Friday, November 27, 2015

NOVEMBER 27 = Alger Hiss is Released from Prison

On today's date, November 27, in 1954 Alger Hiss, a former official at the U.S. State Department was released from prison after serving 44 months (left).  Hiss had been convicted of Perjury in lying to a Federal Grand Jury when he denied having stolen State Department documents and having passed them along to Whittaker Chambers and also when he denied having known Chambers after 1935.  All of this was part of a highly-charged and very public scandal in late 1948 - 50.  And it all got mixed up with a bunch of stuff involving "Pumpkin Papers" an old typewriter, and a bird called the "Prothonotary Warbler." WHAT?? And why is any of this important in this day of computers, and a modern global economy? Does the name Edward Snowden ring a bell?

Hiss -vs- Chambers: A Study in Contrasts

In August of 1948. The House Un-American Activities Committee was conducting hearings on possible communist infiltration into the American government.  This was a very real threat in the minds of Americans who were for the first time facing a world where one bomb could destroy a city, and where the Soviets stood just a secret away from acquiring such a bomb.  Richard M. Nixon, who was then an
ambitious young congressman from California was on the Committee which was hearing testimony from Whittaker Chambers (above), an Editor at Time Magazine, who confessed to having once been a communist. Chambers was about as unlikely a source for important information as one could imagine. Nixon was aghast: "I could hardly believe that this man was our witness.  Whittaker Chambers was one of the most disheveled-looking persons I had ever seen. Everything about him seemed wrinkled and unpressed. He was short and pudgy.  His shirt collar was curled up over his jacket.  He spoke in a rather bored monotone."

But his information was anything but boring.  He named several individuals who had been a part of this cell.  One of the men he named was Alger Hiss.  Hiss had risen to the highest ranks of the New Deal establishment of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He had
clerked for the legendary Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.  He had advised FDR at the Yalta Conference. He was friends with Dean Acheson, the former Under Secretary of State.  And he was presently the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Hiss insisted on rebutting Chambers' charge and did so on Aug. 5 (above).  Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose wrote: "Tall, thin, handsome, smartly dressed, the Carnegie Endowment president (above) carried himself with assurance, making the sharpest possible contrast with Chambers."  "In a firm voice.." Nixon recalled, "...he said 'I am here at my own request to deny unqualifiedly various statements which were made... by one Whittaker Chambers.." He then went on to deny that he had ever been a communist, and that not only did he not know anyone called Chambers but as far as he could recall, he never had. At the close of his remarks his many friends crowded around him to congratulate him on his superlative performance.

The HUAC and Nixon Question Hiss Further

But Nixon objected to Hiss' attitude towards the Committee which he considered to be "insulting in the extreme." So he arranged for the two men to be questioned privately. On August 7, Nixon and HUAC members questioned Chambers who seemed to know quite a bit about Hiss and his home life. This was fine, but they needed something specific. Chambers also recalled their hobbies.  "They used to get up early in the morning and go to Glen Echo, out the canal, to observe birds.  I recall once they saw, to their great excitement, a 
prothonotary warbler." Armed with this and other info. on Aug. 16, the Committee questioned Hiss who said that he did not recognize Chambers at all. After the morning recess he amended that to say he might have known a man who looked like that named "George Crosley". When Nixon asked if he had any hobbies he said yes, tennis and ornothology. When Congressman John MacDowell asked if Hiss had ever seen a prothonotary warbler Hiss responded enthusiastically: "I have--right here on the Potomac.  Do you know that place?" The HUAC was convinced - Chambers knowledge of Hiss had to be first hand. To their mind he was clearly lying to the HUAC when he said he had never known Chambers.

Chambers and "the Pumpkin Papers"

The HUAC published a report calling the testimony of Hiss "vague and evasive." Of course by the time the whole matter of a charge of espionage had become a moot point, as the Statute of Limitations had long since passed on any such indictment.  But Hiss was open to a charge of lying before a House committee. Chambers produced documents with handwritten notes from Hiss proving that Hiss had in fact known him in the 1930's. But there was more. Chambers had
hidden some of the film on which he had photographed incriminating documents in an odd place. On December 2, 1948, Chambers lead investigators from the HUAC to a pumpkin patch on his farm in Maryland. There in a hollowed out pumpkin, Chambers produced several strips of film of  State and Navy Department documents which he said Hiss had passed to him. The press referred ever after to all of the documents taken form Maryland as "the Pumpkin Papers", which Nixon and HUAC member Robert Stripling are examining above.  These documents containing more hand written notes from Hiss built a case against the man who was now wide open to the perjury charge.

