A Spy in the Neighborhood of Charles Village:
the intersecting lives of a Confessed Communist Spy turned Conservative Republican, and a Baltimore American Reporter
Edward C. Papenfuse,
Maryland State Archivist, retired
Whitaker “David” Chambers, Alger Hiss, and R. P. Harriss
My wife and I had come to love Baltimore above all cities. We were at home in it, finding in its kindly people and their quiet lives a tranquillity contrasting with our distress. We loved the physical city, its old brick houses in whose grave and fine proportions, we sensed the proportions of a soul as well as an architecture. We loved its moods of morning and of evening light, its long gardens, sometimes brick-walled, its gas-lit streets at night. We loved the touch of the continuing past and the present sense that, while the city's commerce tapped the mainland, its harbor looked seaward. And under its traditional and easy order, we sensed a sultriness that spiked it with a special character, of people as well as of climate, and saved it from monotony--a sultriness that stirred the city and its people less in the dog days than in the bursts of hot spring nights. There was thus a proprietary of the spirit in our choice that went beyond any practical reason, and determined us to make in this gracious and loved city our stand against death and for life. …-
Whittaker Chambers, Witness, p. 60.
No matter how much evidence remains for the study of history, it takes considerable imagination to reconstruct the past into a convincing narrative. Sometimes the records are so extensive that perspective and detachment are nearly impossible. Was Alger Hiss (1904 – 1996), Baltimore born , Johns Hopkins educated, and State Department employee, a spy for the Russians? Was Whittaker Chambers (1901 – 1961), playwright, translator, self-confessed spy, ex-Communist, esteemed editor at Time Magazine, and Baltimore resident, a reliable Witness to proving Alger Hiss was a spy?
April 26, 1945:
Alger Hiss, Secretary General of the San Francisco Conference
on creating a United Nations,
with U. S. Secretary of State Stettinius at the podium.
Source: UN Photo/Rosenberg
Alger Hiss, who rose high in the State Department and was largely responsible for organizing the San Francisco conference that led to the creation of the United Nations, went to prison in 1950 convicted of perjury (not spying) on the testimony and documents supplied by Whittaker Chambers. He denied Chambers’s charges to the day he died, November 15, 1996, at the age of 92.
The first perjury trial ended in a hung jury with four jurors voting to acquit. The second trial sent Hiss to Lewisburg prison for five years.
Was Alger Hiss guilty of treason or collaboration with Russia? The question remains a matter of extended debate fueled by web sites devoted to the lives of both Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. A plausible theory is that the book Witness by Whitaker Chambers is the “Great American Novel,” one of the best examples of American historical fiction conceived and begun in Baltimore.
Sifting through the mountain of evidence and the many books that have been written about Alger Hiss’s guilt or innocence is a formidable task, but one thing is certain, much of the testimony and all of the evidence produced by Whittaker Chambers about Hiss, centers on Baltimore where Chambers and his family, often under a number of aliases, lived in typical middle class housing (largely rental) from 1934 until 1939. From the standpoint of the Hiss case, the most important of those years was 1938 when the Chambers family lived openly at 2610 St. Paul Street.
2610 Saint Paul St, Baltimore, MD 21218
a single family home built about 1847. This property was sold for $250,000 in 2019
and in 2021 had an estimated value of $298,000, 20.53% less than
the median listing price in Charles Village.
1938 was a pivotal year for Whittaker Chambers and his family. By his own testimony early that year and the evidence presented at trial, he decided to leave the Communist Party and join the ranks of the bourgeoisie. In February he was furloughed from his government job in Washington as an editor with the Works Progress Administration, National Research Project, and found it necessary to seek a permanent job.
a sample of the composition, editorial, and translation work by Whittaker Chambers to 1940
For several years Chambers had been engaged as an on again, off again editor of left wing journals and newspapers, as well as a respected translator of several books, and in 1938-39 he was under contract with Oxford University press and its affiliate, Longmans, Green and Co., as a translator. That supplied a modest income.
Residents of 2124 Mt. Royal Terrace, 1924 and 1937/38
The uncertainty of his financial affairs did not deter him and Esther from leaving rented apartments at 2124 Mount Royal Terrace where another famous spy, Virginia Hall, had once lived, to buying a house at 2610 St. Paul Street in June of 1938 as “David” and Esther Chambers.
The new home at 2610 St. Paul Street, provided a city residence to complement the farm in Carroll County on which they had placed a down payment the previous year. Where the financial resources came from to buy those two properties is a matter of debate, but it was in part made possible because the Chambers established their credit to borrow and to buy on time in Baltimore by convincing the Baltimore Credit Bureau that Whittaker was Jay Lea Chambers, a well-paid U. S. Treasury official.
