Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE ALGER HISS CASE

The Tantalizing Typewriter

The defense did not mount a challenge to the prosecution's contention that the Baltimore documents had been typed on the machine that had been owned by the Hiss family. Indeed, during his opening statement Stryker mentioned that defense investigators had tracked down the Woodstock in question as evidence supporting the man's innocence. Would he have turned in the typewriter if he knew it had been used to type secret documents? One of the oddest things about the Hiss case is the way the machine produced in court by his attorneys became another weapon in the prosecution's arsenal. For experts testified that the homely machine brought into court as a defense exhibit had produced both the Hiss specimens and the Baltimore documents.

However, the defense argued that a different typist must have done the typing since the Hisses had gotten rid of their typewriter prior to late December 1937 when the first of the now-infamous Baltimore Papers had been rolled into the Woodstock. This still left the question of why a typewriter once owned by the Hiss family would be the very one used to type the incriminating papers? After all, Alger and Priscilla did not claim they had sold, lent, or given it to the moocher George Crosley, but had given it to a servant by the name of Claudia ("Clytie") Catlett.

Clytie Catlett was a heavyset woman who testified in a matter-of-fact manner. She took the stand wearing a pretty flowered dress, hiding her eyes behind dark glasses. She first testified to remembering Whittaker Chambers as a man she thought was named "Crosby" and to whom she had served tea when he had been a guest of the Hisses. The Hiss family had passed on several items they no longer needed to Clytie including "an old typewriter." She was unable to supply much more in the way of detail because she did not recall it that well. Her kids had used the typewriter more than she had.

Following Clytie to the witness stand was her 27-year old son Mike. He was a World War II veteran who was employed as a handyman. His family had received the typewriter at about the time the Hisses moved to their Volta Place address. It was not that great of a gift, Mike said. The keys frequently jammed up and the wheel and ribbon often stuck.

While Mike was testifying, a big box sat on the defense table. Attorney McLean went over to it, and with the help of others on the defense team, dramatically opened it to reveal an ordinary-looking Woodstock 230009. McLean then awkwardly carried it to the witness. Mike pecked a few keys, examined the machine, and exclaimed, "This is it!"

Replying to further questions, Mike told the court the history of the big black typewriter. It had been given to a sister-in-law, then to a sister, and finally taken to a junk dealer.

Prosecutor Murphy did not challenge the authenticity of the typewriter. Indeed, he had nothing to gain by doing so. Rather, he asked Mike if the machine was really that bad of an instrument. Mike conceded that, at least in the years 1937-1938, the Woodstock had been serviceable enough. It had been good enough for his sister to use for schoolwork.

Next Mike's brother Pat Catlett came to the witness stand. His testifying was something of an ordeal because Pat was extremely hard of hearing. Questions were frequently repeated and always shouted. He said that his family had acquired the typewriter when the Hisses moved to Volta Place. Pat had taken the machine, which had been acting up with annoying frequency, to a repair shop but they could not replace its defective parts.

On cross-examination Murphy's voice boomed through the court as he got Pat to concede that the Hisses might have given the Catletts the Woodstock a few months after the Volta Place move.

Finally, in a move much anticipated by the public and press, Stryker called Alger Hiss himself to the witness stand. The dapper and youthful-looking man testified calmly and confidently. He categorically denied that he was a Communist, had ever been a Communist, or a "Communist sympathizer." He conceded that he had indeed authored the handwritten notes in the Baltimore Papers but said he had not given them to Whittaker Chambers. He swore that he had delivered no sensitive papers of any sort to his accuser nor committed any act of espionage whatsoever.

When cross-examined, Hiss's calm self-confidence metamorphosed into a haughty disdain for his questioner. Murphy had a hard time controlling his temper when Alger corrected the prosecutor's grammar. The following exchange is only one of many in which Hiss got the better of his interrogator.

HISS: If [Chambers] had had a long-distance phone call of any size I certainly would have taken that up with him.
MURPHY: You would have ran after that one?
HISS: Excuse me?
MURPHY: You would have ran after him for that?
HISS: I would have run after him.

The courtroom exploded in laughter.

Another time:

MURPHY: I thought you said he came to the door.
HISS: That is the way he entered the house.

The courtroom audience again convulsed with laughter and an embarrassed Murphy looked to the judge for help. "Your Honor," he said, "will you ask some of the clowns to stop laughing?"

However, Judge Kaufman replied that the laughter had just been a "spontaneous outburst."

Photo: Hiss and Wife Priscilla Leave Federal Courthouse

Hiss and wife, Priscilla leave the Federal Courthouse (AP)
Hiss and wife, Priscilla leave the Federal
Courthouse (AP)

Priscilla Hiss was a very different sort of witness. Unlike her husband and more like Esther Chambers, Priscilla was very nervous. She had always been a private person and wilted under the glare of so much negative publicity. Although not formally charged with a crime, she was allegedly the typist of treason.

Neatly dressed with gray-streaked hair and ramrod-straight posture, she "affirmed" rather than "swore" as she took the stand. Like her husband, she remembered the Crosleys not as friends but as tenants who failed to meet their payments. She denied socializing with them or ever giving Esther Chambers a "lovely old linen towel" to diaper her baby. She said the Hisses had last seen the freeloading Crosleys in 1936, that Esther's description of the Volta Place home erred in many respects, and that, contrary to Esther's recollection, Priscilla had not registered for a nursing course in 1937. All of the testimony about espionage was a complete fabrication, Priscilla insisted.

Whittaker Chambers had told the court that the Hisses had loaned him $400 in 1937 to buy the car Whittaker used to transport his family to Florida. As Sam Tanenhaus writes, "The FBI had found the Hisses had withdrawn that amount from an account at the Riggs Savings Bank on November 1937. Alger had testified that the withdrawal was for furnishings at Volta Place...Priscilla confirmed this, itemizing various purchases."

Finally, Priscilla testified that she had lost a pocketbook with a house key and a car key inside it, while living at Volta Place. This raised the possibility that someone (i.e. Chambers) had stolen the house key and then entered their house to either remove or type the Baltimore Papers.

Murphy cross-examined the anxious witness gently. However, he brought out inconsistencies and sometimes showed her testimony to be, quite simply, false. The prosecutor asked Hiss if, in 1930, when she and her husband lived in Manhattan, she had been "a member of the Socialist Party."

"I don't think so," Hiss sidestepped. She did not remember registering to vote as a Socialist but did recall voting for Norman Thomas, the Socialist nominee.

Murphy showed her a photostat of the 1932 voter registration book in which Priscilla Hiss was listed as a Socialist. In a quavering voice, Hiss acknowledged it was her signature but said she only meant to indicate an intention to vote for Thomas.

Then the prosecutor moved on to Priscilla's typing skills. He asked her about the typing test she had taken at Columbia. Hiss could not recall any such test until Murphy showed her a photostat of her B grade. He also produced a document showing that, in 1937, long after she and her husband claimed they ceased contact with the Chambers, she had enrolled in a medical technology course, something Esther Chambers could easily have confused with a "nursing" course.

A few days after a shaky Priscilla Hiss ended her testimony, the defense called a surprise witness. He was big, burly, bullet-headed Dr. Carl Binger, a respected psychiatrist who had sat in the front row for Whittaker Chambers's testimony, studying the witness. Stryker attempted to elicit Binger's expert opinion as to the psychological state of Chambers but the judge ruled it out of bounds.

Murphy wanted to put on Hede Massing as a rebuttal witness. Like Whittaker Chambers and Julian Wadleigh, Massing was an admitted ex-Communist who had engaged in espionage. Like Chambers but unlike Wadleigh, Massing claimed she had known Hiss when he was a spy. However, Judge Kaufman ruled that Massing could not take the stand and, without her, Chambers was Hiss's sole accuser.

Lloyd Stryker's summation was impassioned. He called Chambers a "recognized and accomplished perjurer, a liar by habit, by teaching, by training, by inclination, and by preference...an enemy of the republic, a blasphemer of Christ...with no respect for either matrimony or motherhood...Roguery, deception, and criminality have marked this man Chambers as if with a hot iron." Stryker also pointed the finger at Julian Wadleigh, Chambers's "fellow thief and confederate in crime."

In Tom Murphy's summation, he noted that documents in evidence had been typed on a machine that was once owned by the Hisses. The testimony that they had given it away before the dates in question was spurious. How could it just coincidentally have fallen into the hands of someone in the service of the Soviet Union? He compared the accused to Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot and noted that both of these historical villains could have summoned many fine character witnesses. Chambers said the Hisses had loaned him $400 in 1937 and, sure enough, the Hisses had made a withdrawal of that exact sum in that year. Was Whittaker "psychic"? Murphy asked. Was this another coincidence? Why would an editor of Time risk throwing away his own career simply to railroad Alger Hiss?

The trial ended with a hung jury, eight to four for conviction.

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