Book Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes

The Woman Who Smashed Codes : A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies (2017) by Jason Fagone

Since the publication of Jason Fagone’s meticulously researched biography, brilliant codebreaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman (1892 – 1980) has finally received some of the attention she deserves. Her crucial role in American history, during the years before and after World War II, was obscured for decades, ostensibly because of classified nature of her work. Yet the actual reasons relate more to sexism of the time and J. Edgar Hoover’s outsized ego. In an early diary entry she wrote, “Am I abnormal? Why should something with risk in it give me an exuberant feeling inside me? I don’t know what it is unless it is that characteristic which makes so many people remark that I should have been born a man.”

Elizebeth is the only American woman to ever organize and lead a governmental codebreaking unit. She rose to the position of Cryptanalyst-in-Charge while working for both the Coast Guard and Treasury Department. Her fascinating journey from Indiana high school teacher to clandestine intelligence work makes for a plot of cinematic bravura. With no formal training in mathematics or codebreaking, she became one of the most important figures in intelligence-led policing for our federal government.

Every great story needs a good hook to grab a reader’s interest and this one has a trove: rum-runners off the coast during Prohibition who communicated in code; cryptic radio transmissions by Nazis planning coups in South America; the German Enigma machine which became the focus of British and American cryptanalysts; and the notorious Japanese spy known as the Doll Lady. Elizebeth Smith had a key role in solving all of these. You’ll want to read this book to discover how.

Review by Pam Barry.

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