The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies

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 IIIn 1916, at the height of Wo...

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Title:The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies
Author:Jason Fagone
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The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies Reviews

  • Ollivier

    Anyone interested in the History of cryptography knows William F. Friedman, known as the man who broke Purple the Japanese cipher machine and many things. But who did know that his wife, née Elizebeth Smith, was his equal in cryptographic skills? She created a Coast Guard cryptographic team, broke an Enigma without any help from Bletchley Park, helped expose many Prohibition-era gangs and Nazi spy networks in South America during WWII and worked in tandem with William during WWI. She is as much

    Anyone interested in the History of cryptography knows William F. Friedman, known as the man who broke Purple the Japanese cipher machine and many things. But who did know that his wife, née Elizebeth Smith, was his equal in cryptographic skills? She created a Coast Guard cryptographic team, broke an Enigma without any help from Bletchley Park, helped expose many Prohibition-era gangs and Nazi spy networks in South America during WWII and worked in tandem with William during WWI. She is as much part of cryptographic history as her husband is.

    This is her history in that book, I highly recommended it.

    I knew she was very good but I didn't know she was that good. Thanks to the author for the book, loved it.

  • Rick

    Immediately added to my favorites shelf. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

    The Woman Who Smashed Codes will be compared with Hidden Figures, and that's fair, to a point. Both books have at their core a story of remarkable scientific/mathematic achievement, overlooked because of gender, largely forgotten (until now) as others took credit. But it is so much more, so rich in its account of not only an extraordinary woman, but the time in which she lived, two World Wars and her central role

    Immediately added to my favorites shelf. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

    The Woman Who Smashed Codes will be compared with Hidden Figures, and that's fair, to a point. Both books have at their core a story of remarkable scientific/mathematic achievement, overlooked because of gender, largely forgotten (until now) as others took credit. But it is so much more, so rich in its account of not only an extraordinary woman, but the time in which she lived, two World Wars and her central role in both, the incredible marriage that gave birth to modern American cryptanalysis, that I think it deserves to be evaluated on its own.

    Even in the hands of a merely serviceable writer, it would be an enjoyable read. But Fagone elevates the story, weaving it into as rich a tapestry as you could hope for. Secondary characters jump from the page just as much as Elizebeth and her husband William; little details transport you to the small, smoke-filled rooms where Elizebeth and her tiny team toiled in obscurity in defense of the country. Fagone firmly establishes Elizebeth Friedman's place in our history, and not only gives her her due, but demands that we reevaluate what we thought we knew about the wars, and the origins of America's intelligence services (nearly all of them have her fingerprints on them), and the people who are given credit for critical milestones in the country's history.

    This is a magnificent, memorable, important book.

  • Patrick Brown

    This was fantastic, and I'm not surprised. Fagone is a great writer (check out his previous book

    ), and here he has great subject matter to work with. This book tells the story of Elizabeth Friedman, a pioneer in the field of cryptanalysis (that's codebreaking to us civilians), and one of the great unsung heroes of the 20th Century. Friedman's story has all the stuff you want in a great history -- wingbat theo

    This was fantastic, and I'm not surprised. Fagone is a great writer (check out his previous book

    ), and here he has great subject matter to work with. This book tells the story of Elizabeth Friedman, a pioneer in the field of cryptanalysis (that's codebreaking to us civilians), and one of the great unsung heroes of the 20th Century. Friedman's story has all the stuff you want in a great history -- wingbat theories about Shakespeare, gangster rumrunners, Nazi spies, and a trip to Hitler's mountaintop lair. And any book that opens its section about WWII with a Fugazi quote is ok by me.

    I haven't read many history/biographies, but I can't say I've read one that moves quite as well as this. Highly recommended for anyone interested in espionage, codebreaking, WWII, or Prohibition. If I hadn't been trying to read this during the baseball postseason I would have finished it in a day.

  • Marlene

    Originally published at

    Once upon a time in the West, a wealthy and charismatic man whisked a young woman off to a luxurious life on his expansive estate.

