Elizebeth Friedman, America's Unsung Wartime Codebreaker

Courtesy of the George C. Marshall Library, Lexington, Virginia
Courtesy of the George C. Marshall Library, Lexington, Virginia

An American pioneer in the field of cryptology—the study of writing and solving secret codes—William Friedman is known for his distinguished career as an expert codebreaker with the U.S. Army during World Wars I and II. But although Friedman is one of the biggest names in cryptanalysis—he coined the word itself—historians often skip over the fact that his wife, Elizebeth, was every bit as skilled a codebreaker. Her accomplishments have been (sometimes deliberately) kept from the spotlight.

The youngest of nine kids in a Quaker family, Elizebeth Friedman (née Smith) was born in rural Indiana in 1892. (Her mother spelled her name unusually, swapping out the a for another e, reportedly because she disliked the nickname “Eliza.”) Young Elizebeth was bright and displayed a talent for languages, and was determined to go to college despite the discouragement of her father—so determined that she eventually ended up borrowing tuition from him at a 6 percent interest rate. After starting out at Ohio’s Wooster College in 1911, she finished her degree at Hillsdale College in Michigan, majoring in English lit. She also studied German, Greek, and Latin at Hillsdale, and it was there that she discovered her lifelong love for Shakespeare.

After graduation and a brief spell as a substitute principal at an Indiana high school, Elizebeth traveled to Chicago in 1916 and visited the Newberry Library, where Shakespeare’s First Folio was on display. There—having quit her principal job out of boredom—she asked the librarians if they knew of any research or literature jobs available. Within minutes, she was being introduced to the eccentric George Fabyan, who ran a 500-acre private research facility called Riverbank in nearby Geneva, Illinois. At the time, Fabyan also employed a scholar named Elizabeth Wells Gallup, who was trying to prove that Sir Francis Bacon had actually written Shakespeare’s plays. Gallup needed a research assistant. Elizebeth was taken to Riverbank for an interview, and a few days later, she was hired.

At Riverbank, Elizebeth worked on a cipher that Gallup claimed was hidden in Shakespeare’s sonnets and supposedly proved Bacon's authorship. Riverbank also employed the Russian-born William Friedman, a Cornell-educated geneticist, to work on wheat, although he became increasingly drawn to the Shakespeare project. William and Elizebeth fell in love and were married in May 1917, one month after the U.S. entered World War I.

Riverbank was one of the first institutes to focus on cryptology, and in the early days of the war, the War Department relied upon Riverbank almost exclusively. "So little was known in this country of codes and ciphers when the United States entered World War I, that we ourselves had to be the learners, the workers and the teachers all at one and the same time," Elizebeth wrote in her memoir.

But the Friedmans sometimes worked for other governments, too. After a recommendation from the U.S. Department of Justice, Scotland Yard brought them a trunk full of mysterious messages the British suspected were being used to facilitate insurrection in India, which was then a British colony. By cracking the codes, written in blocks of numbers, the Friedmans exposed the Hindu-German Conspiracy—in which Hindu activists in the U.S. were shipping weapons to India with German assistance. The resulting trial was one of the largest and most expensive in U.S. history at that time, and it ended sensationally when a gunman opened fire in the courtroom, killing one of the defendants before being killed by a U.S. Marshal. Unaware of the Friedmans' codebreaking work, he apparently believed the defendant had snitched.

The war ended in 1918, but Elizebeth and William continued their work for the military, and in 1921, they moved to Washington, D.C. to focus on military contract work full-time. Elizebeth loved the change of scenery, going from the rural countryside to the city—she recalled going to the theater several times a week when she first arrived in D.C.

After a period spent working for the Navy, she left the paid workforce for a few years to start raising her children, Barbara and John. But in 1925, the Coast Guard came calling, asking for her help on Prohibition-related cases. Soon she was cracking encrypted radio messages used by international liquor-smugglers who hid booze in shipments of jewelry, perfume, and even pinto beans.

Elizebeth proved to be a pivotal asset to the Coast Guard during Prohibition. She was the star witness in a 1933 trial following the bust of a million-dollar bootleg rum operation in the Gulf of Mexico and the West Coast. When asked in court to prove how “MJFAK ZYWKB QATYT JSL QATS QXYGX OGTB" could be decoded to "anchored in harbor where and when are you sending fuel?"—just one of perhaps thousands of coded messages that formed key evidence in the trial—Elizebeth asked the judge to find her a chalkboard. She proceeded to give the court a lecture on simple cipher charts, mono-alphabetic ciphers, and polysyllabic ciphers, then reviewed how, over the course of two years, she and her team painstakingly intercepted and deciphered the radio broadcasts of four illicit distilleries in New Orleans, explaining what each transmission meant. Special Assistant to the Attorney General Colonel Amos W. Woodcock later wrote that Elizebeth's obvious proficiency "made an unusual impression."

