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The Woman Who Smashed Codes:The Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies

Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes

With Jason Fagone, Reporter, Author of The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies


Taking a break from all things financial, Steve speaks with Jason Fagone, author of The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies.  Jason Fagone was named one of ten young writers on the rise by the Columbia Journalism Review. He writes for the Huffington Post Highline, GQ, Esquire, The New York Times, and other publications.

Elizebeth Friedman

In his book, Jason puts the spotlight on Elizebeth Friedman, one of America’s great unsung heroines who no one has ever heard of. As an expert cryptanalyst, she used her talents to develop the science of code breaking that still drives our intelligence agencies today.

Elizebeth graduated with a major in English Literature in 1915 and got into code breaking purely by accident.  Back then, women were rarely in the workplace and her chances of doing something unique were pretty limited, adds Steve.

Elizebeth Friedman’s love for Shakespeare led to a chance encounter with an eccentric textile tycoon, George Fabyan, and her first job at code breaking.  Fabyan had a deviant theory that William Shakespeare’s plays had actually been written by Francis Bacon and that proof of this was hidden in secret messages inside Shakespeare’s books.  Upon learning of Elizebeth’s love for Shakespeare, Fabyan hired her to find those purported hidden messages, which was Elizebeth’s first tryst with code breaking!

Although she found no hidden messages in Shakespeare, the work got her interested in how one might actually find hidden messages.  When World War I erupted a year later in 1917, the U.S. military had an immediate need for code breakers (of which there were none or few) so it hired George Fabyan’s motley crew of Shakespeare lovers to break code for the war effort.

Tracking Down Liquor Smugglers and Nazi Spies

After the war, Elizebeth, the woman who smashed codes, was hired by the U.S. Treasury where she spent the next ten years decoding messages sent by America’s rum runners and liquor smugglers during Prohibition.  This experience made her an expert at breaking codes in intercepted short-wave radio messages.

Her small brush with fame came in the early 1930s when she was called to explain the science of code breaking to a jury in a case against Consolidated Exporters Corporation, a Canadian rum syndicate that used sophisticated codes to cover up their liquor smuggling operations, which Elizebeth helped track down and bring to justice.

Later, after America was pulled into World War II, Elizebeth joined the FBI and used techniques she had perfected during the Prohibition Era to track down Nazi spies who used radio sets very similar to what the rum runners had used.  Elizebeth was really good at what she did and helped track down names, drop locations, financial transactions, and other details that helped the FBI make multiple arrests, considerably weakening the Nazi spy apparatus.

To Work in This Field…

Steve was particularly intrigued by a quote from 1910: “To work in this field, you have to become devious yourself. You have to think like a malicious attacker to find the weaknesses in your own work”.  He asks Jason if the quote still applies today, and how cryptography has changed in modern times.

Jason Fagone believes this could indeed be a contemporary quote about cryptography and that its underlying principle is absolutely true and timeless to the discipline of counterintelligence, even though today’s communications networks and encryption tools are far more sophisticated.  Today, counterintelligence might look at emails and trails of financial data, such as in the Trump/Russia investigation in order to bring down spy networks across the globe.

Unrecognized Despite Her Many Accomplishments

Finally, Steve laments about Elizebeth Friedman being unrecognized and unacknowledged despite her pioneering work and incredible accomplishments and being shut out of the country’s male-dominated intelligence institutions.  He believes it takes exceptional writers, such as Jason Fagone, to uncover and write about America’s unsung heroes and heroines, and adds The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies to the Recommended Reading section of Steve’s website.

Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily United Capital.  Interviewee is not a representative of United Capital. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions.  Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances.  The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital.

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Steve Pomeranz: Taking a break from all things financial, I came across a new book highlighting moments of our country’s past, which changed our world, but are still largely unknown today. These are about people who accomplished great things, but whose stories are buried until a talented writer can bring them to us.

Jason Fagone is one such writer. He’s been named one of the ten young writers on the rise by the Columbia Journalism Review. He writes for the Huffington Post Highline, GQ, Esquire, New York Times, and many more publications. He lives in Philadelphia where he joins me today. Hey, Jason, welcome to the show.

Jason Fagone: Hey, Steve, thank you for having me.

Steve Pomeranz: So perhaps joining the ranks of Hidden Figures, which is the recent movie about the Afro-American women who worked for NASA in the 60s, and The Imitation Game, the story of codebreaker, Alan Turing, you’ve written The Woman Who Smashed Codes: The True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies.

