Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Great Lady Codebreaker...!

When we think of codebreakers, we mostly think of men. In the old days, that was usually the case. This lady helpeds to change all that!

Her story is indeed, an interesting one. I think you'll like it.

The Codebreaker Who Changed History During Prohibition
By Debra Kelly on Sunday, July 12, 2015


Even though she couldn’t vote at the start of her career and it was a time when women were more commonly found tending the kitchen than the workplace, Elizebeth Friedman was one of the most prolific cryptographers in American history. After working on German-Indian codes throughout World War I, she and her single assistant formed the entirety of the new counterintelligence agency formed by the Coast Guard to fight smuggling during Prohibition. In a matter of only a few years, she decoded more than 12,000 ciphers and testified against Al Capone’s men, indicted in connection with liquor smuggling through New Orleans.

The years around Prohibition were a fascinating mix of everyday rebellion, secret speakeasies, bootleggers, rum runners, organized crime, and the men that were fighting to enforce the law. One of the most important weapons the US government had was perhaps one of the most unlikeliest, especially given the time. Elizebeth Friedman was one of the best, most prolific cryptanalysts in any nation’s history, working at a time when most women didn’t have the option of a college education and ended up in the home.

Friedman was born in 1892, and when it came time for college, she took out a loan (at 6 percent interest) from her father to pay for her education. She went to Wooster College in Ohio and embarked on what she thought was going to be her career: writing. She eventually graduated in 1915, and while looking for work with an employment agency, she was recruited by a rich businessman to work in a private think tank, deciphering cryptic margin notes in old editions of Shakespeare’s works.

With World War I looming on the horizon, Elizebeth and her husband, William, were recruited into the war effort where they worked on coded messages that were passing between Germany and India. At the end of the war, they headed to Washington, DC, and joined up with military intelligence agencies there.

Rum running and smuggling had become a major problem by 1925, and the country was losing millions. It resulted in the creation of a Coast Guard counterintelligence unit that acted as a part of the Treasury Department, and Elizebeth was, essentially, the entire team. She was given cyphers and coded messages by Captain Charles Root, then took them home to decipher them as she cared for her family (which included two young children at this point).

By the end of 1930, Elizebeth and her assistant had cracked 12,000 encrypted messages that used more than 50 different codes. A handful of those codes led to the end of a rum runner that had been eluding detection for nearly a decade.

When the Coast Guard finally caught up with the crew of the I’m Alone off the coast of Louisiana, it resulted in the death of one agent and the wounding of several others. There were so many bullet holes in the ship that it sank. And when it did, it was flying the Canadian flag.

That meant it was an international incident, and it was Elizebeth’s translations of coded messages that proved that ship wasn’t legitimately under the protection of the Canadian government. Instead, they showed that the ship’s communications referred to deliveries of whiskey.

She also testified against Al Capone’s agents, who were arrested in New Orleans as a part of the liquor trade that was coming in through the Gulf of Mexico. The first expert witness in a case that had taken two years to prepare, she presented incriminating testimony from the so-called Cryptanalytic Unit, which was actually only her and her assistant.

In my opinion, we don't often give the women in our past enough credit for their contributions. I'm trying to change that a little by posting at least one story about some of these often overlooked heroes of our past!

Coffee out on the patio this morning. I'll bring out some ice water if anyone needs it, OK?


Sunnybrook Farm said...

She came to our English class in the early 70s and talked about the Shakespeare subject along with the Japanese code. She showed us how to break a simple cypher. It was really neat to get to meet someone like her.

linda m said...

That is a fascinating story. Thank you for sharing. You are right when you said we don't give women enough credit for some of the things they have contributed to this country and the world. I am happy to hear you will highlight some of these women in future posts. I'll bring some Dunkin's for us all to share.

Hermit's Baby Sis said...

Bubba -

There was a very enjoyable tv series on PBS America recently about women code breakers in WW2, called The Bletchley Circle. Based on true events and people, I believe. But, I did not know the precedent had been set in WW1 - thanks for a good article. HOT! But I like it that way ~

JO said...

Great post, I had never heard of this woman before. I think it's wonderful that you will be doing
more research on these wonderful women. Will be looking forward to the stories.

Every time I hear how hot it is everwhere I stop making plans to leave the mountain. St 6 am this morning it was only 54 degrees and the high today is expected to be around 78

Dizzy-Dick said...

It seems now-a-days that deciphering is the job of computers. I like computers but trust a real person more. A real person can follow leads that are not programmed into a computer.

HermitJim said...

Hey Sunnybrook...
I'm sure she had a lot of stories to share!
Thanks for stopping by this morning!

Hey Linda...
Always glad to do my part to give women the credit they deserve.
Thanks for coming over today!

Hey Sis...
I guess that many women were still in the shadows back in those days.
Thanks, Sis, for stopping in this morning!

Hey Jo...
The worse thing is that August is supposed to be our hottest month. Hate to think what it will be like then.
Many thanks, sweetie, for dropping by today!

HermitJim said...

Hey Dizzy...
I reckon that's people can be more illogical than a computer when they need to be.
Thanks for coming by today!

Mamahen said...

Great post very interesting...ice water Ice water is a welcomed touch.Thank you :))