In 1916, a young Quaker schoolteacher and poetry scholar named Elizebeth Smith was hired by an eccentric tycoon to find the secret messages he believed were embedded in Shakespeare's plays. She moved to the tycoon's lavish estate outside of Chicago expecting to spend her days poring through old books. But the rich man's close ties to the U.S. government, and the urgencies of war, quickly transformed Elizebeth's mission. She soon learned to apply her skills to an exciting new venture: codebreaking -- the solving of secret messages without knowledge of the key. Working alongside her on the estate was William Friedman, a Jewish scientist who would become her husband and lifelong codebreaking partner. Elizebeth and William were in many ways the Adam and Eve of the National Security Agency, the U.S. institution that monitors and intercepts foreign communications to glean intelligence. In this book, journalist Jason Fagone chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman who played an integral role in our nation's history -- from the Great War to the Cold War. He traces Elizebeth's developing career through World War I, Prohibition, and the struggle against fascism. She helped catch gangsters and smugglers, exposed a Nazi spy ring in South America, and fought a clandestine battle of wits against Hitler's Reich, cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine used by German operatives to conceal their communications. And through it all, she served as muse to her husband, a master of puzzles, who astonished friends and foes alike. Inside an army vault in Washington, he 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 codebreaking history through the prism of one remarkable woman's life, bringing into focus the events and personalities that shaped the modern intelligence community.… (more)
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So said Francis Bacon in 1597, but it was to become the byline of Elizebeth and William Friedman, America's top cryptanalysts during the world wars. A husband and wife team, the Friedman's decoded more spy transmissions, broke more Enigma and Purple machines, and wrote
In 1916 Elizebeth was in Chicago trying to drum up a job in literature or research. Something unusual, she told the librarian at the Newberry. She was there to see a First Folio of Shakespeare that was on display. The librarian introduced her to George Fabyan, a textile tycoon who was obsessed with finding secret messages in the Shakespeare texts proving that Francis Bacon was the true author. He hired her to work on this project and took her to Riverbank, his estate outside Geneva, Illinois.
Riverbank was a fascinating place. Fabyan had built a sort of scientific commune with numerous labs, renowned scientists, and research projects in a wide array of fields, from acoustics to genetic engineering. Although Elizebeth dunked the Baconian theory of Shakespeare authorship, through the project she met a young genetic botanist, William Friedman, who would become her partner in life and work. When WWI broke out, America had no cryptographers, and Fabyan offered up Riverbank and the Friedmans for government use. Before long all encrypted messages intercepted by any branch of the US government were finding their way to the Friedmans. They not only broke codes, but wrote papers documenting their methods, and taught military personnel the basics of cryptology.
After the war, William continued to work for the army, but Elizebeth was recruited by the Treasury Department, specifically the Coast Guard, who had all the internal listening posts. She became the head cryptologist there and spent the 1920s and 30s breaking the codes of rum runners and drug dealers. The intelligence she provided led to the arrest of large rings in both America and Canada. She testified in numerous court trials and became known as the "Key Woman of the T-Men" and "Lady Manhunter." Later she would call these years, target practice, for the invisible war of 1939-45.
As fascism increased worldwide and America tried to stay out of the war, FDR and others in his administration became increasingly concerned about the threat of fascist governments in the Western Hemisphere. If the Nazis gained a foothold in South America, they would be within striking distance of the US itself. So Elizebeth's ears were trained on Nazi spies based primarily in Brazil and Argentina. She and her Coast Guard team began breaking codes, including three Enigma machines, that proved the Nazis were trying, sometimes successfully, to orchestrate coups and establish fascist governments in countries like Bolivia. In addition, she monitored channels that were providing US ship movements to Germany. This intel would save countless ships and sailors from Nazi U-boats. Although the nascent FBI's chief, J. Edgar Hoover, would claim all the credit, it was Elizebeth and her team that broke the Nazi spy ring in South America.
After the war, Elizebeth, like all cryptologists, signed an agreement of secrecy. She never spoke about her work to anyone for the rest of her life. She spent the ensuing decades tending her ailing husband and ensuring that his legacy was not forgotten. She died, unrecognized and poor, in 1980. Fortunately, her papers finally came to light when some Coast Guard records were declassified, and she started to get the recognition she deserved. She was an amazing woman, and this book is a must-read for anyone interested in the foundation of American cryptology or codebreaking during the world wars. With almost 100 pages of notes and references, the book is well-researched and is a prime example of good narrative nonfiction.
At first Elizebeth assumed that these older, more experienced people must know what they were doing, and her failure to find the messages were hers.
William Friedman also worked on the estate, as a plant geneticist, but he also photographed and enlarged First Folio texts of the plays for the use of the Bacon project, and that's how he and Elizebeth met. And has World War I continued, and both Elizebeth and William became more involved in the code breaking, while the demand for people able to break codes became ever more urgent for the military, the two young scholars began to morph into the founding figures of American cryptanalysis, and more involved with each other. They married, they left Riverbank, they went to work for the government, Elizebeth for the the Coast Guard and William for the Army.
This is a love story, a story of spies and counterespionage, and a story of the founding of a whole new discipline. Elizebeth and William both played critical, leading roles in this story. William's story has been told before; Elizebeth's largely has not.
It's a fascinating and important story, and Fagone tells it very well, making it as enlightening and compelling as it deserves to be. Cassandra Campbell also reads it very well, doing full credit to the story and the writing. I'm starting to recognize her name as a narrator who never disappoints.