Hiss is Tried for Perjury

Hiss was charged with Perjury in a trial that began on May 31, 1949.  There were charges that Chambers had indeed known Hiss, and character witnesses galore testifying to Hiss and his sterling character. There was also a lot of testimony as to the possession of an old typewriter - a "Woodstock" typewriter with keys that would jam up on the writer. Hiss was alleged to have written up some of the secret documents he had passed to Chambers on this machine, and there was testimony that the Hiss family had given the typewriter to a family - the Catlatt's - before Hiss could have written the secret
 documents on them.  All of this ended with a hung jury on July 6, 1949. The second trial began on Nov. 17, 1949, and had more testimony regarding the typewriters as well as testimony from a witness, one Hede Messing who provided some corroboration for Chamber's story. Also an expert witness, Dr. Carl A. Binger delivered testimony that Chambers was a (above, Chambers with the "Guilty" verdict announcement) psychopath who was a  "a pathological liar." Claude Cross, the attorney for Hiss said in his closing that the typewriter may have belonged to Hiss, but somehow been used by someone else to type the incriminating documents to frame Hiss. Whatever the case, the second trial returned a verdict of Guilty on Hiss on Jan. 21, and he was sentenced to five years imprisonment on the perjury charge.

The Guilty Verdict on Hiss and Its Legacy

The guilty verdict on Hiss has remained controversial . Hiss maintained his innocence to the end of his life. Richard Nixon, receiving his first national fame as a result of the case, went on with his career, which culminated in his election to the presidency in 1968, and his forced resignation amidst the Watergate Scandal in 1974.  Hiss held that his conviction had been a result of cold war paranoia, and that Nixon's forced departure was proof that he was innocent. But in 1976, Allen Weinstein wrote a book called "Perjury - the Hiss Chambers Case." Originally intended as the definitive proof that Hiss had been innocent, in reviewing the evidence, Weinstein instead came to the opposite conclusion. Further, documents released since the fall of the Soviet Union have made a strong case that Hiss was in fact a Soviet Spy during the 1930's. Whittaker Chambers died in 1961. Nixon died in 1994, and Hiss died in 1996. The case has long since faded from current memory. But as has been shown with the case of Edward Snowden (below), the problem of government operatives releasing classified
information for their own reasons, and receiving assistance from Russia for it is still very much with us - even in this age of the world wide web, and shared information. Foreign espionage did not die with the Soviet System.


"RN - the Memoirs of Richard Nixon" by Richard M. Nixon, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1978

"Nixon - the Education of a Politician 1913 - 1962" by Stephen E. Ambrose Simon & Schuster, New York, 1987

Monday, November 23, 2015

NOVEMBER 23 = "Boss" Tweed is Taken

"Had he gone more slowly and carried on his operations on a smaller scale, and been simpler in his habits and less ostentatious in his pleasures, he could have retained his power until now, and might have strengthened it and made his overthrow far more difficult. A villain of more brains would have had a modest dwelling and would have guzzled in secret. He found, however, the seizure of the government and the malversation of its funds so easy at the outset that he was thrown off his guard."

- The Nation Magazine on Tweed's death in 1878.

On today's date, November 23 in 1876, William Marcy Tweed, the one-time "Boss" of the corrupt Democratic Party political machine of Tammany Hall was handed over to New York City Police.  Tweed had been recognized from one of the political cartoons of Thomas Nast while he was on the lamb in Spain.

The Rise of William M. Tweed

Born on April 3, 1823 in New York City to a third generation Scottish-Irish chair maker, Tweed rose rapidly through the ranks of local politics from an ax-wielding volunteer fireman to a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1852. In 1858 the New York City democratic party, in an attempt to block Republican reformers at the state capitol of Albany, appointed Tweed to the NYC Board of
Supervisors. In this post, Tweed got his first taste of graft. Tweed and his fellows forced vendors to pay a 15% overcharge to them in order to do business with the city. Tammany Hall was the corrupt political organization (founded by Aaron Burr) which ruled NYC's democratic politics for many years. By the mid 1860s,  Tweed (right) had risen to command the organization and through the “Tweed Ring,” which openly bilked millions from city contracts, bought votes, and which cultivated judicial corruption, he and his henchmen dominated the political life of New York City. For example, Tweed's Ring got a new charter passed which put NYC's finances under the control of the Board of Audit, which consisted of Tweed and his men. This meant that the Ring was able to vastly over charge vendors for doing business with NYC, and then they could pocket the extra cash.

Tweed -vs- Thomas Nast 

Of course along the way to all of this ill-gotten gain Tweed, who actually held the office of a State Senator from New York, acquired a good many enemies. The New York Times attacked him vigorously. And most damaging of all were the illustrations of Thomas Nast,
a political cartoonist for Harper's Weekly, a very popular news magazine of the day. Nast regularly portrayed Tweed and his henchmen as stealing money from the people of the city, and loving every moment of it. A famous depiction of Tweed from the pen of Nast is at the top of this posting. Another (above) depicts the Tweed ring saying "Who stole the people's money? T'was him!" Tweed is said to have complained "Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!"

