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 Holmewood (that ESF spelled as Holmwood), also registered as the SS Ara, was a Swedish refrigerated cargo steamer [edited 2021 – see comments below]. Read more at wrecksite: https://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?31920



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 (to be published?) book Divine Fire, by Katie Letcher Lyle, with significant 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

4 thoughts on “Elizebeth Friedman and the Holmwood case

  1. FYI:

    Your link to wrecksite.eu refers to a ship that did was not named Holmwood until 1940. Prior to that it was the SS Tees. So, I’m guessing this is not the same ship as in the ESF case that you describe.

    In the 10/05/1933 NYT article, the ship is referred to as Holmewood of Halifax. But, ESF seemed to refer to it as Holmwood.

    • Thank you for your comment.
      I can’t get into that wrecksite.eu site now (maybe it’s down?). I’ll try to do more research, but I agree the ship depicted is likely not the one she was referring to.

      • This one is a good bet: the Ara, sunk in 1942. In 1933 it was the Holmewood out of Barbados. And…. the ship involved in the ESF case left Barbados in 1933 with the shipment of 25,000 cases of liquor that was eventually seized in New York. Not super important…. but, I had been a bit confused today about the different spellings of the ship and came across your blog.

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