So, who was this woman and start us off, tell us about her story.

Jason Fagone: Yeah, it’s an amazing American story, and it was hidden or suppressed for a long time, which is one reason that I wrote the book. I think people should know this. So Elizebeth Smith Freidman is one of the most brilliant Americans no one’s ever heard of.

She was a code breaker, someone who solved secret messages without knowing the key. And she used that ability to do a couple of things of major importance that altered the shape of the 20th century. So, one thing she did was she helped invent the modern science of codebreaking that still drives our intelligence agencies.

She also hunted Nazis during World War II. Particularly, she hunted Nazi spies. And all that time, she was the partner and inspiration to the guy who’s considered to be the godfather to the National Security Agency, a guy named William Friedman.

Steve Pomeranz: She was a woman of some courage, demanding based on her background that she go to college.

We are talking about the early 20th century, she didn’t really start out codebreaking—she’s got an interesting story about how she started out. And it reminds me of people’s lives, when you ask them how they ended up where they did, and they say, “Well I started doing something completely different.”

How did she start out?

Jason Fagone: Yeah, that was exactly her story. She always called it pure accident. She never set out to be this. It was just fate, so she was not a mathematician, not a trained mathematician at all, instead, she was a poet, a literature expert. She studied poetry in college and the works of William Shakespeare.

And when she graduated in 1915, she was 23 years old and her career options at that point, career options for American women were extremely limited. Any woman who had a college education and any kind of scholarly ability, it was able to teach grade school or high school but not much more than that.

Elizebeth got a job teaching at a high school, but she really wanted something more, something more adventurous. And so, she took a risk in kind of a number of chance encounters…launched her on this life of adventure.

Steve Pomeranz: Back then, in 1915 when she graduated from college, almost 90% of professors at public universities were male and only 62 women earned PhDs in all of the America.

So, the chances of her doing something unique were pretty limited. I would think she had to be, as I said, pretty courageous to go out there in the world and try to be somebody. But you know what, this story is even more interesting because she had this chance encounter with this eccentric textile tycoon, George Fabian.

Tell us a little about that.

Jason Fagone: Yeah, so one day in June 1916, Elizebeth, 23 years old, she has just quit her job as a school teacher. She has decided to go to Chicago, as you said, very brave. She’s not a city girl, she grew up in rural Indiana.

She’s going to go to the big city and try to find a different kind of job, something more adventurous, something more unusual. And during a trip to a library in Chicago, she happened to run into an eccentric multimillionaire, who had made a fortune in the Chicago textile industry. His name was George Fabian.

And Fabian was a very colorful, multimillionaire of the Gilded Age. He was like a William Randolph Hearst and an Andrew Carnegie. He was this giant guy, 6’4″, 240 pounds, big iron-gray beard. Extremely forceful gusts of wind would emerge from his face when he spoke. And he met this petite 23-year-old woman Elizebeth Smith at this library.

And he became fascinated with Elizebeth because in talking to her, he realized that she knew about Shakespeare and George Fabian was interested in Shakespeare, in fact, obsessed with Shakespeare because he had this kind of deviant theory that Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare, that the plays of William Shakespeare had actually been written by a guy named Francis Bacon.

And moreover, Fabian believed that there was proof of this that was hidden inside the works of Shakespeare in the form of secret messages. So, that’s how Elizabeth got started, she was hired by the guy Fabian, this multimillionaire to find messages in Shakespeare.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, so that’s in a sense codebreaking, so that’s a very beginning of it.

She was working with a woman who was actually looking kind of between the lines and looking for these kinds of code words that Francis Bacon would have put in there, to indicate that he was, in fact, the writer. So how did she get from there to actual codebreaking?

Jason Fagone: Again, accidents, accidents of fate and accidents of history. So, she went to work for George Fabian. She was working with a team of experts, literature experts that Fabian had assembled from all over the world to go on this quest of trying to find these secret messages in Shakespeare.

And it turned out that the messages weren’t really there. They were kind of an allusion to people who thought they saw them, were just kind of seeing something that wanted to be there. But in the course of trying to find these false messages, Elizebeth became interested in how you might actually find true messages.

And then a year after she got started, 1917, America suddenly went to war. We went to war in the First World War, and what that did is it created an immediate urgent need for American codebreakers to help in the war. And the fact was in 1917, there really were no American codebreakers.