    And even though that sentence is true, this is not that kind of story. Although it is a love story. And a war story. And a spy story.

    The man was George Fabyan, a wealthy businessman who had created a kind of scientific and technical utopia on his estate at Riverbank, outside of Geneva Illinois. The town of Geneva still exists, an

    Originally published at

    Once upon a time in the West, a wealthy and charismatic man whisked a young woman off to a luxurious life on his expansive estate.

    And even though that sentence is true, this is not that kind of story. Although it is a love story. And a war story. And a spy story.

    The man was George Fabyan, a wealthy businessman who had created a kind of scientific and technical utopia on his estate at Riverbank, outside of Geneva Illinois. The town of Geneva still exists, and its location, and its horrible winters, are still exactly as described.

    The young woman who was carried from the steps of the Newberry Library in Chicago to Riverbank was Elizebeth Smith, later Elizebeth Smith Friedman. Elizebeth’s career took her from Riverbank to Washington, as she became one of the foundational figures of cryptography and cryptanalysis in America.

    Elizabeth Smith Friedman is also one of the many women who played pivotal roles in World War II on both sides of the Atlantic, whose contributions were lost to history. In her case, that loss occurred out of a combination of factors. Sexism certainly played a part. Both Elizebeth and her much more famous husband William were the premier cryptographers of their time. But popular beliefs about women’s brains and women’s places caused many to assume that she was the lesser light, supporting his career, even having some career of her own, but never quite equal.

    Her biggest contributions, like those of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in England, were shrouded in top secret classifications for decades after the war ended, and have only been de-classified in the 21st century.

    And finally, while Elizebeth (and William) worked in secluded, top secret government offices, J.Edgar Hoover, the powerful director of the FBI, was under no restrictions about what he said and did, or more importantly, what he said that he and his agency had said and especially done. Hoover was more than happy to take the credit and the accolades that the Friedmans’ could not claim for themselves.

    (I have yet to read anything that touches on Hoover and written after his death that does not have plenty of nasty things to say. He clearly had a gift for alienating anyone who had to deal with him in person, while capable of doing a splendid job of what we now call “spin doctoring” with the press and the general population)

    Like the women in Hidden Figures, Elizabeth Smith Friedman is an important figure in the history of science in particular, and the history of U.S. in general, whose contributions deserve a giant spotlight.

    Elizebeth Smith Friedman was the woman who broke the Nazi Enigma machine code during WWII, which allowed the nascent U.S. intelligence forces in South America to prevent Nazi Germany from creating strongholds within easy reach of the U.S. She, with her pencils and paper and absolutely amazing mind, helped to end the war.

    She deserves to be remembered, and this account of her life, pulled together from her own archives and collected correspondence, is a fantastic start.

    Reality Rating A+: The Woman Who Smashed Codes is nonfiction, It’s all true and it all happened. But the life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman is also the stuff of which great stories are made. And this particular account of her life is so well-written that it reads like the most compelling piece of fiction. But it’s a true story.

    The story reaches out and grabs the reader from the first page, when George Fabyan breezes into the Newberry and asks the young Elizebeth if she will come and spend the night at his estate. It does sound a bit like a romance cliche. But it’s not that kind of invitation.

    Instead, Fabyan invites her to join a rather strange project. One of the many scientists working at his estate is a woman who was convinced that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. While she was (and is) not alone in that particular.theory, her application was a bit different. She was convinced, and had convinced Fabyan, that the truth was revealed in code in the typography of the First Folio. Elizebeth was recruited to assist in breaking this code.

    While she eventually came to believe that this particular Bacon/Shakespeare theory was a load of bunk, it did teach both Elizebeth and her future husband William the art and science of codebreaking. A science that they spent the rest of their lives building, expanding, cataloging and most importantly, practicing.

    There is a love story here. And what makes the story so interesting, and so relevant, is that the love story between Elizebeth and William is a marriage of equals, and always acknowledged as such by both of them – if not always by the outside world.

