World War II’s Best Codebreaker Was a Woman


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One married couple was answerable for the foundations of contemporary code breaking, and the ideas that gave the NSA a head begin in cryptanalysis. Although the husband, William Friedman, is normally apportioned the lion’s share of the credit score, his spouse Elizebeth Friedman was in each means his equal. Throughout World Struggle II, each labored underneath complete secrecy, and solely now are we studying about Elizebeth’s important work uncovering the secrets and techniques of Nazi spies—and cracking the codes of the infamous “Doll Girl” suspected of working for the Japanese.

Velvalee Dickinson whirled round on the 2 FBI males and tried to scratch out their eyes. It was January 21, 1944. The brokers had staked out the vault on the Financial institution of New York, ready for Dickinson to stroll in and open her safe-deposit field, and as quickly as she did, unlocking a drawer that contained $15,900 in money, the FBI brokers mentioned they’d a warrant for her arrest. Dickinson shouted that she didn’t know why. She was fifty years outdated, a widow, a frail-looking ninety-four kilos, with brunette hair. She made such a kicking commotion that the lads needed to choose her up by the armpits and carry her away.

From THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES by Jason Fagone. Copyright © 2017 by Jason Fagone. Reprinted by permission of Dey Road Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

The FBI arrested Dickinson due to 5 suspicious letters that had been beforehand intercepted by postal inspectors and forwarded to the bureau. The letters talked about dolls and the situation of dolls, a few of which have been broken: “English dolls,” “overseas dolls,” a “doll hospital,” and a “Siamese dancer” doll “tore in center.” The primary of the 5 letters learn partially, “You requested me to inform you about my assortment. A month in the past I needed to give a chat to an artwork membership, so I talked about my dolls and collectible figurines. The one new dolls I’ve are these three pretty new Irish dolls. Considered one of these three dolls is an outdated Fishermen with a Internet over his again. One other is an outdated lady with wooden on her again and the third is a little bit boy.” The letter had been addressed to Señora Inéz Lopez Molinari in Buenos Aires. No such individual existed; the letter was returned to the handle listed on the envelope, the handle of considered one of Dickinson’s clients, a Mrs. Mary E. Wallace in Springfield, Ohio, who was confused to learn the letter, as she had not written it.

Dickinson owned a doll store on Madison Avenue in New York and had developed a popularity for her artistry—she bought dolls for as a lot as $750 apiece—but the bureau found that she had fallen into debt after the dying of her husband, that she was a member of the Japanese-American Society, and she or he had visited the West Coast in January 1942, instantly after Pearl Harbor. The FBI examined the shapes of ink on the letters in opposition to Dickinson’s seized typewriter and confirmed a match; the bureau’s investigation additionally revealed social ties between Dickinson and Japanese consular officers.

After the brokers arrested Dickinson in January 1944, a federal prosecutor took up the case: Edward C. Wallace, the U.S. legal professional for the Southern District of New York. Wallace had labored with Elizebeth Smith Friedman within the smuggling days and hoped to get her opinion on the Doll Girl’s letters, however first he referred to as the supervisor of the FBI’s New York workplace and requested if the bureau had any objection to displaying Elizebeth the letters.

Throughout the FBI, the prosecutor’s request provoked a outstanding trade of no less than eight cellphone calls, teletype messages, and memos that traveled up the chain from the FBI’s New York workplace to Washington and finally to the desk of J. Edgar Hoover. The gist of those communications was that the prosecutor, Edward Wallace, wished Elizebeth and spoke extremely of her—“Based on Mr. Wallace,” an FBI agent in Washington wrote in a memo to Hoover’s deputy, “Mrs. Friedman and her husband, who’s a cryptographer for the Military, are acknowledged because the main authorities within the nation and have written quite a few books on the topic”—however FBI brokers apprehensive that Elizebeth would siphon publicity from the bureau, stealing its highlight. The brokers appeared reluctant to talk of Elizebeth as an impartial analyst separate from her husband. Though nobody had ever mentioned involving William within the case, the supervisor of the FBI’s New York workplace fretted that the Friedmans, plural, “would possibly, within the occasion of a profitable espionage prosecution, try to put declare for any work that they could have carried out on this connection.”

The New York workplace despatched Hoover a teletype on March 18, 1944: “advise as to submission questioned letters to Elizabeth Friedman for examination.” Hoover responded with a dismissive shrug of a memo: “Regarding the challenge to submit the paperwork to Mrs. Friedman…There seems no level is to be gained by multiplying the variety of examiners.” However he posed no formal objection, so U.S. Legal professional Wallace went forward and despatched Elizebeth the Doll Girl’s letters, and Elizebeth analyzed them and crystallized her ideas right into a five-page letter earlier than touring to New York on the feds’ expense to debate the case with Wallace in individual.