Tweed's Downfall

But all of this activity came to a head with the New York Times reports on the cost overruns in the re-modeling of the City Courthouse in 1871. With the cost of the re-done NYC Courthouse reaching well over $3,000,000 and counting, greater scrutiny came onto the project than any other Tammany-backed project had ever seen before. In a series of articles, the Times made the greed of the Tweed Ring apparent, picking
apart piece by piece the obviously frivolous expenses attached to the project. Huge sums were attached to furniture, carpeting and shades. New Yorkers became outraged, and fully supported the investigation of the whole matter by Samuel Tilden (right), a non-Tammany democrat who was looking to end the corruption of the Tammany organization. Ultimately Tweed's man, the city Comptroller was obliged to resign, and was replaced by Tilden's man, Andrew Green. Tilden and Green examined the city's records and discovered that money from the contractors was going directly into Tweed's pockets. He was arrested the next day.

"Boss" Tweed Goes to Jail

He got out on bail, and attempted to regain his position via elections. But the public had had enough of Tweed and his cronies. The election went very poorly, and Tweed was re-arrested. The jury at his first trial in January of 1873 was unable to agree on a verdict. But the second trial in November of that year returned a verdict of guilty on most of the counts. Tweed was locked up in the Ludlow St. Jail. But he was
allowed visits to his home, and during one of these, he escaped and fled to Spain wherein he worked as a common seaman. But his infamy followed him, as did his image as depicted by Thomas Nast (left).  It was from one of Nast's drawings that he was recognized, and taken prisoner, and handed over to the U.S. Navy who returned him to the NYPD on today's date in 1876.  Tweed was returned to prison.  And it was there that he died from severe pneumonia on April 12, 1878. Tweed is to this day remembered as one of the most corrupt figures of all of the big city political bosses. And it was the cartoons of Thomas Nast that lead to his downfall, and eventually to his recapture. Then we shall let Nast have the final word on the man with his January, 1876 cartoon depicting Tweed's escape from prison: "Stone walls do not a prison make.."


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

NOVEMBER 18 = Time Zones Are Adopted in the U.S.A.

“All over the United States and Canada, people changed their clocks and watches in synchronization with their zone’s standard time... In one moment the many different standards of time that had caused conflict and confusion, were resolved into four simple standards.”

- The Library of Congress

On November 18, 1883, at the stroke of midnight, the United States adopted Standard Time Zones throughout the country.  This meant that instead of each town having its own time, the entire country would run according to four time zones: Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. And all at once the confusion and chaos of time changes across the country became a thing of the past.

Time-Keeping Chaos Across America

For the most part in man's history, time was kept in towns according to the sundial. One had only to look up at the sun, and there was the standard time for the area you were in. Now this was fine, as long as man could travel no faster than he could on the back of a horse. And most towns did indeed keep their own time based on the sundial. But once the Telegraph was introduced, and the Railroads, and these new modes of transportation shrunk the amount of time it took to get from one place to the other scheduling became a nightmare. Railroad timetables in most of the major cities of the U.S. would be obliged to list several differing arrival and departure times for a single train each one linked to a separate time zone in a different locality.

The Effort to Standardize Time Zones

In order to keep an accurate schedule of when goods, services or passengers could be expected to arrive at a certain place at a certain time, railroads needed standardized time zones. It is a mark of the power possessed by railroads that they, and not the government brought about this fundamental change in everyday American life. In the 1870's international efforts to bring standardized time zones into use began being made. In 1870, Charles F. Dowd proposed running U.S. railroads on four different time zones based on a meridian that ran through Washington D.C. In 1872 he amended this
to basing it on a meridian that ran through Greenwhich, England. Sandford Fleming (right), a Canadian inventor and railroad engineer proposed worldwide Standard Time at a meeting of the Royal Canadian Institute on February 8, 1879. In 1879 at the General Time Convention, Cleveland Abbe, an American meteorologist recommended four time zones across the contiguous U.S. based on Greenwhich Mean Time (the basic standard for world time). Eventually this was the plan which was adopted. And the date set was the 18'th of November.

On November 18, 1883...

As Dennis Cummings has colorfully recorded:

"At noon on Nov. 18, the U.S. Naval Observatory adjusted its signals to reflect the new time zones. Crowds gathered near town clocks across the country to watch the clocks be changed. In many places where the time was moved back, it became known as the 'day of two noons,' while other areas 'lost' minutes."

There was consid- erable resistance to this change in certain localities, but the railroad was by this time the lifeblood of the country, and frequently the only link for many such towns with the rest of the world. So most Americans and Canadians fully embraced this new idea of time zones. But it was actually not until 1918 that Congress - then as now catching up with what the country was already doing - officially adopted the four tine zones, placing in the supervision of the Interstate Commerce Commission.