The Eavesdroppers (1959)

It’s been quite some time since I’ve been able to update this blog.

Here’s the start of the book chapter that I’ll be working on this summer.  It examines the period between 1957 and 1967, when national debate about wiretapping and other forms of electronic eavesdropping reached a fever pitch.

The chapter features a really diverse cast of characters, indicative of the bizarre twists and turns that the public life of electronic eavesdropping took in this period.  There’s a high-profile Philadelphia lawyer, a drug dealer mistakenly arrested for bootlegging by the NYPD, a private investigator who figured out how to bug a dry martini, and a mob wiretapper-turned-evangelical Christian whose life story was made into a movie by Billy Graham.

In July 1956, six months after the uneasy resolution of the 55th Street tap nest affair in New York, the Pennsylvania Bar Association Endowment commissioned a comprehensive study of “wiretapping practices, laws, devices, and techniques” in the United States.[1] At the time, Pennsylvania lacked a legal statute governing the privacy of electronic communications. The Endowment’s members believed that a nationwide fact-finding mission had the potential to help guide the state in establishing an effective set of policies.[2] The man appointed to direct the study was Samuel Dash, a high-profile Philadelphia lawyer whose brief stint as a district attorney had given him a firsthand look at eavesdropping abuses on both sides of the law. Two decades later, while serving as chief counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee, Dash would see many of those abuses come full circle.

After receiving a $50,000 grant from the Fund for the Republic, Dash hired a small team of investigators to help complete the study. Their ranks included Robert Knowlton, a legal historian at Rutgers University who was put in charge of surveying wiretap law, and Richard Schwartz, a communications engineer at the University of Pennsylvania whose job was to shed light on the shadowy world of eavesdropping technology. The group worked together for sixteen months in twelve different cities, consulting a range of experts with direct experience in the field: police officers, law enforcement officials, district attorneys, judges, phone company employees, electrical engineers, private investigators, even convicted criminals. “Every person we interviewed was an eavesdropper himself,” Dash recalled, “a person who either employed it, authorized it, or actually engaged in installing the tap. . . . [W]e got our information right from the people who knew most about it.”[3] Dash himself interviewed more than 300 individuals over the course of the study. All but a handful refused attribution.

The result of their efforts was The Eavesdroppers, a commanding 483-page report published by Rutgers University Press in 1959. The book told a story that scandalized readers. While law enforcement agencies were tapping lines in willful violation of state and federal statutes, phone companies were deliberately underreporting wiretap statistics to protect public confidence in their services. While American businesses were amassing stockpiles of electronic equipment to spy on employees and gather competitive intelligence, private investigators were using frightening new tools to listen in on wayward lovers and loose-lipped politicians. As Dash told a congressional subcommittee on the eve of the book’s release, the American public’s casual disregard for the long history of communications privacy infringement in the United States had only served to enable these developments. “[T]he context of this whole subject clearly shows that we are not dealing with a new problem,” Dash testified. “We are dealing with a problem that is at least 100 years old. At least from the very beginnings of electronic communication there were interceptions of electronic communications. Each generation seems to forget the problems of the past and considers this their own unique problem.”[4]


The Eavesdroppers ended up having an outsized influence on national debate. Newspaper editorials and journalistic exposés frequently cited the book as the authoritative work in the field, even after representatives of the American law enforcement community tried to discredit Dash’s findings. Moreover, federal lawmakers entered portions of the text of The Eavesdroppers into the official record of every major hearing on communications privacy that Congress held before 1968, when landmark legislative reforms appeared to render the book obsolete.[5] To the extent that it’s possible to identify a turning point in the history of wiretapping in the United States, the publication of The Eavesdroppers is as convincing a candidate as any. According to the legal historian Alan Westin, whose own study of eavesdropping Privacy and Freedom (1967) made extensive use of Dash’s research, the American public’s attitude toward wiretapping had drifted ambivalently between naïve “fascination” and “nervous awareness” during the 1940s and 1950s.[6] But the debate reached a sudden fever pitch in the years following the publication of The Eavesdroppers. By the late 1960s, commentators of all political stripes were sounding the alarm of a full-scale “electronic listening invasion.”[7] The godless march of technological progress finally appeared to have trampled America’s most cherished social values. No one seemed safe.

Dash and his co-authors played an important role in bringing about this shift in public perception. Oddly enough, so did Billy Graham. . . .

[1] Samuel Dash, Richard F. Schwartz, and Robert E. Knowlton, The Eavesdroppers (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1959), 5.

[2] Pennsylvania Bar Association Endowment; 1956-1959; Fund for the Republic Records, Box 63, Folder 1; Public Policy Papers, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[3] Wiretapping, Eavesdropping, and the Bill of Rights, Part 3: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights of the Committee on the Judiciary of the United States Senate, Eighty-Sixth Congress, First Session, Pursuant to S. Res 62, July 9, 1959 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960), 512

[4] Ibid., 511.

[5] See, for instance, Wiretapping, Eavesdropping, and the Bill of Rights, Part 5: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights of the Committee on the Judiciary of the United States Senate, Eighty-Sixth Congress, First Session, Pursuant to S. Res 62, December 15 and 16, 1959 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960), 1706-1781.

