Will and Eddie

Birthplace of Will Rogers

Happy Will Rogers Day! The boy who would grow up to become the beloved Cowboy Philosopher was born on this day, November 4, 1879. That year it was Election Day. In 2020, it is merely Aftermath Day.

Rogers’s death day, fifty-five years later on August 16, shocked the nation and elicited an outpouring of grief unlike any yet seen. Nothing could be done to undo the tragic airplane accident, but something could be done to properly remember him. A commission was formed, and Eastern Air Lines general manager Eddie Rickenbacker was chosen to head it up. Rickenbacker was every bit as hard working as Rogers and just as big an aviation booster. (Or, maybe it might be better expressed the other way around.) Yet in personality the two men couldn’t have been more different. Where Rogers was lighthearted and warm, Eddie Rickenbacker, chair of the Will Rogers Memorial Commission, was serious-minded and stern. (Well, he had a warm, even soft, side, too.)

Rickenbacker, ca 1940

After the tragic Post/Rogers plane crash but before his assignment as chairman, Rickenbacker put out a statement, as did all public figures of the day. “The passing of Will Rogers and Wiley Post affects me deeply,” he wrote. “Will Rogers was a friend aviation can ill afford to lose.” He had “probably accumulated more hours in the air than any other layman.” [Rickenbacker, Aug16, 1935]

Two months later, Rickenbacker made a more formal statement of the Memorial Commission’s progress. It would erect “no cold shaft of marble” for “this warm, friendly man,” he wrote, after waxing poetic: “Will Rogers was a laughing man. He laughed himself and he made an entire nation laugh. His memory is wreathed in smiles–smiles that trickled through the tears of his passing.” [Rickenbacker, Nov 2, 1935]


Will Rogers Memorial

In fact, Rickenbacker had reason to remember Rogers less than fondly. Five years earlier, late one night in September, 1930, a drunken Rickenbacker stumbled over the railing of his second-floor balcony and fell twenty feet onto the lawn below. Adelaide and a maid were needed to carry him into bed. They tried to keep the mishap under wraps, but word got out and reporters came knocking. Rickenbacker explained the fall as a result of sleepwalking, an ailment that had plagued him since the war. (He said.) The excuse fooled no one, least of all Rogers, who quipped memorably, “Captain Eddie shouldn’t go to bed without a parachute.” [Lewis 304]

The work of directing the Will Rogers Memorial Commission while running a major airlines was daunting even for Iron Man Eddie. At Christmas, he took an extended vacation to Europe. In Germany, with his whole family along, he sat down with former fighter pilots Herman Goering and Ernst Udet, who, he said, fairly burst with pride at all they had accomplished since the last time the three had met in 1922. (“…they wanted to awe me and show me they had something better than I had–and they did have, too.” [Life Story, vol. 2, 556]) But this is another story.

L. David Lewis spent a career and a good part of a lifetime researching and writing the definitive biography of Eddie Rickenbacker. He included two epigraphs. The first, from Rickenbacker, was an obvious choice: the famous quote about cheating the old grim reaper oftener than any man living. The second, from Will Rogers, seems at first glance a curious inclusion. “This thing of being a hero,” Rogers said, “about the main thing to it is to know when to die. Prolonged life has ruined more men than it ever made.” [Lewis, vi]

What’s up with that?

The answer is all there in the book. Get to know the man Lewis limns, and the meaning becomes clear. If Rickenbacker had not survived the Pacific ordeal, he would have been lionized in death even more than he was in life. The polarizing figure he became would not have returned to sour the way he would be remembered.

Final Flight to Nome, Alaska

Conversely, if Rogers had lived, his homespun style might well have passed out of style. Signs were already evident that he was falling out of touch. (See “nigger spirituals”–times 4–on NBC’s “Good Gulf Show,” 1933, and the reaction to it. [Gragert, 451-460)  If he had survived into post-war America his brand of humor might have been politely tolerated, rather than actively sought.  More to the point, “knowing when to die,” appears not to have been enough for Rogers. He is hardly better remembered today than Rickenbacker. Neither man makes much impact on the Millennials’ consciousness.

Still, Rogers was right, I think. And Lewis was, too, in including it as the second epigraph for his subject. It’s just that historical memory is not that same as hero adulation.


Gragert, Stephen K. and Johansson, M. Jane.  The Paper of Will Rogers: The Final Years, Volume Five August 1928-August 1935.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.

Lewis, W. David. Eddie Rickenbacker: an American hero in the twentieth century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Rickenbacker, Edward V. Statements, August 16, 1935.

