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Meet the incredible woman who helped the U.S. win two wars by cracking codes

Jason Fagone's book "The Woman Who Smashed Codes" tells of Elizebeth Friedman, who helped invent the science of modern cryptography, and whose work was instrumental in breaking enemy codes in two World Wars.

Elizebeth and William Friedman, the latter in his Army lieutenant’s uniform, around 1918.
Elizebeth and William Friedman, the latter in his Army lieutenant’s uniform, around 1918.Read moreGeorge C. Marshal Foundation

"Let things be shown," young Elizebeth Smith wrote in her diary sometime between 1911 and 1913; "let them come forth in their real colors."

Letting things be shown – that could speak for the remarkable, all but unknown career of the woman who in a few years would become Elizebeth Friedman and help invent the modern science of crypotography. She and her husband, William Friedman, helped the government decrypt coded German messages during World War One. They went on to help the government fight organized crime in the 1920s and 1930s and the Nazis in World War Two, leading to the creation of the National Security Agency in 1952.

This remarkable story is told by Philadelphia journalist Jason Fagone in The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies (Dey Street, $27.99). One of the year's best reads, it is both deeply researched and beautifully told, using all the tools in the fiction writer's kit. (At the height of government anti-smuggling efforts, we're told, "Smuggling ships were skimmed off the ocean like fat from a simmering pot of soup stock.") Fagone, in the middle of packing up for a new job in San Francisco, spoke by phone of how he discovered this woman and her achievements.

You tell a story of neglect, of a famous man (William Friedman) and an obscure wife who was his equal in originality, bravery, and resources. It all starts in the archives of her papers. What were you feeling the first time you saw those records?

It's one of the greatest things that can happen to you as a journalist – you find a trove of materials that speaks to you, rich with detail, and that's what her archive was. She left 22 boxes of papers behind at a private library in Virginia – poems, a college diary, original code worksheets, letters to her kids in cipher. All that stuff is there. I remember the first day, reading through her letters. You want to shout out your excitement – but it's a library, and they'd get upset, so you have to keep it in. For me, it all added up to an amazing American story that had been suppressed for a long time, and I really wanted people to know.

It's classic Americana, a woman who comes out of nowhere and invents a whole new world.

A bright girl from a small town bored with her life takes a risk, and in 1916, she quits her job, goes to Chicago, meets an eccentric millionaire named George Fabyan, who hires her on the spot to work for him on his private estate. That's the beginning of her code-breaking career, and really the beginnings of what would become the National Security Agency.

Fabyan wanted her and her workmates to find a "code" in Shakespeare's works that would prove that Francis Bacon actually wrote them.

She was plunged into this rich man's delusion – she didn't know it was a delusion, only that she was being paid to find these messages. One of the bravest things she does is that after a while she decides the messages aren't really there. And she pushes back when everyone else is going along with Fabyan's ideas. Realizing what's not there sparks her interest in finding what is. That's what turns her into a scientist, makes her powerfully interested in scientific thinking as a process.

In 1925, she starts working for the U.S. Treasury, and she spent the next 15 years fighting smugglers, using her code-breaking abilities to solve the secret messages in bootleggers' communications. Later, she was breaking up international heroin rings. When World War Two came around, she had the right set of skills to go after Nazi spies who were using similar codes. She didn't set out to become a hunter of Nazi spies, but she became one of the best in the world.

To be a cryptographer, you have to have so many different, and not necessarily related, skills. What was Elizebeth Friedman good at?

She had a genius for seeing patterns. All of us see patterns all the time. Humans are pattern-matching machines. She was just better at it than most people: She invented new, powerful ways of seeing patterns, ways of hacking blocks of letters, reassembling them in their original order, well before the computer age, back when it was entirely a game of pencil and paper.

It's as much about language as it is about math. Elizebeth wasn't a mathematician. She started as a literature and Shakespeare student. But she was able to use her feel for the rhythms of words to great effect in her code-breaking career. In code-breaking, you're trying to force a message to reveal its inner structure, which is hidden, but you can use tools to work backward to the original. Language has a structure, and that cannot be completely obliterated – it has an inner logic, and you can use that to work backward to its meaning.

It's also a story of how history gets told, about who gets to tell it. Elizebeth is buried, as it were, in the superior PR skills of men, including J. Edgar Hoover. 

All her life, Elizebeth had men around her who got credit for things that she did. Sometimes they were men she loved, like her husband, William, who tended to overshadow her because he was brilliant himself. And sometimes it was men in power who actively erased her from the story when they told it. J. Edgar Hoover did that – not just him, but he's largely responsible for the fact that people don't know the story of everything she did during World War Two.

We can set this tale next to the TV show The Bletchley Circle, the book and movie Hidden Figures, or the book The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel, all stories about brilliant women in technological fields once regarded as exclusively male. As you put this book together, were you aware of, if you want, being part of a movement?

It's a good thing! People are going back and taking a new look at the historical record. I was just captivated by Elizebeth's story. I said, "This hasn't been told, and it really should be." I'm glad some of these women technologists are getting their due – they were there all along, doing this work. They deserve recognition. And more than that: When I say Elizebeth was one of the greatest code-breakers of all time, it's just the truth, the accurate story of what really happened.