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

by Jason Fagone

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NPR Best Book of 2017

“Not all superheroes wear capes, and Elizebeth Smith Friedman should be the subject of a future Wonder Woman movie.” — The New York Times

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 1916, 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, Elizebeth 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062430502
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/26/2017
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 1,460
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Jason Fagone is a journalist who covers science, technology, and culture. Named one of the “Ten Young Writers on the Rise” by the Columbia Journalism Review, he works at the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for GQ, Esquire, The Atlantic, the New York Times, Mother Jones, and Philadelphia magazine. Fagone is also the author of Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, the X Prize, and the Race to Revive America and Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream. He lives in San Francisco, California.

Table of Contents

Author's Note: Prying Eyes xi

Part I Riverbank 1

Chapter 1 Fabyan 3

Chapter 2 Unbelievable, Yet It Was There 21

Chapter 3 Bacon's Ghost 37

Chapter 4 He Who Fears Is Half Dead 63

Chapter 5 The Escape Plot 93

Part II Target Practice 117

Part III The Invisible War 175

Chapter 1 Gradmother Died 177

Chapter 2 Magic 209

Chapter 3 The Hauptsturmführer and the Funkmeister 223

Chapter 4 Circuit 3-N 249

Chapter 5 The Doll Lady 283

Chapter 6 Hitler's Lair 307

Epilogue: Girl Cryptanalyst and All That 327

Acknowledgments 343

Notes 347

Index 429

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The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Packed with great and interesting information about code breaking history in US. Also marvelous story about a woman who was far superior to many of the men doing code breaking. J Edgar Hoover goes down in history as the true creep he was - stealing truth about who solved the Nazis codes in South America. Highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Who knew? I never gave any thought to the roll of cryptology in the US. What an interesting topic. The story of the Friedman’s is truly heroic.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed the story and gained more insight to the history of cryptology.
Anonymous 4 months ago
This was one fantastic lady , she done what had to be done and let others take the credit. Amazed that what all went on in South America and other places during the war I've never heard about. Everyone should know facts that are not taught in school now . Will Refer back to this book just for the knowledge of how she and her husband were able to break the code as they did.... its amazing It's also a wonderful love story of a couple who struggled with their jobs but was able to make their marriage work for them
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She is really someone we should know. So sad that we had to wait until 2017 to read about this brilliant and dedicated woman. Of course we find out she belonged to the League of Women Voters.
jmgallen More than 1 year ago
Code breakers are rarely the stuff of legend but “The Woman Who Smashed Codes” should be. The tale of Elizebeth Smith Freidman is one that few novelists could have dreamed up. Born to a Quaker family in Indiana, her adventure began in 1916 with a visit to the Newberry Library in Chicago. After mentioning to a librarian that she was looking for a job in literature or research, “something unusual”, a door opened. She was told that a wealthy Chicago businessman, George Fabyan, was looking to hire a “young, personable, attractive college graduate who knew English literature” to further research into secret messages in cipher contained in Shakespeare’s plays that would betray their authorship by Francis Bacon. When Fabyan appeared a few minutes later and offered her a job she left with him (yes really) and headed out to his compound at Riverside where his researchers searched for the hidden messages. In this bizarre world she met another researcher, Richard Friedman, whom she would marry and with whom she would share their lives’ work. The Shakespeare investigations would turn out to be dead ends but they started them on their long careers. During World War I Riverside became the nucleus of America’s code breaking operation and begin an enterprise that would continue through World War II. Working independently, Elizebeth and Richard would endure periods of separation and extraordinary stress while decoding the message of America’s enemies, navigating the shoals of rival government agencies and raising two children. I do not want to divulge too many details as this book has all the allure of a novel. I was tempted to google the names of the characters to learn how they turned out but resisted until the end. The saga itself is amazing while touching on aspects of history that are rarely covered in other tomes. The idea that code breaking was a new art during World War I simply because, before the advent of radio, messages were sent in plain text with reliance on the messengers to maintain secrecy by avoiding capture seems logical enough even though I had never thought of it. The accounts of Elizebeth’s work during World War II dealing with messages from Nazi cells in South America is eye-opening. I did not realize how South America fit into Nazi plans. Code breaking during the World Wars is merely the context in which a fascinating human story is told. Pick it up as a good read. The history is a bonus.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had never heard of Elizebeth Friedman until I opened this book! History can be fascinating.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I learned so much about a subject and people I never knew anything about. It kept my interest throughout the entire book. I felt I knew Elizabeth and William.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The love for each other and the of their of their work comes through in this book. To those who don't see that women are treated differantly then men this book makes it very clear.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
WOW!! WHAT A BOOK THIS ONE IS & HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!! This is a true story of how one woman was able to crack codes sent by the Nazis during WWII. She, Elizebeth Smith Friedman, began before WWI learning how to spot a pattern and hidden meanings within written works. She was working at Riverbank a secure farm owned by a billionaire named George Fabyan. Elizabeth had a brilliant mind and was exceptional at mathematics resulting in creating grids, etc., to solve a code. The book takes us through her life of living on Riverbank and being taught how to look for secret codes; meeting her husband there; escaping Riverbank and going to work for the government. Both she and her husband Edward worked for the government but in different buildings and neither allowed to talk about their work –even with each other. She worked long hours in non-vented windowless rooms where temperatures reached 100 in the summer. During the story we learn so much about our history which was never told before. When older Americans hear the initials FBI most often the first thought goes to the director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover was in the newspapers all the time because he manipulated the press but what we did not know was he was an egotistical intellectual thief. Those, like Elizebeth were not allowed to speak of what they did but Hoover having established the FBI’s own department for code breakers took credit for all the Elizebeth and others in her department broke. Credit to the point he allowed the Nazis and Fascists in South American learn their codes had been broken. The result of that was long hours trying to break the new codes they created and began using. An interesting fact Americans seldom heard anything about the US Coast Guard being actively involved in WWII. It was their department who realized years earlier the need for code breakers and their department which, through Elizebeth’s work, saved thousands and thousands of military personnel as well as thwarted the overthrow of some South American countries during WW II.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fagone weaves beautiful writing and meticulous research together to create a captivating page turner that not only educates, but can inspire readers to think more deeply, love more wholly, and embrace fully the value of hard work, determination, and the capability of the human mind.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago