The Pumpkin Papers and The Baltimore Documents

There were two components to the physical evidence Whittaker Chambers produced against Alger Hiss – what he called a “thick batch” of papers and a smaller amount of film. Having previously sworn for many years on many occasions – most recently on November 4, 1948 – that Alger Hiss had never been involved in espionage, Chambers on November 14 dramatically retrieved a “big, plump” envelope he said had been concealed in a Brooklyn apartment for the previous ten years. Inside were typed copies of State Department documents and five rolls of 35mm film (not microfilm) that together, Chambers now said, constituted proof that Hiss had been a Soviet spy.

Courtroom sketch, Lloyd Paul Stryker

Courtroom sketch of Lloyd Paul Stryker, lead attorney for Alger Hiss, cross-examining Whittaker Chambers, 1949

The copied documents, which were handed to Hiss’s Baltimore lawyer on November 17, when Hiss was suing Chambers for libel for labeling him a Communist, were almost instantly called the Baltimore Documents. Chambers said Priscilla Hiss had retyped these State Department papers for transmission to the Soviet Union, but that he had held onto them in case he was threatened by Communist agents once he left the party.

Two of the five strips of film had photographs of State Department documents (not the same documents that had been copied); the other three rolls of film were undeveloped and still in canisters. Chambers also produced four short notes about State Department memos in Alger Hiss’s handwriting (Hiss said such scraps were routine jottings prepared for briefing his State Department superiors). At Hiss’s direction, everything brought into court was turned over to the Department of Justice.

Courtroom sketch of Alger Hiss

Courtroom sketch of Alger Hiss by Jack Raymond, “Post Home News”

Although supposedly hidden away in the same envelope as the Baltimore Documents, the film in the Hiss case, thanks to even more spectacular theatrics on Chambers’ part, got a nickname of its own: the Pumpkin Papers. Chambers never gave this film to Hiss’s lawyer, keeping it instead at his Maryland farm – until, that is, the night of December 2, when, having concluded that the “Hiss forces” were plotting to steal it, he put it in a hollowed-out pumpkin behind his home. Then he called HUAC, which sent staffers to bring the film to Washington, where Richard Nixon, who had rushed back from a Caribbean cruise, was famously photographed holding up one strip of developed film and peering at it through a magnifying glass.

HUAC, in a statement, said the film “furnished the evidence” demonstrating that Soviet espionage “has been amazingly successful.” Nixon said that the film would “prove to the American people once and for all that where you have a Communist you have an espionage agent.”

What was in the pumpkin?

Pumpkin Paper

A typical State Department page from the Pumpkin Papers discusses Brazil’s 1907-1913 imports from Germany.

Oddly, three of the five rolls of film that supposedly proved espionage, once and for all, were suppressed, and the American people never got to see their contents until they were released to Alger Hiss in 1975, 27 years after they had emerged from the pumpkin.  As The New York Times reported on August 1, 1975, “One film had been overexposed and was totally blank” – perhaps while being developed for HUAC. “Two others turned out to be faintly legible copies of Navy Department documents relating to such subjects as life rafts, parachutes and fire extinguishers.” “I could possibly have seen those memos,” Alger Hiss told what the Times called a “crowded, often boisterous” news conference. “They certainly are almost useless for espionage purposes.”

We present here two commentaries on this belated revelation: “The ‘Flimflam’ in the Pumpkin Papers,” by veteran Washington correspondent I. F. Stone; and “The Pumpkin Capers,” an article Hiss himself wrote for The Real World magazine, which also reproduced some of these “lost” documents. Controversy about the Pumpkin Papers – their content, their value, even the date the film was manufactured – continues to this day.

Who had access to the Baltimore Documents?

Baltimore document

A typical page from the Baltimore Documents has British complaints about unpaid sugar duties.

As a December 1948 United Press dispatch pointed out in The Washington Post (“Many Saw ‘Secret’ Papers, State Aides Say”), in the 1930s State Department documents like those in both the Baltimore Documents and the Pumpkin Papers were available to “dozens of persons, both inside and out of government.” Francis B. Sayre, who had been Alger Hiss’s first State Department boss, confirmed in his own December 1948 grand jury testimony that the Pumpkin Papers and Baltimore Documents were circulated among many government officials besides Alger Hiss. Contrary to some newspaper accounts, Sayre stated, “accessibility was not confined.”