The Woman Who Smashed Codes

Title:                      The Woman Who Smashed Codes

Author:                 Jason Fagone

Fagone, Jason (2017). The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies. New York: HarperCollins

OCLC:                    981547889



Joining the ranks of Hidden Figures and In the Garden of Beasts, the incredible true story of the greatest codebreaking duo that ever lived, an American woman and her husband who invented the modern science of cryptology together and used it to confront the evils of their time, solving puzzles that unmasked Nazi spies and helped win World War II. In 1912, at the height of World War I, brilliant Shakespeare expert Elizebeth Smith went to work for an eccentric tycoon on his estate outside Chicago. The tycoon had close ties to the U.S. government, and he soon asked Elizebeth to apply her language skills to an exciting new venture: code-breaking. There she met the man who would become her husband, groundbreaking cryptologist William Friedman. Though she and Friedman are in many ways the “Adam and Eve” of the NSA, Elizebeth’s story, incredibly, has never been told. In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman, who played an integral role in our nation’s history for forty years. After World War I, Smith used her talents to catch gangsters and smugglers during Prohibition, then accepted a covert mission to discover and expose Nazi spy rings that were spreading like wildfire across South America, advancing ever closer to the United States. As World War II raged, Elizabeth fought a highly classified battle of wits against Hitler’s Reich, cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine used by German spies. Meanwhile, inside an Army vault in Washington, William worked furiously to break Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma—and eventually succeeded, at a terrible cost to his personal life. Fagone unveils America’s code-breaking history through the prism of Smith’s life, bringing into focus the unforgettable events and colorful personalities that would help shape modern intelligence. Blending the lively pace and compelling detail that are the hallmarks of Erik Larson’s bestsellers with the atmosphere and intensity of The Imitation Game, The Woman Who Smashed Codes is page-turning popular history at its finest.

Date Updated:  September 27, 2017

Reviewed in The Intelligencer[1]

The origins of codebreaking during WWI. In 1912, while Shakespeare expert Elizebeth Smith was working for an eccentric tycoon with ties to the government, she was introduced to both code-breaking and visionary cryptologist William Friedman, who became her husband. Fagone details Smith’s unique contributions to cryptology, which included helping to capture gangsters during Prohibition and exposing Nazi spies in South America.

Reviewed by John L. Bellah[2]

Elizebeth Smith Friedman was a prodigy. She just hadn’t realized that by the time she accepted a job with eccentric tycoon George Fabyan after finishing college in 1916. The resulting accidental career fit her perfectly and bore fruit for the well-being of the civilized world.

Fabyan sent Smith (who was still going by her maiden name at that time) to his Riverview research facility outside Chicago. She had studied poetry, and he asked her to use her linguistic skills to uncover secret messages he believed were hidden in William Shakespeare’s plays.

The approach of World War I led to a change of assignment. Suddenly, Smith was working to decode enemy messages for the US government, to which Fabyan had connections. The result—a fascinating life’s work, a marriage, a partnership that virtually created the science of codebreaking, and a substantial boost to the Allied war effort in two world wars—forms the gripping narrative of Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes.

Named one of the “Ten Young Writers on the Rise” by the Columbia Journalism Review, Fagone is the author of numerous articles and of the books Horsemen of the Esophagus (2005), on competitive eaters, and Ingenious (2013), about innovators re-imagining the automobile. For The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Fagone conducted three years of intensive research, the impressive depth of which is revealed in his citations.

Working for Fabyan, Smith met William Friedman, a talented and innovative cryptologist, and in 1917 they married. But when William joined the US Army Signal Corps and was sent to France, Elizebeth wasn’t allowed to accompany him. World War I ended in November 1918, and William returned to the States the following April.

The war’s end didn’t mean the end of code-breaking for the Friedmans. The Prohibition era began, and liquor smuggling was increasing. The US Treasury Department hired the couple as 2 of 1,400 new agents to combat smugglers. William was placed in the US Army Reserve, while Elizebeth was appointed as a civilian. During that time, William started tinkering with cipher machines, which were still in their infancy. The Friedmans’ work attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Bureau of Investigation (soon to be the FBI), and of law enforcement agencies including Scotland Yard.

In the midst of their challenging work, the Friedmans went on with life, having two children. When the US Coast Guard asked Elizebeth to intercept and decode communications from smugglers, she agreed, provided she could work at home. But the workload grew to handling some 25,000 messages per year, traveling cross-country, and occasionally testifying in court. By 1931, the Treasury Department (under which the US Coast Guard then served) agreed to let Elizebeth build and train her own code-breaking team, the first unit of its kind in US Coast Guard history, and the first run by a woman. When Elizebeth testified in a high-profile case in New Orleans, the news media touted her as a “pretty government script-analyst.”

Meanwhile, William was involved in top-secret work on coded Japanese communications. He and Elizebeth were doing the same type of work, but were forbidden to discuss it between themselves.

A new world war was fast approaching, technology was advancing, and code machines were becoming popular. William endeavored to crack the new machines’ codes, reverse engineering captured Japanese and German code-making machines by analyzing their garbled messages to determine the operating keys. William also helped engineer a US code machine, the SIGABA. No enemy ever cracked the SIGABA code. Germany eventually simply ignored SIGABA messages.

Elizebeth, meanwhile, worked on the problem of enemy agents already on US soil in the run-up to World War II. The FBI turned to her to decode and decipher their messages—though the FBI, whose nascent codebreaking unit she later trained, got the credit. In fact, Elizebeth received little or no credit for any of her work, which was classified as top secret.

Codebreaking was tedious, with long hours and high stress that affected William’s mental and physical health. But the result was the ability to read enemy messages that revealed troop movements, diplomatic matters, espionage, shipping routes, aircraft sightings, and more. This gave the Allies a leg up, saving many lives and making the difference between victory and defeat.

Elizebeth left government service in 1946. William, who reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, died of a heart attack in 1969, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. When Elizebeth died in 1980, her ashes were scattered there.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is a must-read for anyone interested in the murky world of codes and code-breaking—and in the lives of extraordinarily gifted people.

[1] Reviewed in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 3, Winter 2016-17, p. 134).

[2] John L. Bellah, “The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies,” in America in WWII (13, 3, October 2017, pp. 98-99)


This entry was posted in cryptography and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s