“The Woman Who Smashed Codes,” by Jason Fegone

“The Woman Who Smashed Codes” is the true story of how a brilliant female cryptologist, Elizebeth Friedman, helped write the rules for modern cryptology and used her skills like a hammer to smash enemy codes during both world wars.

This book is part biography, part history of cryptology and part history of Nazi activity in South America during WWII. Added all together, it makes for a fascinating read. This is the kind of nonfiction I like to read because it exposed me to several things that were new to me. I was expecting a straight up biography but it was more than that. To understand the significance of Elizebeth’s accomplishments, the reader has to understand the context in which she worked, so the reader gets to learn about code breaking and Nazi spies in Argentina. Bonus!

Elizebeth Friedman didn’t start her working life wanting to be a cryptologist. She had studied Shakespeare in college and wanted to do something “interesting” upon graduation. Through a combination of initiative and luck, Elizebeth landed a job at Riverbank, a science-focused compound founded by an eccentric millionaire. Elizebeth worked on one of his pet projects – proving that Francis Bacon placed encoded messages in the works of William Shakespeare. Elizebeth came to realize the project was bunk, but she and her colleague and future husband, William, had established such a strong and rare expertise in code breaking that soon the US government came calling to enlist their help on a different project. The US had just become involved in WWI and the skills of this dynamic duo were needed in the war effort. This launched the careers of two of the most significant and successful cryptologists in US history. They were ground breakers who created the science of cryptology.

Following WWI, the Friedmans remained at Riverbank for a period of time, but grew tired of being under the thumb of the mad millionaire. They finally shook loose of his hold and moved to Washington DC to work for the federal government. For a while, they worked together but that didn’t last. Elizebeth was tasked with breaking the codes of rum runners who were smuggling booze into the US during prohibition. This work sometimes required her to testify at the trials of high level mafia figures. She gained some unwanted fame for this – unwanted because she preferred to work behind the scenes and didn’t seek out the spotlight. But to the media and the public she was a unicorn, a professional woman in a very technical field helping to take down the mob. This was very unusual in the 1930s.

Perhaps Elizebeth’s crowning achievement came during WWII. The US began intercepting encoded radio messages being sent from Nazi spies in South America to their contacts in Germany. At this point in the book the author provides really interesting details about this part of the war. The messages were encoded using several different techniques, providing Elizebeth and her team with significant challenges. But they were up to the task, often using just pencil, paper and their superior brains to solve the ciphers. They even figured out the notorious Enigma machine, the supposedly uncrackable German code writing machine. Thanks to her team’s efforts, the Nazi spy ring in South America was shut down.

I enjoyed “The Woman Who Smashed Codes.” Elizebeth Friedman was a remarkable woman and I’m glad her story has now been told. Her experience was especially unusual given the times in which she lived, but she faced a lot of the same challenges that working women still face regarding balancing work with family. That part of the story was familiar. She was a woman operating in a male dominated environment and faced some glass ceiling issues regarding pay, titles and recognition. But she seemed to accept these issues stoically and without complaint. I got the impression that the author may have found this surprising and maybe even a little frustrating. But I wasn’t really surprised. She seemed to be motivated by the nature of the work, the challenge of solving an unsolvable puzzle.

The author goes into some detail about different methods of encrypting and decrypting text. He is very adept at describing these methods in ways that make cryptology understandable and really interesting. Nonetheless, some of this made my brain hurt. Really great codebreakers think in four dimensions. It’s truly amazing how they solved some of these codes, especially the ones generated by Enigma machines.

If these topics sound interesting to you, author Jason Fegon has done his due diligence and packaged it in a nicely written tribute to Elizebeth Friedman. Enjoy!

What nonfiction should I read next? Help me decide by providing your amazing recommendations below.

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9 thoughts on ““The Woman Who Smashed Codes,” by Jason Fegone

    • I saw an interview of the author of Glass Castle and it sounds like like a story of someone who overcame a lot of childhood adversity. I’ve been avoiding it because I assume I’ll spend much of the book being angry at her parents for putting her through that. But maybe I need to give it a chance.

      Thanks for the recommendations!

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      • I thought I would too, but the way that she presents her parents there is a real picture of resilience and an understanding of that in a way they we’re trying at least to me. My oldest daughter had to read it for her AP Lang class read it as well. Some of the topics hit home for her as far as the author and her relationship with her father. I was nervous but my daughter had many insightful and deep take aways from the book as well.

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      • P.S. I appreciate the review as I plan on using this book as an option for my Senior English class Lit circle/research option. I’m now looking forward to reading it.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. This book sounds fascinating! We were recently at The Spy Museum in Washington DC and learned a lot about the cryptologists who helped break up spy rings over the centuries. I don’t remember learning about Elizebeth, though. I will definitely give this one try – thanks for the recommendation!

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    • Elizebeth seems to have been an unsung hero. Her husband, William Friedman, was brilliant, too, and more well recognized. He led the team that broke Japanese codes. Maybe the museum referenced him?

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  2. Thanks for the review–especially loved your take on the author’s surprise/frustration about Elizebeth’s work/life balance response. A friend recommended Lauren Graham’s Talking as Fast as I Can (I’m just about to start it). I’m also reading Skip Hollandsworth’s Midnight Assassin, about the first serial killer in the U.S., who terrorized Austin in the 1800s. A bit gory but a great glimpse into that time period in Austin and in general.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. If you are a fan of musicals, you might want to read “Something Wonderful” about Rodgers and Hammerstein. Based on a review in the KC Star, I gave the book to my parents and they have been singing its praises to everyone. In fact, they’ve got a waiting list for people they want to loan it to when they’re finished. (I’m first on the list!) This book prompted my dad to reread (and enjoy) “Tales of the South Pacific,” which earned Michener a Pulitzer Prize and inspired the musical “South Pacific.” Sorry my recommendation is second-hand, but this does sound like a fun change of pace, doesn’t it? :))

    Liked by 1 person

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