    And also that the story of Elizebeth’s accomplishments is never overshadowed by that of her husband or her family obligations within the course of this narrative. This is her biography and the tale of her accomplishments and never descends into a family saga. Not that she didn’t also raise two children and often help her husband, but it is refreshing to see a biography of an accomplished woman written in the same manner as that of a similarly accomplished man, with the focus on her career and intellectual achievements.

    The story of those achievements is a thrilling ride. She may have fallen accidentally into the field of cryptography, which, after all, did not exist when she began. But once in, she swam strong and swift up the steam, breaking the codes of the organized crime bosses running rum during Prohibition and the Nazis attempting to take over the world in World War II. Her cracking of the Enigma cipher in the U.S. occurred simultaneously and independently of the British crack of the same cipher at Bletchley Park.

    She was an amazing woman, and she led an amazing life. She was the founding mother of cryptography in the U.S., and one of the pioneers of all codebreaking in this country, including the creation of the NSA.

    The Woman Who Smashed Codes is a marvelously told story of a fascinating life that should be widely read. Anyone who has an interest in the lives of true unsung heroines and/or in the history of cryptography and cryptanalysis in the U.S. will get sucked right into Elizebeth’s story.

    I certainly was.

  • Jean

    I recently read “Code Girls” by Liza Mundy. This book “The Woman Who Smashed Codes” makes a nice addition or compliment to the storyline. Elizabeth Smith Friedman is the subject of this book. Mundy also mentioned Elizabeth’s husband, William F. Friedman, and deemed them to be an important team of cryptologists. William F. Friedman was famous in World War Two for breaking Purple, the Japanese cipher machine.

    Elizabeth Smith was a college educated teacher who was recruited by George Fabyan to work

    I recently read “Code Girls” by Liza Mundy. This book “The Woman Who Smashed Codes” makes a nice addition or compliment to the storyline. Elizabeth Smith Friedman is the subject of this book. Mundy also mentioned Elizabeth’s husband, William F. Friedman, and deemed them to be an important team of cryptologists. William F. Friedman was famous in World War Two for breaking Purple, the Japanese cipher machine.

    Elizabeth Smith was a college educated teacher who was recruited by George Fabyan to work in his Riverbank Laboratory in 1910. She was hired to work on secret codes. She went on to play a key role in the development of cryptoanalysis in the USA. She met William Friedman at the Riverbank Labs and soon they were married and working together decoding messages for the government during World War One. Between the wars and during prohibition, Elizabeth broke the codes of the smugglers for the Coast Guard and other divisions of the Department of the Treasury. She frequently testified in court. During World War Two Elizabeth worked on decoding messages from spy rings in the North and South America for the Coast Guard. J. Edgar Hoover asked her to set up the Cryptology Division of the FBI.

    The book is well written and meticulously researched. At times the book reads more like a spy novel than a biography. Apparently, J. Edgar Hoover took credit for a lot of the work done by Elizabeth. This is another in a series of books about women’s little-known role in science and government work during both wars.

    I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. The book is thirteen and a half hours long. Cassandra Campbell does an excellent job narrating the book. Campbell is an actress and voice-over artist as well as an award- winning audiobook narrator. Campbell won the 2011 Audie Award. She also was the Best Voice in fiction for 2009 and 2010. She was Best Voice in Children’s literature for 2009. Audible just announced Campbell as a 2017 inductee in the Audible Narrator Hall of Fame.

  • Mal Warwick

    When Richard Nixon asked Chou En-Lai in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution, the Chinese Premier famously said, "It's too early to tell." That terse response is generally understood to illustrate the Chinese ability to take the long view of history. But it might be more accurate to regard it as reflecting the constraints on those who write history. Historians can only work with available records: there is no history without documentary evidence. And sometimes decades, even centuries p

    When Richard Nixon asked Chou En-Lai in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution, the Chinese Premier famously said, "It's too early to tell." That terse response is generally understood to illustrate the Chinese ability to take the long view of history. But it might be more accurate to regard it as reflecting the constraints on those who write history. Historians can only work with available records: there is no history without documentary evidence. And sometimes decades, even centuries pass before the most crucial evidence comes to light.

