Family Typewriter Plays Vital Role in Hiss Case
In November 1948, pre-trial depositions began in Baltimore in the libel suit that Alger Hiss had filed against Whittaker Chambers. Soon after, Chambers was asked to produce any documentary evidence to support his allegations that Hiss had been a Communist. At first he told Hiss’s lawyers he had none. Then, on the November 17th, Chambers dropped a bombshell.
He brought in an envelope containing typed copies of secret State Department documents (they came to be known as the “Baltimore Documents”). The pages were typed, he said, by Priscilla Hiss for transmission to the Soviet Union, but he had kept them and stored them in an envelope in a dumbwaiter in Brooklyn for ten years. The Hiss team set out to prove they were a forgery. Their efforts centered on finding the family’s old Woodstock typewriter, which the Hisses remembered giving away long before the dates on the Baltimore Documents.
When the typewriter was finally found, lying in a garbage-filled lot, the defense introduced it into evidence at both trials without questioning its authenticity. But an FBI typewriter expert testified that both the “Baltimore Documents” and some old Hiss family letters had been typed on this machine. At his sentencing in 1950, Alger Hiss said he had been the victim of “forgery by typewriter.”
Hiss was ridiculed at the time for saying this, and a debate about his contention has raged ever since. We present here four essays on the Hiss typewriter: The best overview was provided early on by investigative journalist Fred Cook’s “The Unfinished Story,” in 1957. Later revelations about what the FBI had uncovered even before the trials about the typewriter but had withheld from the defense (information that emerged only when FBI files were released to Alger Hiss in the 1970s) are summarized in Hiss’s 1978 coram nobis petition (“The Serial Number” and “In the Trial”), and further analyzed in attorney John Lowenthal’s “What the FBI Knew,” in 1976. Cook himself had returned to the subject in 1962 (in “The Ghost of a Typewriter”), when reviewing Richard M. Nixon’s autobiography.
After Hiss’s conviction, his new attorney, Chester Lane, submitted both the documents and the Hiss typewriter for scientific analysis as part of his motion for a new trial. The startling results, as presented in four affidavits accompanying his motion, showed that the typewriter brought into court by the Hisses did not type either the “Baltimore Documents” or the old family letters; that this typewriter had been altered; that the documents Chambers produced may not have sat in an envelope for ten years; and that Priscilla Hiss had not been the typist.
Finally, we present a round-up of three essays on what has been learned and made public since 1950 about forging typewriters – a technique that, as we now know, was far from being a groundless conjecture and indeed had been perfected by the time of the Hiss trials, having already been used effectively by British counterintelligence teams during World War II.