Who was Elisabeth Friedman?

The woman who cracked codes and kicked Nazi butt.
Kevin Tumlinson | WrittenWorld.us

Secrets have power. And no one knows that better than the people who trade in secrets, constantly playing at a game of hiding information from the enemy while simultaneously trying to to crack that enemy’s own codes.

And then there are secrets that are just meant to empower one group while denying the contributions of another. That’s certainly the case for Elisabeth Friedman—the greatest codebreaker you’ve never heard of.

As part of the writing process, I end up doing a lot of research and reading. Some of this is intensive, such as reading half a dozen books on a topic, searching out YouTube videos and documentaries, that sort of thing. Some is just spot research, a quick dip into Wikipedia or a Google search for things like "common Russian boy names."

As I was writing The Stepping Maze, I read everything I could get my hands on about WWII-era codebreaking. One of the books I stumbled upon was The Woman Who Smashed Codes, by Jason Fagone. It's a look into the life of Elisabeth Friedman, wife of famed Cryptologist William Friedman.

Though William gets all the historical credit, particularly for his part in the founding of the NSA, Elisabeth may be the bigger powerhouse, when it comes to their codebreaking legacy. She contributed as much if not more than any male counterpart when it came to deciphering the coded messages of the Nazis, during WWII. And because of her work, a pretty serious threat against the United States was quashed before it began.

Prior to WWII, during the Prohibition era, Elisabeth was recruited to work with the Coast Guard. She was instrumental in finding, exposing, and ultimately taking down a secret network of rum runners and gangsters, assisting law enforcement in bring some pretty shady characters to justice. And she did it with the complete disdain of the media, who preferred to call out how attractive and unsupposing she was, rather than emphasize her utter brilliance.

This sort of treatment was something that would plague Elisabeth all her life. Even during WWII, her exposure of a Nazi spy ring in South America was co-opted by a new, fledgling law enforcement agency—the Federal Bureau of Investigations. In an effort to make a name for himself and the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover blatantly took credit for Elisabeth's work, framing everything in such a way that it was an FBI victory by FBI resources. If you've ever read much history about Hoover, you won't find this surprising at all. He was kind of a tool.

It's notable, by the way, that during the time that Elisabeth was taking down Nazis using a pen and legal pad, she was also caring for her husband, William. His own work in cryptography is astounding, and includes some of the most incredible advances to that field of study the world has ever known. He and his team created an encoding and decoding machine so effective that it was never cracked. In fact, the Nazis and the Japanese ceased even attempting to crack US coded messages, as it was such a phenomenal waste of time. The guy was that good.

But it came at a huge cost. The intense hours and pressure, the absolute need for secrecy, even from his wife, and the burden of knowing that lives depended on every stroke of his pen and every clever thought—it eventually took a toll on him. William suffered a complete breakdown, and for a time was committed to a sanitarium. At a time when all mental illness was treated with brutal and horrifying methods, William faced not only life-threatening treatments but the potential end of his career, even if he were "cured."

Elisabeth stepped in to care for him during this time, creating for him a peaceful and happy home life with her and their children, encouraging him and standing for him as he faced challenges with employers. At one point they had to fight for him to be paid for his work, and fought again to keep him in his role with the military.

She did this, all of it, while continuing to break the codes used by the enemies of the US and the Allies. She kept her husband sane, her family healthy, both their careers intact, and the country safe. What a woman!

Though The Stepping Maze isn't about Elisabeth Friedman, and only briefly mentions her, I can tell you that her spirit is there. I appreciate people with her sort of inner strength, and her brilliant intelligence. She is a figure obscured in history, but is an absolute lynchpin in the mechanics of our modern world. We all owe her, more than we can repay.

IF YOU ENJOYED THIS LITTLE TALE …

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Kevin Tumlinson    is an award-winning and bestselling thriller author and podcast host. He travels the world looking for interesting tidbits of history and culture to fold into his work, and spends much of his time writing from hotels, cafes, coffee shops, and the occasional ride line at Disney World. Find more of Kevin and his work, including novels and podcasts, at    KevinTumlinson.com.

Kevin Tumlinson is an award-winning and bestselling thriller author and podcast host. He travels the world looking for interesting tidbits of history and culture to fold into his work, and spends much of his time writing from hotels, cafes, coffee shops, and the occasional ride line at Disney World. Find more of Kevin and his work, including novels and podcasts, at KevinTumlinson.com.