Just a year later, Elizebeth again proved invaluable to the Coast Guard in the "I’m Alone" case, in which a ship flying a Canadian flag was sunk by the Coast Guard after refusing to acknowledge a "heave to and be searched" signal. After Canada filed a lawsuit against the U.S. for $380,000, including damages for the ship, its cargo (which included liquor), and personnel losses, Elizebeth came to the rescue: She was able to solve 23 separate encoded messages from the ship that proved the I’m Alone was actually owned by American bootleggers, despite its Canadian decoy flag. The main charges against the U.S. were dismissed, and the Canadian government was so impressed with Elizebeth’s work that it asked the U.S. for her help in catching a ring of Chinese opium smugglers. Her testimony later led to five convictions.

A photograph of William F. Friedman and Elizebeth Smith Friedman, probably in the 1950s
William and Elizebeth Friedman
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Elizebeth and William weren’t just code-breakers by day. Their personal fascination with cryptology permeated their whole lives, in work and in play, and built a unique bond between them. The pair used ciphers in family gatherings with their children, and developed various codes to communicate with one another as well throughout their long relationship. They were even known to host dinner parties where the menus were encoded—in order to proceed to the next course, their guests would have to solve the puzzles.

With the start of WWII, Elizebeth began working for the Coordinator of Information, an intelligence service that served as the forerunner to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA. While William won huge acclaim for leading the team that figured out Japan’s Purple Encryption Machine—a discovery that gave the U.S. government access to diplomatic communications prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor—Elizebeth’s successes were less publicized. In fact, researchers have described hitting a "brick wall" when trying to find more details of her wartime activities. But according to Jason Fagone, author of the recent biography The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Elizebeth spent the war as a Nazi spy hunter for the FBI, breaking German codes and working closely with British intelligence to bust Axis spy rings. J. Edgar Hoover wrote her out of the story once the war had ended, classifying her files as top-secret and taking the credit for himself.

One piece of Elizebeth's work for the FBI is slightly better-known, however: Her code-cracking expertise was key in solving the "Doll Woman Case" of 1944, wherein Velvalee Dickinson, an antique doll dealer based in New York City, was convicted of spying on behalf of the Japanese government. Elizebeth's work helped prove that letters Dickinson had written, though seemingly about the condition of antique dolls, actually described the positions of U.S. ships and other war-related matters and were intended for the hands of Axis officials. As Fagone notes, although newspapers of the day wrote breathlessly about Dickinson as "the War's No. 1 woman spy" and how her codes were cracked by "FBI cryptographers," Elizebeth was never mentioned.

Elizebeth retired in 1946, a year after World War II ended, and William did the same the following year. In 1957, after many years of research, they finally published their masterwork on the bard, The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, which won awards from several Shakespeare research facilities. In contradiction to Gallup's theories, the Friedmans denied that Francis Bacon had written any works known as Shakespeare’s, and they even buried a cheeky message to that effect on one of the pages—an italicized phrase that when deciphered reads: "I did not write the plays. F. Bacon."

After William’s death in 1969, Elizebeth dedicated large amounts of her time to compiling and documenting her husband’s work in cryptology, rather than celebrating her own extraordinary achievements in the field. The fruits of her effort would eventually become part of the George C. Marshall Research Library, named after the WWII-era Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.

Elizebeth herself died on Halloween 1980 and was interred with her husband at Arlington National Cemetery. Inscribed on their double gravestone is a quote, not by William Shakespeare, but commonly attributed to Francis Bacon: "KNOWLEDGE IS POWER." It too is a cipher—when decrypted, it reads "WFF," William Friedman's initials.

Kitty O'Neil, Trailblazing Speed Racer and Wonder Woman's Stunt Double

PHOTO COLLAGE BY DAMON AMATO, MINUTE MEDIA. MOTORCYCLE/CAR/DIVINGBOARD, ISTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES. PORTRAIT, MIDCO SPORTS MAGAZINE // YOUTUBE
PHOTO COLLAGE BY DAMON AMATO, MINUTE MEDIA. MOTORCYCLE/CAR/DIVINGBOARD, ISTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES. PORTRAIT, MIDCO SPORTS MAGAZINE // YOUTUBE

Kitty O’Neil could do it all. A stuntwoman, drag racer, and diver, the legendary daredevil's skills were once described by the Chicago Tribune as “full and partial engulfment in fire; swimming; diving; water skiing; scuba diving; horse falls, jumps, drags, and transfers; high falls into an air bag or water; car rolls; cannon-fired car driving; motorcycle racing; speed, drag, sail, and power boat handling; fight routines; gymnastics; snow skiing; jet skiing; sky diving; ice skating; golf; tennis; track and field; 10-speed bike racing; and hang gliding.”

