“The Ghost of a Typewriter”

An article on Richard M. Nixon’s book Six Crises, by Fred J. Cook (The Nation, May 12, 1962)

Richard M. Nixon’s assertion in his new book, Six Crises, that the FBI found the typewriter it says it didn’t find in the Alger Hiss case may now be matched with one other piece of newly discovered evidence – the fact that the House Committee on Un-American Activities, in an official report written in 1951, commended the FBI for “the location of the typewriter” (note the use of the word “location,” a rather odd word to use in this context). The passage, discovered by his own attorneys searching for clues in the wake of the furor raised by the Nixon disclosure, appears in a report of HUAC dated December 31st, 1951, as follows:

The committee wishes to commend the Federal Bureau of Investigation for its work in bringing this case to a successful conclusion. The location of the typewriter and certain other pieces of evidence needed during the trial of the case was amazing.

Amazing seems the proper word for this commendation of the deed the FBI insists it never performed – yet there is, a Silver Star for gallantry in action, pinned on the FBI on page 58 of the HUAC’s wrap-up report, “The Shameful Years, 30 Years of Soviet Espionage in the United States.”

This disclosure is the most recent and the most official in a long series, all tending in the same direction, all pointing to the same conclusion – that the government did find the typewriter it vows on its honor it never had in its possession. The point is vital, for the prosecution of Alger Hiss was either an honest prosecution or it was a frame-up; there is no middle ground in this case for innocent mistake; for documents and the typewriter are not honestly mistaken or personally prejudiced eyewitnesses. They are hard bits of physical evidence, and they are either legitimate or utter and callous frauds.

Let us, then, examine this mystery in the light of past and present disclosures; let us see how this “immutable witness,” as the prosecution called the typewriter, came into the possession of Alger Hiss and was proffered by him in court, where it sat throughout two trials as his silent accuser.

The typewriter in question is an archaic Woodstock, serial number 230,099. Either this machine or one exactly like it belonged to Thomas Fansler, the father-in-law of Alger Hiss, and had been given by him to his daughter, Priscilla. It had been in the Hiss household for a number of years; but when the Hisses moved to a new home in Washington about the end of 1937 – there was later to be much confusion and dispute about the date – they gave the old Woodstock, by then hardly usable, to their servants, the Catletts. By 1948, when ex-communist Whittaker Chambers accused Hiss of having passed him government documents to be typed on the Woodstock, the machine itself had been discarded and forgotten by the Hisses for approximately a decade.

There was a frantic hunt to find it. The FBI had some 35 agents combing Washington and a much larger field force tracking down clues and elsewhere. Hiss and his brother, Donald, near amateurs in the detective business, also sought the machine. They were driven by two motivations: they hoped to establish that the typewriter had not been in Hiss’s possession in early 1938, when the documents were typed; and they believed that they could show the old, virtually unworkable Woodstock could not have been the machine that did the typing.

In this competition the super sleuths of the FBI supposedly lost the race to the amateur Hiss brothers. The Hisses recovered a machine they believed to be Alger Hiss’s old Woodstock about mid-April 1949, and they subsequently produced it in court at both the first and second trials, in which Hiss was accused of perjury for denying he had ever passed documents to Chambers.

Only after Hiss was convicted in the second trial did the late Chester Lane, then Hiss’s new attorney, begin to examine the possibility that his client had been the victim of an intricate frame-up, engineered through “forgery by typewriter.” And so, in late December 1951, Lane began to backtrack on the trail of discovery, hoping to determine how Woodstock #230,099 had happened to fall into Hiss’s hands when 35 searching agents of the FBI could not find it. What Lane’s investigators uncovered was a strange, murky story, filled with many inexplicable twists and constant shadowboxing with FBI agents almost every step of the way.

This story, never before told, begins with Donald Hiss. In February 1949, he later recalled, Raymond (Mike) Catlett called at his home.

“I guess you know what I want to talk to you about,” he said.

Donald Hiss said no, he didn’t know.

“Well, don’t you know?” Mike asked. “Some people have been around to see me.”

“Were they our people?” Donald Hiss asked.

“Oh, no,” said Catlett, “They were the FBI.”

He explained that the FBI was looking for the typewriter. “So are we,” Donald Hiss said. “Do you know where it is?”

Catlett said he did. The typewriter was in his house in P Street; he could put his hands right on it and bring it over. Donald Hiss told him to do that, but the doing turned out to be not quite so simple. Mike Catlett went, looked and found the machine wasn’t in the closet. But, he assured Donald Hiss, he knew right where it was; his brother, Pat, must have it. Donald Hiss drove him to Pat’s home. But Pat, it developed, didn’t have the Woodstock, either. Pat said his wife had used the typewriter for a time, but it wasn’t much good and he had given it to his sister, Burnetta. At the time Burnetta had been living at the home of a Dr. Easter, but Dr. Easter had died and a man named Marlowe had moved all the belongings out of the Easter House. Maybe Marlowe would know what happened to the old Woodstock.

