One married couple was responsible for the foundations of modern code breaking, and the principles that gave the NSA a head start in cryptanalysis. Though the husband, William Friedman, is usually apportioned the lion’s share of the credit, his wife Elizebeth Friedman was in every way his equal. During World War II, both worked under total secrecy, and only now are we learning about Elizebeth’s critical work uncovering the secrets of Nazi spies—and cracking the codes of the notorious “Doll Lady” suspected of working for the Japanese.
Velvalee Dickinson whirled around on the two FBI men and tried to scratch out their eyes. It was January 21, 1944. The agents had staked out the vault at the Bank of New York, waiting for Dickinson to walk in and open her safe-deposit box, and as soon as she did, unlocking a drawer that contained $15,900 in cash, the FBI agents said they had a warrant for her arrest. Dickinson shouted that she didn’t know why. She was fifty years old, a widow, a frail-looking ninety-four pounds, with brunette hair. She made such a kicking commotion that the men had to pick 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 Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
The FBI arrested Dickinson because of five suspicious letters that had been previously intercepted by postal inspectors and forwarded to the bureau. The letters talked about dolls and the condition of dolls, some of which were damaged: “English dolls,” “foreign dolls,” a “doll hospital,” and a “Siamese dancer” doll “tore in middle.” The first of the five letters read in part, “You asked me to tell you about my collection. A month ago I had to give a talk to an art club, so I talked about my dolls and figurines. The only new dolls I have are these three lovely new Irish dolls. One of these three dolls is an old Fishermen with a Net over his back. Another is an old woman with wood on her back and the third is a little boy.” The letter had been addressed to Señora Inéz Lopez Molinari in Buenos Aires. No such person existed; the letter was returned to the address listed on the envelope, the address of one of Dickinson’s customers, a Mrs. Mary E. Wallace in Springfield, Ohio, who was confused to read the letter, as she had not written it.
Dickinson owned a doll shop on Madison Avenue in New York and had developed a reputation for her artistry—she sold dolls for as much as $750 apiece—yet the bureau discovered that she had fallen into debt after the death of her husband, that she was a member of the Japanese-American Society, and she had visited the West Coast in January 1942, immediately after Pearl Harbor. The FBI tested the shapes of ink on the letters against Dickinson’s seized typewriter and confirmed a match; the bureau’s investigation also revealed social ties between Dickinson and Japanese consular officials.
After the agents arrested Dickinson in January 1944, a federal prosecutor took up the case: Edward C. Wallace, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Wallace had worked with Elizebeth Smith Friedman in the smuggling days and hoped to get her opinion on the Doll Lady’s letters, but first he called the supervisor of the FBI’s New York office and asked if the bureau had any objection to showing Elizebeth the letters.
Within the FBI, the prosecutor’s request provoked a remarkable exchange of at least eight phone calls, teletype messages, and memos that traveled up the chain from the FBI’s New York office to Washington and ultimately to the desk of J. Edgar Hoover. The gist of these communications was that the prosecutor, Edward Wallace, wanted Elizebeth and spoke highly of her—“According to Mr. Wallace,” an FBI agent in Washington wrote in a memo to Hoover’s deputy, “Mrs. Friedman and her husband, who is a cryptographer for the Army, are recognized as the leading authorities in the country and have written numerous books on the subject”—but FBI agents worried that Elizebeth would siphon publicity from the bureau, stealing its spotlight. The agents seemed reluctant to speak of Elizebeth as an independent analyst separate from her husband. Although no one had ever discussed involving William in the case, the supervisor of the FBI’s New York office fretted that the Friedmans, plural, “might, in the event of a successful espionage prosecution, attempt to lay claim for any work that they might have performed in this connection.”
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The New York office sent 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: “Concerning the project to submit the documents to Mrs. Friedman…There appears no point is to be gained by multiplying the number of examiners.” But he posed no formal objection, so U.S. Attorney Wallace went ahead and sent Elizebeth the Doll Lady’s letters, and Elizebeth analyzed them and crystallized her thoughts into a five-page letter before traveling to New York at the feds’ expense to discuss the case with Wallace in person.
