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

by Jason Fagone

Paperback, 2018




Dey Street Books (2018), Edition: Illustrated, 464 pages


Biography & Autobiography. History. Politics. Nonfiction. HTML: National Bestseller NPR Best Book of the Year "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… (more)


(217 ratings; 4.1)

User reviews

LibraryThing member labfs39
Knowledge itself is power.

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
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more how-to papers than any other cryptographers in the country of their time. Historically most of the credit was given to William, but recently unclassified records show that Elizebeth's work was equal to and perhaps greater than (and certainly longer running) than her more famous husband.

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.
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LibraryThing member LisCarey
Elizebeth Smith, a Shakespeare scholar, went to work for eccentric tycoon George Fabian, at his estate outside Chicago, in 1916. Her assignment was to assist another Shakespeare scholar, an older woman, in her project to prove that Shakespeare's plays were really written by Francis Bacon, and that
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Bacon had hidden secret messages in the plays.

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.

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.
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LibraryThing member Unreachableshelf
A gripping story for any narrative nonfiction reader.
LibraryThing member book58lover
This was the most incredible story I have read in a long time. Elizebeth was a co-equal partner with her husband in the code breaking business. Although they worked in separate venues and could not share information, they were leaders in that field, teaching others to recognize and break codes
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during both world wars. The book is completely readable, even with the explanations of the code analysis, and detailed more than you would expect given the need for secrecy. The author benefits from the declassification of documents and the work of women historians who sought out Elizebeth.
[A note on the spelling: her mother did it on purpose because she did not want her daughter called Eliza.] Highly, highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Pmaurer
Excellent book, tracing the contributions of the first woman code breaker. Elizebeth and her husband William Friedman developed initial methods of deciphering codes. The book traces her initial work with the Coast Guard in stopping bootleggers and her later work with the U S govt in breaking the
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codes used by Germany and various South American countries during WW2. Doing the same work as Bletchley, but in the US.
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LibraryThing member annbury
this book would have gotten five stars but te author forgot to do some basic work. He dud bot locate his heroine, Elizebeth Smith Friedman in Latin America during WW!!. What is worse, he ascribes to her the capture of Becker, the ace Nazi spy in Lstin AmerIca; he is captured by the Argentine cops
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in 1945 when the war was over, and she has nothing to do with his
arrest. Other than that, this is a great read.
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LibraryThing member whybehave2002
This was okay. I was so excited to sink my teeth into this. Sadly, it was not what I expected. It was long and it was dry. I learned a few things but instead of it being a book where you really get the feel for the person it is being written about it was more of a historical timeline that never
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seemed to get to the end.
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LibraryThing member SandyAMcPherson
Sadly disappointed in this book. It was so boring, it made my DNF category. The author took a fascinating topic and beat it to death with irrelevant detail and tedious recitation of facts that didn't captivate the personalities.
LibraryThing member marshapetry
Both a bio and history book, very interesting. How many code books on the war skip this woman and, yet, she was THAT important. Disgusting. Recommend highly, though I suspect many people won't like it for the "soft" life story, but it isall worthwhile
LibraryThing member LibraryCin
3.5 stars

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
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prohibition in the 1920s, and during WWII.