Edward C. McLean, Hiss’s attorney of record, recently appointed a federal court judge by President Kennedy, was in Washington at the time, and he and Donald Hiss drove with Mike Catlett to Marlowe’s home. Mike went to talk to Marlowe. When he came out, he said cryptically that Marlowe wanted to get some information; they had better come back again at a later time.

When they did return to Marlowe’s home, Marlowe still didn’t have “the information” but he telephoned a man named “Bill.”

“Bill,” he said, “You’ve got that typewriter, and I want it right away.”

Donald Hiss asked who “Bill” was and was told he was the man who actually moved the belongings from Dr. Easter’s house; he’d accepted a yellow washing machine and the old Woodstock as part payment for his work.

Donald Hiss next drove Mike Catlett to “Bill’s” house. “Bill” turned out to be a young, rather thinnish fellow.

“I haven’t got the typewriter,” he said, “But I will take you there.”

“Bill” led them to a mover named Ira Lockey. He and Mike Catlett went into the house. There they talked to Mrs. Hall, Lockey’s sister-in-law. She remembered the Woodstock, said it had been sitting right there on that table for a long time, but they would have to talk to Lockey about it. The next day, Donald Hiss and Mike Catlett returned to Lockey’s house. Mike went in. When he came out, he said Lockey was a very sick man (Lockey did actually have a serious heart ailment) and he couldn’t talk about the machine, but said he had junked it quite a time ago.

There were a couple of junkyards near Lockey’s home, and Donald Hiss and Mike Catlett decided to investigate. Mike poked around one of the yards and came back saying he found the yellow washing machine and the typewriter, a Royal. Donald Hiss gave him some money and told him to buy the Royal. “I kept it for probably six or eight months,” Donald Hiss later recalled. “I was sure it wasn’t what we were looking for, and I told Mike to keep looking.”

Parenthetically, it might be noted at this point that one of the documents Chambers had produced stuck out like a maimed finger from the rest. It had not been typed on a Woodstock, but apparently on a Royal. The prosecution was never able to explain how this straight document crept into the horde that Chambers insisted came entirely from Hiss, but at this point in the chase the Royal found beside the yellow washing machine had no significance for Donald Hiss. It was a Woodstock he sought, and he kept Mike Catlett chasing after the suspiciously incommunicative Lockey.

After one visit to Lockey’s house, Mike told Donald Hiss that he hadn’t gone in because he had seen an FBI car parked outside. How did he know it was an FBI car? Well, Mike said, he looked at the special little green parking card on the windshield. He was later to insist to Lane’s investigators that, on one occasion – whether this or another time was not clear – he had stayed away from Lockey’s home because he saw two FBI men there. He declared he knew they were FBI agents because they were the men who questioned him. This seemed to indicate, as would appear logical, that the FBI was following the same trail toward discovery of the typewriter that Donald Hiss and Mike Catlett were following – and apparently with no better results. Four subsequent visits to Lockey’s home by Mike Catlett produced only the information that Lockey was too sick to talk and wanted absolutely nothing to do with the typewriter.

At this juncture Harold Rosenwald, who had been helping in the investigation, went to Detroit and talked to Burnetta Fisher, the sister of Mike and Pat Catlett. Afterwards he telephoned Donald Hiss and suggested that he and Mike Catlett look around Marlowe’s old shack, which was across the street from the home of Dr. Easter. There was a chance they might find the typewriter there. Donald Hiss and Mike looked, but they couldn’t find the typewriter. They talked to next-door neighbors, who remembered that the junky old machine had been sitting outside in the tall grass. Donald Hiss and Mike Catlett poked around in the grass, but they couldn’t find the Woodstock.

The search was at this impasse when, shortly before Easter, McLean and Rosenwald returned to Washington. They were worried about the inconsistency between Mrs. Hall’s story that the Woodstock had been sitting right there on the table for a long time and Lockey’s seeming lack of all knowledge, his disinclination even to discuss the matter. Taking Mike Catlett with them, the lawyers paid a visit on Lockey. And this time, almost like jerking a rabbit out of a hat, Lockey produced the typewriter. It was Woodstock #230,099.

Such is the strange story. It is obvious from a mere recitation of its details that no part of it hangs together with any of its other parts. What is one to make of Mike Catlett’s strange conduct? If he had been asked about the typewriter by the FBI before he went to Donald Hiss, wouldn’t he have looked in his closet to make certain it was there before he told Hiss it was? What is one to make of the conflict between Mrs. Hall’s version that the typewriter had been on the table, and Lockey’s that he had junked it? What of Lockey’s strange incommunicativeness and then his act in suddenly, like magic, producing the typewriter? If Mike Catlett was right and the FBI had previously contacted Lockey, wouldn’t this humble moving man have been happy to turn the machine over to this august government agency instead of going to considerable risk to preserve it for the Hisses? One would certainly think so. Even cupidity couldn’t have explained this partiality for the Hisses on the part of a moving man who did not even know them.

The more questions one asks, the deeper the mystery grows. Chester Lane, having asked himself such questions, spurred his associates and investigators on to the questioning and re-questioning of all the participants in this dubious chain of the disappearing and suddenly reappearing typewriter. And with each questioning, more and more discrepancies continued to appear.

