discharge.

During World War II, Elizebeth also broke one version of the Enigma code that was used by the Abwehr, a German intelligence unit. Her break happened about the same time as that achieved by the British boffins at Bletchley Park. By the end of World War II, Elizebeth’s career was winding down, and she was terminated by the coast guard on September 12, 1946. Her salary that year was the most she’d ever earned: $5,390. Thanks largely to her and her husband’s efforts, cryptology had become a science, and intelligence gathering had grown from an amateur calling to an organized profession.

Despite Elizebeth’s professional accomplishments, becoming a teacher remained, during the early 1940s, the only consistently available job for an educated woman. With the possibility of the United States entering another major war, however, the situation changed dramatically. As Mundy’s Code Girls, which focuses on the World War II period, shows, the government actively recruited college-educated women to perform work so secret they weren’t permitted to talk about it. Just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States Army had 181 people working on code breaking. By 1945, that number had grown to over 10,000, some 70 percent of whom were women.

These women worked for the army and navy in Arlington Hall, at the Naval Annex in DC, and also in Dayton, Ohio, where National Cash Register made machines called M-9s that replicated and decrypted German Enigma machine ciphers. These cryptographers, translators, stenographers, and clerks worked on cracking Japanese codes like JN-20 and JN-25, as well as the Japanese cipher machines, which the Americans codenamed “Red” and “Purple.” Breaks of the Japanese ciphers led to “Operation Vengeance,” the targeting and death of Admiral Yamamoto, architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Women cryptographers and their male counterparts also worked on the German Enigma machines and other German ciphers.

Mundy emphasizes that, although women were doing the same work as their male counterparts, they were not paid equitably.

According to a November 1941 proposed salary memo, female clerks, typists, and stenographers were paid $1,440 per year, while men doing the same job made $1,620. Women college graduates who had taken an elementary course in cryptanalysis made $1,800; men with those qualifications made $2,000. Women with masters’ degrees made $2,000, compared to $2,600 for men. Women PhDs made $2,300; men with doctorates made $3,200.

Many of these women enjoyed their work, were happy with the pay, and were thrilled with the opportunity to serve their country and make more money than they ever could teaching. Based on extensive research in declassified NSA archives, including the agency’s collection of oral histories, Mundy details the accomplishments of several of the top female codebreakers, such as Ann Caracristi (later the first female deputy director of the NSA), Wilma Berryman Davis, and Agnes Driscoll, who was every bit the codebreaker William Friedman was. But Mundy focuses on the life and career of Dot (Dorothy) Braden, who reported to Washington in September 1943 (and whom Mundy interviewed between 2014 and 2017, along with some two dozen other female professionals). Mundy’s treatment of Braden’s life humanizes a book that can sometimes be heavy reading, especially when explaining the cryptanalysis of additives to Japanese codes and ciphers.

As histories of cryptography, both of these books deserve a place alongside David Kahn’s immense 1967 volume, The Codebreakers – The Story of Secret Writing. Fagone brings a tone of romantic espionage to his coverage of Elizebeth’s life and career, while Mundy meticulously chronicles a patriotic generation of female cryptanalysts, linguists, and clerks. Shortly after the war, when the government insisted it was the duty of women to return to their families so men coming home from battle could have their jobs, many happily agreed. Others sought to pursue similar civilian careers but found it difficult to provide relevant résumés, since the work they had performed was classified. A few, though, remained as cryptographers, eventually employed by the NSA. What may be even more interesting than the formerly secret lives and careers that these books reveal is what the books don’t tell us. Despite the passage of so many decades, much of history is still classified.


Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, maintains a blog at http://josephpeschel.com/HaveWords/.

LARB Contributor

Joseph Peschel is a freelance writer and critic based in South Dakota. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews, and literary criticism in the Houston Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle, Science magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, The Daily Beast, the Washington Post, the Barnes & Noble Review, the Kansas City Star, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Raleigh News & Observer, the Charlotte Observer, and other newspapers and magazines. He written computer journalism for PC World, InfoWorld, and other computer magazines. He can be reached at [email protected] or through his blog at josephpeschel.com/HaveWords


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