History’s Gravity II

I took an uncharacteristically critical stance on Jason Fagone’s biography of Elizebeth Friedman. Until that post, I had avoided making critical comments of any of the works I chose to “review.” Perhaps I thought the author of a bestseller could take it. Besides, the post was as much about me as his book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes. The subject was my deep need to get chronology straight in my mind (and geography, too). Which doesn’t mean I’m necessarily adept at getting it straight, accurate.

(c) pamimages 2020

My post on Eddie Rickenbacker’s umbrella-bike is a case in point. As I researched his childhood years, the chronology just wasn’t making sense. I congratulated myself for catching the inconsistencies, then proceeded to make poor inferences, draw inaccurate conclusions. I lost the forest for the trees. Worse, I preferred a novel explanation over the accepted story simply because it was novel–and I fancied myself the discoverer.

Eddie can’t be blamed for misremembering the chronology. Memory is notoriously fungible. From the transcripts of interviews conducted in the 1940s, I confirmed that Rickenbacker’s barn-roof flight preceded Roy Knabenshue by at least three years. But I learned more than that. Rickenbacker had genuinely forgotten about the incident until the interviewers reminded him. They had learned about it from Eddie’s co-conspirator, Sam Wareham, whom they had tracked down and interviewed first. My suspicion that Eddie exploited the incident to inflate his past was unfounded.

Auburn University Libraries

Rickenbacker’s childhood story had become a subject of interest after the former ace had survived his Pacific Ordeal in late 1942. Hollywood was capitalizing on the public’s interest by making a feature film. A research team was dispatched to Columbus to dig up inspirational stories of his past. The umbrella-bike tale shone above all the others and became the opening scene of the movie–and in David Lewis’s authoritative biography and my own middle grade biography.

Eddie’s autobiographical ghostwriter, Booton Herndon, can be blamed for promoting a story–that Eddie was inspired by Roy Knabenshue–which was chronologically impossible. It made a good story–too good a story to pass up.

I can be blamed for not simply taking David Lewis at his word: that Eddie rode his bike off the roof “almost certainly before” December 1903 when the Wright brothers made their first flight. (After that and he would have been too old to attempt such a foolhardy venture.)

The chronology of the Friedmans in 1916-17 is similarly hard to pin down. Their two biographers, Fagone and Clark, similarly give different accounts, though variations of months rather than years. My post of March 2 once again is too quick to question Fagone, too reluctant to give him the benefit of the doubt, too eager for a novel account.


One of the main questions concerned the Hindu-German Conspiracy. Here is what I have since discovered:

    1. The plot first hit the newspapers on March 7, 1917.
    2. More conspirators are being apprehended (or “jailed”) in April.
    3. The details of the conspiracy start coming out in July.
    4. Chicago trial opens on October 15, 1917, Judge Kennesaw Landis presiding, ends by October 30.
    5. The San Francico trial starts on November 20, 1917, and ends spectacularly on April 24, 1918, with a courtroom shootout.

A February visit from Scotland Yard makes sense because the Friedmans appeared to know nothing of the conspiracy–it hadn’t hit the papers yet. When and how long they worked is not clear. Yet, we know they solved two book ciphers. They describe the laborious process they used to reconstruct the books, word by word, as well as Fabyan’s international search to try to locate the likely books. This would have taken months, not weeks. The Hindu-German conspiracy kept them occupied through much of the summer and possibly the fall. William was in Chicago to testify, apparently in late October, and serendipitously found the political book for the book cipher while there. William went to San Francisco, too (in April?). He describes the courtroom shooting event, but it is unclear whether or not he was there. His description of the incident lacks personal emotions, so I suspect not. He knew of the event only from the papers.

Nor do I know when the Friedmans solved the Plett cipher device, the breaking of which required finding the key words “cipher” and “machine.” Based on its placement in the narratives I suspect it was in the fall of 1917, September or October.

National Cryptologic Foundation

The most problematic paragraph in my post concerns the length of time that the Riverbank cipher bureau served as the primary cryptographic department of the federal government. My accusation of Fagone contradicting himself was itself a self-contradiction. He was more consistent in his account than I gave him credit for. Furthermore, in my memory (always a questionable source–my notes were incomplete and I hadn’t the book in front of me to refer to) Kahn had been explicit about the brevity of Riverbank‘s heyday as the federal government’s lead cryptographic unit. I was wrong. (I must have been thinking of Clark who is less reliable on these matters.) Kahn, in fact, provides specific dates for specific decryption work through June and July. He corroborates Fagone, too, in the timing of Riverbank’s transition from codebreaking operation to codebreaking school in November.

I had questioned Fagone’s assertion that “for the first eight months of the war, [Riverbank] did all of the codebreaking for every part of the U.S. Government [State, Army, Navy, Justice].” Gathering some primary sources, I learned that the claim came from Elizebeth herself, in much the same words: “For eight months, we, this energetic but small unit of workers on the Fabyan estate, Riverbank, at Geneva, Illinois, performed all code and cipher work for the government in Washington. We did work for the Army and Navy Departments, for the State Department, for the Justice Department….”

I was too quick to challenge Fagone on the basis of a single fact: MI-8, with Herbert Yardley as its head, had been formally created in June. But hurry up and wait is the Army’s unofficial motto. MI-8 was not able to start up from scratch. It took weeks to go from zero to sixty.  As Fagone acknowledged: “[Riverbank’s] work started to dry up in the summer and fall of 1917.” There was a transition.

As to Fagone’s loose-with-chronology storytelling style, I stick with my original critique. It is my preference as a reader as well as researcher to be able to place the sequence, to make my own judgments about cause and effect. Of course, I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone how to write his book. Fagone’s biography sparkled with vivid language that brought Elizebeth to life on the page and fit well with his relatively free-wheeling narrative approach. His poetry cannot be considered poetic license. It is built on prodigious research.


Callimahos, Lambros. “The Legendary William F. Friedman” (in “The Friedman Legacy: A Tribute to William and Elizebeth Friedman”). Sources in Cryptologic History, no. 3, Fort Meade: NSA, 2006, 197-198.

Clark, Ronald. The Man Who Broke Purple: The Life of Colonel William F. Friedman, Who Deciphered the Japanese Code in World War II. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977.

ESF memoir, complete, 1966, GCMF Library.

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 Have: Yale University Press, 2004.

WFF letter to Travis Hoke, editor of Popular Science Magazine, January 1920, George C. Marshall Foundation Library

Articles in New York Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.