Lockey now said he didn’t even know the typewriter was wanted when Charles Houston, who was working with McLean and Rosenwald, had called upon him. He had never met or talked with Mike Catlett except in the witness room in New York, during the trials. Where had the typewriter been during the week that Mike Catlett and Donald Hiss – and presumably the FBI – had been looking for it? There was no mystery about that, Lockey said. He had loaned the machine to his son Ira, Jr. When Houston asked him about it, he told Ira he wanted it back. That had been all there was to it. See?

Chester Lane’s investigators didn’t see. They questioned Mrs. Hall about her story that the typewriter had been sitting a long time on the Lockey table. Mrs. Hall couldn’t recall ever talking to Mike Catlett, but she did recall that, before Houston came and made his lucky (or unlucky) purchase, “several other young men” had made inquiries about the typewriter. On a subsequent occasion Mrs. Hall did seem to recall Mike Catlett clearly. She remembered, she said, that when he first came to see Lockey, Mike Catlett said the machine was worth $200. She said she had thought he must be “crazy” to be offering this kind of money for an old, beat-up wreck of a machine, and so she had told him they didn’t have any such typewriter, though actually the Woodstock was in a closet right there under Mike’s nose all the time. None of this seemed to agree with what Mrs. Hall had told Lane’s investigators; none of it seemed to agree with Lockey’s story that he had lent the machine to his son, and that as soon as he heard it was wanted, he got it back and sold it to the first man who asked for it.

Ira Lockey, Jr. simply confirmed his father’s story. He had borrowed the typewriter (he could not remember when); it was in such bad condition it could not be used; and it had never been out of his possession; and when his father asked him for it, he returned it.

All these confusions and inconsistencies were compounded in the tangled recollections of Mike Catlett. He first learned that Lockey had the typewriter, he said, from the mysterious “Bill.” Who was “Bill”? Where did he live? Mike couldn’t recall. He had visited Lockey’s home six or seven times, he said, but when he went there, he talked to Mrs. Hall. He learned about Lockey’s possession of the typewriter approximately a month before the machine was recovered; but he appeared confused about the sequence of events, about dates, about even some of the incidents that had happened. “He contradicted himself frequently during the interview, and later remembered events that he said he could not recall during the first part of the interview,” Hiss’s investigator reported. “He confirmed my belief that he was suspicious of me by following me out to my car and making a note of my license number. Both Catlett and Lockey answered only the questions put to them, and never volunteered any additional information.”

It was obvious, from this backtracking on the discovery of the typewriter, that no fact held still, no story remain consistent; the whole business was as uncertain as treading on quicksand. Lockey, questioned a second time, came up with a version at complete variance with his first. He confirmed that he had first learned about the importance of the machine from Mrs. Hall after her first talk with Mike Catlett, not when Houston first asked him about it. He added that he had given the typewriter to his son only two or three weeks before he got it back and sold it to Houston and McLean. In this version, there appeared no explanation why Lockey would suddenly ship the typewriter away after the first inquiry, why he would pretend lack of interest and keep Catlett and Donald Hiss chasing around for the better part of a month – and then produce the machine only when McLean and Houston appeared.

The questions that arise from all this are almost infinite, but the vital ones are few and their implications meaningful. May one deduce from all of this that someone, for some reason, did not want to deal with Mike Catlett as an emissary of the Hisses? That someone was willing to produce the typewriter only when it could be delivered directly into the hands of defense attorneys, who would then be honor bound to produce it in court? Such speculation leads inevitably to the second set of questions. Was then this Woodstock #230,099 the same machine that the Hisses had? Was it even the same machine Lockey had found sitting among junk, exposed to rain and weather in the backyard? There are some definite indications that it was not.

A thread that runs through all the stories of the various participants in this drama, both in court testimony and in the questioning by Lane’s investigators outside of court, deals with the decrepitude of the Hiss Woodstock. Testimony that conflicts on everything else agrees on this point. Everyone who had possession of the Hiss Woodstock had been impressed by its worthlessness. Many of the letters were blurred, the keys stuck, it was worthless, it was junk. This unanimous verdict hardly prepares one for the performance of Woodstock #230,099, when it was produced in court. This appeared to be a perky old machine. An FBI agent typed upon it without much apparent difficulty, and various members of the jury, intrigued by the mystery of the machine, test-typed on the keys themselves. It seemed to work fairly well.

Such is the story of the finding of Woodstock #230,099 by the Hiss defense. Though Chester Lane and his associate, Mrs. Helen Buttenwieser, followed every imaginable turn and twist in the trail, they wound up not with the ultimate truth they sought, but with a mystery more strange and baffling than it had been when they started out. But there’s much to be said for their discoveries. Truth does sometimes present what appear to be baffling inconsistencies which are not immediately explainable; but if the story is true there should be at least a few fixed points that hold solid when almost every witness changes his story, when the stories of virtually all conflict on vital aspects, when what has been fact with one witness one day is changed to a new fact the next day; the reek is the reek of rotten fish, not the aroma of truth.