There was no NSA, there was no CIA, and the FBI was very young. So essentially, the military looked around and said, “We don’t have any code breakers, we need code breakers immediately.” The only people in America who know anything about codebreaking are these kinds of odd group of Shakespeare people, out in the middle of Illinois working for this crazy rich guy. That’s actually where the NSA began. That’s the seed of the NSA, is that team of Shakespeare experts out in the middle of Illinois, working for this crazy rich guy. As strange as that sounds, the truth is stranger than fiction sometimes, that’s how the NSA got started.

Steve Pomeranz: It’s very interesting in your book because you also give examples, actually numerous kinds of simple examples of how codebreaking works and cryptology, and how you kind of transfer one set of figures, words, letters, into others, and some of the science behind that. But she didn’t only work to decode wartime messages.

She was working with the FBI, as well, to decode criminal activity. Tell us a little bit about that.

Jason Fagone: Yes, so after World War I, she and her husband William Friedman left Riverbank. They left the employ of this crazy rich guy. Moved to Washington DC, and Elizebeth began working for the United States Treasury Department, which needed somebody to break codes that were sent by rum-runners, liquor smugglers.

So, during Prohibition, all of these criminal gangs had risen up and Elizebeth spent ten years decoding the secret messages of rum-runners. And what that did is that it made her extremely experienced and talented at the art and the science of radio intelligence. So, she learned how, in a systematic way, to use intercepted radio messages, break the code, solve the messages.

Map the secret networks of the people who are using these radio, shortwave radio sets in these codes and throw light in the underworld that was trying to stay hidden. She did that during Prohibition with rum-runners, and it turned out that on the eve of World War II, that was an extremely important skill set because after Hitler invaded Poland, a number of Nazi spies began spreading out into the Western Hemisphere. And it turned out that when they were going into the Western Hemisphere, they were carrying radio sets that were very much like the radios used by the rum-runners. So suddenly, Elizebeth had this unique skill set, and she started to work on a new phase of her career, which was she hunted Nazis.

She hunted Nazi spies, and she used the same techniques that she had perfected during the Prohibition period to throw light on these dark networks of Nazi spies, and ultimately, disrupt them and neutralize the threat.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, I want to get to that in more detail in a minute. The book is The Woman Who Smashed Codes: The True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies.

My guest is Jason Fagone, the author. She was involved in some famous Prohibition cases. You mentioned rum-runners. Actually, even to the point where Joseph P Kennedy, the father of John F Kennedy, was part-owner of one of these companies that she was looking at. But she was a very private person, and she was put out into the public spotlight at one time during a trial, I thought that was a really great part of the story.

Can you just tell us a little bit about that?

Jason Fagone: Yeah, absolutely, some aspects of her career were, in fact, hidden and secretive, but some aspects were exorbitantly public. She became briefly famous during the 1930s for her work battling these liquor and smuggling rings. And what happened was, as you mentioned, Joseph P Kennedy, the father of the future president of the United States, JFK, was an investor in a Canadian rum syndicate called the Consolidated Exporters Corporation.

And the Consolidated Exporters Corporation was an intentionally boring name given to the syndicate by the Canadians to hide its spectacular nature. It was essentially a global navy of pirate ships, and there were at least 60 of these ships. Some of them were as big as a warehouse, like floating warehouses that could hold about 80,000 crates of liquor.

And they span the entire globe, and they used codes to protect their communications that were stronger and more sophisticated than even codes that had been used in World War I. And so, one of the things that Elizebeth did during this period was she became a nemesis of this Consolidated Exporters Corporation.

She tracked its ships all around the globe. She learned the names of the ships, the names of the captains, sometimes even the names of the crewmen. She read their thoughts, essentially, by intercepting and decrypting their radio messages, and then she would hand these radio messages to law enforcement.

And law enforcement would ask her to appear at the trial when they were trying to convict these guys. They needed Elizebeth to come in and explain the science of codebreaking to a jury, and so Elizabeth would come in with her handbag and her pink dress, and her pink hat with a flower pinned to the brim. And she would sit on the witness stand and stare out at some of the most fearsome gangsters of her day.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, at one point, I think she was guarded by some gun-toting federal marshals, as well. So, she was a brave woman. She also worked with the FBI, and J Edgar Hoover was the Director of the FBI at that time.