    In fact, ironically, the exchange between Nixon and Chou reflects a misunderstanding that drives the point home even more strongly: they were both referring to the events of 1968, not 1789. Only now, much later, once a diplomat present at the scene clarified the exchange, can historians accurately interpret what the two men meant.

    There are few areas in which the unavailability of documentary evidence has been more telling than in the history of espionage in the 20th century. Only in recent years have the archives of the CIA, the KGB, MI6, the NSA, and other leading intelligence agencies opened widely enough for us to understand what really took place in the world of espionage in World War II and the Cold War. (Doubtless, some explosive documents are still locked away and won't surface until later in this century, if ever.) And there is no more dramatic example of how what has passed for history has misled us than what we have been taught about the FBI's role in counterespionage in the 1920s and 30s (combating rumrunners and smugglers) and in the 1940s (catching Nazi spies).

    Working with recently declassified files from the World War II era as well as long-ignored archival records and contemporary press reports and interviews, journalist Jason Fagone has brought to light at last the astonishing story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband, William Friedman. (Yes, her first name is spelled with three e's.) As Fagone shows in his beautifully written story of this surpassingly brilliant couple, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies, the Friedmans may well have been the most important 20th-century American codebreakers, and quite possibly the best and most successful in the world.

    William Friedman is celebrated in cryptology circles as the man who broke the Japanese military code called Purple. "MAGIC became the top-secret moniker for these Japanese decryptions . . . MAGIC led directly to bombs falling on imperial ships at Midway," the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

    Fagone notes, "Today historians of cryptology believe that in terms of sheer, sweaty brilliance, the breaking of Purple is a feat on par with Alan Turing's epiphanies about how to organize successful attacks on German Enigma codes." However, independently, before the US and Britain's Bletchley Park were collaborating on the effort, Elizebeth Friedman broke not one but three different types of Enigma machines. Fagone makes abundantly clear that the two were at least equal in ability. In fact Elizebeth may have been just a bit smarter. (William always insisted she was.)

    "William Friedman is . . . widely considered to be the father of the National Security Agency," Fagone writes. But both he and Elizebeth came to loathe the practices of the agency not long after its formation in 1952. It's very likely they would be scandalized by the indiscriminate collection of information about civilians by today's NSA.

    As Fagone notes, "Elizebeth and William Friedman unscrambled thousands of messages spanning two world wars, prying loose secrets about smuggling networks, gangsters, organized crime, foreign armies, and fascism. They also invented new techniques that transformed the science of secret writing, known as cryptology." Although today Elizebeth isn't nearly as famous as her husband, that was by no means always the case. During the 1930s, she become a celebrity for her work against rumrunners and other smugglers and gangsters during the Depression. The public attention halted when she was enlisted by the Coast Guard for a top-secret effort to identify the extensive Nazi spy network in South America—work at which she and her team were extraordinarily successful. Their efforts led to the dismantling of the Nazi network well before the end of the war. However, J. Edgar Hoover claimed the success for the FBI, ignoring their efforts, and he was able to get away with it because he had become so powerful. "It's not quite true that history is written by the winners," Fagone writes. "It's written by the best publicists on the winning team."

    The Woman Who Smashed Codes is an astonishing story that simply has to be read to be believed. His principal subject, Elizebeth Friedman, was an extraordinary woman he refers to more than once as a genius. (The evidence is there.) And Fagone writes the tale with often-elegant, metaphorical prose. He calls the book a love story, but it is of course far more than that

    The same declassification of secret files that allowed Jason Fagone to write The Woman Who Smashed Codes has led to the publication of several other recent books about women in espionage. The most prominent of these was Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy.

