Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE ALGER HISS CASE

The Shadowy Mr. Crosley

Hiss faced HUAC again on August 16. This time, Hiss had altered his story in a major and fateful way. Hiss still denied ever having been a Communist. However, he allowed that perhaps he did recall the fellow who accused him. Then again, maybe it was another man altogether that just happened to look like him. Hiss said he had known someone named "George Crosley" who resembled the man now calling himself Whittaker Chambers.

Crosley was a struggling writer and a deadbeat, according to Hiss. Hiss had gotten tired of Crosley's habit of missing the rent and borrowing money but failing to repay it so he told the freeloader off and broke contact with him sometime in 1936. He and George Crosley had not been especially close, Hiss recalled. However, Hiss continued, he had sublet an apartment to Crosley. A car had, Hiss recalled, gone from his possession to Crosley's. That automobile was a black early model Ford A sporting "a sassy little trunk on the back." Hiss himself had just purchased a brand new Plymouth two-seater sedan and had no more use for the aging Ford.

Chambers remembered that Ford A, "sassy" little trunk and all. However, he did not recall receiving the vehicle from Alger, although he had indeed driven it at least once. Rather, Chambers claimed that after Hiss bought his new car, he decided to turn the old Ford over "to the open Party so it could be of use to some poor organizer in the West or somewhere," Chambers recalled. This was against Party rules governing underground operatives but Hiss insisted that another worthy Communist should make use of it and the vehicle had been taken to a Washington car lot owned by a Party member.

Before HUAC, Hiss insisted that he had sold the car, or loaned it, or given it outright to Crosley but his memory of which type of transfer it had been varied from moment to moment.

Nixon zeroed in on this odd, confusing assertion. He was assisted in this interrogation by HUAC's lead investigator, Robert Stripling.
NIXON: You gave this Ford car to Crosley?
HISS: Threw it in along with the apartment and charged the rent and threw the car in at the same time.
NIXON: In other words, added a little to the rent to cover the car?
HISS: No. I think I charged him exactly what I was paying for the rent and threw the car in addition. I don't think I got any compensation.
STRIPLING: You just gave him the car?
HISS: I think the car just went right in with it.

On the next day, August 17, Nixon again pressed Hiss about the car.

HISS: I gave Crosley, according to my best recollection NIXON: Well, now just a moment on that point. I don't want to interrupt you on that "to the best of my recollection" but you certainly can testify "Yes" or "No" as to whether you gave Crosley a car. How many cars have you given away in your life, Mr. Hiss?
HISS: I have only had one old car of a financial value of $25 in my life. That is the car that I let Crosley have the use of.

As the questioning went on, Hiss became increasingly prickly in his responses. His questioners, especially Richard Nixon, were also getting nettled. A break in the acrimony was brought by questioning aimed at supporting what Chambers had told investigators in private about Hiss's passion for bird watching. Congressman McDowell was himself an avid bird watcher. He asked Hiss, "Have you ever seen a prothonotary warbler?"

Hiss seemed to let his guard down. He relaxed and smiled as he replied with enthusiasm, "I have right here on the Potomac. Do you know that place?" McDowell said he himself had seen a prothonotary warbler in Arlington. "They come back and nest in those swamps," Hiss said. "Beautiful yellow head, gorgeous bird." Lost in ornithological reverie, Hiss was oblivious to the fact that he had just added to the credibility of his accuser.

On this August 17 hearing, Whittaker Chambers himself was there and Hiss verbally wobbled about the issue of recognition. Nixon had Chambers brought into the room and told the two men to face each other. He then asked Hiss if he recognized Mr. Chambers.

Hiss said he would like to hear Chambers' voice before saying whether or not they had ever been acquainted. Chambers spoke. Hiss still wasn't sure. Could Chambers read something from a magazine so that Hiss could hear more of his voice?

NIXON: Just one moment. Since some repartee goes on between these two people, I think Mr. Chambers should be sworn."
HISS: That is a good idea.

