Alger Hiss and the possibly-forged typewriter

I recently encountered a reference to Alger Hiss and a “Woodstock typewriter”; I went looking for more information, and found some really interesting history, which among other things touches on the rise of Richard Nixon.

My only association with the name “Alger Hiss” was that he was a spy; I didn’t even know when or for whom he had spied. But it turns out that there’s a great deal of controversy over whether he really was a spy.

Hiss’s Wikipedia article has a lot of info, but here’s my attempt at a summary:

  • In the 1930s and 1940s, Hiss worked for the US government.
  • In 1948, after appearing before HUAC, he was accused of having been a communist and having spied for the USSR in the 1930s. (Richard Nixon, who was in the US House of Representatives at the time, rose to prominence in part because of his role in pursuing Hiss.)
  • The statute of limitations for espionage had run out, but Hiss was tried for, and eventually convicted of, perjury related to the espionage.
  • A major piece of evidence involved a typewriter; see below.
  • Hiss served a few years in prison.
  • After he got out, he did various other things (including eventually getting reinstated to the Massachusetts bar), and tried for the remaining 40 years of his life to prove that he had been falsely convicted.

About the typewriter: one piece of evidence against Hiss was a couple of documents that had allegedly been typed by his wife, Priscilla Hiss, on the Hiss family’s Woodstock-brand typewriter, which they had subsequently given away. A private detective working for Hiss’s defense tracked down the typewriter, and analysis indicated that the documents in question had in fact been typed on that typewriter.

At the time, it wasn’t widely known that it’s possible to alter a typewriter to make its output look like that of another typewriter. Hiss claimed that the documents were forgeries—that the guy who had accused him of being a spy had altered another typewriter to make its typing a good match for that of the Hiss family typewriter. It turned out that it was indeed possible to make such alterations, but it wasn’t clear whether that had been done in this case. (It has also been suggested that various other parties did the alteration; maybe even the FBI.)

For much more about the typewriter, and about Hiss, see The Alger Hiss Story, a pro-Hiss website launched in 2001. In particular, see the overview page about the typewriter. In the navigation on the right side of that page, there are links to ten more pieces about the typewriter.

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