Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


The Promising Mr. Hiss

Alger Hiss was born in 1904, the fourth of five children in an upper-middle-class Presbyterian family in Baltimore. The Hiss family was financially comfortable but emotionally troubled. When Alger was only two years old, his father committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor. When Alger was 25, his sister Mary Ann committed suicide by drinking a household cleanser. Hiss's older brother Bosley, died when he was in his early twenties of Bright's disease, a kidney disorder aggravated by Bosley's overindulgence in alcohol.

As a young man, the slim, handsome, and dapper Alger impressed most people as self-confident and more than a few as arrogant. He appeared to have avoided the depression that afflicted other members of his family and achieved success at a young age. Hiss graduated from John Hopkins University in 1926. While there, he shone both academically and in extracurricular activities. He was a Phi Beta Kappa, a cadet commander in ROTC, and was voted "most popular student" by his graduating class.

Psychological theory of that era held that male homosexuality was caused by too much female influence and young Alger was to remark that it was a wonder that he was heterosexual. He was also more than a bit of a prude and sometimes scolded others for telling off-color jokes or stories. In early adulthood he made a few half-hearted, and unsuccessful, attempts to lose his virginity with prostitutes.

Thus, Alger was still a virgin himself when, in 1930, having just graduated from Harvard Law School, he married Priscilla Hobson, an intelligent, high-spirited, and pretty divorcée with a three-year-old son named Timothy. Hiss had fallen in love with her several years previously, pined for her as she married and divorced another man and comforted her through the trauma of an illegal abortion. Finally, the patient Alger found his love enthusiastically returned. Contrary to the custom of the time, Priscilla planned to continue with her work as a writer and editor after their marriage.

Young Alger Hiss (CORBIS)
Young Alger Hiss (CORBIS)

Alger Hiss became a law clerk for the famous Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Hiss later practiced law in New York and Boston. Then he was appointed to several posts in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal administration. He was welcomed into the State Department in 1936 and made a quick climb up the ladder. He was at the pivotal Yalta Conference with the American delegation. In 1945 he presided at the United Nations organizing meeting that was held in San Francisco, and in 1947 he joined the Carnegie Endowment.

Mr. Hiss seemed to lead a charmed life. Then, in 1948, when he was 43-years-old, something changed, or more accurately someone, did.


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