The First Cryptographic Couple

William Frederick Friedman (1891–1969) and Elizebeth Smith Friedman (1892–1980) are sometimes described as the nation’s First Cryptographic Couple. They were introduced to the subject, and to each other, by the larger-than-life textile magnate George Fabyan, at Riverbank, a country estate and research institute near Chicago. They joined a team providing support for Elizabeth Wells Gallup, the leading advocate of the then-popular idea that the famous statesman and scientific pioneer Francis Bacon had written Shakespeare’s works and left ciphered clues throughout the 1623 First Folio and other texts. The Friedmans quickly lost faith in this theory and moved to Washington, where William ran the Signals Intelligence Service and Elizebeth worked for the Coast Guard and other agencies. But they continued their study of the Renaissance and eventually settled on Capitol Hill. Many of the books they used at Riverbank, are now housed across the street in the Fabyan Collection at the Library of Congress.

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Shakespearean Ciphers Examined title page
William & Elizabeth Friedman. The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined. Cambridge, 1957.

The Friedmans and Shakespeare

After leaving Riverbank in 1920, the Friedmans remained in close contact with Elizabeth Wells Gallup and her fellow Baconians, collecting materials for this comprehensive critique of the Baconian authorship theory. By the late 1940s, they were giving lectures called “The Cryptologist Looks at Shakespeare.” Their original typescript (bearing that earlier title) was finished in 1954 and the revised book was published to great acclaim three years later by Cambridge University Press.

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Inscription in The Shakespearean ciphers examined.
Item Title: 
The Shakespearean ciphers examined : an analysis of crypthographic systems used as evidence that some author other than William Shakespeare wrote the plays commonly attributed to him / by William F. Friedman & Elizabeth S. Friedman.
Item Call Number: 
PR2937 .F7 1957 Copy 2 Cage
Item Creator: 
Friedman, William F. (William Frederick), 1891-1969.
Item Date: 
1957

The Friedmans and the Folger

The Friedmans’ final home was a nondescript Washington rowhouse near the corner of 2nd and C Streets SE. This location put them at the heart of the government community on Capitol Hill and gave them easy access to the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Folders from the Friedmans’ post-retirement research are filled with Folger call slips, and the by-line to a 1962 article on Shakespeare identified William only as “Reader, Folger Shakespeare Library.” The typescript of the Friedmans’ definitive rejection of the cipher-based theories surrounding the Shakespeare authorship question won the Library’s book prize and was deposited in its collections.