The United States entered the First World War in 1917.
In those days, intelligence gathering was in its infancy with no CIA or NSA. This meant there was no single institution within the federal government directly responsible for gathering intelligence and code-breaking.
However, no need to worry because a wealthy, but eccentric, millionaire had created a facility to do just that on his Illinois country-side estate of Riverbank.
The two people who were selected to do code breaking – William Friedman and Elizebeth Smith – had no formal training in cryptanalysis. In fact, Smith had studied Shakespeare and Tennyson at college, and Friedman had earned a Ph.D. in genetics.
Even so, their real talent was being very good at recognizing patterns. So there they were, essentially out in the middle of nowhere, cracking enemy codes sent from army headquarters in Washington.
George Fabyan was the millionaire who owned the estate where the code-breaking took place. Coincidentally, Fabyan had previously hired Elizebeth to work on a pet project of his, namely to prove that William Shakespeare’s plays had been written by Francis Bacon. Fabyan thought the first published book of Shakespeare’s plays contained secret messages that could prove this.
Many folks at that time thought Fabyan was a wealthy lunatic. For instance, he often wore riding pants even though no one ever saw him on a horse. He referred to himself as colonel even though he had never been in the military.
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It was here at Riverbank that Elizebeth came into her own. But it would be the achievements of William, and not Elizebeth, that would become quite well known in the code-breaking community. One of William’s claim to fame was his invention of the now widely used term cryptanalysis.
Soon after arriving at Riverbank, Elizebeth discovered she had a knack for unscrambling the jumbled letters of a cryptogram in her head, working out associations on paper. She was also well aware of the statistical frequency of words and letters in various languages. This knowledge would be key to discovering the true meaning of encrypted codes.
As an example, take the cryptogram “UIF GPY KVNQFE PWFS UIF GFODF.” It’s a safe bet that F stands for the letter E in that E is the most frequently used vowel. Using this information, it’s also highly likely that UIF is really THE.
This example is really a very basic cryptogram. Each letter in it is just shifted over one from the real letter - “THE FOX JUMPED OVER THE FENCE.” Of course, Elizebeth was able to crack codes significantly more complex than this one.
After leaving Riverside, she continued to work on coded messages. However, this time around, these messages had not been penned by enemy agents but rather by criminals, such as members of Al Capone’s gang.
During World War II, using her code-breaking skills, she helped uncover Nazi spies trying to foment fascist revolutions in South America whose purpose was to attack the U.S. Not surprisingly, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI claimed all the credit for uncovering these spies. And, because she was sworn to secrecy, she couldn’t say anything different.
She is now referred to as the “first female cryptanalyst.” One of her most endearing quotes is "I don’t make 'em, I only break 'em." She died in a nursing home in Plainfield, New Jersey, at the age of 88.