  • Charlene

    Possibly one of the best books I have ever read. Even better than Hidden Figures. Thank you Jason Fagone for bringing Elizebeth Friedman into my life. When I first picked up this title, I thought maybe Fagone found a woman who was impressive, but not necessarily one of the most amazing women to ever live, to make the subject of his new book. It seemed possible that perhaps he was overselling her accomplishments and underselling the recognition she received in the history books, all in an effort

    Possibly one of the best books I have ever read. Even better than Hidden Figures. Thank you Jason Fagone for bringing Elizebeth Friedman into my life. When I first picked up this title, I thought maybe Fagone found a woman who was impressive, but not necessarily one of the most amazing women to ever live, to make the subject of his new book. It seemed possible that perhaps he was overselling her accomplishments and underselling the recognition she received in the history books, all in an effort to sensationalize his book and boost sales. Indeed the claims he made in his heartfelt introduction about Elizebeth Friedman were fleshed out and brought to life in each stunning chapter of her unbelievable existence.

    Why should you love this book? Because it was hard enough for women to even force their way into universities that would allow them to get a degree. Even when, against the odds, they received that degree, it was difficult to get a job. If they passed even that hurdle, once children came along, they usually had to leave their jobs to be good mothers. Fathers were "good fathers" if they provided. A woman was a bad mother if she went to work and provided. She had to stay home in order to be considered a good mother. Even if women got the degree, got the job, and survived in that job despite having had children, their accomplishments of a lifelong career could still be discounted. Elizebeth Friedman's life long career involved *creating* the models we use today (and that the FBI used and stole credit for!) and using those cyphers to help win WWI and WWII. Despite her contributions and her lifelong career, she was still be written out of the larger history and men were given credit for her work. I think we are all aware of how unfair the pay has been for women throughout history. Hell it's still unfair. Yet, I had no idea how unfair it really was. This book makes the pay disparity crystal clear. It was rough being a woman.

    Just think back to Marie Curie. Why was she able to make a name for herself in science when so few women had that chance? Why did women like Mileva Maric, who were smart, get relegated to wiping poop off baby butts instead of engaging with the wider world? The women like Curie and Elizebeth Friedman had what Virginia Wolf called "A Room of Their Own." The men in their lives valued them enough to free them from being only a mother or housekeeper. The men in their lives supported their efforts to use their brilliant minds and engage with hard problems the world needed solved. Other men, like Maric's husband Albert Einstein (who I love despite my criticism) focused on their own careers and had zero problem making the raising of babies (that they helped create) the mother's problem. They did nothing to ensure equality or give support to the women they claimed to love. Someone had to raise the kids and by God, it sure wasn't going to be them.

    Elizebeth's mind was nothing short of genius and her husband William knew it. While I generally dislike romance novels because they seem unrealistic and are usually aimed at women who need an escape because their lives are unfulfilled, this is my kind of romance novel! It reads nothing like an actual romance novel (Outlander, Fabio type books), but I am in love with the relationship of William and Elizebeth Friedman. They are my new all time favorite couple.

    Fagone draws on diaries, letters, and other documents from WWI and WWII to uncover the role Elizebeth Friedman played in the development of cryptography as a science, in catching pirates (so good), in teaching cryptography to special intelligence agencies like the FBI and CIA, and in breaking the codes that helped win WWI and WWII. He used those documents to present a biography of her whole life, both professional and personal to paint a picture unlike any I have yet read.

    You will get to know Elizebeth's quirky nature that resulted in her being very annoyed when people didn't use the right words. She hated politers, people who used pleasing words to soften what they really meant. A friend was not indisposed at a party. They were drunk off their ass and you should just say so. A loved one did not just pass away. They died. Accept it and own it. When you have a husband who gives you his heart and soul and it translates into some pretty good sex, you should accurately call him your "lover husband." What a character!

    I am not sure what was more interesting to me, her incredible brain and the work she did that ended up being a significant contribution to society, as well as our American society's very survival, or the fact that she did it while caring for her husband William, who was brilliant in his own right (and oh so loving- can I go back in time and hook up with William, please!!??), but who had some significant mental health challenges, namely major debilitating depression.

