She briefly worked as a high school principal. Her knowledge of Shakespeare caught the attention of millionaire George Fabyan. As one of Fabyan’s employees, she went to work at his private Riverbank Research Laboratory. At the Laboratory she got her start using cyphers to decode messages for the first time. Friedman assisted a literary scholar, who perceived hidden messages in Shakespearen texts, in an effort to prove Sir Francis Bacon was the true author of some Shakespearen works.
During her time at Riverbank, she met her husband William. She then started her career with her husband after George Fabyan recommended them to the Coast Guard. Throughout the early 1920s, she worked in a unit decrypting rum-runner codes.
While Friedman was in the Coast Guard Intelligence she helped successfully reduce illegal smuggling along the 12,000-mile coastline from 1927 to 1928; “She and her clerk cracked an estimated 12,000 encryptions; their work resulted in 650 criminal prosecutions, and she testified as an expert witness in 33 cases.”
In fact in one instance, “a grand jury indicted 104 [people], and in 1933, Colonel Amos W. Woodcock, Special Assistant to the Attorney General, led the prosecution against 23 members of what he called ‘the most powerful international smuggling syndicate in existence, controlling practically a monopoly of smuggling in the Gulf of Mexico and on the West Coast.’ His star witness was a five-foot-tall Coast Guard codebreaker named Elizebeth Friedman.”
On the stand, she established herself as extremely adept at untangling codes as she described the “art of deciphering and decoding” (Hagen). She became so well known that in 1937 the Canadian Government recruited her to crack an opium smuggling operation where she solved codes in Chinese despite not knowing the language. Early in her career, she made her mark by using her cryptography skills to create a huge breakthrough in the case of Velvalee Dickinson. Dickinson, known as the “Doll Woman” used her doll shop as a front for Japanese espionage.
After intercepting Japanese communications at Pearl Harbor, Friedman decrypted the messages to take down Dickinson’s whole enterprise. Friedman later returned to teaching during WWII when she and her husband began training new cryptographers. Together they developed textbooks and training for new recruits.
During this time Friedman transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Navy. The Navy assigned her to address South American Axis threats. Before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States believed an attack was likely to come from the South. Friedman was key in Operation Bolivar and led her team to break three Enigma Machines. This work thwarted a spy ring headed by key players like Johannes Siegfried Becker and ultimately led to Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile denouncing German ties to support the Allied Powers.
In the words of Friedman biographer Jason Fagone, “Elizebeth Friedman was a great heroine of the Second World War. The British knew it. The navy knew it. The FBI knew it. But the American public never did”( Fagone 298). Despite cracking over 4,000 codes during the war, until recently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and J. Edgar Hoover took credit for many of Elizebeth Friedman's achievements. In recent years recovered documents have rightfully shown Friedman as the real code-breaker. After the War Friedman returned to her love of Shakespeare and eventually published a book with her husband titled The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined.
Friedman is one of the first pioneers of cryptography, breaking boundaries, she laid the groundwork for future women in this field.
In August 2021, Friedman's hometown of Huntington, IN honored and celebrated the cryptography pioneer with a historical marker dedication. Read more about that here.