Revisiting the Pumpkin Papers

Baltimore Glimpses

October 25, 1994|By Gilbert Sandler

THIS IS THE time children get excited about the carving of the pumpkin. Nothing like a jack-o-lantern to bring on the thrills and -- chills of Halloween.

But for some of the grandparents of such kids, pumpkins harken to a chilling local incident, not Halloween related.

It happened in a Carroll County garden on the night of Dec. 2, 1948. By morning of the next day, a lone orange gourd would be the most famous pumpkin in America. It would put the phrase "Pumpkin Papers" into the language.

At about 10 o'clock that night, three men came out of the back door of a white farmhouse on Pipe Creek Farm off Bachman Valley Road near Westminster headed for a small pumpkin patch. When they arrived at a particular pumpkin, one of the men, the short and stout one, bent down and removed the lid of the hollowed-out gourd. To the amazement of the other two, he reached in and pulled out several cylinders containing rolls of microfilm.

Two of the men were investigators with the House Un-American Activities Committee; the third man (the short, stout one) was Whittaker Chambers.

The microfilm was of highly secret State Department documents which -- it would be argued later in the courts -- were leaked to the Communist Party by a man not there that night, Alger Hiss, a City College, Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law School alum.

Over the course of several years of hearings, trials and intense publicity, Chambers would reveal himself to be a former Communist spy. Mr. Hiss would deny ever knowing Chambers. And the event also would launch the career of a little-known California congressman, Richard M. Nixon, an un-American activities committee member.

In January 1950, a jury convicted Mr. Hiss of perjury; he served 3 1/2 years in prison; Chambers would die of a heart attack on his farm at age 61.

In his biography, "Witness," Chambers wrote: "No act of mine was more effective in forcing into the open the Hiss case than my act of providing the documentary evidence against Hiss, introducing the copied State Department documents into the pre-trial examination and placing the microfilm in the pumpkin. It was my decisive act in the case. For when the microfilm fell into the hands of the committee, it became impossible ever again to suppress the Hiss case."

Mr. Hiss, who now lives in New York, has always maintained his innocence. The incident derailed his distinguished career as a State Department official. He worked on the Yalta Conference and was an architect of the United Nations.

The Hiss case helped create a climate of suspicion that eventually resulted in the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s conducted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

There were other Baltimore connections to that famous case. Here are some people, places and things:

William Marbury, of the law firm of Piper and Marbury: an old friend of Mr. Hiss and his family, assisted in Mr. Hiss' defense.

1427 Linden Ave.: the house where Mr. Hiss was born.

3310 Auchentroly Terrace, 2125 Mount Royal Ave., 2610 St. Paul St. -- all houses where Chambers lived.

2113 Callow Ave.: the house where secret documents were photographed.

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