Chapter 20: The Prosecution - Whittaker and Esther Chambers


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Lloyd Paul Stryker, Hiss's Defense Atty (Digital Commons)

Whittaker Chambers, and then his wife Esther, testify in court. Both their direct testimonies were rocky due to Stryker’s objections and Judge Kaufman’s rulings. Their cross-examinations by Stryker were brutal. Chambers sat there and passively took blow after blow, but Mrs. Chambers shouted back at Stryker as forcefully as he had shouted at her. But each got to say what needed to be said — that Hiss passed Chambers State Department documents in 1937 and 1938 and that the two families were friends. At the second trial, both Chamberses were more relaxed and forthcoming because they had been through it all before (isn’t everything easier the second time?) and because the judge at the second trial gave all the witnesses more leeway. Everyone agreed their testimonies at the second trial were more effective. FURTHER RESEARCH: Episode 20: Lengthy accounts of the Chamberses’ direct and cross examinations are in Weinstein at 440-56 (first trial) and 499-501 (second) and Cooke at 121-48 (Mr. C, first trial), 151-61 (Mrs. C, first trial), 287-91 (Mr. C, second trial) and 295-96 (Mrs. C, second trial). Mrs. Chambers, who has not appeared much in these Podcasts until now, is described by Weinstein (at 451) as “small, slim-boned, plain faced” and by Cooke (at 151) as “a small severe figure . . . , a very dark, thin-lipped woman in spectacles who sat nervously back in the witness chair.” Chambers, in his memoir "Witness," describes (at 232) Stryker’s cross-examination of her as “brutal bullying.” Chambers also describes meeting his future wife at a textile workers’ strike at Passaic, New Jersey, in 1930. He describes her as brave, forthright and militant, with “dark brown eyes . . . of a candor and purity such as I had never seen in any other woman in the Communist movement.” He was surprised to learn that she was a pacifist. (Witness at 231-32. See also Weinstein at 118-19.) Questions: Do you think that Stryker went too far with his brutal cross-examination of Mrs. Chambers? In 1948, women were “The Fair Sex” and men were supposed to be gentlemen. But what choice did he have after she had corroborated most of her husband’s testimony? The trials were the first time that anyone heard Mrs. Chambers tell her story. She professed ignorance of her husband’s spying. But most significantly, she described an extensive social relationship with Mrs. Hiss — lots of get-togethers typical for young married wives and mothers in the mid-1930s, at specific locations in Washington (Mount Vernon, Haynes Point, and Georgetown) and Baltimore (various squares and parks and Hutzler’s Department Store). Any pro-Hiss juror must have wondered — was Mrs. Chambers just as insane as her husband, or was she lying in perfect harmony with her husband’s lunacy? Did not her details lend credibility to her story, and by inference to her husband’s?

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