360 E. 55th Street, 10022: The Wiretap Nest

Here’s a recent Google street view of 360 E. 55th Street, just off of First Avenue in New York City.

CM Capture 1

On February 11, 1955, NYPD detectives burst into an apartment on the fourth floor of this building and discovered a private wiretapping headquarters linked to 100,000 of the city’s telephones.  It was one of the largest and most elaborate electronic eavesdropping setups ever discovered, and news of the midtown Manhattan “wiretap nest” made the front page of the New York Times.[1]  Four men were arrested in conjunction with the operation: John G. Broady, a lawyer and private investigator; Warren B. Shannon, an electrical technician; and Walter Asmann and Carl R. Ruh, two rogue employees of the New York telephone company.

In hindsight, the 55th Street tap nest controversy seems like an open-and-shut case.  But in 1955 the crime of eavesdropping existed in an odd legal gray area, especially in the state of New York.  Section 605 of the Federal Communications Act (1934) had made it illegal to “intercept and divulge” electronic communications in the United States, and the Supreme Court had twice upheld the statute in the Nardone cases of the late 1930s.  But federal prohibitions against wiretapping also had little influence on the state level.  Among the many “permissive” wiretapping jurisdictions around the country, which tacitly sanctioned the practice both with and without court approval, New York was widely known to be one of the most lenient.  The 55th Street tap nest exposed the gross disparities between federal and state wiretapping statutes at midcentury, and it also exposed the ease with which third parties could tap into the nation’s rapidly expanding telephone network.  The pressure was on for authorities to bring the four eavesdroppers to trial.

Shannon, Asmann, and Ruh were all granted immunity in exchange for testifying against Broady, who emerged as the brainchild of the operation.  Broady ended up receiving an unusually harsh prison sentence (2-4 years, twice as long as Section 605 had stipulated), and his role in a number of other prominent eavesdropping cases led the New York state legislature to appoint a special joint committee on the illegal interception of communications.[2]  By 1957, the committee’s efforts had ushered in a new day for wiretapping and bugging in the Empire State. It outlawed the submission of illegally intercepted evidence in court.  It modernized the state’s legal definition of eavesdropping to include bugging via microphones and “dictaphones.”  And it established a more stringent set of procedures in the acquisition of court-order wiretaps, ultimately making warrantless tapping of any sort a criminal offense.[3]  It’s possible to argue that the 55th Street tap nest conspiracy created enough of a stir to begin the process of eliminating the discrepancies between state and federal eavesdropping statutes.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Benanti v United States (1957), which brought Section 605 to bear on a New York state police officer who had tapped a wire with a legal court order in hand, no doubt resulted from the work of the legislative commission.

*     *     *

It’s a compelling image, the wiretap nest.  That four men could set up shop in a midtown Manhattan apartment, stock it with an array of homespun electronic equipment, and tap into thousands of lines that serviced some of the most high-profile addresses in New York City—this was clearly a frightening prospect to many Americans at midcentury, and it explains why New York state lawmakers reacted as quickly as they did in the wake of the controversy.  Yet the image of the wiretap nest had an even longer afterlife in American popular culture.  The opening chapters of Charles Einstein’s lurid potboiler Wiretap! (1955), perhaps the most famous novel about telephone tapping published in the United States, revolve around a small-town police raid on an apartment that’s clearly meant to resemble the one that NYPD detectives discovered on the third floor of 360 E. 55th Street.[4]  Here’s what we get at the beginning of Einstein’s novel:

Alf Hazlitt stood there, young and new in his policeman’s uniform; but after a time, assuring himself all the while it was being done in the course of duty, he opened the door to the apartment and looked in.

At first, what he saw did not register.  To the right, and just under the casement window of the large room in which he stood, was a large telephone switchboard, complete with jacks, toggles, and headsets.  Against the far wall, five tape recorders sat side by side on the floor; four of the five were closed, but the fifth still had the cover up, the tape wide and thick on the ready spool.  While closed, the other recorders in their suitcase-type equipment were not locked; two of the headsets hung by their wire alongside the switchboard panel, and the jacks lay in wiry, rubbery disarray at the base of the switchboard as if they had been pulled all too hurriedly from their connections.  (16-17)

Einstein’s readers wouldn’t have missed the allusion to the 55th Street wiretap nest.  But for good measure he has his protagonist, a hardboiled crime investigator named Sam Murray, throw in a direct reference a few chapters later.  “Same thing they had in New York,” says Sam after learning of the raid on the apartment.  “Tap nest.  That’s what the papers called it” (43).