Rickenbacker, Edward V. Broadcasts, vol. 1, November 2, 1935.


Fake Views

posted in: Codebreakers | 0

Elizebeth Smith, like so many bright, talented women of her era, understood the limitations before her. Her Quaker upbringing nurtured natural intellectual curiosity and independence of mind. But the unyielding horizon around her family’s Indiana farm threatened to swallow her. Over the objections of her father, Elizebeth got herself to college.

What then?

A degree in English literature from Hillsdale College, Michigan, opened up the opportunity to teach Shakespeare to farm boys and girls, but little else. Elizebeth lasted less than a year at her first job. Only by a chance encounter in the Chicago’s Newberry Library did her literary skills lead to a more stimulating opportunity.

William Friedman was not held back by sexism. But as a Jew, born in the Pale of Settlement, whose family had fled the Czar’s pogroms, William faced other obstacles as he came of age in Pittsburgh. Poverty, first of all; the brunt of a rising anti-Semitism, on top of that. William managed to get a scholarship to the Cornell agricultural college to study genetics.

William faced a life of teaching, too, with a possibility of research. An opportunity for the latter arose in the form of a curious want ad posting in the genetics department. A bright, independent-minded young scientist was sought to run a “private research facility in Illinois.” With some trepidation William accepted the position. He would oversee experiments in the breeding of crops and fruit flies for an eccentric Chicago millionaire.

Thus did both Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman wind up at Riverbank Laboratories in Geneva, Illinois, the brainchild of the inimitable George Fabyan. The experience changed their lives–made their lives–as did their meeting of each other. This even though their mutual endeavor, the decrypting of Baconian cipher in “Shakespearean” texts, was built on a lie–or at least a figment.

Can a life of consequence–nay, two lives of invaluable consequence–be built on a lie, a figment? In this case, they were.

Fabyan had money, lots of it. Unusually, he took his pleasure spending it not on yachts and Tuscan villas, but on the advancement of human knowledge. His personal institute on the prairie, a kind of twentieth century New Harmony, began with the study of acoustics and quickly branched out to include genetics and Baconian ciphers. The latter involved the meticulous examination of the works of “Shakespeare” for hidden messages.

That was Elizebeth’s bailiwick.

The English major worked under the tutelage of Elizabeth Wells Gallup. Squinting ever harder, she struggled to make out small variations in the text’s letter formations. Try as she might, Elizebeth could not reliably make out the a and b forms. Bacon had devised a binary system of enciphering letters from aaaaa=A(0) to babbb=Z(23). (i/j were composed of a single cipher, as were u/v.) This was well known and understood. More controversial were Fabyan’s and Gallup’s claims of a “bilateral” cipher hidden within the Folio script and of Bacon’s authorship of “Shakespeare’s” works.

In 1916, when Elizebeth began work at Riverbank, the indefatigable Mrs. Gallup had been beavering away at the texts for almost two decades. Her first work on the subject, self-importantly titled The Bilateral Cypher of Sir Francis Bacon Discovered in his Works and Deciphered by Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup, was published in 1899.  Elizebeth was hired to assist and speed the completion of the work. Too often the apprentice required the master to find the hidden message for her. A replicable science this was not.

William, the breeder of agricultural seeds, was enlisted in the Bacon project because of his skills with a camera. He photographed the texts and enlarged them to aid the decipherment. His role in the project expanded because of his innate knack for solving cryptograms and ciphers. He shared Elizebeth’s doubts about the purpose of the work and her fascination with the process. He also shared more and more of his free time with her, and she with him.

History would have been different for this pair (and for tens of millions more, besides!), if an archduke had not been assassinated in a provincial capital half a world away. As the United States was drawn closer into the European War, her armed forces had need of cryptanalysts. Seeing an opportunity to expand his reach and serve his country at the same time, Fabyan offered his “professionals” at Riverbank for cryptographic work. William and Elizebeth were enlisted.

The pair, now married, might have been among the country’s handful of experts, but there expertise was limited. They read the one available book on the subject and taught themselves the rest–largely on the job. Handed garbled messages to decipher, the pair used frequency analysis, trial and error, and deduction. They lined up the ciphers on top of each other and stared; then shuffled, realigned, and stared again…until a pattern emerged. The pair published eight pamphlets on the budding science of cryptology in just two years.

After the war, the newlyweds were eager to move on from Riverbank. Both agreed that the Bacon project was a chimera. Both settled on a dark judgment of their benefactor, Fabyan, as a petty tyrant. It took a few years, but the couple eventually escaped his grasp.

