The Double Life of Pioneer Codebreaker Exposed on PBS

ELIZEBETH SMITH FRIEDMAN (1892-1980) decoded thousands of encrypted top secret messages for the U.S. government and Armed Services during two World Wars and Prohibition. Photo courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation Library.

ELIZEBETH SMITH FRIEDMAN (1892-1980) decoded thousands of encrypted top secret messages for the U.S. government and Armed Services during two World Wars and Prohibition. Photo courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation Library.

“If we missed her, who else are we missing.”

She had big dreams. But as a young Midwestern woman growing up during the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, she needed more than a little pluck and luck to realize them. As it turned out, pluck, luck, superior intelligence and an affinity for keeping secrets were her golden tickets.

Elizebeth Smith was born in 1892, the youngest of 10 children in an Indiana Quaker family.  Her dad, a Civil War veteran, saw no good reason why she should go to college, but finally acquiesced with the proviso that she pay him back at 6% interest. Always bookish, but bored with a post-college hometown teaching job, Elizebeth took off for Chicago emboldened by wanderlust and armed with her love of language and knack with numbers.

The remarkable story of Elizebeth Smith’s transformation into pioneering codebreaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman, who helped change the course of two World Wars and bust organized crime’s bootlegging operations during Prohibition, is deftly told in The Codebreaker, the latest installment in the PBS AMERICAN EXPERIENCE series.  The Codebreaker debuts on PBS tonight, Monday, January 11, 2021, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region.

Elizebeth Smith with her mentor, George Fabyan, at Riverbank Laboratories in Geneva, Illinois, circa 1916. Photo courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation Library.

Based on the book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone, who also appears in the film, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: The Codebreaker shines a much-needed light on a forgotten American patriot, a woman whose life as a devoted wife and mother gave her the cover she needed to pursue a career decoding thousands of top secret messages for the U.S. government and Armed Forces.  Her work led to the creation of the science of cryptology, established the norms of modern codebreaking and the founding of the National Security Administration (NSA) by President Harry S. Truman in 1952.

Elizebeth Smith’s early love of Shakespeare led to her prophetic meeting with eccentric Illinois millionaire George Fabyan, who enlisted her help to prove that Francis Bacon was, in fact, the writer of Shakespeare’s works and had planted secret codes in the plays to confirm his authorship. The project failed but manifested Elizebeth’s extraordinary talent for decoding ciphers and patterns within texts. It also introduced her to project photographer William Friedman, who would become her husband and a distinguished cryptologist in his own right.

The couple married in 1917 and fine-tuned their methodology at the helm of America’s first codebreaking unit, spearheaded by their mentor George Fabyan.  Soon the Friedmans were in demand during WWI by the U.S. War, Navy, State and Justice Departments to break codes proliferating from the use of novel radio technology to transmit encrypted secret military messages.

William F. Friedman and Elizebeth Smith Friedman on the grounds of Riverbank Laboratories in Geneva, Illinois, circa 1917. Photo courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation Library.

As her husband’s professional career skyrocketed, Elizebeth lived the life of a suburban Washington, D.C., wife and mother while continuing her top secret work as a codebreaker for the U.S. government.  She not only decoded messages that expedited organized crime’s bootlegging operations in coastal waters during Prohibition, but also defended her findings and fearlessly faced Al Capone and his lawyers at trial.

During WWII, Elizebeth’s counter intelligence work for the U.S. Navy stymied the fearsome build-up of Nazi spy rings in South America and their command of German U-Boat activity off the coast that targeted Allied transport ships.

“Elizebeth Friedman had a tremendous influence on our country’s history,” said Cameo George, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE executive producer. “As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field that she herself pioneered, she fought sexism throughout her career but, through sheer brilliance, was able to shape an amazing legacy–taking down mobsters and helping to win not one but two World Wars!”

Elizebeth Smith Friedman in Washington, D.C., circa 1934, en route to present evidence in Federal court. Photo courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation Library.

Despite her highly important work as a pioneer in the development of strategic intelligence and cryptology as invaluable tools during wartime, Elizebeth Smith Friedman was never given credit for her role in these historic operations until records were declassified in 2008.  How refreshing in the aftermath of the seditious attack on our Capitol on January 6, 2021, when the meaning of the term “patriot” was demonized by right wing thugs, to be introduced to an unsung American patriot, a woman whose credentials are now available for every American to see and honor.

Award-winning writer/producer/director Chana Gazit incorporates wonderful vintage black and white film footage throughout The Codebreaker, crisply timelined by historians and incidental narration by actress Kate Burton.  Gazit’s film will be a timely and invaluable supplement to U.S. History classes and Women’s Studies in schools, libraries, colleges and universities going forward.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: The Codebreaker debuts on PBS tonight, Monday, January 11, 2021, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region, http://pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience  and the PBS Video app for streaming info, and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability. –Judith Trojan

About Judith Trojan

Judith Trojan is an Award-winning journalist who has written and edited several thousand film and TV reviews and celebrity profiles.
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