The rum kings of 1925 were not gentlemen. The gentlemen had already been driven out of the game. During the first few years of Prohibition, it had been possible for independent sea captains to make a living by racing crates of booze from the Bahamas to the Florida coast, for the cash and the thrill of it, but those days were over. The men in charge of the liquor rackets now were mobsters, killers, associates of killers, and shadowy corporations with intentionally understated names, such as the Consolidated Exporters Corporation of Vancouver, whose rum fleet would have been the envy of many small nations: sixty to seventy boats of various sizes, from enormous “mother ships” the size of baseball fields to small speedboats. The mother ships functioned as huge floating warehouses, anchored as far as 60 miles offshore, and capable of holding up to 100,000 crates of liquor.
Consolidated’s ships spanned the U.S. East Coast and the West Coast and stretched into ports in the Caribbean and South America. The rum business was hemisphere-wide: “The whole half of the world,” Elizebeth Smith Friedman said, “was interested in thwarting the prohibition law.”
It was a daunting thing for her to face. She got to work. During her first three months with Treasury in 1925, Elizebeth solved two years’ worth of backlogged messages. During her first three months with Treasury in 1925, Elizebeth solved two years’ worth of backlogged messages. Captain Root was so appreciative, he asked his bosses for money to hire Elizebeth for good: “Mrs. Friedman is the only person available with the required skill and experience.” She accepted a full-time job breaking messages for all six Treasury law agencies and continued to work from home, delivering envelopes of solved messages to the office, carrying envelopes of unsolved messages back to 3932 Military Road.
“Mrs. Friedman,” went a handwritten note from the Office of the Chief Prohibition Investigator. “Please see what you can do with this and return it to us.” Several cryptograms were attached, including this one, sent from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to an unknown ship on the East Coast:
AWJTSSK JQS GBQKWSK LYMSE EJBCG SPEC QPFYEYQD
MYHGC PRPYC JWKSWE CWI PQTGJW EPFS VBSM
She saw that it was a simple mono-alphabetic cipher. Elizebeth penciled in the plaintext letters without much effort, revealing a note telling the rum captain to anchor near a New Jersey lighthouse.
PROCEED ONE HUNDRED MILES SOUTH EAST NAVISINK
LIGHT AWAIT ORDERS TRY ANCHOR SAVE FUEL
At first all she did was solve these messages, unraveling the codes of the rumrunners one by one. But most of the messages weren’t this easy, and with each passing month, the task grew more difficult. The rum codes of the bigger operators were more secure than any military codes she had encountered during the Great War, demonstrating “a complexity never even attempted by any government for its most secret communications,” particularly the codes of the Consolidated Exporters Corporation.
The syndicate used different code systems for different sets of ships. Some code blocks were three letters long, some five letters, some four, and the smugglers changed the codes every few weeks, meaning that a broken code didn’t stay broken. Consolidated relied heavily on a multistep processes of enciphered code, the messages like little onions, each layer created with a different technique that Elizebeth had to peel back: Starting with the ciphertext block MJFAX, she might have to decrypt it into another five-letter block, BARHY, which corresponded to 08033 in a widely available book of commercial codes used by legitimate businessmen to save on telegraph charges, from which she subtracted 1,000 to get 07033, which matched up with the English word ANCHORED in a second code book. “If I may capture a goodly number of your messages,” she wrote, “even though I have never seen your code book, I may read your thoughts.”
As good as she was at solving the individual messages, Elizebeth’s ambition didn’t stop there. She wanted to build a broader, more comprehensive system for extracting intelligence from wireless messages, a system that didn’t exist at Treasury or anywhere else in the U.S. government because radio was still such a young technology.
Radio intelligence requires cooperation and sharing of information, and because Elizebeth was the only senior cryptanalyst in Treasury, the only one who knew how to break codes, she became a link between people in law enforcement who didn’t usually talk to each other. She communicated with the T-men at the listening posts; depending on atmospheric conditions, the listening posts could hear all the way to Germany, a portent of things to come. She kept in constant touch with T-men in the field who gave her lists of ships as they came and went in U.S. ports. She sketched maps of the naval routes and maps of the radio traffic. She helped train T-men to use direction-finding machines that they loaded in the back of pickup trucks, driving up and down the coasts to find hidden pirate radio stations used by the rumrunners. The smugglers essentially acted like foreign spies in wartime, trading intelligence by radio from hostile territories, and to read their thoughts, Elizebeth had to act like a spy hunter, a counterespionage or counterintelligence agent—skills she would ply against the Nazis in the early 1940s.
“I sort of floated around,” she said. “It seemed I went here, there, and everywhere I was needed.” It was a manic and exhausting period in her life. She traveled to the West Coast and consulted with customs agents in San Francisco about gangsters running rum boats off the coast. She exposed a ship called the Holmwood, which was sailing up the Hudson River with 20,000 cases of liquor, disguised as an oil tanker called the Texas Ranger; the ship was halfway to Albany, New York, its destination, when the coast guard and customs seized it on the strength of Elizebeth’s decryptions.