William and Elizebeth had been a close-knit team, but over the next two decades their career paths diverged. William decrypted for the Army’s Signal Corps and headed up the Signal Intelligence Service (SIS) to which it gave birth. (It would eventually grow into the National Security Agency (NSA) in 1952.) He broke the earliest cipher machines and devised one of his own, which, with the help of Frank Rowlett, was remained unbroken throughout the duration of the next world war.

Elizebeth, “more or less known as a military cipher expert,” nevertheless felt she was better known as the wife of William Friedman. In short, she took on the role of housewife. And yet Prohibition opened up cryptologic opportunities that otherwise only a war provided. She was asked to create and head a small decrypt unit for the Coast Guard, within the Treasury Department, laying bare the incriminating contents of rumrunners’ communications. The end of Prohibition saw her shunted aside for a ladder-climbing man, with a small fraction of her skills, but the coming of war made her services once more indispensable. Her decryption work led to arrests of some of the most sought-after Nazi spies.

Elizebeth said it was “the thrill of your life” to crack open a cipher: “The skeleton of words leap out, and make you jump.” Still, she would have concurred with William when he wrote, early in his career, “The work is so hard and the results so very, very meagre. Sometimes I fear I haven’t got it in me at all.” Of course, William did have the right stuff, yet the strain of unrelenting, intense mental effort for high stakes combined with an apparent predisposition for mental illness took a huge toll. He turned to less taxing pursuits after the war.

Such as writing, a pleasure denied him for more than two decades of cryptanalytic service to his country. He teamed with Elizebeth on a project, another pleasure denied him for as long. Theirs was a historical project that demanded years of archival research. It was written for the general reader interested in a fascinating, little-known moment in the American story. It was written for the scholar of the new science of cryptology, too. Perhaps most of all, it was written for the authors themselves, a kind of personal therapy. The result, The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined: An Analysis of Cryptographic Systems Used as Evidence That Some Author Other Than William Shakespeare Wrote the Plays Commonly Attributed to Him, excavated the past at Riverbank and set the record straight on its accomplishments. More important, the process of writing it set the authors free from a burdensome past.

Elizebeth’s biographer Jason Fagone says the pair approached their subject with “ruthless honesty” and, in so doing, produced “a story about the drug of self-delusion and the joy of truth.” While debunking her life’s work, the Friedmans recognized that Mrs. Gallup had ignited in them a lifelong passion for cryptanalysis. Acknowledging Fabyan could be manipulative, self-centered, and controlling, they nevertheless forgave him his faults and credited him with a substantive achievement. He had funded the enterprise that birthed not only their personal careers but also the intelligence gathering culture of an entire nation.

At the end of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, a quartet of fairy tale survivors sings,Witches can be right, giants can be good. // You decide what’s right, you decide what’s good.” Mrs. Gallup was no witch, nor was she right. But the Friedmans decided that she wasn’t exactly wrong either. At six-feet…something, George Fabyan was a it of a giant, but the cryptanalyst husband-and-wife decided he had done some tangible good. The non-duality of Taoism may seem exotic or arcane. In fact, we would see it all around us, if only we knew how to look. In the life of the Friedmans, through the revelations of their book, the blurring complementarity of right and wrong are plain to see. At Riverbank, a pursuit of self-delusion led to the pursuit of truth. At the level of the particular, this meant the truth enciphered within in garbled messages. Generalized, it meant the truth of a science whose laws are as discernible–through arduous experimentation–as those of physics.

A mistake–going to work for a tyrant ensnared in self-delusion–can be the most fruitful choice of a lifetime. The recognition of same can be the most therapeutic act of all.

Sources: Fagone, Jason. The Woman Who Smashed Codes: a True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.

Images: Wikimedia

The Hazards of Cryptology

posted in: Codebreakers | 0

David Kahn called it the Yardley Symptom, the compulsion of the cryptologist to chip away at the puzzle throughout his waking moments. He turns the letters over in his mind even as he fries his morning egg, scrubs his evening dishes.

Joe Rochefort called it the “the staring process,” his unscientific-sounding method for codebreaking. Look at the symbols. Line them up in various ways. Write them out in various forms. Stare at them. “Pretty soon you’d notice a pattern.”

Elizebeth Smith Friedman called it “the thrill of your life,” the moment a cipher falls apart in your hands, revealing its secrets. “The skeleton of words leap out, and make you jump.”

