Book review: “The Woman Who Smashed Codes” by Jason Fagone

by Rebecca Henderson Palmer on November 13, 2017

Elizabeth Smith Friedman, the wife of fellow cryptanalyst William Friedman, is a largely unknown figure whose contributions to America’s code breaking efforts in World Wars I and II have been mostly lost to history. Here, Mr. Fagone attempts to correct the historical record and give this woman the credit she most certainly deserves. A Shakespeare enthusiast, young Elizabeth went to work for Chicago tycoon George Fabyan at his Riverbank facility to do research into the theory that Sir Francis Bacon was the real author of Shakespeare’s plays and had used the plays to hide coded messages (a cipher). Elizabeth eventually became disenchanted with the project specifically and Fabyan’s team of scientists in general until she met the shy, quiet plant geneticist William Friedman, who was also working at Riverbank. They married and decided to leave Riverbank for opportunities in the nascent field of code deciphering (cryptology) in Washington D.C.

William and Elizabeth worked side by side for years, often helping one another unlock puzzles neither could do alone. Neither was an expert in mathematics, so much of the ground they crossed, they navigated by trial and error. Using some tried and true techniques they developed, the pair found that they could decode most kind of ciphers with nothing more than pencil and paper if given enough time, even those in languages they did not speak. Eventually, William went onto top secret projects, including the reverse engineering of the Japanese code machine (nicknamed “Purple”) and other extremely high value, highly classified projects that would greatly assist America in winning wars. Elizabeth was put to work at the Treasury Department tracking down smugglers and rum runners, skills that would serve her well when she would work for the Coast Guard to intercept and decode radio messages sent by Nazi spy rings trying to promote government coups in South America. Even though J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI would take credit for her and her team’s work, it was really Elizabeth’s group that almost single handedly stopped the Nazi advance into South American countries.

Not surprisingly, Elizabeth never sought nor was ever given even a fraction of the credit her husband received. When the unremitting stress and secrecy of his work took an enormous toll on William’s health, Elizabeth soldiered on, caring for her husband and still forging ahead with her own work. Hoover, the FBI, and others would steal the credit publicly, and Elizabeth was never given much in the way of financial reward, yet it was thanks to Elizabeth that many of the most active spies who worked against the U.S. were caught. A hero, pioneer, and unsung hero, Elizabeth Friedman is a woman whose story must be told, and Mr. Fagone does an admirable job bringing her immense contributions to light.

Amazon link is here.

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