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

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  17,590 ratings  ·  2,441 reviews

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 W

Kindle Edition, 464 pages
Published September 26th 2017 by Dey Street Books
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David Bryant Fair point about the implication that a woman might not be expected in such a role. But in this case, the "unlikely" also may refer to the specific wo…moreFair point about the implication that a woman might not be expected in such a role. But in this case, the "unlikely" also may refer to the specific woman's background and personality, and perhaps most important, to the truly unlikely circumstances in which she became embroiled in decoding messages. She was visiting a library to see a folio edition of Shakespeare's plays, and through a chance conversation ended up working for this eccentric millionaire who wanted to decode the "secret messages" left in the text of the plays in that same edition of the plays. And later, because the US military had essentially no code-breaking ability at the start of World War I and because the patriotic millionaire (Fabayan) volunteered his support to the government, Elizebeth and William began to work on what would ultimately become their life's main professional task, decoding messages. Personally I do think that was a series of unlikely events. Furthermore, I found it quite surprising that Elizebeth ended up working for the Coast Guard during WWII, not the Army or the Navy, which might have seemed more likely. How many people do you think would know or guess that the Coast Guard had a major role in code-breaking in WWII? So I do not think the term "Unlikely" is unreasonable in this case, but for several reasons aside from (possible) misogyny. (less)
N In my estimation this book holds to the facts quite well. If you do a bit of research on Elizebeth Smith and Riverbank you can see how closely the aut…moreIn my estimation this book holds to the facts quite well. If you do a bit of research on Elizebeth Smith and Riverbank you can see how closely the author has stayed with the facts and not strayed far afield. So interesting that I would really want to visit the museum at Riverbank to learn more. Happy reading!(less)
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Start your review of The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies
Possibly one of the best books I have ever read. Even better than Hidden Figures. Thank you Jason Fagone for bringing Elizebeth Friedman into my life. When I first picked up this title, I thought maybe Fagone found a woman who was impressive, but not necessarily one of the most amazing women to ever live, to make the subject of his new book. It seemed possible that perhaps he was overselling her accomplishments and underselling the recognition she received in the history books, all in an effort ...more
Diane S ☔
Feb 06, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nfr-2020
When I started reading this, I knew it was about code breaking during WWll and that another woman has been rescued from the shadows of obscurity to take her rightful place in history. What I didn't expect the many book coincidences I would find within. The first is the Newberry Library in Chicago, a place I have visited many times.. A fascinating place where if one wants to examine any of the rare materials, one must don s pair of white gloves. The second coincidence was Hillsdale College in Mic ...more
Completely fascinating from beginning to end, the true story of Elizabeth Friedman, a Quaker schoolteacher and Shakespeare scholar, emerges to the forefront of this narrative and reveals the untold story of one of the greatest cryptanalyst of the 20th century.

Audiobook narrated by Cassandra Campbell 13h 37m 2s

This was a FANTASTIC read or rather listen that I selected on a whim. Elizabeth and her husband, William sure do define relationship goals. A large part of the book talks about the cou
I found this to be a very good book, and I am one who rarely reads books on espionage! That I should think this is remarkable.

Espionage usually confuses me. This isn’t the case here. The author explains what is necessary to know clearly and methodically and never in a dry or pedantic manner. Historical events are added but not excessively. The clarity of this book is what stands out for me. The clarity allows a reader to follow the events without being confused and to appreciate the importance
I recently read “Code Girls” by Liza Mundy. This book “The Woman Who Smashed Codes” makes a nice addition or compliment to the storyline. Elizabeth Smith Friedman is the subject of this book. Mundy also mentioned Elizabeth’s husband, William F. Friedman, and deemed them to be an important team of cryptologists. William F. Friedman was famous in World War Two for breaking Purple, the Japanese cipher machine.

Elizabeth Smith was a college educated teacher who was recruited by George Fabyan to work
Tina Othberg
This book had the potential to be awesome (looking at other reviews!). However, the writing style of this journalist-turned-author comes off like a recitation of facts. Elizebeth is a fascinating woman that history ignored, her accomplishments and life man-splained away. As much as I appreciated learning about this dynamic figure, I found the writing dry and bogged down with too much detail.
Woman Reading
4 Stars - Secrets Revealed

It’s not quite true that history is written by the winners. It’s written by the best publicists on the winning team.

History is also often “his story.” As many have observed, women have to be extraordinary in order to be respected in the workplace, never mind getting included in the subsequent historical accounts. Elizebeth Smith Friedman (“ESF”) was truly exceptional but her story was hidden because she had been sworn to maintain secrecy until her death.