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).
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This is the fascinating story of Elizebeth Friedman. Her husband, William, is famous for his pioneering contributions to cryptanalysis, but she contributed just as much, if not more, to the field. She was also instrumental in monitoring and breaking spy networks in South America. Her husband and J.
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Edgar Hoover got the credit for a lot of her work, partly because men often get credit for women's work, and partly because she was a modest person who felt she was just doing her job. Her life story is fascinating, and I'm glad someone has written her biography to rescue her from obscurity.
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LibraryThing member debann6354
Listened to the audiobook. Fascinating book about Elizabeth Smith Friedman, an accomplished cryptanalyst prior to WWI to after
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
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for much of the excellent work he did, though not all. The book does detail much of his government employment, also amazing.
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.
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LibraryThing member terran
This biography is a fascinating story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman. She and her husband, William, founded modern codebreaking in the U.S. Her success in helping the American government capture smugglers and Nazis has been untold after the FBI confiscated both her and William's reports and writings.
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The couple broke codes in order to protect their country and in the process helped to establish the surveillance giant NSA. There are so many details that at times the story drags, but I enjoyed learning so much about the behind-the-scenes conduct of wartime policy.
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LibraryThing member jjmcgaffey
Very interesting information about a subject I know a bit about and a couple people I never heard of. The author was rather more interested in the sexism Elizebeth encountered than in her (their) codebreaking, which was what I wanted to know about - not helped by the fact that the ebook I read had
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real formatting problems with codes formed by positioning letters (fence-post, or the demonstration substitution alphabet - they appeared in long lines going down the page, one letter per line, so it was impossible to see the connections between letters because the lines were unbroken). I learned a lot about codebreaking during both world wars and the period between - Prohibition, for one thing. The partnership between the Friedmans was excellent to see - and as usual, the government totally screwed up (leaving aside J. Edgar Hoover's cheating for power). If they'd had the two of them working together, rather than not even allowed to talk about their work to one another (because security), WWII might even have been shorter and less deadly. The author was a lot more worried about the sexism (which definitely affected their lives) than Elizebeth was - it was just the way things were, to her. To my mind, she had the choice between pushing for personal recognition (with all the drawbacks thereof - from men objecting to her pushing in, to publicity which bothered her when she did get it) and pushing for recognition of what _they_ had done, with her husband's name alone on most of it. And I doubt she even saw that as a choice. If William had tried to suppress her, it would have been different, but he loudly and publicly considered her his equal or better - so promoting _their_ work was not suppressing herself, but fitting the message (of these things which were important to make known) to the times. Now I want to read half a dozen other books about codebreaking - The Puzzle Palace, and about Bletchley Park, and and... I don't know if I'll ever reread this book, but what it taught me was valuable as well as fascinating. And the peripheral discussion of how the author found this information after all these years - Elizebeth's archived papers, and more - was almost as interesting as the story he discovered there.
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LibraryThing member hobbitprincess
Elizebeth Friedman was someone I had never heard of until I read this book. I have learned so much about the codebreaking that went on not only during 2 world wars but also during the 20s and 30s with smuggling. I also learned some things about WW II that I did not know. This is a well-written book
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about a fascinating lady who made her mark on history, largely unnoticed.
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LibraryThing member nyiper
This is a fantastic book to absorb----how one woman played such an incredible part of the history of this country and yet, because of the status of women, remained virtually unknown beside her husband, another but more recognized part of code history. It is truly incredible to try and understand
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how her brain worked---and yet, she was found almost on a whim and went from a totally odd job to become so profoundly important---but without being given the credit she so deserved. It reads like a novel which makes it all the more impressive for the author.
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LibraryThing member mmadamslibrarian
4 stars. I am much more interested in the life story than all the details on code breaking, but it was a fascinating story of husband and wife as equals, clandestine operations, and the evolution of woman's "place."
LibraryThing member JBD1
An incredibly interesting and very readable biography of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, an undersung hero of American cryptography. Highly recommended.
LibraryThing member PattyLee
Very interesting book about the origins of code breaking into the US circa WWI and beyond. Not too deep into the crypto info, but focuses on the personalities and their contributions. I've read lots of books on Bletchley Park and the British efforts in WWII, nothing much at all regarding the US.
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Revealing stories about the FBI bumbling of tracking Nazi spies in South America. The Friedman were well worth a book and Elizebeth finally gets her due in this one. In general, women were the yeomans of code breaking efforts and they never quite seem to get their due. Why does not that not surprise me?
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
Elizebeth Smith Friedman was one of those remarkable women who was also married to (and publicly overshadowed by) a remarkable husband. I imagine Jason Fagone tried to tell Elizebeth's story, but found he could not without also telling the story of her husband William Friedman. The couple met when
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they were both employed at Riverbank, a private research facility owned by an eccentric tycoon, and tasked with what turned into a wild goose chase: uncovering hidden messages in the text of Shakespeare's plays. In the process, the couple fell in love, married, and became expert codebreakers. As the U.S. entered the First World War, they were called upon to help the government decode enemy messages, and so began the Elizebeth and William's parallels careers. Both worked (off and on) for the U.S. government through the two world wars and William's work directly led to the creation of the NSA. Elizebeth play no less a significant role, but her files remained classified for decades, obscuring her role. This is an interesting book and highly recommended for anyone interest in the history of espionage.
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LibraryThing member smorton11
A number of customers at the bookstore came in looking for The Woman Who Smashed Codes because their book club had decided to read it. Each time I showed it to them, I’d flip it over, read the back cover myself, and think it was interesting before ultimately putting it back down. Then came
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holiday (over)ordering at the bookstore and when The Woman Who Smashed Codes came off the bestsellers and we still had a few too many copies on hand, I decided to make it my pet project to sell it myself, without the “bestseller” status, but with the “staff recommends” qualifier.

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?
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
Biography of Elizebeth Smith Friedman. She and her husband, William Friedman, were both brilliant cryptanalysts. They were instrumental in codebreaking during the two world wars. Her husband was publicly recognized for his endeavors while Elizebeth remained in the background. Even worse, J. Edgar
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Hoover took credit for her work.

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.”
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LibraryThing member juniperSun
If you've ever enjoyed working puzzles, this book will get you hooked. It is a fascinating biography of Elizebeth Smith whose work breaking codes in WWI started her on a life-changing path. Born in Indiana, she went looking for adventure in New York City after earning a degree in literature and
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found herself dragged back to Illinois by an eccentric millionaire to decipher the secret messages hidden in Shakespeare's works. Fortunately for her, WWI broke out just as she was realizing there were no such messages and the millionaire promoted her skills to his contacts in the War Department. Without training but with a strong ability to detect patterns, she and her co-worker basically wrote the book on cryptography while deciphering messages between Germany and Mexico, and related to the uprising in India, despite not knowing which language any particular message might be written in.
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."
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LibraryThing member mapg.genie
In my naivete, I only knew that codes exist. Except for needing complicated passwords for Internet use today, I had never thought about how codes are created or how to break them or that the people who work with codes are called cryptanalysts or that the science is called cryptology, etc. This book
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"blew my mind!" I became very impressed with Elizebeth Smith and husband, William Friedman, as they learned to decipher codes even as the codes become more complicated, and supposedly unbreakable, through both World Wars, Elizebeth for the Coast Guard and William for the Army. While William received much recognition for his work, Elizebeth did not. This book attempts to resolve that void, though, unfortunately, posthumously. Without a doubt, these two individuals and the people they taught, significantly aided the Allied victories.
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LibraryThing member MugsyNoir
This is a captivating bio of a brilliant woman. Narration is excellent. The interweaving of Elizebeth Smith Friedman's codebreaking career with the advancement of cryptology alongside history was compelling. Highly recommended.



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464 p.; 8 inches


0062430513 / 9780062430519
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