Priscilla Hiss Bryn Mawr Archives

The Alger Hiss case was one of the key events of the Cold War, bringing to the headlines the issues of Soviet espionage and infiltration of our government. The case was the forerunner of McCarthyism. Major characters emerged from the case

Richard Nixon,
the first term Congressperson who cracked the case

Alger Hiss,
the suave diplomat who spied for the Soviet Union

Whittaker Chambers,
the repulsive editor and ex-Soviet agent who accused Hiss. The disgusting persona of Whittaker Chambers is set forth as "Gifford Maxim" in Lionel Trilling's novel, The Middle of the Journey, Viking Press, New York, 1947.

Four comprehensive sources on the case are

by Allen Weinstein, Albert A. Knopf, New York, 1978

Whittaker Chambers
by Sam Tanenhaus, Random House, New York, 1997.

The Alger Hiss Story, the search for the truth website by New York University

Famous Trials website by University of Missouri--Kansas City School of Law

Priscilla Hiss

The most interesting character in the case is Priscilla Fansler Hiss, the wife of Alger Hiss. Priscilla, known in their social circle as "Pros" and "Prossy," was suspected of typing abstracts of documents which Alger had taken home from his office in the State Department. These abstracts were given to Chambers. Weinstein and Tanenhaus picture Pros as short tempered, upper crust, politically obsessed. According to Weinstein, when a friend remarked to the effect, "What a nice day it is," Pros snapped back (approximately), "It's never a nice day for the sharecroppers." Both Weinstein and Tanenhaus give a sense of Pros and her life with Alger.

Pros graduated from Bryn Mawr College, one of the finest schools in the nation, located on Philadelphia's "Main Line" (suburbs). I wanted to learn more about Pros. I visited the alumnae archives at the Canaday Library at Bryn Mawr College and found the treasury which follows.

The Lantern

Priscilla Fansler published twice in the student literary magazine, The Lantern.

April 1922, Spring, Volume II, No. 3, pp. 11-12, "Our Lady's Day"


Priscilla Fansler, '24

In the Middle Ages, you will remember, there were many religious orders and Florence had its share of monasteries. Now in the Dominican order was Brother Francis, a most devoted and pious friar, who served as wine-bearer to his brothers. Every morning kneeling on the hard stone pavement he chanted his seventy "aves" with great solemnity and in all dignity he passed the cup at supper. So Brother Francis was held in honor as a grave and earnest fellow. .

He had been in the order for almost a year when Our Lady's Day was celebrated. Seventy-one "aves" were chanted and many candles lighted for the special mass. But Brother Francis, at break of day, descended the clammy steps of the vast old wine-cellar; rolled out a wooden cask of fine wine; pulled the stopper from its mouth and lay down on the damp stones with his mouth just under the gushing stream of red wine.

When he did not appear long after mass was said, every one went in search of him. And can you imagine the horror of the good friars to find him. They shook him and tried to waken him but he only murmured cheerfully,

"Diddle, diddle, dum di ay,
Tum ti tum, Our Lady's Day."

This only confirmed their horror and they all agreed that Brother Francis should be put away that very night. So with picks they hollowed out a space in the cellar wall, thrust Brother Francis in, with a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, and then walled it up tight again.

After some hours Brother Francis woke up, miserable and sober. He called names and beat against the wall in his anger.

Now it happened that next to the Dominican monastery was a Cappucian monastery and the two buildings had a common wall. A Cappucian brother, hearing knocks on the wall of the cellar, summoned his brothers. They opened the wall to discover Brother Francis. Since the Cappucians were a silent order they could only motion their sympathy to him but they took him in among them. He was particularly pious in his devotions and for this reason was held in high respect. In fact he was made their wine bearer and he performed his office diligently and well.

In a year's time came the celebration of Our Lady's Day. Brother Francis, at break of day, descended the clammy steps of the vast old wine-cellar; rolled out a wooden cask of fine wine; pulled the stopper from its mouth; and lay down on the damp stones with his mouth just under the gushing stream of red wine. Long after mass was said they found him sitting up against the cask humming,

"Diddle, diddle, dum di ay,
Tum ti tum, Our Lady's Day."

Singing is one of the greatest crimes a Cappucian can commit.

In anger they dug a hole in the wall and thrust in Brother Francis and after him a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine. Then they replaced the stones.

Brother Francis awoke after some hours, miserable and sober. He pounded against the wall with his fists and thumped and hammered.