Chambers was sworn in.

NIXON: Mr. Hiss, may I say something? I suggested that he be sworn, and when I say something like that I want no interruptions from you.
HISS: Mr. Nixon, in view of what happened yesterday, I think there is no occasion for you to use that tone of voice in speaking to me, and I hope the record will show what I have just said.
NIXON: The record shows everything that is being said here today.

Hiss got to hear Chambers's voice as he read from a magazine. In an ironic, subtly comedic move, Nixon handed a copy of Newsweek to the Time editor, who read aloud from the pages of his employer's chief rival.

The historic confrontation turned into a scene of low comedy when Hiss asked to examine Chambers's mouth. Chambers complied and Hiss inspected the man's teeth much as a prospective buyer of a horse looks into the mouth of a possible purchase.

Hiss recalled George Crosley as having a mouth full of bad teeth but this man, for all his sloppiness, had a fine set of choppers. Had he had considerable dental work since 1935? Chambers acknowledged that he had. Then Hiss asked the name of the dentist who had worked on Chambers's teeth!

Finally, Nixon told Hiss he might as well just ask Chambers any questions that might help jog Alger's memory. In reply to Hiss's questions, Chambers said he had never sublet an apartment from Hiss but that he had spent considerable time in Hiss's own apartment.

CHAMBERS: I most certainly did.
HISS: You did or did not?
CHAMBERS: I did.
HISS: Would you tell me how you reconcile your negative answers with this affirmative answer?
CHAMBERS: Very easily, Alger. I was a Communist and you were a Communist.

Without conceding any association with Communism, Hiss said he could positively identify Whittaker Chambers as the man he had known as George Crosley.

Nixon requested that Chambers positively identify Hiss as the man he had known as a member of the Communist Party. "Positive identification," Chambers replied.

The next hearing was held on August 25th in the Caucus Room of the Old House Office Building. It made history because it was the first Congressional hearing ever to be televised. Of course, that was less of an event in those days since 1948 was before the TV era there were a mere 325,000 television sets at the time in the US.

There were over 500 people crowded into the room as Nixon questioned an increasingly belligerent Hiss. Were there others who knew Crosley? Hiss was asked. His wife did, Hiss replied. The California Congressman pressed for a source that might be less biased. Hiss named three other people. The hearings ended on a note of bitterness. McDowell told Hiss, "Thank you very much." A testy Hiss replied, "I don't reciprocate." McDowell said, "Italicize that in the record" and Hiss added, "I wish you would."

Hiss dared Chambers to accuse him of Communist Party membership outside the privileged from libel and slander suits place of the committee.

After Hiss exited, Stripling turned to Chambers and loudly asked in a deliberately exaggerated drawl, "How are you, Mr. CRAWZ-ly?" and the room erupted in laughter.

Outside the hearings, there were attempts to discern some substance to the shadowy Mr. Crosley. William Kunstler, in Great Courtroom Battles, talks about attempts to get some support for the existence of George Crosley through the three individuals Hiss claimed might have also met him. Kunstler writes, "Stripling's investigators had discovered that one was dead, another could not be traced, and the third couldn't remember having met anyone named Crosley." So much for word of mouth corroboration. If Crosley was a writer, as Hiss said he was, he ought to have left a paper trail. Again, quoting from Kunstler's article, "A search of the records of the Library of Congress, the Copyright Division, and the Public Catalogue had uncovered only two writers by that name an obscure 1905 poet and a doctor who had published a treatise on the effects of ultraviolet light. If George Crosley had ever existed, he was now a case for the Missing Persons Bureau."

Investigation was also made into the fate of Alger Hiss's old Ford. HUAC's people had combed through District of Colombia Motor Vehicle bureau records and hit pay dirt. A certificate of title to the car showed that Alger had signed over the automobile to the Cherner Motor Company on July 23, 1936. That same day, the company had sold the Ford to a William Rosen for $24.00. Rosen was later found to be a Communist Party member. Score another one for Chambers.

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