I bought this audiobook.
[A note on the spelling: her mother did it on purpose because she did not want her daughter called Eliza.] Highly, highly recommended.
Elizabeth and William Friedman met while learning to decode messages. They both went on to various jobs where they were decrypting messages, but Elizabeth’s work seems to have been forgotten. They were part of the beginning of cryptography. Elizabeth did some decoding during WWI, during
This was good. It was interesting to learn about the history of cryptology and even more interesting that a woman was at the forefront of it! I listened to the audio, and while the narrator was fine, and mostly I was kept interested, my mind did wander occasionally. I think that’s why I sometimes forgot who was who and why I kept my rating down just a bit from the 4 stars I’d like to give! I would recommend this be read in print, though, as there is plenty I think I would have liked to have seen on a page rather than heard read out to me. Apparently, there was an “enhancement” to the audio that should come with the audio, but not via my library (though I have had one other book in the past from the library that came with a pdf I could (and did) download to look at graphs and charts).
arrest. Other than that, this is a great read.
This book shines a light on Elizebeth’s contributions to the science of cryptology, and they were significant. She was instrumental in breaking various version of the Nazi’s Enigma code. She also played a key role in cracking international and domestic smuggling operations and deciphering encrypted radio codes. One episode of particular interested to me is the role of the Friedmans in disproving the theory that Francis Bacon authored Shakespeare’s plays.
Fagone found Elizebeth’s personal papers in Virginia and declassified material in the National Archives: “[T]he files are exactly where she left them, the fragments of an extraordinary life. The files have a weight to them, a texture. They can’t be erased any more than Elizebeth’s legacy can be erased, because her legacy is embedded in our lives today, in our smartphones and Web browsers, in the science that powers secure-messaging apps used by billions, in the clandestine procedures of corporations and intelligence agencies and in the mundane software loaded onto the iPhones in our pockets.”
Amazingly, she never studied mathematics, but she was a genius in analyzing patterns in documents, even when written in languages she did not speak. I am very glad to see Elizebeth Smith Friedman get the credit she so obviously deserves. Her accomplishments are even more impressive considering they were done before the computing age with “pencil, paper, and perseverance.”
The thorough research done by the author provides extensive historical details that make the story come alive through the decades. He had access to interviews of her by the National Security Agency and to her diaries, letters, and other writing archived at the Virginia Military Institute. Using her words, we see her as a saucy young woman with a love of language. As an example: this description of the budding romance between her and William Friedman--"a small, persistent tilt in his direction, like a plant bending toward a patch of sun."
The holidays are the ultimate time for recommending books to customers. While we are always helping people find a book for themselves, now is the time when people come in with their holiday list and ask us to pick out books for their loved ones. Most of the time they give us some basic information: they like history books, fantasy, science, they’re accountants, etc. and then we take that information to pick out books for them in the store. With that in mind, I’ve decided to change up my review for this book today to my bookstore pitch, but in the opposite way, for customers who come up and ask us if a book is any good. (This is an idealized conversation, but I do have many that go somewhat like this)
Customer (holds up The Woman Who Smashed Codes): Is this book any good?
My Coworker: My manager, Sarah, loved it! Let me ask her to help you!
Me: I really enjoyed The Woman Who Smashed Codes! Is there anything in particular you would like to know about it?
Customer: Who would enjoy it?
Me: It would be a great gift for anyone who is fascinated by World War II history, or someone who enjoys lesser known stories from history, or anyone who loves a great biography of a unique person.
Customer: What was your favorite part of the book?
Me: I love stories about how people we’ve never heard of today played major roles throughout history. Elizebeth, the subject of the book, worked tirelessly to break the codes of Nazis during WWII and her work played a key role in the Americans’ decryption of the German Enigma machine. Additionally, it was her husband who broke the Japanese decryption machines – they were a fascinating couple and I loved how the author, Jason Fagone, really delves into their relationship instead of just focusing on Elizebeth’s work for the government.
Customer: That sounds really neat! I think I’ll give it a shot!
As booksellers, we know, especially during the holiday season, that we may only have a minute or two to share with a customer why we really love a book. Every customer can read the back of the book for a description of the plot/subject, but that information (and what I always include as the “synopsis”) comes from the publisher. I figure my role, as bookseller and blogger, is to put the personal emphasis on the books I love, the books that may also get overlooked on a store’s shelves if they don’t have colorful spines or staff picks tied to them.
When I can’t find the time to personally tell every customer about the books I think they’ll love, I write short little “blurbs” to put under the books on the shelf or print the blurbs up on bookmarks as we do at the store annually for our top holiday gift picks. That being said, my question to you, dear readers, is: When you go into a bookstore during the holidays, or any time of year, to you seek out staff picks? Do the staff’s recommendations hold any sway with what you end up deciding to read or take home?
WWII. She eventually married William Friedman, also a cryptanalyst. Initially they worked together but eventually their work life separated. In the end William was honored
Elizabeth achieved as much as William, if not more, but because she lived in an age where a woman's performance and intelligence are not valued, Elizabeth was not under the limelight. I'm afraid this practice still goes on today, though it certainly is better. Also, it didn't help that Hoover was the head of the FBI.
A great book that educates all re analyzing codes and how important this practice is for protecting our country and winning wars. The book also illuminates how important it is to eliminate gender bias. A worthy and captivating read.