Jul 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Elizebeth Smith Friedman is a true American hero. This amazing, quiet woman was hired by the eccentric George Fabyan at the age of 23 to prove that Francis Bacon was the real author of Shakespeare’s plays (he’s not). While working on that project she met her future husband, William Friedman, and worked with him decoding messages for the government at the start of WWI.

William was scooped up by the government and led a team to break enemy codes through both World Wars. He eventually broke the Japa
Patrick Brown
Oct 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was fantastic, and I'm not surprised. Fagone is a great writer (check out his previous book Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America), and here he has great subject matter to work with. This book tells the story of Elizabeth Friedman, a pioneer in the field of cryptanalysis (that's codebreaking to us civilians), and one of the great unsung heroes of the 20th Century. Friedman's story has all the stuff you want in a great history -- wingbat theo ...more
Nicole R
I literally just finished listening to this and I want to rush out and tell everyone I know about how freaking amazing Elizebeth Smith Friedman was. I want everyone to read this book and just marvel at how she was a superhero of her day, and yet few of us have heard of her. Because, you know, woman in the first half of the 1900s.

There are no words to sum up the feats of code-breaking that this woman—this PERSON—achieved. She broke codes during WWI, using her pen and paper to make other counties
Mal Warwick
Nov 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
When Richard Nixon asked Chou En-Lai in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution, the Chinese Premier famously said, "It's too early to tell." That terse response is generally understood to illustrate the Chinese ability to take the long view of history. But it might be more accurate to regard it as reflecting the constraints on those who write history. Historians can only work with available records: there is no history without documentary evidence. And sometimes decades, even centuries p ...more
Oct 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: cryptography
Anyone interested in the History of cryptography knows William F. Friedman, known as the man who broke Purple the Japanese cipher machine and many things. But who did know that his wife, née Elizebeth Smith, was his equal in cryptographic skills? She created a Coast Guard cryptographic team, broke an Enigma without any help from Bletchley Park, helped expose many Prohibition-era gangs and Nazi spy networks in South America during WWII and worked in tandem with William during WWI. She is as much ...more
Deacon Tom F
Aug 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A Great Read

Outstanding book!

This is the story of a great woman and a great couple. I would like to see it as a movie one day or at least a PBS documentary
I truly enjoyed this book up in many ways it was more in depth than amateur Codebreakers would understand.

Yet, the author took the time to give detail so that those who were more professional in the area would be comfortable as well. Also he has a way of making the book flow nicely in the midst of detail
Sep 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Immediately added to my favorites shelf. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes will be compared with Hidden Figures, and that's fair, to a point. Both books have at their core a story of remarkable scientific/mathematic achievement, overlooked because of gender, largely forgotten (until now) as others took credit. But it is so much more, so rich in its account of not only an extraordinary woman, but the time in which she lived, two World Wars and her central role
Oct 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Originally published at Reading Reality

Once upon a time in the West, a wealthy and charismatic man whisked a young woman off to a luxurious life on his expansive estate.

And even though that sentence is true, this is not that kind of story. Although it is a love story. And a war story. And a spy story.

The man was George Fabyan, a wealthy businessman who had created a kind of scientific and technical utopia on his estate at Riverbank, outside of Geneva Illinois. The town of Geneva still exists, an
Barb in Maryland
Well done biography of one of the most interesting women of the 20th century.
Though I do have a quibble with the blurb GR is using for this book, which describes Elizebeth Smith as a 'brilliant Shakespeare expert'. Ermmmm, not quite. Brilliant? Probably. Shakespeare expert? No. Rather, she was a well educated young woman whose casual interest in Shakespeare led her to be in the right place at the right time to catch the interest of eccentric millionaire George Fabyan. He happened to need an assi
Nov 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Frequently slow, but the topic of a woman’s skills in solving mysteries involving codes or cryptic messages is fascinating.
4.5 stars.
This book documents two important accounts:
1. An abridged history of USA’s cryptology and cryptanalysis during the times of WWI, prohibition and WW2, and
2. It tells of the legacy of its two most eminent cryptographers William Friedman and Elizebeth Smith Friedman.

The focus of the book is on the accomplishments of Elizebeth Smith Friedman. While William Friedman was recognized and commemorated for his work, Elizebeth was not. Why not, you ask? Because of the usual blatant sexism and J
Jun 20, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Check out all of my reviews at:

THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone is a historical fiction novel which brings to light the major contributions of the amazing female half of a married couple who both invented many aspects of the modern science of cryptology.

