I’ve never read such a gripping book about spies that opens with the hopeful words: “This is a love story.”
Over the course of its hundreds of pages, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone is damned-near impossible to put down. The book has everything: thrills, chills, kills, love, crypto, and a hopeful sense that a nearly forgotten American genius, Elizebeth Smith Friedman, is finally being given her due.
In the book’s opening pages, Fagone, a journalist now at the San Francisco Chronicle, describes how he came upon a trove of Friedman’s papers in a Virginia library that contained not only technical notes, but “love letters. Letters to her kids written in code. Handwritten diaries. A partial, unpublished autobiography.”
The book triumphantly tells the story of how Friedman, born Elizebeth Smith in a small town in Indiana, arrived as a young adult in Chicago, looking for work. Within a few years, she’d essentially taught herself the nascent field of cryptanalysis. By 1917, a few years later, she and her husband, William Friedman, became the powerhouse duo in the field. They literally wrote the book on modern cryptographic practices.
The two were pressed into service for the Great War, but, due to sexism, Elizebeth was overshadowed by her better-known husband and egotistical “powerful men” who “left her out of it.” Fagone is her 21st-century champion.
Those of us who aren’t huge nerds may think of Alan Turing’s efforts to defeat the Nazi Enigma machine as being the real modern mathematical triumph of the 20th century. Turns out, though, modern cryptanalysis was founded decades earlier by a pair of bright-eyed and eager Americans on a bizarre quasi-academic colony in Geneva, Illinois.
In the opening pages, George Fabyan comes across as a strange, early 20th-century hybrid of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, and Willie Wonka. This mustachioed man, whom Fagone describes as having “blazing blue eyes,” essentially plucked a 24-year-old Elizebeth from a historic Chicago library where she had been examining an original Shakespeare folio simply out of curiosity. He curtly demanded to her: “Will you come to Riverbank and spend the night with me?”
Astonishingly, this young Indiana Quaker woman said yes—even though she had no idea who he was or what Riverbank was. Fabyan whisked her away to the train station and told her that she couldn’t even send a telegram to her family to tell them where she was. As creepy as this all sounded, Elizebeth agreed and boarded a train to an unknown destination with this older man.
He confronted her on the train and said, inches from her face, “Well, WHAT IN HELL DO YOU KNOW?” Her reply: “That remains, sir, for you to find out.”
It turned out that Fabyan was something of an eccentric local benefactor who ran his own private research facility known as Riverbank Laboratories. One of his pet projects was to pay for ongoing research led by another woman, Elizabeth Wells Gallup, who was obsessed with finding hidden insight in the works of Shakespeare written by Sir Francis Bacon.
Gallup apparently “needed an assistant with youthful energy and sharp eyes.” A 24-year-old college-educated woman who once sought out a Shakespeare folio in Chicago was apparently qualification enough.
Elizebeth Smith was then put to work amongst this “community of thinkers” in order to prove this Baconian theory. There, amongst an idyllic campus of sorts, she met William Friedman, a young biologist about her age who was living in a windmill on the campus.
Together, as their relationship blossomed, they began to realize that their patron, Fabyan, was a bit crazy and that this entire Bacon theory was a wild goose chase.
In the beginning of 1917, the encoded Zimmerman Telegram was intercepted by British intelligence, showing that Germany was proposing an alliance with Mexico if the United States entered World War I. America’s signals intelligence capability was non-existent, but Fabyan—ever the braggart and showman—wrote to government officials, declaring the “Riverbank Department of Ciphers open for business.”
Smith and Friedman were quickly pressed into service as the proto-National Security Agency. Working side by side with pencil and paper, they learned cryptanalysis as they went and decoded all kinds of intercepted messages from numerous government agencies.
Eventually, after World War I, they were hired by the United States Army: he as a lieutenant in the reserves, and she as a civilian. She was paid half what he made. While William Friedman was busy working on military matters—and after they’d had children and made a home for themselves in northwest Washington, DC—Elizebeth received a knock on the door from a United States Coast Guard officer named Captain Charles Root.
Captain Root wanted her help specifically with breaking codes used by rum-runners—1927 was, after all, the peak of Prohibition. She accepted, so long as she was allowed to work at home. Root agreed, and she began to accept regular stacks of encrypted radio telegrams and decode them at home. By 1930, she had solved 12,000 rum messages involving touched activities all around the coastal waters of North America and the Caribbean.
Eventually, The Woman Who Smashed Codes reaches its obvious climax: World War II. All that practice both at Riverbank and for the Coast Guard made a huge difference in defeating the Nazis. Elizebeth vs. the Axis comprises a notable portion of the book; we won’t spoil it for you.
During the Second World War, an American woman figured out how to sweep the globe of undercover Nazis… The proof was on paper: 4,000 typed decryption of clandestine Nazi messages that her team shared with the global intelligence community. She had conquered at least 48 different clandestine radio circuits and three Enigma machines to get these plaintexts. The pages found their way to the navy and to the army. To FBI headquarters in Washington and bureaus around the world. To Britain. There was no mistaking their origin. Each sheet said “CG Decryption” at the bottom, in black ink. These pieces of paper saved lives.
Friedman, sworn to secrecy, could not talk publicly about the work that she’d done on behalf of her country—J. Edgar Hoover, meanwhile, appeared in propaganda films showing how America’s spies won the war. Eventually, Elizebeth Friedman received a modicum of recognition after her 1980 death: the NSA’s OPS1 building was dedicated as the William and Elizebeth Friedman Building during the commemoration of the NSA’s 50th anniversary in 2002.
Fifteen years later, however, Elizebeth Friedman is being newly championed. We can’t wait for the film version of The Woman Who Smashed Codes.