Ghost of a Typewriter
The Nation, May 12, 1962
Fred J. Cook
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:
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.
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."
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
eye witnesses. They are hard bits of physical evidence, and
they are either legitimate or utter and callous frauds.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
story, never before told, begins with Donald Hiss. In February
1949, he later recalled, Raymond (Mike) Catlett called at
guess you know what I want to talk to you about," he said.
Hiss said no, he didn't know.
don't you know?" Mike asked. "Some people have been around
to see me."
they our people?" Donald Hiss asked.
no," said Catlett, "They were the FBI."
explained that the FBI was looking for the typewriter. "So
are we," Donald Hiss said. "Do
you know where it is?"
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.
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.
they did return to Marlowe's home, Marlowe still didn't have
"the information" but he telephoned a man named "Bill."
he said, "You've got that typewriter, and I want it right
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.
Hiss next drove Mike Catlett to "Bill's" house. "Bill" turned
out to be a young, rather thinnish fellow.
haven't got the typewriter," he said, "But I will take you
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
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."
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
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 visit 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
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.
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 MikeCatlett 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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.