A Dominican friar, on
his side of the wall, heard the thumping and with some others opened up the wall. To their great surprise they found Brother Francis just as they had left him a year ago with the same loaf of bread and same bottle of wine.

"A miracle of God," they said. And Brother Francis was made Father Superior.
November 1922, Volume III, No. 1, p. 21, untitled You sang a fisher's love song But I knew it was only in some fleeting sea-mood That you sang so: not for me; And like the shadow of a passing schooner Fell a shadow on my heart. Priscilla Fansler, '24


Priscilla Harriet Fansler graduated in 1924 from Bryn Mawr College. According to her classbook, there were 119 seniors. Priscilla was one of 11 cum laudes. There was one summa cum laude and three magna cum laudes. She was listed as president of the Liberal Club. She does not appear in the pictures for athletics or drama. Her home address was "Roadside Acres," Frazer, Pa. Each senior had an individual photograph. Priscilla is pictured standing in the snow, wearing a long skirt, boots, white blouse and open sweater. She is not wearing a hat..

Alger and Priscilla Hiss stand on steps of Federal Court House during first trial in summer 1949.
Alumnae Registry

The Bryn Mawr archives contain several forms which alumnae submitted for the Alumnae Register or Address Book. .

An index card compiled by the College staff lists the following addresses:

Fansler, Priscilla Harriet A.B. 1924
Mrs. Alger Hiss,
(formerly Mrs. Francis Thayer Hobson.)

12/31: 180 Claremont St., Cambridge, Mass.

11/33w: 3411 "O" St., N.W., Washington, D.C.
or 378 Central Park West, N.Y.C.

2/35: 2831 - 28th St., Washington, D.C.
Perm: 1427 Linden Ave., Baltimore, Md.

1/39: 3415 Volta Place, N.W., Washington, D.C.

Full: 12/43: 3210 P. St., " " 7 "

12/47: 22 E. 8th St., NYC. 3.

The Register card for 1933-34 shows her "Form of Name preferred for Address: Mrs. Alger Hiss." Her permanent address is listed as "378 Central Park West, New York City" Her winter address is listed as "3411 - O - Street, N.W., Washington, DC." She lists her occupation as "Research." As for degree received she lists "MA" from Columbia in 1929.

The Register card for 1934-35, shows her permanent address as "1427 Linden Ave, Baltimore, Md." He winter address is listed as "2831 - 28 St., N.W., Washington, DC." She lists her occupation as "Research."

The Register card for 1935-36 shows the same permanent address, but lists the winter address as "2905 P Street, N.W., Washington, D.C." She leaves the occupation blank.

The Register card to be returned by November 1, 1941, lists her Bryn Mawr degree as "AB" "1924." Her mailing address is "3415 Volta Place, N.W., Washington, D.C." Her permanent address is "c/o Department of State, Washington, D.C." She states the date of her marriage as "Dec. 11, 1929." She notes "Married Thayer Hobson July 25, 1925 Divorced 1928." She lists her children under Boys "Timothy Hobson Sept 18, 1926" and "Anthony Hiss Aug 5, 1941." She lists other degrees as "MA 1929 Columbia."

The Register card for 1947-48 lists her mailing address as "22 E. 8th St., N.Y. 3, N.Y." She lists two male children, born 1926 and 1941. She lists her occupation as "Teacher" at the Dalton School, N.Y. City 1947 -." Her husband's occupantion is "President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace."

The Register card for 1966 lists her name as "Priscilla Hiss (Mrs. Alger Hiss)." Her address is 22 E. Eighth St., New York, N.Y. 10003. She lists her present position as "Copy editor Harcourt, Brace & World."

The Register card stamped July 27, 1972 lists her Columbia degree as "Engl lit." Her family status is "separated." She lists her position as "Senior Editor" and checks the form for paid and full time. Her employer is "Golden Press" at "850 Third Ave NYC 10022." Her responsiblity is "editing nature + children's books." She lists herself as "Member Exec Committee Village Independent Democrats official club

Divorcee Who Wed Hiss
Played Dominant Role
In His Spectacular Rise

In the sixth article of a series of the life of Alger Hiss, James L. Kilgallen tells how Hiss met and married his wife, Priscilla.)

By James L. Kilgallen
International News Service

NEW YORK --- Priscilla Fansler, a slim, petite Quaker girl with a saucy, upturned nose and a college background, played a dominant role in the career of Alger Hiss.