During her lifetime, O’Neil set 22 speed records on both the land and sea—including the women’s land speed record of 512 mph, which remains unmatched to this day. Through it all, she battled casual sexism and ableism, as she was often not only the lone woman in the room, but the lone deaf person on the drag strip or movie set.

"It Wasn't Scary Enough for Me"

O’Neil was born on March 24, 1946, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Her father, John, was an Air Force pilot and oil driller, while her mother, Patsy, was a homemaker. When she was just a few months old, O’Neil contracted mumps, measles, and smallpox, an onslaught of illness that damaged her nerves and caused her to lose her hearing. Patsy, who had packed her in ice during the worst of the fever, went back to school for speech pathology so she could teach her daughter how to read lips and form words. She placed the young girl’s hand on her throat as she spoke, allowing her to feel the vibrations of her vocal cords.

Feeling those sensations helped Kitty learn to talk, while the sensations associated with engines would teach her something else. At the age of 4, O’Neil convinced her father to let her ride atop the lawn mower in what would be a transformative experience. “I could feel the vibrations,” she told the Associated Press. “That’s what got me into racing. When I race, I feel the vibrations.”

But racing wasn’t her first thrill ride. As a teenager, O’Neil showed such an aptitude for diving that Patsy decided to move the family to Anaheim, California, where O’Neil could train with the two-time Olympic gold medalist Sammy Lee. She was on her way to the qualifying rounds for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when she broke her wrist, eliminating her from consideration. Soon after, she contracted spinal meningitis. Her doctors worried she wouldn’t walk again.

She recovered, but found she was no longer interested in diving. “I gave it up because it wasn’t scary enough for me,” she told the Chicago Tribune.

Motorcycle racing proved to be a better adrenaline rush, so she began entering competitions along the West Coast. It was at one of those races that she met another speedster named Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton, who offered his assistance after O’Neil crashed her bike, severing two fingers. Once she had gotten stitched up, the pair began a professional and romantic relationship. O’Neil moved onto a 40-acre ranch in Fillmore, California, with Hambleton and his two children from a previous relationship.

Hambleton would act as O’Neil’s manager, often speaking to the press for her after stunts or record attempts. However, O’Neil later alleged that he stole money from her and physically abused her during their partnership. In 1988, a Star Tribune reporter would describe O’Neil’s scrapbooks as containing a photo of Hambleton with his face scratched out; she had also written “not true” in the margins of newspaper clippings touting his profound impact on her success.

The Need for Speed

O’Neil wanted to go fast and she didn’t care how. So she expanded her scope beyond motorcycles, setting a new women’s water skiing record in 1970 with a speed of 104.85 mph. Her national breakout arrived six years later, when she drove a skinny three-wheel rocket car into the Alvord Desert. The hydrogen peroxide-powered vehicle was dubbed “The Motivator,” and it was the work of William Fredrick, a designer who normally created cars for movie and TV stunts. When O’Neil got behind the wheel of The Motivator, she quickly smashed the women’s land speed record. Her average speed was 512 mph, over 1.5 times faster than the previous 321 mph record held by Lee Breedlove since 1965.

She believed she could beat the men’s record of 631.4 mph, too, which should’ve been great news for her entire team. Fredrick and his corporate sponsors were gunning for a new record, and O'Neil had already reportedly hit a maximum speed of 618 mph in her initial run. But before she could take The Motivator for a second spin, she was ordered out of the car.

As O’Neil would discover, she had only been contracted to beat the women’s record. Marvin Glass & Associates, the toy company that owned the rights to the vehicle, wanted Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham to break the men’s record. The company claimed it was purely a business decision, as they had a Needham action figure in the works. But according to Hambleton, the company reps had said it would be “unbecoming and degrading for a woman to set a land speed record.”

“It really hurts,” O’Neil told UPI reporters as she choked back tears. “I wanted to do it again. I had a good feeling.” She earned the immediate support of the men’s record holder, Gary Gabelich, who called the whole incident “ridiculous” and “kind of silly.” She and Hambleton tried to sue for her right to another attempt, but she wouldn’t get a second ride in The Motivator. Needham wouldn’t break the record, either, as a storm dampened his chances. Not that he was especially polite about it.

“Hell, you’re not talking about sports when you’re talking about land speed records,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “It doesn’t take any God-given talent … even a good, smart chimpanzee could probably do it. Probably better—because he wouldn’t be worried about dying.”