If his biographer is correct, Chambers acquired the last batch of secret government documents and microfilm from his sources in Washington in April 1938, as a security blanket intended to prove Alger Hiss was a spy, all of which he said he secreted in New York City in late 1938 or early 1939 for “insurance” purposes in case he was called to account for his espionage past and to name names of government officials who were fellow travelers or outright Communists.
After losing his federal job in February 1938 because of the downsizing of his section, and a short vacation in Florida, Chambers returned to his new home at 2610 St. Paul Street with translation as his primary source of income while he looked for full time employment.
During his and Esther’s ownership of 2610 St. Paul Street (June-1938-June 1939), it is clear “David” Chambers was hard at work translating, but what else may he have been doing, apart from job hunting in New York? In late 1938, he landed a steady well-paying job with Henry Luce as an editor at Time Magazine The documents and microfilm stashed in New York were forgotten, and the family’s financial future looked bright.
Ten years later that peaceful world would fall apart and Chambers would be called upon to explain his communist ties and his suppliers of secret government documents. Before the House Un-American Activities Committee he would testify that Alger Hiss had been a communist who he had known well, and who was a spy, ultimately producing as evidence what became known as the Pumpkin Papers and Baltimore Documents. They included typescripts of classified government documents and microfilm of originals. None of the material, typed or copied, appeared to be dated later than April of 1938. Who typed the copies and when were they typed?
H.L. Mencken(1880-1956) and his fellow journalist,
Robert Preston Harriss(1902-1989)
a 1949 photograph taken by photographer John T. “Jack” Engeman at Mencken’s home.
Jack Engeman, Slide Collection – slide_engeman-00, MdHS.
R.P. Harriss began his career as Mencken’s assistant in the 1920s and
for the next six decades pursued a career in journalism with the
Baltimore Sun, The Paris Herald Tribune, the Evening Sun, and the Baltimore American.
The answer possibly lies within the year the Chambers family lived at 2610 St. Paul Street, the modest 19th century house in Charles Village, Baltimore. The general public’s attention was first drawn to this connection with Chambers by Robert P. Harriss, a reporter for the Baltimore American in a “Man About Town” column he wrote on the death of Whittaker Chambers in 1961.
Clipping from the Baltimore American, July 12, 1961
In 1948, when Chambers went public with his accusations against Hiss at the House Un-American Activities Committee, Harriss and his wife were sitting in the back garden of 2610 St. Paul Street. She was reading the newspaper account when she exclaimed “Why, he was hiding right here in our home!”
They looked back to when they were first shown the house by Esther Chambers (they dealt directly with her and never saw Chambers). They especially remembered the basement where they had noticed
a cubicle enclosed with heavy timbers--a sort of stockade, really--containing a chair, a small table and a typewriter under a droplight. Noting my questioning look, Mrs. Chambers said: “My Husband does his writing down here. He prefers to work down here.”
By 1961 when Harriss first wrote about his encounter with Mrs. Chambers and purchasing her home, there had been a great deal written about the typewriter on which some of the incriminating evidence presented about Hiss’s spying allegedly had been copied. Some scholars argue that the typist was Priscilla Hiss, thus incriminating her husband Alger. Others, including an FBI expert, dismiss the Woodstock typewriter that was introduced into evidence at Hiss’s trial as not the machine on which the purloined documents were typed.
Was the typewriter Harriss and his wife claimed to have seen in the basement of 2610 St. Paul, the typewriter on which the Baltimore Papers produced by Chambers were typed? Could that basement have been where Whittaker Chambers began to concoct and write down for future disclosure his attack on Hiss’s credibility?
The year the Chambers lived there (1938-1939) was certainly a turning point in Whittaker Chambers’s life. Henry Luce hired him as an editor for Time Magazine and he commenced full employment with a good salary based upon his editorial and translation skills. Had he already realized that he needed a water-tight story of his departure from the Party, and had accumulated ‘evidence’ of nefarious activity within the State Department as an insurance policy, typing the transcripts himself? What did, if anything, transpire in the basement of 2610 St. Paul Street?
Until the investigators for Hiss began digging deep into the life of Whittaker Chambers in the late 1940s, there was no proof that Chambers or his wife had ever owned 2610 St. Paul Street. The official land records of the day record no sale to the Chambers or from the Chambers to Harriss. The official record of the sale in June of 1939 was from Henry Momberger to Robert P. Harris.
Henry Momberger had owned 2610 St. Paul Street since 1930 when he purchased it from Mabel K. Smith who had lived there since at least 1918 until her husband passed away on June 8, 1930. In 1938 Momberger and the Chambers’s signed an off the record contract for the sale of the house.