A primly-attractive girl with a strong mind, she was --and is-- a big influence in Hiss' life..

She was a divorcee when Hiss married her in Washington, D.C., on December 13, 1929, after his graduation from Harvard Law school. She was liberal-minded and early in their married life, joined the Socialist party in New York City.

The charge of espionage which later enveloped Hiss when the government accused him of being a Communist and a spy splattered Priscilla, too -- at both Hiss trials.

The government charged that Priscilla typed copies of secret State department documents on an old-fashioned Woodstock typewriter given to her years before by her father She denied the charge. Then U.S. Court of Appeals, when it unanimously upheld Hiss's conviction last week, specifically mentioned the damning evidence of this typewriter.

Hiss, according to Whittaker Chambers, made a practice of bringing the State department documents to his home in Washington on specified occasions when Chambers was to be on hand to get them.

Chambers testified he would take the original documents or copies to Baltimore to be photographed. He would return them late the same night so Hiss could restore them to the State department files. The microfilms, Chambers said, were passed on to the Soviet spy apparatus.

Priscilla's first marriage in 1925 to Thayer Hobson, New York publisher, lasted only two years. They separated and Priscilla was given custody of their child, Timothy, born to them in 1926.

She was determined to make her second marriage click and apparently it has. Her loyalty to Hiss never has wavered.

Priscilla Fansler was a year or two older than Hiss. She was born in Evanston, Illinois, a fashionable suburb of Chicago, the daughter of Lawrence Fansler, a successful insurance executive.

When she was very young, the Fanslers moved to Paoli, Pa., a socially elegant "main line" town not far from Philadelphia.

She was given a good education. Her folks had money. She had physical vitality, intelligence and charm. She displayed a keen interest in world events and changing political conditions.

She met Hiss in 1924, the year she was graduated from Bryn Mawr with an arts degree. The meeting occurred on an ocean liner, "The New Amsterdam," which was ploughing its way toward Europe.

Hiss, then a student at Johns Hopkins, and played an active part in arranging this third-class college trip for students eager to see what Europe was like.

Just how Priscilla and Alger met--whether causally on deck at shuffleboard of under a low hung mid-ocean moon--has not been disclosed. But Jesse Slingluf, Hiss's "closest college chum," says he assumes they were formally introduced.

The romance did not develop immediately. It wasn't love a first sight. Hiss, at the time, wasn't thinking of marriage.

When the ship docked in England, Hiss hastened to Stratford-on-Avon to meet his chum, Slingluf, who had preceded him to England on another boat.

Hiss and Slingluf spent the next month and a half visiting London, Paris and northern France. His showed much interest in the art galleries, libraries and historic spots.

Priscilla, meanwhile, returned from Europe and took an office position on Time magazine in New York, then a fledgling publication.

A year later, she met and married Thayer Hobson. When that marriage went on the rocks in 1927, Priscilla decided to go to Yale University for some post-graduate work. Alger had returned to his studies at Harvard. They corresponded and romance blossomed.

Priscilla and Alger were married in December 1929, in Hiss's apartment in Washington. It was a quiet wedding, witnessed by a small group of Hiss's close friends and college chums.

Soon after the marriage, Hiss gave up playing golf and tennis with his college pals and spent virtually all his spare time with Priscilla.

He was an amateur ornithologist and the young couple used to take walks along the canal near their home and study the birds.

His was working at his first job, that of confidential secretary in Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Justice Holmes was failing. Near the end, while the elderly white haired jurist lay in bed, his eyes closed, Hiss would read him novels and poetry.

When Holmes died he left his beautiful silver-encased Queen Anne mirror to Alger--a possession Hiss still treasures.

The Hisses moved to Boston, where Hiss joined the law firm of Choate, Hall and Stewart. He practiced law in Boston for two years.

Then the Hisses came to New York. Alger became an associate attorney in the law firm of Cotton and Franklin, a position he held from April, 1932 until May, 1933. They rented an apartment near Columbia University, where Priscilla enrolled for some courses.

Priscilla and Alger were soon drawn into the intellectual ferment prevalent at this time. The "depression" was a hot topic of discussion in university circles. Friends of this period say Priscilla was heard to express pronounced views on economic conditions. She became to be regarded as a "radical." When she voted in 1932, she registered as a Socialist.

Hiss himself had an opportunity to re-establish an old friendship with Lee Pressman, one of his classmates at Harvard. Pressman was then with the law firm of Chadbourne, Stanchfield and Levy.

