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.
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.