Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE ALGER HISS CASE

The Pumpkin Papers

Chambers would later say that he feared Hiss's investigators might attempt to get the microfilm still in his possession before HUAC could examine them. He racked his brain to find a hiding place for the precious documents.

The hollowed-out pumpkin holding the microfilm (CORBIS)
The hollowed-out pumpkin holding the
microfilm (CORBIS)

On December 2, 1948, HUAC investigators were at the farmhouse of Whittaker Chambers with a subpoena. Chambers led them out of his bucolic home and to a pumpkin patch. There he took the top off of a hollowed-out pumpkin and presented them with film wrapped in wax paper.

Although there were no papers, only film, the treasonous treasure trove would be forever after known as the Pumpkin Papers. Two cylinders were of developed film and three were of undeveloped film. It turned out that some of the undeveloped film was worthless as evidence. It had been overexposed and came out blank. Others parts of the film were developed only to find that they were about trivial matters like the painting of fire extinguishers that anyone could find at the Federal Bureau of Standards of Library.

Nixon (front) and Stripling examining the film (CORBIS)
Nixon (front) and Stripling examining the
film (CORBIS)

However, there were documents on that film that were of a highly sensitive, classified nature or at least it had been so when taken from the State Department. All of them were dated in the early months of 1938. Chambers claimed that most of them came from Alger Hiss. On December 6, Nixon and Stripling held a press conference at which they showed off the microfilm that had been lifted from Whittaker's pumpkin.

A photographer in the audience asked an astute question: "What's the emulsion figure on those films?" Those unfamiliar with photography were probably baffled but those with any knowledge easily translated this query into: "Has the year of the film's manufacture been verified?"

It had not been.

Stripling promptly contacted an Eastman Kodak office. A manager named Keith Lewis scurried over, took the film rolls, phoned Kodak's national headquarters, and read off the emulsion numbers to them.

Then Lewis turned to the HUAC people with horrible news, "This film was manufactured in 1945."

Nixon was floored. "Oh my God," he wailed in despair, "This is the end of my political career." A desperate and distraught Nixon telephoned Chambers. He told him of the Kodak findings.

"It can't be true," a shocked Whittaker exclaimed. "But I can't explain it. God must be against me."

Nixon told Chambers to be at the Hotel Commodore that night to answer questions and give a better explanation for this monumental foul-up. Chambers promised he would be there and Nixon slammed down the receiver.

Sick with rage and humiliation, Nixon prepared to face the press conference again and describe how he and HUAC had been snookered. He thought it would be his political swan song. His career would end with his first term in Congress, Nixon believed. All his dreams down the drain because of one man's lies.

The phone rang. It was Keith Lewis. He had double-checked and, as Sam Tanenhaus writes in Whittaker Chambers, found that, "The film belonged to a series manufactured through 1938, discontinued during the war, and then resumed in 1945. Chambers's rolls dated from 1937."

Nixon and Stripling were overjoyed and eager to return to the press conference. Nixon attempted to phone Chambers to notify him of the correction but was unable to reach him.

A depressed Chambers spent some miserable hours contemplating suicide. Unlike Nixon and Stripling, he experienced no elation when informed of the mistake. Instead, he thought that "an error so burlesque, a comedy so gross in the midst of such catastrophe was a degradation of the spirit" and proof that God was indeed against him. He purchased cyanide and took it some days after this incident. However, he ended up just vomiting the poison.

Other evidence being gathered further bolstered the credibility of Chambers's most recent story. Hiss's lawyers found papers typed by Priscilla Hiss during the relevant time period and, with Hiss's approval, turned them over to the FBI. Other specimens were obtained from a private school attended by Timmy Hobson, Priscilla's son and Alger's stepson. The FBI laboratory analyzed them against the documents turned in by Chambers. Their conclusion was that all the papers in question had been typed on the same typewriter. They determined that the typewriter was a Woodstock. About 250 government sleuths were tasked with searching in forty-five different cities for this old typewriter.

Even without it, the government believed it had enough evidence to take the case to a grand jury.

However, Chambers's supporters were in a quandary. After all, Alger Hiss might be a perjurer and he might have been a spy. Whittaker Chambers was indubitably a perjurer and had by his own admission and evidence been a spy. Shouldn't he be indicted?

If he were, the case against Hiss would fall apart. For how could Hiss be tried for perjury if the chief witness against him was a convicted perjurer? The prosecutors were persuaded to seek indictments only against Hiss. Chambers after all, was penitent and cooperative while Hiss might still be a threat to the United States.

During this time of turmoil, the Chambers family suffered a terrible tragedy that was not directly related to Whittaker's political and criminal history but added immeasurably to their burdens nonetheless. Esther Chambers was driving when a 70-year-old deaf woman stepped directly out in front of Esther's car from between two parked cars. Mrs. Chambers was booked for manslaughter and reckless driving and was sued by the dead woman's family. Eventually, she was acquitted and the suit settled out of court, but Esther Chambers was terribly traumatized by the accident and her husband shared in her psychological agony. He wrote: "To my wife and me, this tragic episode seemed proof that there was no depth of the abyss that we were not to sound."

The grand jury returned two indictments against Hiss, one for saying he had not stolen State Department documents and the other for denying he saw Chambers after 1935. It went unsaid but everyone knew that the charge of perjury was really a cover for the charge that could no longer be brought because of the statute of limitations espionage. Although he would be tried for perjury, the black cloud of treason hung over Hiss's handsome head.

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