But Pressman didn't stay long in New York. He moved on to Washington, where he became well known as a powerful leftist in New Deal circles.

Hiss followed Pressman to Washington where, in May, 1933, Hiss became assistant general counsel in the Department of Agriculture. It was his first government job, and both he and Priscilla were happy in their new environment in Washington.

Prison Visitor

The Bryn Mawr archives contain an article from This Week, a Sunday newspaper supplement, dated February 28, 1954. The article, by Rowland T. Moriarty, is entitled, "Alger Hiss in Prison. The following excerpt describes the prison visits by Priscilla Hiss.

The best, and yet most heart-rending, hours of prison life are the visting periods. The Lewisburg regulations permit visits only by members of a prisoner's immediate family and by his lawyer. Men are allowed two hours' visiting a month, with a minimum visiting time fo 30 minutes. As with the mail the rules are elastic, if they are not abused.

Mrs. Hiss, who works in a mid-town New York bookstore and lives in a modestly priced Greenwich Village apartment, has been a faithful visitor. She usually comes to the prison once every two weeks and occasionally stays overnight at the Lewisburg Inn so as to visit her husband on consecutive days. The trip from New York is a long and tiresome one. She must come by train to Scranton, Pa., take another train to West Milton and then a bus to Lewisburg. She is usually driven to and from the prison by Clarence M. Beachel, the town's veteran cabbie, who charges a 90-cent fare for each trip. .

In town, Mrs. Hiss generally eats at Steininger's Restaurant on Market Street, the town's main thoroughfare. This was one place I ran into the far-reaching Federal censorship on Hiss: Mrs. Eberhart, wife of the restaurant owner, mentioned that she usually serves Mrs. Hiss, but Mr. Eberhart interrupted and told me frankly that they had been requested not to discuss her with anyone.

Mrs. Hiss herself has the reputation in town of a pleasant, friendly woman --- and a modest tipper. She has never disclosed her identity to anyone, but sharp-eyed townspeople spotted her long ago, and the news got around.

Pasted Graphic
Alger and Pros leaving court.

Ordeal of Living

Time Magazine, December 6, 1954

Early one frosty, sunny morning at Lewisburg, Pa. last week, a mother led her 13-year-old son into the Federal Penitentiary's Administration Building. She went up to a handsome, 50-year-old man who kissed her and said: "Priscilla." Wrapping his arms around the body, the man greeted him with a "Hiya, Tony." Then Priscilla, Anthony and Alger Hiss walked into the sunlight.

After serving three years, eight months and five days in prison for perjury, Alger Hiss was paroled (until next September). Outside the prison a throng of more than 70 newsmen surged around him as he intoned his careful words: "I am very glad to use this chance--the first I have had in nearly four years---to reassert my complete innocence of the charges that were brought against me by Whitaker Chambers . . . I have had to wait in silence while in m absence, a myth has been developed. I hope that the return of the mere man will help to dispel the myth. . . I shall renew my efforts to dispel the deception that has been foisted on the American people." He said he hoped to "allay" the "fear and hysteria of those these times." Asked if he planned to write a book, he replied: "I certainly intend to do some writing." A box wrapped in Manila paper, said to contain Hiss's notes and papers, was loaded into a red Chevrolet convertible. Then , with his family and two lawyers, Hiss drove off in the red convertible to freedom..

In New York City, Hiss will live in a third-floor Greenwich Village walkup apartment that his wife and son have called home. While on parole, he must avoid "evil companions" and report his activities monthly to a parole officer. Confined to New York's Southern District, he may travel upstate almost to Albany, but not to Brooklyn or New Jersey. Being disbarred, he may no longer practice law.

The outlook for Hiss was the subject of some reflection by Whitaker Chambers. On his Maryland farm, where he is also doing some writing, Chambers, who is now much thinner than he was before his two major heart attacks in the last two years, observed: "Alger Hiss will be passing from the ordeal of prison to the ordeal of daily living, which may well prove more trying. His is approaching the most difficult moment of his life." Next day, a reporter relayed this thought to Hiss as he arrived at his Greenwich Village home. Asked HIss tersely: "Was that his hope or a statement?"

When another reporter appeared at the Chambers farm, Esther Chambers sat him down in front of the kitchen fireplace to wait while Chambers went to his typewriter, put a piece of yellow paper in it and wrote:" "The saddest single factor about the Hiss case is that nobody can change the facts as they are known. Neither Alger Hiss nor I however much we might wish to do so, can change these facts. They are there forever. That is the inherent tragedy of this case."

