Elizebeth Friedman and the Holmwood case

Elizebeth Smith Friedman was the top cryptographer for the Coast Guard (then the enforcement arm of the Department of the Treasury) during the Prohibition Era.

According to wrecksite.eu, the SS Holmwood was a steam ship made in 1911. It was a New Zealand passenger/cargo ship with dimensions 50.4 x 8 x 3.9 m and equipped with a triple expansion engine and a 1 singleboiler engine, capable of 78 n.h.p..

The Holmwood case is a prohibition-era legal investigation concerning events up to and including the seizure of the SS Holmwood in October 5, 1933, in the Hudson River, and the subsequent trial of the smugglers. The New York Intelligence Office (of the Coast Guard, as part of the Treasury Department) used Elizebeth Friedman’s cryptanalysis of telegraph messages between the Holmwood and shore-based agents.

The best source of information from the ESF collection at the Marshall library, Box 6, File 24, “Notes on the solution of cipher and code used by the Holmwood” (14 pages), dated October 11, 1934. This document describes the investigation of the liquor smuggling operations of the Holmwood from 1930 to 1934. The first interception was November, 1930, by the New York Intelligence Office of the Treasury Department. The Coast Guard operated radio stations which monitored rum-runner telegraph stations. Usually these were in a telegraph cipher-code but sometimes they were in plain English. For example, it was reported that at 1505 on October 3, 1933, Radioman First Class B. E. Howell, of the New York Intelligence Unit, intercepted the following message

Anchor the boat in good place immediately. Take all men off in one of life boats. Hide the life boat if possible. Come ashore on New York side. Call [undecoded phone number] when you come ashore. PA code.

This message was preceded by a telegraph cipher-code

JDSLE 2221 1612 WJJE …. DEMPY.

which was decoded (by the office of ESF) as

Heave your anchor immediately and get underway. Stand up the river towards Albany.

This led to the seizure of the Holmwood. ESF wrote a strong commendation letter for Radioman Howell for his hard work and dedication to service.

For more on the life of Elizebeth Friedman, see [1], [2], or the book Divine Fire, by Katie Letcher Lyle (and some additional material by myself).

[1] Smith, G. Stuart, A Life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, NC, 2017.

[2] Fagone, Jason, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, Dey Street Books, New York, 2017