The names of ruthless men appeared in her solved puzzles: mafiosi and underworld bosses, racketeers and semi-legitimate CEOs, some of them hidden behind veils of complicated corporate structures and webs of interlocking investments. There was a fleet of rum ships on the West Coast controlled by two Canadian brothers named Hobbs. A California gangster named Tony “The Hat” Cornero owned some of the Hobbs boats. Their rival, for a time, was the Consolidated Exporters Corporation, the unstoppable Vancouver syndicate. Consolidated seemed to have an unlimited stream of money, pumped in by the Reifel family, patriarch Henry Reifel and sons George and Harry, hotel magnates in Vancouver. The Reifels also had an American investor, a colorful Bostonian named Joseph P. Kennedy—the father of John F. Kennedy, future president of the United States. Elizebeth noted in one report that in 1928 the Hobbs brothers appeared to sell their interests “to Joseph Kennedy, Ltd., of Vancouver, large holders of stock in the Consolidated Exporters Corporation.”
Elizebeth wasn’t afraid of these men, and she didn’t hate them, either. She was doing a job, and the job was frequently exciting, each case a detective story. Elizebeth flicked invisibly at the world, setting great chains of events into motion. She went to Houston, Texas, at the request of a federal prosecutor and solved more than 650 messages in 24 different code systems used by rum syndicates in the Gulf Coast. Many of Elizebeth’s solutions became evidence in a Texas rum trial involving a one-legged cabdriver named Louis “Frenchy” Armatou. Several of the messages seemed to involve a rum ship not at issue in the trial, the I’m Alone. Elizebeth’s solutions triggered an international manhunt for the ship’s captains. One fugitive, Marvin Clark, went on the run and was gunned down by an unknown assailant in New Orleans, and the other, Dan Hogan, was arrested and developed a vendetta against Elizebeth—“he was in a very mean mood”—that required her to travel to a federal hearing surrounded by a security detail. And all the time she wrote to her children, to Barbara and John Ramsay, sharing news of her travels. “Only woman on plane,” she wrote on a pad of yellow paper during a cross-country flight, at a time when flight in America was still new and wondrous. “Co-pilot as attentive as if I had been a young and pretty girl. The country, so stunning with its rivers and streams, green wooded mountains, and even flat farm country laid out in such patterns that it seemed as if a directing mind from above had planned it.” When she got home, she took the kids out for afternoon tea and did puzzle games with them as they sipped their cups.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, demand for liquor only increased, along with Elizebeth’s workload. She worried about the family’s finances in letters to William. “Did the bank call the loan?” she asked in one letter, then added, as if it were no big deal, “Broke into another system this morning, messages unearthed from a safe.”
The volume of intercepts pouring into Elizebeth’s coast guard office grew and grew until she felt “almost buried under the press of duties.” The grind of it was staggering: two thousand messages per month demanded her attention, and some twenty-five thousand per year. Not all of these contained information relevant to law enforcement, but she had to analyze all of them to know which ones to transmit and which ones to discard. She begged Treasury for help but all they allowed her was a single clerk-typist, a woman. Despite these meager resources, Elizebeth reported to her superiors in 1930 that she had solved twelve thousand rum messages in the previous three years, “which covered activities touching upon the Pacific Coast from Vancouver to Ensenada; from Belize along the Gulf Coast to Tampa; from Key West to Savannah, including Havana and the Bahamas; and from New Jersey to Maine.”
Until 1930, almost all codebreaking for the U.S. government’s planetary war against smuggling was handled by these two tired and perpetually overworked women, Elizebeth and her clerk, but that year Elizebeth decided she’d had enough and wrote a seven-page memo to coast guard commanders, proposing that they create a “central unit” for codebreaking. It wouldn’t do to stumble along with two people anymore; there needed to be a proper team. At a minimum, she said, the unit should have seven employees, two cryptanalysts and five cryptographic clerks, earning combined salaries of $14,600 per year. She argued that her accomplishments of the past several years “can be increased a hundredfold by a sufficiently staffed and thoroughly organized unit” striking at the heart of the smuggling trade from “the most promising point of attack”: the interception and solution of encrypted radio messages.
While she waited and hoped for help to arrive, Elizebeth did her best with the meager resources at her disposal. To build an archive of the smugglers’ words and stay on top of any shifts in the codes, she made a carbon copy of every solved message, and when the stack of copies grew to be an inch thick, her clerk-typist bound the plaintexts into a volume, a book. By the start of 1931, Elizebeth had generated 30 of these books, a Britannica of criminal clockwork. She was compiling a secret history of her age, using the very words of its hidden kings.
Elizebeth and William still had a chance to work together in these years. The collaboration flowed in one direction only, from her to him. William’s army work was too secret now. She got the sense that her husband found the smuggling puzzles to be a refuge from problems facing him at work; for him the rum war was a lark. They passed messages and worksheets back and forth, drawing cipher letters in the boxes of sheets of grid paper, snippets of potential plaintext: “Position,” “Landing boat,” “Is there any indication there will be trouble?”
One evening Elizebeth came home from a League of Women Voters meeting to find William examining a rum message. He looked up and smiled. “Andrew says send glass eye,” he said. Elizebeth often uncovered personal notes from the underpaid and exploited sailors on the rum boats, funny or sweet messages to their wives or children, and this was one that she had decrypted and William had apparently seen. The actual text read, “Andrew says advise wife to send reserve glass eye.” In a different message to shore, this same Andrew had requested “a pair of shoes, size 15.” He must have been a very large man. Elizebeth and William shared a laugh as they tried to picture it: a luckless giant on a rum boat, holes in his shoes, missing a glass eye, pining for his wife.
From the book The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies by Jason Fagone. Copyright © 2017 by Jason Fagone. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.