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

Image of The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies
Release Date: 
September 25, 2017
Dey Street Books
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“From the first page to the last, readers are enmeshed in a beguiling story of government intrigue, criminal cunning, FBI backstabbing, and foreign covert shenanigans.”

Most women have experienced a situation where their education, experience, intellect and abilities have been dismissed or ignored. It is annoying, distracting, and infuriating when it happens. The situation is not new nor does it seem to be on the verge of disappearing.

Jason Fagone has given us a biography of a woman, Elizebeth Smith, who experienced such dismissive behavior yet is considered to be a pioneer in the field of cryptology. She accomplished tasks considered impossible and, like Ginger Rogers, she did it backward and in heels.

The author assures readers that a knowledge, understanding, or ability in cryptography is unnecessary. Readers with a mathematical background, an analytical bent, or a penchant for crossword puzzles and Rubik’s Cube, may have an easier time translating the various types of codes discussed in the book. But that must not frighten away those who enjoy a good challenging yarn, because that is what this is. From the first page to the last, readers are enmeshed in a beguiling story of government intrigue, criminal cunning, FBI backstabbing, and foreign covert shenanigans.

Elizebeth was the first female cryptanalyst in the country. Her husband, William Friedman, called the “world’s greatest cryptologist,” is considered the father of the National Security Agency. This book is about Elizebeth, but her life was intricately entwined with her husband’s, and together they made a formidable pair.

Elizebeth Smith, whose mother gave her the nonstandard spelling, hoping it would allow her to stand apart, wanted to go to college. Her father disapproved but later loaned her some money . . . at four percent interest. Elizebeth started at Wooster College and completed her degree at Hillsdale College in Michigan, which was closer to home.

“College took Elizebeth’s innate tendency to doubt and gave it a structure, a justification.” According to some faculty, she was “intensely bright, yet unfocused and argumentative.” Elizebeth disagreed and dismissed those criticisms out of hand.

After graduation, Elizebeth did what every educated young woman of her time did: She got a job teaching. Teaching was Elizebeth’s only socially acceptable option. From there it was marriage, children, and death. She wanted more. In 1916 Elizebeth Smith left her hometown of Huntington, Indiana, and traveled to Chicago in search of a job.

Elizebeth told the librarian in Chicago’s Newberry Library that she was looking for a research job, something “unusual.” The librarian thought of George Fabyan, who was looking for “a young, personable, attractive college graduate who knew English literature.”

Elizebeth was 23 and from Hammond, Indiana. Fabyan was a rich, eccentric Chicago businessman.

Fagone describes their first meeting. “He entered and stormed toward her, a huge man with blazing blue eyes. His clothes were more haggard than Elizebeth would have expected for a person of his apparent wealth . . . he dwarfed her across every dimension . . . She had the impression of a windmill or a pyramid being tipped over her.” Fabyan’s first question to Smith was, “Will you come to Riverbank and spend the night with me?” Such charisma. What girl could resist! She responded, “Oh, sir, I don’t have anything with me to spend the night away from my room.” “That’s alright. We’ll furnish you anything you want.” They walked out of the library and into his waiting limousine.

They found common ground in William Shakespeare’s First Folio. He, because of his belief it contained secret, coded messages; she, because it gave her the same feeling “an archeologist has, when he suddenly realizes that he has discovered a tomb of a great pharaoh.”

Riverbank was George Fabyan’s creation in Geneva, Illinois, on the west bank of the Fox River. He founded it to prove Fabyan’s theory that Francis Bacon wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare. Fabyan assigned Elizebeth to the Bacon project under the supervision of Elizabeth Wells Gallup, who ran the Riverbank Cipher School.

Elizebeth quickly realized the preposterous nature of Gallup’s work to disprove Shakespeare’s authorship. Nothing made sense, but she developed a keen eye for the concept of decryption and found she was good at it. She had found her “unusual” job. She also found William Friedman who would, after an awkward period, become her husband. Together they revolutionized cryptology, and their talents quickly brought them to the attention of the U.S. military.

In 1917, as the United States entered World War I, it had no intelligence services. The Military Intelligence Division in the War Department consisted of 17 officers. It was underfunded and understaffed. There were few people in the country with codebreaking knowledge.

The MID recruited Elizebeth and William and spirited them away from Riverbank. This opportunity allowed them to evolve into America’s preeminent codebreakers. George Fabyan, however, was not amused.

In the beginning, Fagone jumps around in telling the story. This is distracting and reflects a lack of focus, which seems odd in a book about cryptology, something that demands complete, unwavering focus. It is disconcerting but as the book progresses, the author’s storytelling recovers and takes the reader on an undulating journey from 1917 to a fateful interview in 1976.

One striking aspect of this book is the government’s overutilization of Elizebeth’s talents and lack of acknowledgement of her accomplishments. Elizebeth toiled away in relative anonymity. Her work and breakthroughs known to and acknowledged by few. She took her work seriously and, while aware of the low regard in which she was held, continued to develop an expertise that surpassed everyone, including at times, her husband.

William Friedman was fully aware of his wife’s prowess, and publicly acknowledged her superior abilities. However, those in power were men who could not or would not accept that a woman was making significant contributions even when the results of her work were so important and fruitful.

Elizebeth Smith kept her own counsel until 1976 when an NSA linguist visited her with a tape recorder. This was 60 years after she started working as a codebreaker. Until then, no one had remembered she existed or gave her extraordinary life a second thought. Elizebeth was wary of the NSA because of the way it had treated her husband and his work after World War II. And, as any good intelligence officer, Elizebeth was not forthcoming. She had secrets and knew how to keep them.

Fagone’s book gives readers an insight into the life and accomplishments of another woman who is not included in the history books. Whose work and successes have been overlooked by those who consider what is and is not important. Elizebeth Smith Friedman was only five foot three, but she towered over her contemporaries.