Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE ALGER HISS CASE

The Shadow of Scandal

Alger Hiss served three years and eight months at Lewisburg Penitentiary before his 1954 parole.

He never completely put his life back together, since, obviously, a convicted perjurer and reputed spy was unwanted in government service. However, neither did he spend the rest of his life in utter misery and isolation. His personality was an optimistic and resilient one. "The world was new and fresh all over again [when he got out of prison]," Hiss claimed.

After his release, Alger settled down to write his version of his case in a book that would be titled In the Court of Public Opinion. Writing did not come easily to Hiss and the dry, pedantic volume was not critically well received and sold poorly.

Then Hiss started looking for work. He had rejected advice to change his name and, with a perjury conviction on his record and the vile offense of treason shadowing him, finding employment was not easy.

He applied at the American Artists Group, an organization formed to represent blacklisted artists. The boss there was naturally sympathetic to Hiss, viewing him a victim of the Red Scare. Hiss could become an executive assistant if he could learn shorthand and typing.

Hiss enrolled at a steno school and soon learned Speedwriting. However, no matter how hard he tried, Hiss could not learn typing. His teacher suggested he had a psychological block about it due to the role played by a typewriter in his case. Hiss agreed and was once again at a loss for a way to support himself.

He found it at a business called Feathercombs where he worked as an office manager for two years. Feathercombs folded and, soon afterward, an unemployed Hiss suffered a heart attack. He recovered physically. However, physical and financial stress led to a lot of fights between Alger and Priscilla. They separated in 1958.

Alger Hiss, 1992 (AP)
Alger Hiss, 1992 (AP)

Hiss drew unemployment for a while but by 1960, he had managed to find work as a stationery salesman. He was to claim that his infamy came in handy. He said he was not much of a salesman but people always wanted to see him when he told them, "I'm Alger Hiss" and he confirmed that he was indeed the Alger Hiss. At about the same time, he got a pretty blonde girlfriend and the two started living together since Priscilla, the wife who had stood so loyally beside him, would not give him a divorce.

Right up until his death in 1996 at the age of 92, Hiss proclaimed his innocence. A number of well-researched books on the Hiss case were published. Some agreed with the jury's verdict and others depicted him as the victim of an elaborate frame-up, the "Hissteria" of the times, and of McCarthyism.

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