    I have to relate some of their more loving and sweet moments as a couple taking on the world together:

    While in the presence of another colleague, William was captivated by her, he could not help but rip off a scrap of paper and secretly scribbled a note to her. When their colleague was not looking, he passed her the note which read, " I am studying your features, you are perfectly beautiful. " She quickly tucked the note away in her pocket and later stuck it between the pages of her diary on the page she used to write about how she felt about this wonderful gesture. He told her almost daily how brilliant and beautiful she was and called her, "Dearest Woman in the Universe." Before they had children, he told her he knew he didn't make very much money working for the army as a code breaker, but he would work very hard to make sure he could hire someone to help look after the kids and take care of the house so she could be free to use her brilliant brain and write books or do something intellectually minded that would be deeply satisfying (this is a Room of One's Own). The descriptions of his earnest wish for her to have this type of life was so beautiful, it actually made me cry. Just wonderful. He told her that home is not a place where the wife cleans and the man comes home from work to be served. Rather, home is a place where two hearts beat in unison. And she should be spending her time with her intellectual pursuits so that there are two hearts can be in unison.

    At this point in their lives, the electron was just beginning to be understood and, in a letter, he asked her if she knew what an electron was and how incomprehensibly small it was. He told her that as incomprehensibly small is that electron is his love for her is in comprehensibly large. He worried most days that he wasn't enough for her. He was filled with as much insecurity as he was love. He told Elizebeth that *every* accomplishment he made was only because she was with him because he truly believed that without her, he could not function as a whole human being. Reading about him and his mental health issues, this seems to have been very true. This gives new meaning to the phrase, "You complete me."

    Elizebeth's work life was far more challenging that her romantic life.Though she and William had equal intelligence (many argue hers was superior and I tend to agree), and even though they had both been equally involved in creating cyphers to break codes, and were both equally good at breaking codes (she surpassed him in this ability by all accounts), it was only William who was asked to move to France to help his country decipher messages in WWI. Up to that point, Elizebeth had done just as much decoding for the war effort and was one of a hand full of people *in the world* who had the skills to break the codes that could keep our United States from being attacked. And yet, she *still* was not allowed to serve her country. She wrote to the Army to challenge their decision and informed them that she had the expertise and would very much like to serve her country. They replied that since she was a woman, it was simply out of the question. She was infuriated. Reading that, I could not help but be infuriated too. William's name would be the one who ended up on all the papers and in all the history books. He was the one who received the praise back then. Through it all, he worked hard to get people to understand that she was equally brilliant and made sure to tell her that all the time.

    Having no luck convincing the Army that she was more than fit to serve her country as a codebreaker, she was hired by the Coast Guard to bust pirates who were smuggling goods. What a job! What an experience! I believe this moves her from the status of being a significant figure in history to being a legend! Little did she or anyone else realize that her taking the job to catch pirates would lead to her biggest successes in her entire career. Because she was in the Coast Guard, and because she was their top codebreaker (in truth one of the top codebreakers in the entire world), and because they had the best technology at the time, Elizebeth became possibly the most valuable codebreaker in WWII and certainly contributed as much as Alan Turing to win the war and save American and British lives. She did all of this as Hoover claimed credit, credit for the lives saved, credit for the creation of *her* codebreaking models, and credit for the ability to break codes (which was only possible if they used her models).

    One of the best characters in the book is Fabian. If he were not a real person in history, you would think he was too far-fetched a character to make up. I am now compelled to see if there is a biography of his crazy life.

    I highly recommend this book and would even classify it as essential reading. If you don't read it, you are really missing out on one of the best biographies of any person who has ever lived. A++

  • L F

    Frequently slow, but the topic of a woman’s skills in solving mysteries involving codes or cryptic messages is fascinating.

  • Tina Othberg

    This book had the potential to be awesome (looking at other reviews!). However, the writing style of this journalist-turned-author comes off like a recitation of facts. Elizebeth is a fascinating woman that history ignored, her accomplishments and life man-splained away. As much as I appreciated learning about this dynamic figure, I found the writing dry and bogged down with too much detail.

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