And basically, they knew nothing, the FBI didn’t really know much about how to break codes and how to do counterintelligence. And basically, she did all the work, and he got all the credit. Is that correct?

Jason Fagone: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. I mean, that was another aspect of a pattern that repeated throughout Elizebeth’s career.

She was always ending up someplace sort of trying to patch a gap in the understanding or ability of some agency that was caught unprepared by a new challenge. And so that was J Edgar Hoover, and that was the FBI at the start of World War II. Essentially, the FBI’s responsibility, its job, was to catch Nazi spies anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, that was their jurisdiction. And yet, the FBI had no real ability to do that because they didn’t know to break codes. They had no code-breaking organization. They had no codebreaking experience. So, they forced to rely on Elizebeth Friedman and her team of code-breakers of the US Coast Guard that she had created that team and nurtured it and trained it.

And they were very good because they’d done all this rum work. And so, J Edgar Hoover relied on Elizebeth and her team to break the codes of these Nazi spies, to monitor the radio circuits. And Elizebeth monitored about 50 different radio circuits for the FBI and other agencies, fed the solved messages to the FBI, allowed the FBI agents to know all of the details of these Nazi spy networks, their names, their locations.

Even down to the amounts of money that they were spending on their spy equipment, Elizabeth knew all of these things because she could read their thoughts and provided this stuff to the FBI. Then the FBI would go in and make the arrest and take all the credit.

Steve Pomeranz: Today, the NSA and the FBI and the CIA are ubiquitous, they’re part of the daily fabric of the world. I mean, we’re dealing with a Russian investigation right now which requires the US to perform counterintelligence to kind of work backward. I don’t know what they do or how they do it, but to figure out who’s doing what to whom.

There’s a quote that starts part two of your book that really caught my attention, and here it is. “To work in this field, you have to become devious yourself. You have to think like a malicious attacker to find the weaknesses in your own work.” Now this was written in 1910, Jason, has anything changed today?

Jason Fagone: Well, I think that may be a more modern or contemporary quote about cryptography and cryptography engineering. But the principle is absolutely true and timeless, your description of counterintelligence is very apt. Who’s doing what to whom? The discipline of counterintelligence is you’re trying to fight enemy spies, you’re trying to basically get a handle on what they are doing, how many of them are there?

How are they communicating? What do their networks look like? That’s counterintelligence, and Elizebeth was doing counterintelligence at all stages of her career. In a lot of ways, she was a pioneer of counterintelligence. She was doing counterintelligence before America had official counterintelligence teams. She was doing it for the Treasury Department, doing counterintelligence against the rum-runners.
And then she was doing counterintelligence during World War II, tracking the networks and throwing light on these dark networks of Nazi spies. And today counterintelligence, as you said, involves the same kinds of principles, but examining different kinds of communications. So today, it might be email. The Trump/Russia probe, these guys are looking at emails, and they’re looking at trails of financial data and these sorts of things to try to understand the penetration of Russian spies into America and possible connections with the Trump campaign.

Elizebeth was doing this kind of work using primarily the tool of radio. And anybody in the world who was communicating with radio and trying to keep it secret and was an enemy of the United States, Elizebeth was their nemesis because, over and over, she was able to go in and do counterintelligence and succeed to map their networks and catch them and stuff.

Steve Pomeranz: My guest, Jason Fagone, author of The Woman Who Smashed Codes: The True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies. Jason, all her life, despite her accomplishments, she was shut out of the male-dominated Washington institutions. And after her husband, William, died in 1969, she literally received what was called a woman card from the old male club to which her husband had belonged, which granted her access to the club for only a period of two years as a widow’s privilege.

Jason Fagone: [LAUGH]

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, I mean really, come on, so-

Jason Fagone: What an honor, right?

Steve Pomeranz: What an honor, I know.

Jason Fagone: [LAUGH]

Steve Pomeranz: And the pioneer of modern counterintelligence and intelligence. We cover a lot on these interviews, and we’ve created a terrific website to help you access them and get more insight.

To hear this again, to find out more about Jason and this book, don’t forget to go to our website, which is stevepomeranz.com and sign up for our weekly update or ask us a question. We love to get questions. Jason, thank you so much for joining us. Great book, we’ll put it on our recommended reading list.

Jason Fagone: Hey, Steve, thank you so much, I really enjoyed talking to you, thank you.