Major William F. Friedman, who solved the dictionary code without seeing
the dictionary. . . . Above, the scene in the San Francisco courtroom
where ended the drama of the dictionary code.
By Thomas M. Johnson
MURDER in the courtroom! A
brown arm darts forth. A
dash, a crash! A dark-faced
man falls from the witness
chair, nands clutching wildly
Above the dying man stands a second
gripping a smoking pistol His face,
also dark wears an expression of tri
“Traitor!’ he marls.
But in that instant, his leer turns to
a mdeous grimace He spins about, and
falls beside ms victim
That second report, from the rear of
that tragic courtroom, came from the
.45 of United States Marshal James B
Holohan later to become warden of San
Quentin penitentiary Calmly, accur
ately he had fired over the heads of
the panic-stricken crowd, to prevent
further kilims* bv a Hindu fanatic.
THUS ended, in San Francisco, a
world-wide drama unique in the
annals of American justice. Unique,
also, in the annals of the Black Art of
cryptography of codes and ciphers, of
secret writing The full story can be
told for the first time, from the day
when an American code and cipher ex
pert scanned a sheet of paper on whicl
were typewritten rows and rows of fie
78-2-45 35-1-17 122-1-52
What did these figures mean? I'm
problem was taken to Major William t
Friedman, head of the cipher depart
ment of the Riverbank Laboratory, at
Geneva. 11l The United States was on
the brink of war. when he looked over
these strange figures.
“The British have detected this mes
sage passing between Hindus in Berlin
and their agents now in America, plot
ting to start a revolution in India with
German money." it was explained.
Major Friedman studied the groups
and columns of numbers. Eagerly he
pointed out three consecutive groups
that .were typical:
78-2-45; 35-1-17; 122-1-52.
“Look!” he cried. “Here’s a clew!
“In each of the three groups, the sec
ond figure, the central one, is always
either a one or a two. And. look again
—the groups are all composed of three
numbers each! Both clews point to the
same thing—a dictionary code.
men who used this code em
ployed a dictionary—or rather two
of the same kind —from which they se
lected their words But instead of writ
ing the words, in their notes to each
other, they put down a group of num
bers for each word, each group convey
ing the word’s exact location.
“The first number of each group
would be the page on which that word
appears in the dictionary, the second
number would be the column, and the
third would be the location in that col
umn of the word itself.
“But why bother? Let’s just read the
message first and find the book later.”
Major Friedman’s uninitiated hearers
gaped with amazement.
“Oh, that’s no miracle!” said the
cryptographer lightlv “We’ll just use
Ram Chandra, shot to death in
court by his co-plotter, Ram
the principles that govern frequency of
letters and words
“Why, we can even block oft this or
any dictionary, into 26 sections, corre
sponding to the numbers of words be
ginning with each different letter of the
alphabet. Andre Langie. the French
cryptographer, has discovered that:
“Words beginning with A form 6.43
“Words beginning with B form 5.35
per cent —and so on.
“Perhaps you ask. ‘So what?' ’* the
cryptographer continued. “Well, if the
numbers in this message extend from
1 to 100. then a number between 1 and
6 will represent a word beginning with
A; a number between 7 and 12 will
represent a word beginning with B—
ah, now you see. don’t you?’’
Then began a long, laborious search
by Major Friedman and his assistants;
nothing spectacular, nothing mystical,
just hard work. Picking out the num
ber-groups that occurred most fre
quently. he began a detailed study and
search for the common words, so neces
sary that the plotters must have used
them oftenest; words like THE. OF.
AND. STOP, or YOU.
After hours of such painstaking labor,
they emerged triumphantly with the
first positive clew: the number-group
199-2-14 must mean YOU. and so. in
the dictionary the plotters had used, the
word YOU must be on page 199. column
2. 14th word!
FOLLOWING up this lead, Major
Friedman gradually worked out one
word after another At last he had
enough so that he could tackle a word
group. He found that 78-2-45. 35-1-17
122-1-52, which once looked so baffling,
must mean COME AT ONCE. And
gradually, adding here a little, there a
little, he found a meaning for each of
the many word-groups in the message.
So the code was broken. But when
the plotte.s went to trial in San Fran
cisco, in early 1918. Major Friedman
knew his case would be stronger if he
could actually show the jury the dic
tionary that was used.
Then began a weary, patient search.
Day after day. Major Friedman trudged
from one second-hand bookstone to an
other. At last he visited the co-onera-
Ram Singh, slain in court after
murdering a supposed traitor.
I tive bookstore of the University of Cali-
I forma at Berkeley.
And there he found a dictionary that
! he had never seen before—a two-col
umned dictionary. He turned to page
78. His eye shifted to the second col
umn. Carefully he counted down. 10
words, 20 words, 40 words—4s words.
What’s this? Not—yes it is—COME!
From all the thousands of dictionaries
in the world, tie had found the very one
that the Hindu plotters had used But
he had found it months after he had
solved their messages.
When 30 conspirators, white and
I dark, came to trial. Major Friedman
showed the dictionary in court He ex
| plained the meanings of the code mes
sages. He had unraveled the dark skein
woven by Oriental guile and the great
German secret service, through pains
taking hard work rather than through
‘ miracles. But the result seemed miracu
j lous to one of the plotters. Ram Singh
j —-so miraculous, that he was sure a
I confederate had sold him out.
On this Ram Singh brooded, until, the
last day of the trial. April 23. 1918, he
shot Ram Chandra dead, and Marshal
Holohan, who recently retired as ward
en of San Quentin prison, shot him dead
in turn. His trust in a secret code had
I cost him his life.