Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE ALGER HISS CASE

The First Trial

The first trial of Alger Hiss lasted five weeks, from May 31 to July 8, 1949. The large, florid, mustachioed Tom Murphy led the prosecution. He had an excellent record as prosecutor: 99% of the cases he prosecuted ended with convictions. (However, it must be noted that district attorneys can inflate their rates of success by only prosecuting the easiest cases.)

Alger Hiss and Attorney Lloyd Stryker (CORBIS)
Alger Hiss and Attorney Lloyd Stryker
(CORBIS)

The lead attorney for the defense was Lloyd Stryker. He was as florid as Murphy and was known for his emotional style. Assisting him was Edward McLean, an attorney who had gone to Harvard with Hiss.

Murphy made a strategic error during his opening statement. He told the jury that the people's case rested upon whether or not the jury believed Whittier Chambers.

In his opening, Lloyd Stryker called Chambers a "moral leper" and told the jury that by the time they knew all the facts about Chambers's life they would want someone to go in front of him shouting the ancient warning, "Unclean, unclean!"

Indeed, Stryker's finest work in the trial was done when he cross-examined Chambers. The defense attorney was able to show, through Chambers's own testimony, that the accuser's sins and outright crimes were both varied and voluminous. The attorney pointed out that, in 1937, when Chambers was still a Communist, he applied for a government job and signed a loyalty oath stating that he would "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

STRYKER: You took and subscribed to that oath, did you not?
CHAMBERS: Yes.
STRYKER: And it was false from beginning to end, was it not, Mr. Chambers?
CHAMBERS: Of course.
STRYKER: And it was perjury, wasn't it?
CHAMBERS: If you like.
STRYKER: And you did it in order to deceive and cheat the United States Government...is that not true?
CHAMBERS: That is correct.

Stryker brought out many unsavory behaviors (at least by the standards of the period) in which Chambers had indulged. He had stolen books from libraries. He had lived out of wedlock with seven women, one of whom was a New Orleans prostitute known by the moniker, "One-Eyed Annie." He had been an atheist and had been kicked out of Columbia University for writing a play considered blasphemous.

More to the point of the trial, Stryker made his client's mistaking Whittaker Chambers for "George Crosley" look a bit less bizarre than it had been by pointing out that Chambers was a man of many names and had used a variety of aliases.

Stryker also elicited information designed to show a background of instability. Chambers told the court that, as she aged, Grandmother Whittaker had gone insane. He described how his father, Jay Chambers, had taken to drink and died of liver disease. He said that his brother Richard had committed suicide. Before his death, Richard had tried to persuade Whittaker to enter into a "death pact" with him.

Throughout this cross-examination, Chambers easily maintained his composure. He admitted to theft, promiscuity, lying, and even perjury, spying, and treason in a bland voice and an almost disinterested manner.

After several witnesses were called by Murphy to testify to a variety of technical points and buttress Chambers's claims, the prosecutor called Esther Chambers to the stand. Like her husband, she was unprepossessing in appearance. Wearing a gray suit, thick eyeglasses and no make-up, she had a washed-out look. Both hard work and tragedy had taken their toll on her, as evidenced by her hands the reddened and callused hands of a woman who habitually did manual labor on a farm.

Unlike Whittaker, Esther Chambers was a nervous witness. She fidgeted uncomfortably, wet her lips, and often pressed a handkerchief against her mouth. However, like her husband, she had a memory that was keen on detail. Once, when she and Whittaker were visiting the Hisses at the their apartment, her baby daughter Ellen had wet the floor. She claimed that Priscilla Hiss had provided Esther with a "lovely old linen towel to use as a diaper." Esther described the Hiss residence on Thirtieth St. as having "a long pink living room lined with books" and a terrace of "Spanish tiles." She also recalled that the Hiss home on Volta Place, which Alger and Priscilla had moved into in December 1937 after the Hisses claimed they were no longer seeing the Chamberses, "had a stoned-in porch" with "plum-patterned wallpaper and plum-colored chintz drapes" as well as "Hitchcock chairs" and a "box piano" in the living room.

The prosecution entered the infamous "spy papers" themselves into evidence. The four handwritten notes together with most of the 65 typed pages were read into the record. The process was tedious. Walter Anderson, supervisor in the State Department's records department, was called to the stand. He brought a thick file containing the originals. He would hand a page to the DA, who read a generous part of it aloud, then read the corresponding copy. While they did this, enlargements of both originals and copies stood side by side on a big easel so the jury could see them even as they listened to Murphy dutifully reading them. Two assistants stood on either side of the jury to turn the huge pages. Bored spectators began leaving the usually packed courtroom as this dry information was recited.

Ramos Feehan was an FBI laboratory expert. Murphy called Feehan to the stand to establish that the Hiss Woodstock was indeed the machine that had typed the Baltimore documents. Feehan had often testified so he was comfortable on the witness stand. He also made use of the easel with the enlargements, using a pointer to inform of the jury of ten telltale idiosyncrasies linking them both to the same typewriter. Then he compared State Department originals with the documents recorded on film in the Pumpkin Papers.

The defense called several close friends of the Hiss family to dispute the Chamberses' assertion of a close relationship. The defense also suggested an alternative villain. Bespectacled economist Julian Wadleigh had worked in the State Department during the time Hiss was alleged to have been passing secrets. Wadleigh was, like Chambers, an admitted former Communist and espionage agent. By his own testimony and that of Chambers, Wadleigh had regularly taken documents from the State Department and turned them over to the agent he knew as Carl. The next morning Carl/Chambers would give them back to Wadleigh who would return them to their proper places. Chambers had told HUAC that Wadleigh might have passed a minority of the documents that were turned into microfilm on the Pumpkin Papers. Wadleigh said he had never re-typed any papers and denied he was the source of the Baltimore documents, and Chambers agreed. However, the defense suggested through its witnesses that Wadleigh could have sneaked into Hiss's office and made off with important documents while Alger was not in.

Many distinguished Americans testified, either in person or by deposition, as character witnesses for Alger Hiss. They described him as a good, honest, patriotic man. Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson said Hiss was a trustworthy and loyal American. Justice Felix Frankfurter came into the courtroom and took the witness stand for the defense. Never before in this nation's history had a sitting Supreme Court justice testified in a criminal trial.

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