Elizebeth Smith wanted a job in literature. She is hired by an eccentric millionaire who brings the best minds of
The Word Smith.

Elizebeth (with three ‘e’s) Smith became one of the most renowned codebreakers in history by a quirk of serendipitous fate. As a young woman brought up in a Quaker household, she wished to extend her horizons and at the age of 23 she went to Chicago in search of work. The quest was unsuccessful – but on the last day of her trip, on a whim, Elizebeth decided to visit the Newberry Library where a rare copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio was on display. The librarian noted the visitor’
Sep 01, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There is so much to think about in this book. Cryptography, women in the workforce, the start of the NSA, World War 1, World War 2, privacy, work, marriage, partnership, humanity, what it means to leave behind a legacy, the dignity of intellectual work, motherhood - and so, so much more.

It's a dense read, but today, as we grapple with what it means to be human and to entrust our privacy to machines, and in an era of intense debate about the role of women in technology, it's an important read th
Donald Powell
A great page turner. This story is so well constructed and written I could not put it down. This is a biography of an American hero, a lively, super intelligent, modern woman in a not so modern world. Everyone with any interest in an important biography will love this book.
Nov 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Incredible woman, incredible book
Liza Fireman
This is the amazing story of Elizebeth Friedman, an extraordinary woman who broke codes. And as amazing as she is, and a cryptography pioneer, she was a woman. So throughout the story there are many places where we face the fact that she is a woman, and that so many people will always think that her husband is probably more talented than she is. In addition to the fact that probably none of you people heard her name ever before.

Elizebeth actually was able to read the messages from at least thre
Steve Garriott
Feb 06, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In high school, I was a big WWII history fan, normally on the European and African theaters (Battle of the Bulge, Afrika Corps). I thought I knew a lot about what was going on... Well, I didn't. Not by a long-shot. Fagone's book reveals yet another level to all the actions, both military and civilian, behind the scenes of WWI, Prohibition, and WWII. The Friedman's almost single-handedly created the field of cryptoanalysis (with nods, of course, to the work of Alan Turing and his associates), hel ...more
Mar 27, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This is Nonfiction. I usually love stories like these, plus so many GR readers have loved it. I liked the story of this woman and I am glad that her part in the war is coming to light.

However, I had a few issues that kept me from enjoying it and they are all linked tightly together. This felt a little long. Some of this felt many tangents and tiny little details. It also felt like a regurgitation of facts. I couldn't shake the wikipedia vibe. I like to feel eager about the peek in
Stephanie Anze
"It's not quite true that history is written by the winners. It's written by the best publicists on the winning team."

Five stars for an unsung hero!

Elizebeth Smith had a Quacker upbringing, a degree in English Literature and a love (and extensive knowledge) of Shakespeare but few possiblities to have a job she could thrive in. When looking for a job in a library, she is put in touch with George Fabyan, an eccentric and wealthy man with a estate where he funded various studies of science. She is
Jan 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
“I’m never quite so gleeful as when I am doing something labeled as an ‘ought not.’” Elizebeth Friedman

History is often stranger--and more wonderful--than fiction. This tale supports that thesis. Elizebeth Friedman and her husband William invented modern cryptography and in the process helped win two world wars and put many criminals in jail. That they got little credit is par for the course.

“The whole deciphering business is based on what we call the mechanics of language. There are certain fix
This is one of a number of interesting titles that have come out this year, all celebrating women in unusual roles who made important contributions but were overlooked in their male dominated fields. For fans of spy fiction with codes and codebreaking, this is a particularly interesting one. It chronicles the life of Elizabeth Smith Friedman, a Shakespeare scholar who worked for the eccentric George Fabyan (known to those of us in the Chicago area) but made her name, along with that of her husba ...more
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I've written about science, sports, and culture for Wired, GQ, Men's Journal, Esquire,, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Slate, Philadelphia, and the 2011 edition of The Best American Sports Writing. A few years ago, I wrote a book called "Horsemen of the Esophagus," about competitive eating and the American dream. For the last three years, I've been working on my next book ...more

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The last five years of world history have been nothing if not...eventful. When living in interesting times, there's nothing better for...
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“For all the harmless innocence conjured by the word "library", the Friedmans knew the truth: a library, properly maintained, could save the world - or burn it down.” 11 likes
“Truth was truth and anything else was fuckery.” 7 likes
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