The Codebreaker Who Changed History During Prohibition

“It will need more than the Nineteenth Amendment to convince me that there are no differences between men and women, or that legislation cannot take those differences into account.” —Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

In A Nutshell

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 Whole Bushel

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).

Article Continued Below

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.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
Listverse: 10 Fun Stories About America’s Bootleggers
“Elizebeth Smith Friedman,” by David Joyner
National Security Agency: The Friedman Legacy
Smithsonian: The Coast Guard’s Most Potent Weapon During Prohibition? Codebreaker Elizebeth Friedman

Looking for our newsletter? Subscribe here!