“My expensive Mr. Wallace,” Elizebeth started in her letter, “Throughout the final two days I’ve spent just a few hours analyzing the Dickinson letters. I’m setting forth right here some queries and statements which can be accepted for what they’re value, conscious of your assertion on the phone that you just hope to acquire ‘leads,’ and that you just perceive that the code within the letters is the ‘intangible’ kind of technique not prone to scientific proof.”

After making it clear that this was not the standard form of cryptanalysis that she did, that this was solely her opinion, Elizebeth went on to debate what the Doll Girl was actually speaking about when she talked about dolls.

The letters, she mentioned, have been a textbook instance of “open code,” a means of speaking secretly out within the open, with out essentially arousing suspicion. “Granddaughter’s doll” in a single letter would possibly discuss with a U.S. ship that had been broken at Pearl Harbor and was being repaired. “Household” meant the Japanese fleet. “English dolls” meant three courses of English ships, similar to a battleship, battlecruiser, or destroyer. The place Dickinson wrote, “Considered one of these three dolls is an outdated Fishermen with a Internet over his again” and “one other is an outdated lady with wooden on her again and the third is a little bit boy,” she most likely meant, “Considered one of these three war- ships is a minesweeper, and one other is a warship with superstructure, and the third is a small warship.” (“Destroyer?” Elizebeth guessed. “Torpedo boat? Auxiliary warship?”)

Elizebeth additionally identified that the road variety of the handle within the 5 letters—Señora Inéz, O’Higgins Road, Buenos Aires—was given as 5 totally different numbers (1414 O’Higgins, 2563 O’Higgins, and many others.), suggesting that the messages have been by no means meant to achieve their vacation spot and have been supposed to be intercepted en route, in an airline pouch or a censorship workplace, by a pleasant Axis accomplice.

Elizebeth’s letter exhibits her analytical brilliance; it additionally exhibits her native cautiousness, her reluctance to say something that couldn’t completely be confirmed. Phrases in an open code can have a number of meanings. She didn’t wish to testify in court docket because of this. Hoover noticed it otherwise. To him, the vagueness of an open code was a bonus, not a drawback, enabling his brokers “to offer the extra prolonged estimates and various potentialities” throughout cross-examination.

The FBI had gathered different damning proof in opposition to Dickinson, together with the unexplained money and her relations with Japanese officers, and the federal government charged Dickinson with espionage, as a spy for the imperial Japanese authorities. The cost carried the dying penalty. So far as anybody knew, Dickinson was the primary lady to be accused of espionage on American soil since World Struggle II’s begin. “Thus far,” wrote the Washington Sunday Star, “on this aspect of the water, Mrs. Dickinson is the lady spy of this conflict.” Throughout her first court docket look in New York in Could 1944, Dickinson appeared subdued, wore a black hat pinned with imitation white flowers, and twisted a handkerchief behind her again with black-gloved palms, glancing across the courtroom on the FBI brokers and prosecutors and reporters: “Who’re all these individuals?” she mentioned. When the prosecutor spoke, “She even yawned, decorously behind a hand,” the Washington Occasions- Herald reported.

Dickinson pleaded responsible. At her sentencing three months later she denied that she was a spy, breaking down in court docket and swearing that she didn’t know a “battleship from another ship besides that it’s bigger.” She ended up with ten years in jail and a $10,000 tremendous.

All via these proceedings, Elizebeth stayed out of the general public eye. When the Doll Girl case was over, the conviction received, the FBI, as at all times, knowledgeable the press of its heroism, feeding the dramatic particulars of “the Struggle’s No. 1 Lady Spy” to reporters. “What made her change into a Japanese spy?” requested the Star. “One FBI man who questioned her superior the concept she was an introvert, embittered by life, the frustration of childlessness.” Elizebeth was not talked about within the protection. The articles mentioned variously that the code had been cracked by “FBI cryptographers” or “a verify with the Navy.” Hoover himself wrote concerning the Doll Girl in The American Journal, calling her “one of many cleverest lady operators I’ve encountered. Cultured, businesslike, crafty, and, regardless of her 45 years of age, most tasty, she offered one of the troublesome issues in detection the FBI has tackled on this conflict.”

And whereas readers discovered of the Doll Girl’s treachery from Hoover, the lady who analyzed the Doll Girl’s letters in her spare time, quietly, as a aspect challenge, returned to her major activity of looking Nazi spies.

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