Chambers’s Contract to purchase 2610 St. Paul Street
In searching for ownership of housing in Baltimore unrecorded contracts of sale get in the way of knowing who actually occupied the premises at a given point in time. Such contracts included a down payment, modifications to the house and grounds required by the buyer, and periodic payments with interest until the full purchase price was paid. At that point the official deed would be recorded among the land records of the city, and not before.
On the 11th Day of June, 1938, Esther and David Chambers signed an unrecorded Standard Contract of Sale with Henry Momberger to buy 2610 St. Paul with the agreement by Momberger to build a one car brick garage at the rear of the lot, create a clothes closet in a passageway adjoining the bathroom, repair the broken shutters and replace broken window panes.  The Chambers paid $200 down on a sale price of $2950 and agreed to conditions of paying the remainder plus interest that may have included an additional payment of $1,000 borrowed from Chambers mother Laha. Not until the Hiss investigators obtained the contract in October of 1948 was the proof obtained that the Chambers had agreed to buy the house. By October 1948 the contract with the Chambers had been transferred to the Harrisses with the sale recorded in the land records of the city as having occurred on the 29th day of June, 1939.
June 1938 to June 1939 was a busy year for the Chambers who at last had the prospect of a steady income other than Esther’s possible salary at Park School. There she was an assistant to the art teacher, a job that she began while they were living in an apartment on Auchentoroly Terrace across from Druid Hill Park, near to the site of the first location of Park School.  From the Auchentoroly apartment they had moved to the apartment in Mount Royal Terrace which by coincidence proved to have more than one association with spies.
Robert Stripling, counsel to the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee, and Richard Nixon, 37th President of the United States, examining microfilm
stashed in one of Whittaker Chambers’s pumpkins and
Richard Nixon holding a newspaper announcing the conviction of Alger Hiss for perjury
In June of 1938 the Chambers moved from their apartment on Mt. Royal Terrace to their new home at 2610 St. Paul Street. A year later, after the sale to the Harrisses, the Chambers moved permanently from St. Paul Street to a farm in Carroll County, the scene of the microfilm in the pumpkin patch in 1948 which Richard Nixon so effectively used to launch his efforts to win the Presidency. Once again, there is no official record of initiating the purchase of the Carroll County property until 1940 when the Chambers had sufficient funds to complete the sale, a sale that had begun, not with the Chambers, but with an interest in the farm expressed by Priscilla Hiss in 1936.
The Baltimore Papers, or Pumpkin Papers as they collectively were called, broke the Hiss case wide open. They consisted of documents covering the period from December 1937 until April 1938, including handwritten notes in Hiss’s hand from a cable sent from Moscow on January 28, 1938. The remainder were typescripts of documents allegedly produced on a Woodstock typewriter by Priscilla Hiss for Whitaker Chambers before April 1938, when Chambers deposed that he had broken with the Communist Party, typescripts that he said he stashed away instead of delivering them to his Communist contact in 1938, in case he ever needed them to prove his break with the Communist Party and identify those with whom he collaborated, specifically the Hisses. Chambers did not at first disclose the microfilm seen in the classic photograph of Richard Nixon and HUAC Counsel Robert Stripling, That would come later in the Pumpkin patch at the Carroll County farm.
Of great interest were the typescripts which were of confidential or allegedly secret State Department documents. Who had typed them and what typewriter had been used? Did they indeed implicate Priscilla and Alger Hiss, or were they typed at 2610 St. Paul Street by Chambers, part of an elaborate scheme on his part to use Hiss as a means of ensuring his reputation as a fearless foe of Communism and as fodder for one of the finest pieces of fiction ever written by an American? As John P. Marquand pointed out in the blurb he authored for Witness as a Book-of-The-Month-Club selection in 1952, “No psychological novel can exceed it in interest. No study of conflicting character under stress could go deeper with Chambers, or be more puzzling than with Hiss. The book was not written as literature, but literature it is, of a high order.” Did the writing of what may have been a psychological novel of its own take shape in the cellar of 2610 St. Paul? Like R. P. Harriss, we are left to our imagination with regard to what may or may not have transpired there.
In attempting to untangle and explain the legend of Daedalus and Icarus, Antonis Chaliakopoulos concludes with a painting Landscape with the fall of Icarus, after Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1558, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.