[6] Alan F. Westin, Privacy and Freedom (New York: Atheneum, 1967), 173-174.

[7] Robert M. Brown, The Electronic Invasion (New York: John F. Rider Publisher, Inc., 1967).

Adventures at the Smithsonian

Last week I went on a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Museum of American History.  Hal Wallace, the Smithsonian’s Associate Curator of Electronics and Electricity, was my guide.  Hal showed me a number of fascinating devices that professional eavesdroppers have used since the mid-1800s.

Here are two pocket wiretaps from the 1860s, each no bigger than a cigarette holder.  These handy little devices had both “send” and “receive” functions.  During the Civil War, military wiretappers used them to intercept rival telegraph messages and disseminate disinformation about troop movements.  

pocket telegraph wiretap (3)_smithsonian electronics collection_c. 1861-1865

pocket telegraph wiretap (2)_smithsonian electronics collection_c. 1861-1865

This is a Morse “Secret Sounder” device, made to look just like a pocket watch.  These hit the market around the turn of the twentieth century:

morse "secret sounder" telegraph tap watch (2)_smithsonian electronics collection_c. 1898

Electronics engineers seem to have had an easy time turning watches into listening devices.  A half-century later, professionals eavesdroppers had the wristwatch transmitter at their disposal.  The notorious San Francisco private investigator Harold Lipset demonstrated a device like this one to a Congressional subcommittee on communications privacy in 1965.   Lipset had bugged the room in advance of the proceedings, and, at the end of his testimony, he played back his opening remarks for rhetorical effect.

wristwatch transmitter_smithsonian electronics collection_1962

Many thanks to Hal Wallace for a fascinating tour.

The Conversnitch

Wired published an article yesterday about Kyle McDonald and Brian House, two artists who recently constructed an eavesdropping device that resembles a household light bulb. When plugged into a lamp or light fixture, the aptly named “Conversnitch” has the ability to listen in on a nearby conversation and then post its contents to a live Twitter feed.

According to the artists involved in the project, the basic idea is to raise awareness about contemporary threats to privacy. “You can’t make this stuff up anymore,” McDonald explains, taking care to note the beginning of the project coincided with Edward Snowden’s NSA document leak. “Here were Brian and I trying to make something kind of scary, something that makes you wonder if someone’s watching you all the time. And then Snowden says, ‘They are.’” Follow @conversnitch and you’ll see that the project does a pretty good job of what it sets out to do.

Aside from the obvious questions about electronic surveillance that McDonald and House want to raise, the coverage in Wired made me think about the cultural processes that allow us—force us, even—to encounter old technologies as somehow new and unprecedented. The Conversnitch is an excellent case in point.  The article presents the artists’ work as evidence of what’s suddenly possible in the world of eavesdropping today. “Now a whole crowd of amateur eavesdroppers could be as close as the nearest light fixture,” we discover.  The device is “just a taste of the real privacy threats facing Americans in an age of the sweeping NSA surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden.”

Such statements are accurate only up to a point. What’s misleading here—if I can borrow the article’s language for rhetorical effect—is that eavesdroppers have been as close as the nearest light fixture for more than 60 years now.  Devices like the Conversnitch have actually been around since the early 1950s, when the introduction of electronic transmitters and transistors in the United States made it easier for engineers to miniaturize listening devices. Microphones got smaller in this period, which made it easier to conceal them in places that the uninitiated would never have dreamed.

In a 1949 article article for the Saturday Evening Post, a former government agent named William Mellin admitted to bugging a stuffed moose head in an income tax case.*

Here’s a partial list of everyday objects that government agents, private investigators, and electronics experts managed to bug during the 1950s, culled from the sources I’ve been working with over the past few months:

television set
picture frame
flower vase
wall socket
bar of soap
tie clip
cigarette box
cigarette lighter
table lighter
martini glass
stuffed moose head

The list reveals a lot about how buggers bugged in the 1950s, and who it was that they were listening to. (SMOKERS BEWARE!) But the lesson here should be clear: the Conversnitch merely updates an eavesdropping technology that’s more than half a century old.  The only truly “new” thing here is the device’s ability to transcribe a nearby conversation onto a live Twitter feed. Which is of course totally crazy. But to present the device as indicative of a unprecedented state of affairs is simply a case of selective historical memory.

*William Mellin, as told to Meyer Berger, “I Was a Wire Tapper,” Saturday Evening Post (September 19, 1949), 57.

Wiretapper (1955)

This is a thing that exists:
That’s right: a 1955 film featuring Billy Graham–yes, that Billy Graham–about an electronics engineer named Jim Vaus.  Jim masters the tools of the eavesdropping trade and gets rich by tapping phones for the mob.  But then he decides to give it all up.  Why?  He wants to save his soul. 

The film was based on Why I Quit Syndicated Crime: The Wiretapper’s Own Story (1951), the confessions of a real-life wiretapper and born-again Christian named Jim Vaus, who worked for the notorious L.A. crime boss Mickey Cohen.  More on this soon. . . .

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).

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!)

Harold K. Lipset, private ear.

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.