122+Charles+Einstein+Wiretap+Dell+FE+1
The cover of Charles Einstein’s pulp novel Wiretap! (1955).

Part pulp fiction, part true-crime narrative, Einstein’s Wiretap! is worth a more thorough treatment than I’m able to give it here.  A brief plot summary will have to do for now.

Set in a fictional northeastern town called Aimerly, Einstein’s novel opens with the assassination of a local judge with extensive underworld ties.  Citizens of Aimerly believe that the murder is the work of “The Syndicate,” a racketeering organization run by an Irish crime boss named Andy Fennell.  But the trail leading to the judge’s killers goes cold, and the Aimerly police force is soon confronted with a series of strange occurrences that distract the public’s attention from the investigation.  The most important of these, of course, is the discovery of the wiretap nest.  A few days later, Sam Murray arrives in town from nearby Port Gerard to investigate the “wiretapping situation” in Aimerly county, which appears to have “gotten out of hand” (34).

Sam’s first item of business is to get in touch with a local private eye named Harry Millburn, known far and wide for his expertise in the “frightening science of electronics” (34).  Harry proceeds to give Sam the inside dope on tapping and bugging in Aimerly—most of the early chapters in the book actually consist of Harry explaining, in painstaking detail, how third parties conduct electronic eavesdropping operations.  A typical exchange between the two characters reads something like this:

Sam Murray looked around the room.  “Where’s the thing?”
          “What thing is that?”
          “I don’t know the name for it,” Murray said.  He gestured with his long fingers.  “The thing they’d use to deaden the sound or whatever it is—you know, so you can’t tell somebody’s listening in on your phone.”
          Harry Millburn gazed at him sadly.  “Goody,” he said, “electronics has passed you by.  They don’t use anything like that.  They don’t have to.”
          “All right,” Murray said, “but if I pick up my phone and I can tell it’s being tapped–”
          “Don’t believe what you read in the papers all the time, crime-buster,” Millburn said to him.  He lit another cigarette.  “You can’t tell whether or not somebody’s listening in on your phone.  Period.”  (46-47) 

The more Sam uncovers in Aimerly, the more we’re confronted with passages like these.  It turns out that the entire city is as “wired for sound,” in the words of the novel’s front cover advertisement.  The murdered judge has been signing illegal wiretap orders for the city’s district attorney.  The district attorney has been working with Harry Millburn, private tapper extraordinaire, to eavesdrop on The Syndicate.  And Harry Millburn has been working for crime boss Andy Fennell all along, bugging local politicians and using the recordings for leverage.  Everything comes to head when Sam, caught in a compromising position with a woman in a hotel room, discovers that he himself is being recorded.  He’s ultimately forced to choose between exposing Fennell’s hold on the city and saving his own reputation.

I won’t ruin the ending of Wiretap! for anyone who wants to read it.  Suffice it to say, Einstein wraps up the novel’s murder mystery, but elects to leave Sam’s inquiry into Aimerly’s “wiretapping situation” provocatively unresolved.  He reserves the most memorable lines of the book for crime boss Andy Fennell, who warns Sam about the futility of his efforts to curb wiretapping:

You and I know how the story goes. . . . We do our work, each of us in his own way, and we always can tap a phone if we feel like it.  The ability to do it is always there.  When your state legislature investigation gets through with wiretapping, it’ll still be there.  You know why?  Because legislation can’t enforce in the business of wiretapping.  Science is always five giant steps ahead of the law.  When they invented the automobile, they also invented the getaway car.  When they invented the phone, they invented the tap.  (127)

For Einstein, eavesdropping seems to have represented an inevitable, if unwelcome, byproduct of ongoing communications advances.  Perhaps this explains why the novel ends as ambiguously as it does.  In the immediate aftermath of the 55th Street tap nest controversy, a happy resolution to the American eavesdropping epidemic didn’t seem wholly possible.

*     *     *

Part of the appeal of Einstein’s Wiretap! lies in its true-to-life details.  According to the book’s title page, the author intended the novel to be a “behind-the-scenes, headlines-fresh story of the 20th Century’s latest and lowest crime.”  The back cover of Wiretap! even features an endorsement from a real-life eavesdropping expert named William J. Keating, a former staff counsel for the New York State Anti-Crime Commission: “I know from personal experience that Wiretap! is the real thing.  This is they way they can listen.  This is the way they do listen.”

