Alumnus pens book about America’s first female cryptanalyst

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Author and Penn State alumnus Jason Fagone was deep in the National Archives reading once-classified, secret messages of Nazi spies. They were there because decades ago a revolutionary woman not only saved the correspondences, she decoded them.

Fagone spent three years uncovering the incredible life story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, who left her hometown in Indiana to become a chief architect of the modern science of cryptology. Fagone chronicles Elizebeth’s life in his new book, “The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies.”

Fagone’s journey, much like Elizebeth’s, was unexpected. When Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency leaks dominated headlines in 2013, Fagone began researching the NSA and its history.

“I realized I didn’t know much about this large powerful intelligence agency,” he said. “I started reading about it and all roads led to William Friedman, who is considered the godfather of the NSA.”

It didn’t take long for Fagone to realize that the NSA had a godmother too.

Elizebeth, along with William, was among a very small group of U.S. codebreakers during the 1920s and 1930s. Surprisingly, neither of them started out that way, but, with their colleagues, they would play a vital codebreaking role during both World Wars.

“Behind the story of what we know about the NSA, there is this amazing woman,” said Fagone, who earned his Penn State journalism degree in 2001. “She was a poet, not a mathematician, but she became one of the greatest codebreakers the world has ever seen [and] she was present for the NSA’s birth and played an important role in its development.”

Fagone Codes book

Fagone's book was published by Harper Collins.

Image: Photo Submited

Much of Elizebeth’s story is because of an eccentric millionaire named George Fabyan who recruited her to his research commune in northern Illinois. That community, Riverbank, would be the seeds for the NSA and where Elizebeth would meet her eventual husband.

Like Elizebeth, William was not a code-breaker. He was a geneticist from Pittsburgh brought to Riverbank to develop wheat that could grow in arid places. The two hit it off and would become a husband-and-wife code-breaking team for the ages.

One of Elizebeth’s first tasks at Riverbank was to find secret messages in the original works of William Shakespeare. Fabyan believed Francis Bacon buried clues in the writings telling the world he was the true author — not Shakespeare. Much to Fabyan’s chagrin, no secret code was found.

However, the United States had other uses for Fabyan’s codebreakers. When the country entered World War I, it found itself ill-prepared to decipher German messages. The FBI was barely a decade old, and there was no CIA or NSA yet. The U.S. Government outsourced its codebreaking work to Riverbank, and for eight months, Elizebeth and William’s team cracked codes for the Army, Navy, Justice Department and Treasury.

“Over and over again, these government agencies would find themselves unprepared,” Fagone said. “There really wasn’t anybody who had the level of experience so they would go to Elizebeth because her skillset was so rare.”

Even though William’s life and career were well documented, it didn’t take long for Fagone to see Elizebeth’s incredible influence on the earliest days of U.S. code-breaking operations. Her story, however, was purposefully not as well documented. Some of it was due to the secrecy of the information, but a lot was due to a fledgling industry dominated by men.

In one case in particular, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover purposefully tried to erase Elizebeth from the history books after her code-breaking unit led a Nazi spy hunt during World War II. Hoover took the credit despite his inexperience catching spies and defending against espionage.

Thankfully, Elizebeth and William were pack rats. From diary passages to love letters to coded messages, they saved everything. Even while indexing her husband’s work, Elizebeth dropped in clues of her role in each project.

“It’s really because of her foresight and commitment to preserve records that her story can be told at all,” Fagone said. “It’s like she left little shards of glass in the archive that can still draw blood today.”

At the Marshall Foundation’s Library, Fagone found 22 boxes of letters, notes and an unpublished children’s book Elizebeth wrote about cryptology. The thousands of coded messages between Nazi spies that Elizebeth and her team intercepted and decoded were unearthed at the National Archives. There were 30 boxes of materials in the New York Public Library from the earliest days of Elizabeth’s career. One box included the first decipherments Elizebeth made as a 23 year old at Riverbank in June 1916.

“I could see her handwriting. Everything was in her own hand,” Fagone said. “It was like a superhero origin story moment. I was not expecting to find that … I almost screamed, which is a bad idea when you’re in the archive.”

As details revealed themselves, the makings of an epic spy novel emerged. The modest beginnings of a school teacher turn to fighting Nazi spies, overcoming adversity and using ambition and intellect to save the day. The love story helps too, and it’s all true.

“Elizebeth and William’s love story is a classic American tale and was essential to this story,” Fagone said. “They realized they were stronger together than alone, and they were able to supercharge their work and science just by sitting across the table from each other.”

If Fabyan hadn’t snagged Elizebeth when he did, she would have likely returned home to Indiana to be a teacher again. She would have never broken a code or met William, and the United States’ cryptography operation could look a lot differently today.

“She, along with William, helped define the modern science of cryptology,” Fagone said. “It all flows organically from the insights that she and William made at Riverbank in 1916 when they fell in love and became this amazing code-breaking duo.”

On Nov. 27, CBS Studios announced it had purchased the rights for "The Woman Who Smashed Codes," with plans to develop the book as a television series.

After finishing the book, Fagone took a break from digging through archive boxes to pack moving boxes. He and his family moved to San Francisco this fall, and he started working at the San Francisco Chronicle in December. He will be working on narrative projects for the newspaper.

Fagone has also written the books “Ingenious,” about a group that’s developing a car that travels 100 miles on a single gallon of gasoline, and “Horsemen of the Esophagus,” about the world of competitive eating. He has also written for a number of publications, including the New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ and Grantland.

Last Updated December 07, 2017