“My dear Mr. Wallace,” Elizebeth began in her letter, “Within the last two days I have spent a few hours examining the Dickinson letters. I am setting forth here some queries and statements which may be accepted for what they are worth, mindful of your statement on the telephone that you hope to obtain ‘leads,’ and that you understand that the code in the letters is the ‘intangible’ type of method not susceptible to scientific proof.”
After making it clear that this was not the usual sort of cryptanalysis that she did, that this was only her opinion, Elizebeth went on to discuss what the Doll Lady was really talking about when she talked about dolls.
The letters, she said, were a textbook example of “open code,” a way of communicating secretly out in the open, without necessarily arousing suspicion. “Granddaughter’s doll” in one letter might refer to a U.S. ship that had been damaged at Pearl Harbor and was being repaired. “Family” meant the Japanese fleet. “English dolls” meant three classes of English ships, such as a battleship, battlecruiser, or destroyer. Where Dickinson wrote, “One of these three dolls is an old Fishermen with a Net over his back” and “another is an old woman with wood on her back and the third is a little boy,” she probably meant, “One of these three war- ships is a minesweeper, and another is a warship with superstructure, and the third is a small warship.” (“Destroyer?” Elizebeth guessed. “Torpedo boat? Auxiliary warship?”)
Elizebeth also pointed out that the street number of the address in the five letters—Señora Inéz, O’Higgins Street, Buenos Aires—was given as five different numbers (1414 O’Higgins, 2563 O’Higgins, etc.), suggesting that the messages were never meant to reach their destination and were intended to be intercepted en route, in an airline pouch or a censorship office, by a friendly Axis confederate.
Elizebeth’s letter shows her analytical brilliance; it also shows her native cautiousness, her reluctance to say anything that couldn’t absolutely be proven. Words in an open code can have multiple meanings. She didn’t want to testify in court for this reason. Hoover saw it differently. To him, the vagueness of an open code was an advantage, not a disadvantage, enabling his agents “to give the more extended estimates and alternative possibilities” during cross-examination.
The FBI had gathered other damning evidence against Dickinson, including the unexplained cash and her relations with Japanese officials, and the government charged Dickinson with espionage, as a spy for the imperial Japanese government. The charge carried the death penalty. As far as anyone knew, Dickinson was the first woman to be accused of espionage on American soil since World War II’s start. “So far,” wrote the Washington Sunday Star, “on this side of the water, Mrs. Dickinson is the woman spy of this war.” During her first court appearance in New York in May 1944, Dickinson looked subdued, wore a black hat pinned with imitation white flowers, and twisted a handkerchief behind her back with black-gloved hands, glancing around the courtroom at the FBI agents and prosecutors and reporters: “Who are all these people?” she said. When the prosecutor spoke, “She even yawned, decorously behind a hand,” the Washington Times- Herald reported.
Dickinson pleaded guilty. At her sentencing three months later she denied that she was a spy, breaking down in court and swearing that she didn’t know a “battleship from any other ship except that it’s larger.” She ended up with ten years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
All through these proceedings, Elizebeth stayed out of the public eye. When the Doll Lady case was over, the conviction won, the FBI, as always, informed the press of its heroism, feeding the dramatic details of “the War’s No. 1 Woman Spy” to reporters. “What made her become a Japanese spy?” asked the Star. “One FBI man who questioned her advanced the idea that she was an introvert, embittered by life, the frustration of childlessness.” Elizebeth was not mentioned in the coverage. The articles said variously that the code had been cracked by “FBI cryptographers” or “a check with the Navy.” Hoover himself wrote about the Doll Lady in The American Magazine, calling her “one of the cleverest woman operators I have encountered. Cultured, businesslike, cunning, and, despite her 45 years of age, most attractive, she presented one of the most difficult problems in detection the FBI has tackled in this war.”
And while readers learned of the Doll Lady’s treachery from Hoover, the woman who analyzed the Doll Lady’s letters in her spare time, quietly, as a side project, returned to her primary task of hunting Nazi spies.