As the messy legal battle dragged on, O’Neil focused on her budding career in stunt work. According to The New York Times, she completed her first stunt in March of 1976, when she zipped up a flame-resistant Nomex suit and let someone set her on fire. For her second job, she rolled a car, which was practically a personal hobby. (She liked to tell people she rolled her mother’s car when she was 16, the day she got her driver’s license.) O’Neil eventually became Lynda Carter’s stunt double on Wonder Woman, where she famously leapt 127 feet off a hotel roof onto an air bag below. “If I hadn’t hit the center of the bag, I probably would have been killed,” she told The Washington Post in 1979.

Her work earned her a place in Stunts Unlimited, the selective trade group that had, until that point, only admitted men. O’Neil continued racking up credits with gigs on The Bionic Woman, Smokey and the Bandit II, and The Blues Brothers. Although few stunt doubles achieve name recognition, O’Neil was a media darling who inspired her own 1979 TV movie starring Stockard Channing and a Barbie in her trademark yellow jumpsuit.

A Pioneer's Legacy

But by 1982, feeling burned out after watching the toll the work had taken on colleagues, O'Neil decided she was finished. She retired from the business at the age of 36, packing up and leaving Los Angeles entirely. She wound up in Minneapolis and then in Eureka, South Dakota, a town with a population of fewer than 1000 people. She would live out the rest of her days there, eventually dying of pneumonia in 2018 at the age of 72.

O’Neil lived her life as a never-ending challenge—to go faster, jump higher, do better. She always said that her lack of hearing helped her concentrate, eliminating any fear she might’ve felt over the prospect of breaking the sound barrier, let alone self-immolation.

“When I was 18, I was told I couldn’t get a job because I was deaf,” she told a group of deaf students at the Holy Trinity School in Chicago. “But I said someday I’m going to be famous in sports, to show them I can do anything.”

O’Neil did exactly that. Over her the course of perilous career, she carved out a name for herself in a space that was often openly hostile towards her, setting records and making it impossible for anyone who doubted her to catch up.

Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Early 20th century America didn’t offer many career paths to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native American descent were even more limited. When Coleman fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she knew that realizing her dream would be impossible in the United States—but instead of giving up, she moved to France to enroll in flight school. Less than a year later, she returned home as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot in aviation history.

A Determined Beginning

Bessie Coleman was born to sharecroppers in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was expected to help pick cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often lacked basic supplies like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excelled in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1901, her father, who was part black and part Cherokee, relocated to Native American territory in Oklahoma to escape discrimination in Texas, leaving Bessie and the rest of his family behind. She knew she couldn’t depend on her now single-parent family to contribute money toward her education, so to save for college, she went to work as a laundress.

After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University—now Langston University—in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was more educated than many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, she followed her brothers to Chicago, which, though racially segregated, was slightly more welcoming to people of color than Texas had been. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community. She went to beauty school and became a manicurist in a local barbershop.

Chicago was also where she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

Dreams of Flight—and France

Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch fighter planes soar through the skies in newsreels and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.

When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, he teased her about her new fantasy, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they held some truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S. immediately following World War I, and black female pilots were nonexistent.

Coleman quickly learned that American flight instructors were intent on keeping things that way. Every aviation school she applied to rejected her on the basis of her race and gender.

Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers weren't her only source of support in Chicago. After moving to the city, she met Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John’s idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in her face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world’s most racially progressive nations, and he encouraged her to move there in pursuit of her pilot's license.

Coleman didn’t need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she quit her job as a manicurist and accepted a better-paying role as the manager of a chili parlor to raise money for her trip abroad. At night she took French classes in the Chicago loop. Her hard work paid off, and with her savings and some financial assistance from Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.

The First Black Aviatrix

Coleman was the only non-white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates die in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."

Despite the risks, she pressed on with lessons, and after seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She became both the first African American woman and the first Native American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.

Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were instantly smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race."

In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was still a fairly new concept in America, and many of the most famous women flyers of the 20th century—like Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart—had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence helped clear the path for the next generation of female pilots.

But her success in France didn’t mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hoped to do for a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status since returning home, American flight schools still refused to teach her. Just a few months after landing in the U.S., Bessie went back to Europe—this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barnstorming stunts that were quickly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s.

Upon her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American airshow at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (moving atop the wings of her biplane mid-flight), and performing aerial figure-eights.

Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She only performed for desegregated audiences—the one notable exception being a show in Waxahachie, Texas, the town where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers planned to segregate black and white guests and have them use separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials eventually agreed, though audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.

Just when it seemed her career was reaching new heights, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, she was riding with her mechanic William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day, when a wrench left in the engine caused the plane to spin out of control. Coleman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, and she was tossed from the passenger seat at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.

Bessie Coleman never achieved the same level of name recognition as some of her peers, but the impact she left on aviation history is undeniable. Even if they’ve never heard her name, Chicagoans living near Lincoln Cemetery have likely heard the sounds of jets flying overhead on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor Coleman by performing a flyover and dropping flowers on her grave.

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