Alger Hiss leaves prison, November 27, 1954

Letter to the Editor

From New York Times, undated

To the Editor:

For more than a quarter of a century, I have kept silence amid the clamor concerning the conviction of Alger Hiss. Recently, statements have appeared in print to the effect that I have made remarks indicating that Alger Hiss was guilty. I fear that if I do not now speak out, my silence will be interpreted as confirming these statements.

At all times, and with all my every fiber, I have believed in the innocence of Alger Hiss. I have never spoken a word to the contrary. To me, the conviction of Alger Hiss represents a cruel miscarriage of justice.

I do not intend to make any further statements concerning this painful subject..

New York, March 10, 1978

Alger and Priscilla Hiss take a break during the trial.


Priscilla Hiss, wife of Alger Hiss
United Press International

NEW YORK--Priscilla Hiss, 81, who maintained that her husband, Alger Hiss, was innocent despite his 1950 conviction for lying to conceal Communist espionage, died Sunday in a Manhattan Hospital.

Mrs. Hiss, who had lived in Greenwich Village since 1947 and at the Village Nursing Home since 1982, died in St. Vincent's Hospital of complications resulting from a stroke she suffered four ears ago.

A memorial service was planned for today at Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Manhattan.

Mrs. Hiss maintained her husband's innocence at his two trials for perjury and in battles waged to clear his name in the years after the court proceedings. .

Hiss, a State Department official who assisted President Harry S. Truman [sic---should be Franklin D. Roosevelt] at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 was named by former Communist Party member Whittaker Chambers as a member of the party.

He was accused of stealing secret State Department documents in the 1930s and of transmitting them to Chambers.

Mrs. Hiss was a witness at both trials and denied prosecutors' contentions that she typed copies of those sensitive documents, given to Chambers in 1937 and early 1938.

Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950 for telling a grand jury that he was not a spy for the Soviet Union. Hiss spent nearly two years in prison for the conviction. Two lower courts also turned down the appeals.

She was a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and Yale University.

She and Hiss were married in 1929. They separated in 1959 but did not divorce.

Mrs. Hiss is survived by her husband and two sons.

Philadelphia Inquirer, October 17, 1984

Priscilla Hiss, Who Defended Her Husband

Priscilla Hiss, the wife of Alger Hiss, who steadfastly defended her husband at his two trials for perjury, died Sunday at St. Vincent's Hospital and Medical Center in Manhattan. She was 81 years old on Saturday.

Mrs. Hiss had been ill since suffering a stroke in 1981. She had lived in Greenwich Village since 1947 and at the Village Nursing Home since 1982.

Mrs. Hiss was thrust into the limelight in 1948 when her husband, a former State Department official, was accused of being a spy by Whittaker Chambers, an admitted former courier for a Soviet spy ring. Thoroughout Mr. Hiss's two perjury trials in 1948 and 1949-50, and in the years that followed, she maintained her husband's innocence.

Denied Prosecution Cententions

His first trial ended in a hung jury, but Mr. Hiss was convicted of perjury at his second trial for denying to a grand jury that he had passed secret State Department documents to Mr. Chambers. He served 44 months in prison.

Mrs. Hiss testified at both trials. Her testimony centered on two key prosecution contentions: that she had typed on a family-owned Woodstock typewriter copies of the secret documents for transmission to Mr. Chambers in 1937 and early 1938, and that she had seen Mr. Chambers after Jan. 1, 1937. She firmly denied both contentions.

She and Mr. Hiss were married in 1929. They separated in 1959, but did not divorce.

Before the notoriety of the trials swept over her life, Mrs. Hiss worked as an office manager for Time magazine in New York City and taught English at the Potomac School in Washington and at the Dalton School in New York. She was a graduate of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and received a master's degree in English literature from Yale University.

After Mr. Hiss's conviction, she worked as an editor at several publishing houses in New York City, including the Golden Press, the children's book division of the Western Publishing Company.

Later, she became involved in Democratic politics, serving with Community Board 2 in Greenwich Village, the Village Independent Democrats and the Democratic County Committee of New York County.

Besides her husband, she is survived by a son, Tony Hiss, of New York, and a son by a previous marriage, Timothy Hobson of Gilette, Wyo.

A memorial service is planned for 1 p.m. tomorrow at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Fifth Avenue and 10th Street.

New York Times, October 16, 1984