Chapter 27: The Defense - Priscilla Hiss and the Character Witnesses


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Podcast #27 is short, covering the testimony of Mrs. Priscilla Hiss and the “character witnesses.” Mrs. Hiss corroborates her husband down the line. However, she is notably nervous on the witness stand, and admits to changing her story in a few ways, all favorable to her husband, since The Grand Jury. Favorable testimony by family members is risky. It’s a “dog bites man” story, no surprise. You don’t expect them to incriminate their loved ones, especially the family breadwinner back when women couldn’t get good jobs. On the other hand, any slip up is a “man bites dog” story, and that can hurt the defendant. The “character witnesses” were almost two dozen eminent personages who testified to Hiss’s good or excellent reputation for loyalty and truthfulness. Some of them, however, slipped up a bit. On the whole, they probably helped Hiss. FURTHER RESEARCH: I noted in Podcast #2 that Mrs. Hiss was something of a scold, disliked by Hiss’s mother and many of his male friends. She was ‘an uppity woman’ by the standards of her time. She graduated from college and took some grad school courses, and was the co-author of a book “Research in Fine Arts in the Colleges and Universities of the United States.” (I found a copy on Amazon!). William Marbury, a childhood friend of Hiss and one of his major attorneys, wrote that “[t]here was a great deal of the knight-errant in [Alger’s] make-up, and the girls to whom he attached himself . . . were almost always in some sort of difficulty.” (Marbury at 76.). Marbury thought that Priscilla was “a rather self-assertive woman, who had no intention of letting Alger ‘steal the show.’ It almost seemed as if she resented the attention which his friends paid to him. Like Anthony Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie, she would interrupt him when he was asked for his opinion and would answer for him.” (Marbury at 77.). When Marbury was talking with both Alger and Priscilla in preparation of Alger’s libel suit, Marbury wrote “I found my interview with Priscilla somewhat mistifying. . . .I got the impression that she felt that in some way she was responsible for the troubles that had come to Alger.” (Marbury at 88.) Concerning the character witnesses for Hiss, I pass on one ‘inside’ observation. When I was a lawyer, I worked in the same place as an attorney who, long before, had clerked for Stanley Reed, one of the Supreme Court Justices who testified to Hiss’s reputation. I emailed this lawyer once, noting my interest in the Case. I also reminded him that both Reed and Felix Frankfurter had testified for Hiss, and asked if he had any memories that he wished to share with me. He replied that Frankfurter had testified voluntarily, that Reed had insisted on being subpoenaed, and that Reed thought that Frankfurter should have insisted on being subpoenaed, too. Questions: Do you think Mrs. Hiss’s testimony helped or hurt the Defense on the whole? Did her corroboration of her husband add any weight to his testimony, perhaps by adding a few facts and details that added life and credibility to her husband’s larger story? Did her nervous manner and her slips hurt his case more than her corroboration helped it? If she had not testified, on the other hand, would her absence have been conspicuous enough to hurt her husband? Does it help to get five Judges (including two from The Supreme Court!), Ambassadors, and past and future candidates for President say that everyone thought the world of you? What sort of reputation does a good spy have? Or is that a cheap shot against so many esteemed personages? If you were a lower middle class member of the jury with a high school education, would all this Establishment firepower bowl you over? Or might you be offended by all the Harvard grads telling you what to think?

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