I see something different in the painting than he does. I see an individual in the lower right about to jump in the water to save Icarus. To me it is the role of the historian to examine the surviving evidence as best we can and where necessary attempt to salvage the present from drowning in the mistakes of the past, whether it be McCarthyism, the Military Industrial Complex, or, perhaps, a misinterpretation of the Second Amendment. By all means, read what is written by others, but avoid adopting the extremes of any one historian, seeking truth through civility, moderation of rhetoric, compassion, and a personal assessment of all the known facts in advance of judgment. You might be surprised at what you find.
 For examples of the extensive investigations of the lives of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, see the writings of Alistair Cooke, A Generation on Trial: U.S.A. Vs. Alger Hiss. New York: Knopf, 1950, Allan Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Random House, 1997, Samuel Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997, and most recently, Joan Brady, Alger Hiss: Framed: A New Look at the Case That Made Nixon Famous, 2017.
 See Schama, Simon. Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations). Vintage, 1992, for a discussion of the uncertainties of writing history, and Spence, Jonathan D. The Question of Hu. New York: Vintage Books, 1989, as a prime example of the role of imagination in writing history.
 Is it possible that Chambers created, out of whole cloth, a brilliant , completely fabricated story of Hiss’s guilt as a spy which caused Hiss to lose his job and go to prison? Hiss’s son Tony in Laughing Last, and stepson Timothy Hobson at a conference on Hiss and Chambers in 2007, defended Hiss. According to a CBS news report
Timothy Hobson, Hiss' stepson, said Whittaker Chambers, whose bombshell allegations against Hiss broke the case open, had lied about his personal relationship with Hiss and had never visited the Hiss home as he claimed. Hobson, 80, said that during the time Chambers claimed to have visited the home, he was recuperating from a broken leg and met every person who came calling. Chambers was a former American communist party member who spied for the Soviets during the 1930s. He defected before World War II and accused others of being spies, but his claims did not attract FBI interest until after the war. He joined Time magazine in 1939 and as a writer and editor was a severe critic of communism. He died in 1961. "It is my conviction that he was in love with Alger Hiss, that he was rejected by Alger Hiss and he took that rejection in a vindictive way," Hobson said. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/
Joan Brady, Alger Hiss: Framed: A New Look at the Case That Made Nixon Famous, 2017, believes Chambers concocted the evidence and Meyer A. Zeligs. Friendship and Fratricide. An Analysis of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. London: Deutsch, 1967, lends credence to the theory of Chambers as the rejected lover.
Perhaps the key to positing whether or not Chambers actually concocted his damning narrative of his and Esther’s relationship with Alger and Priscilla Hiss are two individuals who play minor roles in Alan Weinstein’s Perjury (1978 and none at all in Tanenhaus’s Chambers (1997), Baltimore reporter Beverly Smith and Baltimore Pediatrician Dr. Margaret Nicholson. Dr. Nicholson knew Esther and Ellen Chambers at the same time she treated Timmy Hobson, son of Priscilla Hobson Hiss. With imagination, it is possible to construct a narrative of the Chambers befriending the Hisses as early as 1934 when the Chambers first arrive in Baltimore to live in a rented apartment at 903 St. Paul Street (see Appendix). Hiss testifies that at that time Chambers passed himself off as George Crosley (although the Chambers called themselves the Cantwells at 903 St. Paul) who hoped to sell his stories of the New Deal to the American Magazine, where Beverly Smith had published a flattering account of Hiss’s arrival in Washington in February of 1934 (Perjury, 46, 134). It is not difficult, given Chambers’s literary career and association with the Communist Party at that point, to believe that his party role was to cultivate an association with Hiss and to gather information about him. In this Esther played a prominent role in also befriending Priscilla Hobson Hiss whose socialist tendencies have been thoroughly documented. As the Chambers became less enamored with the Party and moved from apartment dwellers to bourgeois home and property owners in 1938 (see Appendix), they also created an insurance policy of documentation that would establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that they not only had left the party but that they were willing to document that their New Deal associates were Communists or Communist sympathizers, if they should ever have to. In 1948-1949 when the witch hunt for Communists in Roosevelt's New Deal intensified, they were called upon to do so.
 For the continuing interest in the Alger Hiss story see “The life and fate of Alger Hiss remains a hot topic among readers” By Frederick N. Rasmussen, Baltimore Sun, June 25, 2011, https://www.baltimoresun.com/
 See note 4 above for an alternate interpretive theory of the Chambers/Hiss story and the appendix for the Baltimore addresses of the Chambers family. The residences of the Chambers family in Baltimore provide insight into the rental architecture of Baltimore and its ownership in that period and tangentially to the life of one of the best known brickwork contractors of his time, Charles E. Jackson (1880-1944) who earned a craftsmanship award for his many Baltimore Office buildings, schools, Guilford homes, and the entrance to the Municipal Stadium on 33rd Street. Between October 1935 and the Spring of 1936, Whittaker and Esther Chambers rented apartment ‘C’ from Charles E. Jackson’s wife, Alma May Jackson (d. 1974) who owned the “Blenheim” apartment building at 1617 Eutaw Place. The building, since demolished, was not constructed by Jackson and had its origins in the 1850s. See: SCL 5122/208, Baltimore City Land Records and a title search for the apartment house. Chambers may have attended a game in Municipal Stadium, although there is no evidence that he did so. It is clear from the residential pattern of the Chambers family that in 1938 they moved from being unconcerned about owning housing to entering the bourgeoisie with the purchase of 2610 St. Paul Street and the farm in Carroll County.