I just spent an hour and forty-five minutes, over three different sittings, decrypting a simple substitution cipher. I confess, it did not stay with me during the two hiatuses. Not once, as I showered or snacked or drove the car, did I consider a new possibility for that pair of double-letters or those four different three-letter words. Nor, when at the computer, did I stare stop and stare deeply, though I did examine the patterns, over and over, trying this letter and that in a vain attempt to gain a foothold. When I did eventually crack the wall, the bricks fell quickly. I can’t say it was the thrill of my life, but it was satisfying, not in the way that puts a smile on your face and a skip in your step, but rather that allows you to breathe easier and release the built-up tension in your muscles. My desperation to read Mark Twain’s quip had grown acute, my frustration approaching all-consuming.


I had inferred the double-l’s early on, but there were so many possibilities: -all, -ill, -oll, and -ell. The contraction “till” eluded me. I “knew” (though I was never really sure of anything) that “off” had to start with a vowel. I tried “odd” and “egg.” I must have tried “off” (Didn’t I?), but I never ruled it in as almost surely the best answer. The “o” gave two -o-o–o- words, which, let’s be honest, didn’t look promising. But it was the puzzle piece that first fell to my “stare.” Once I saw “tomorrow” amid those o’s, there was nothing else to do but plug in letter by letter until the message was complete. This took less than sixty seconds.

A mono-alphabetic substitution cipher (MASC) is the simplest cipher to solve. Cryptographers can layer on another substitution (or more?) to make poly-alphabetic encryptions. Fractionating is a particularly devilish way of transposing the letters of numbers in a cipher. When the symbols are shifted to different positions in one or more ways, they produce a transposition cipher. Layer on a second shift, and you get a double transposition cipher. Use an electromechanical machine with rotors that scramble the symbols multiple times in random, non-repeating ways, and you get a cipher that was, in the 1920s, quite possibly unbreakable.

Early in the decade, William Friedman solved the single-rotor Hebern cipher machine single-handedly in six weeks. In the 1930s, it took Friedman’s team of SIS cryptographers (Signal Intelligence Service) several years to crack the Japanese Type A Cipher Machine, code-named Red.  Ditto the upgraded Type B machine, Purple. Elizebeth Friedman’s biographer described the process as “akin to building a watch if you have never seen a watch before, simply by listening to an audio recording of the ticking and clicking of its gears.” Neither the Nazis or the Japanese Imperials cracked Friedman and Rowlett‘s four-rotor SIGABA machine before the end of the war.

The staring, the lining up and relining up, the round-the-clock mental demands for professional cryptographers don’t last an hour-and-three-quarters over two days. The frustration, the thwarting, the not-knowing persist day-in and day-out–sixteen- to twenty-hour days–for months and even years. The pressure builds.

Joe Rochefort said, “If you desire to be a real great cryptanalyst, being a little bit nuts helps.”

William Friedman seconded him, saying it was “not necessary” for a cryptanalyst to be insane, “but it helps.”

This highly cerebral profession took a surprising large physical and mental toll on its earliest practitioners. After cracking the Japanese diplomatic code and deciphering what he claimed were more than five thousand messages before and during the Washington arms control conference of 1921-22, Herbert Yardley was “exhausted to the point of breakdown.” His doctor ordered him to Arizona for several weeks to recoup. Later in the decade, Rochefort developed ulcers from the stress, a condition he lived with for the rest of his life. William Friedman, likely predisposed to mental illness, suffered depression to the point of hospitalization. Elizebeth Friedman chain-smoked and had difficulty keeping her weight.

Notwithstanding the occupational hazards, both Friedmans turned to cryptology in their play. They wrote ciphers to their children and friends. They held cipher parties, the way some hold Super Bowl parties today–with the guests interacting with puzzles and cryptograms rather than with an over-hyped athletic contest on a screen. It would have been fun to be a guest at one of these, with neither the extreme difficulty nor the life-altering stakes approaching those of Friedman’s work–work the Friedmans could not help bringing home in their minds yet could never discuss with each other.

If that is not a recipe for mental stress, I don’t know what is.


Carlson, Elliot. Joe Rocheforte’s War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway. Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2011.

Fagone, Jason. The Woman Who Smashed Codes: a True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.

Kahn, David. The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail: Herbert O. Yardley and the Birth of American Codebreaking. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

“Reminiscences of Captain Joseph J. Rochefort. U. S. Navy (Retired).” Annapolis: U. S. Naval Institute, 1983. Series of tape-recorded interviews in 1969, Redondo Beach, CA, by Commander Etta-Belle Kitchen

Yardley, Herbert O. The American Black Chamber. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrrill Company, 1931.