For the most part, Keating’s was an accurate assessment.  The novel contains details about wiretapping practices and bugging technologies that anticipate many of the revelations of The Eavesdroppers (1959), a landmark legal expose that I’ve discussed in previous posts.  But viewed alongside the 55th Street tap nest case, the ambiguity of Keating’s “they”—“This is the way they can listen.  This is they way they do listen”—raises a number of important questions.  Who exactly were “they”?  And why were they listening?

The usual way we answer these questions is to think of eavesdropping in terms of law enforcement and government surveillance.  “They” are the police, tapping the lines of bootleggers and bookies; “they” are the FBI, bugging the rooms of agitators and dissidents.  But the two cases before us—360 E. 55th Street and Charles Einstein’s Wiretap!—suggest that these tried-and-true narratives only tell us part of the story.  In the twentieth century, private eavesdropping was just as pervasive as government eavesdropping.  Real-life Harry Millburns tapped lines in divorce cases, bugged bedrooms in domestic disputes, and (most common of all) recorded corporate transactions and stole political secrets.  By 1964, Business Week could report that eavesdropping for hire had emerged as a multi-million dollar industry in the United States.[5]  Other studies found that private wiretappers were usually better equipped than their counterparts in law enforcement, often supplying homemade tapping technologies to state police forces on a clandestine basis.[6]  This wasn’t just the case in permissive jurisdictions like New York.  Arrangements like it were even more common in states like California.  Faced with stringent legal prohibitions against the interception of communications, law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles and San Francisco often went off the books to hire private detectives to tap and bug suspects during the course of criminal investigations.  The arrangement was an open secret.  The scholars who wrote The Eavesdroppers noted with some amusement that over 60 private investigators in Los Angeles openly advertised tapping and bugging services in the city’s yellow pages.[7]  Accompanying many of these entries were racy illustrations that featured men with wires and headphones eavesdropping on the phone conversations of unwitting female callers.  Much like the cover of Einstein’s novel, in other words.

Expert wiretappers—or, “private ears,” as the authors of The Eavesdroppers memorably dubbed them—offer an important counterweight to the stories of government taps and bugs that we’ve lived with for decades.  These were men with a uniquely modern expertise.  They knew how to tap thousands of phone lines at once, and they knew how to edit their recordings to make conversations sound incriminating.  The tools of their trade were cheap, accessible, and invisible.  And the anonymity of a newly consolidated national telecommunications system made their unwitting targets seem increasingly vulnerable.  The exploits of America’s private ears have inspired countless journalistic investigations, pulp novels, and big-budget Hollywood films over the course of the twentieth century—all of which represent the nation’s cities as dystopian spaces populated by experts who can listen and record at will.

Charles Einstein’s Wiretap! is a standout example of this genre.  So is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974).  Coppola’s protagonist, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), in many ways represents a composite picture of some of the twentieth century’s most notorious private ears: William J. Mellin, a private tapper who authored a “tell-all” eavesdropping confessional for the Saturday Evening Post at the end of his career; Leon Theremin, an electronic music pioneer who defected to the Soviet Union and bugged the U.S. embassy in Moscow; and Hal Lipset, a San Francisco detective who once bugged the senate room floor while testifying in a legislative hearing on electronic snooping.  Lipset actually served as a consultant on the set of Coppola’s film.  Like Gene Hackman, and like almost everyone else I’ve been talking about here, he was bald, and he wore glasses.  (Seriously!)

portrait_lipset
Harold K. Lipset, private ear.

conversation
Gene Hackman as Harry Caul in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974).

I’ll be looking into the lives of these men over the next couple of months.  Keep listening.

________________________

[1] “Phone Tap Center Raided in 54th Street,” New York Times (February 18, 1955), 1, 10.  The New York Times initially misreported the location of the 55th Street tap nest.

[2] “Broady Sentenced to 2-4 Years, Judge Hits ‘Dirty’ Wiretapping,” New York Times (January 14, 1956), 38.

[3] Samuel Dash, Richard F. Schwartz, and Robert E. Knowlton, The Eavesdroppers (New Brunswick: Rutgers University press, 1959), 101-102.

[4] Charles Einstein, Wiretap! (New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., 1955).

[5] “When Walls Have Ears, Call a Debugging Man,” Business Week (October 31, 1964), 156.

[6] Dash, et. al., The Eavesdroppers, 82

[7] Ibid., 208-209.

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