 Chambers’s Play for Puppets which was decidedly anti-Christian led to his ouster from Columbia University, Bambi was his most famous and enduring translation. He was briefly an editor at the Communist “New Masses” and co-translated and edited The Great Crusade by an Anti-Stalinist Communist, Gustav Regler during his residence at 2610 St. Paul Street.
 Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers, p. 144.
 sources for composite: Google Maps, 2021/09/08; https://www.baltimoresun.com/
 For Virginia Hall, see: Sonia Purnell, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, 2019.
 Weinstein, Perjury, pp. 51-57.
 See Zeligs, Friendship and Fratricide, pp. 251-252. When he worked for the WPA National Research Project (1936-1937) he also used the name “J. V. David Chambers”. Proof of that job using the name of the Treasury official would also have contributed to a solid credit rating in Baltimore. Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers, ff. 125, 134.
 Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers, p. 136.
 for Chambers’s translation work in 1938, see Tanenhaus, f. 137 and footnote 4.
Alan Weinstein, Sam Tanenhaus, and Meyer A. Zeligs, have thoroughly documented where Whitaker Chambers lived in Baltimore between 1934 and 1939, the years in which Chambers transitions from a Communist spy in the pay of Russia to a celebrated editor at Time Magazine. Their conclusions are illustrated in the appendix which follows this essay. For a compilation of Whittaker Chambers’s employment prior to 1939 when he joined Time Magazine and moved permanently to Carroll County, see the appendix to Meyer A. Zeligs and Sam Tanenhaus’s biography. Chamber’s mastery of many languages held him in good stead as an editor. For a list of his published translations see: https://archive.is/
 See Weinstein, Perjury, p. 179 for a list of contents.
 Baltimore American, July 16, 1961, Pratt Library Vertical File. Jacques Kelly repeated Harriss’s story on the occasion of the publication of Sam Tanenhaus’s biography of Chambers (Baltimore Sun, 4/13/1997) without mentioning his former fellow reporter from the Baltimore American who had died in 1989 (The Evening Sun, September 27, 1989). By then Allan Weinstein had discovered the truth of Harriss’s assertion of buying 2610 St. Paul Street buried among the Hiss papers in Harvard Law School Special Collections.
 Baltimore City Land Records, MLP 5926 f. 273.
 Allen L. Smith and Mabel K. his wife, lived at 2610 St. Paul in 1926 according to the Polk Baltimore City Directory of that year. See: Baltimore City Land Records, SCL 3205, f. 242.
 It is not clear where the original or copy of this contract are now stored. This image is from a reel of film simply labeled Harvard Law School Library (HLSL) number 4. To date the Library has not been able to identify where the original or copies are stored.
 Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers, p. 138. In 1939 Henry Momberger was listed as owing taxes on 2610 St. Paul Street. See Real Estate Assessments, Baltimore 1939, published by the Mayor and city Council of Baltimore and the Real Estate Board of Baltimore, Baltimore City Archives.
 For the time of the Chambers’s residence on Auchentoroly Terrace see the appendix. It is not known if anyone connected with Park School owned the Auchentoroly Terrace building where the Chambers’s lived from the Fall of 1936 until November of 1937 under the name of the Jay Chambers family. According to Zeligs, Friendship and Fratricide, p. 252, Esther was an unpaid assistant on the staff in order to obtain a tuition waiver for her daughter and that she called herself the wife of “Jay Chambers, “Senior Administrative Officer, Treasury Department”. .
 see note 11 above.
The image of Nixon with the newspaper is copyrighted by American Heritage, and is from an article by Fawn M. Brodie, "I Think Hiss is Lying" The Launching of Richard Nixon, August/September 1981, Vol. 32, no. 5, pp. 4-22.
 Weinstein, Perjury, pp. 53-57
 see Note 2 above for the best secondary sources discussing the Pumpkin and Baltimore Papers in the Hiss/Chambers controversy.
 Blurb tucked into a copy of the first printing of Witness in author’s collection.