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The Case of the Hollow Nickel – Podcast #168

During the evening of Monday, June 22, 1953, 13-year-old paperboy Jimmy Bozart knocked on the door of a sixth-floor apartment in a building located at 3403 Foster Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, which was part of a massive housing project known as Vanderveer Estates, and currently named Flatbush Gardens. Jimmy was there to collect the 35-cents owed to him for delivering the past week’s Brooklyn Eagle.

The two teachers who lived there, identified in the press only by their last names of Ash and Donnelly, were generous tippers and this day was no exception. They handed Jimmy 50-cents, consisting of one quarter and five nickels, and off he went.

Jimmy was very appreciative of the 15-cent tip (about $1.50 today) but didn’t wish to be rude and count the money in front of the teachers. As he headed down the stairs and opened his hand to count the coins, he dropped them.

He set his bundle of newspapers down and began to collect up the coins. But when he picked up one of the nickels, Jimmy noticed something peculiar about the coin. He only had the back half of the coin; the portion with the engraving of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello on it. Of course, half a nickel is worth nothing, so he further searched for the other half. It had bounced a short distance away, but he did locate it. And then he noticed that there was something inside that front portion. It appeared to be a small piece of photographic film.

Upon returning to his home at nearby 4304 Avenue D, he told his dad Fulton about his peculiar find. Curious, Jimmy held the film up to a light, looked at it with a magnifying glass, and saw what appeared to be the photograph of a file card with six to eight numbers on it.

His dad was unsure of the significance of the film but told Jimmy that it would be best for him to turn it over to the police. And Jimmy knew just the officer to turn it over to. A girl named Carolyn in his eighth-grade class just happened to be the daughter of a police officer. So, Jimmy made his way over to their house, but Carolyn’s dad wasn’t home, and Jimmy headed off with the nickel.

When her dad arrived home and learned of Jimmy’s discovery, he and a few other officers went to the Bozart residence to retrieve the coin. They spoke to Jimmy’s dad, but he didn’t know where his son was or what he had done with the coin. His mother, Mary Bozart, was off playing bingo, so there was the possibility that Jimmy had given her the coin. They raced over to the bingo hall and had Mrs. Bozart paged over the PA system. No one came forward, so he requested that game officials allow them to examine all the nickels. They refused, so Mrs. Bozart was paged one more time. This time she came forward and stated that she had given the nickel to Jimmy to buy an ice cream cone with.

Mrs. Bozart accompanied an officer as he cruised the neighborhood searching for Jimmy. They found him playing stickball and he was asked if he still had the nickel. He did and handed the coin over to the officer.

After that, Jimmy put the split nickel out of his mind. What he was unaware of was that the mysterious nickel ended up in the hands of the FBI in Washington, DC. Under magnification, the film was found to consist of ten columns of numbers, with each column filled with either 20 or 21 rows of seemingly random numbers, all six digits in length. But as hard as cryptographers worked at it, they were unable to decipher the meaning of the numbers.

The front of the coin was dated 1948 and had a tiny hole drilled right through the letter R in the word TRUST. Clearly, the hole was there so that someone could insert a fine pin to pop the coin open. The back of the coin was from a different nickel that had been minted between 1942 and 1945. They knew this because it had been made from a copper-silver alloy that had only been used during World War II when there was a shortage of nickel.

Image of the hollow nickel. Note the hole drilled through the letter "R" in the word TRUST.
Image of the hollow nickel. Note the hole drilled through the letter “R” in the word TRUST. FBI image.

While they were unable to decipher the code, investigators wondered if the coin had been a trick coin used by magicians. One novelty salesman pointed out that it was highly unlikely. “It’s not suitable for a magic trick. The hollowed-out area is too small to hide anything aside from a tiny piece of paper.”

A comparison of the microfilm’s typewritten characters with the FBI’s reference file of typewriters manufactured in the United States was of no help. Investigators concluded that the numerical code had been typed with a foreign typewriter.

Efforts to solve the mystery of the coin continued throughout 1953, into 1954, then 1955, and throughout 1956.

Then, in May 1957, the United States Embassy in Paris received a phone call from a Soviet spy named Reino Häyhänen. He then went to the Embassy and told an official there, “I’m an officer in the Soviet intelligence service. For the past five years, I have been operating in the United States. Now I need your help.” Häyhänen had decided to defect.

Häyhänen was born on May 14, 1920, near Leningrad to Finnish parents. In 1939, he obtained a certificate to teach high school and secured a position at a primary school. Shortly after this, the Soviet Union invaded Finland and Häyhänen was conscripted into the Soviet NKVT secret police, a forerunner of the KGB. Having been proficient in the Finnish language, Häyhänen was sent into the combat zone to interrogate prisoners and decipher captured documents.

Undated photograph Reino Häyhänen.
Undated photograph Reino Häyhänen. Wikipedia image.

After World War II ended, Häyhänen continued on as an intelligence officer. In 1948, he was ordered to leave his wife and family, learn English, and move to Finland. There, he assumed the name of Eugene Nicolai Mäki, a man who had been born in Idaho in 1919, after which the Mäki family moved to Finland. As Mäki, Häyhänen met and later married his second wife Hanna. She was unaware of his true identity or that he was in training to spy on the United States. The two arrived in New York City aboard the Queen Mary on October 21, 1952.

The couple settled in Fishkill, New York, which lies about 75 miles (120 km) north of New York City. During his five years in the United States, the quality of Häyhänen’s work deteriorated and he became an alcoholic. As a result, he received orders to return to Moscow and began his long journey back home. Fearing that he would be sent to a Soviet camp, Häyhänen went to the United States Embassy in Paris instead.

His defection was kept a secret and Häyhänen was flown to the US to be questioned by the FBI. A search of his Fishkill home uncovered a hollowed-out Finnish coin, similar to Jimmy Bozart’s hollowed-out nickel.

Bingo!

On June 5, 1957, FBI cryptographer Michael G. Leonard was able to use information obtained from Häyhänen to decode the microfilm’s code. (UPDATE: It was actually Marvin Lautzenheiser and his FBI team that decrypted the code. Leonard was a stand-in for Marvin at the trial and had nothing to do with the decryption. This was done to prevent any US cryptanalysis secrets from being revealed at trial.)

It read as follows:

The microfilm image found inside the nickel.
The microfilm image found inside the nickel. Wikipedia image.

“1. WE CONGRATULATE YOU ON A SAFE ARRIVAL. WE CONFIRM THE RECEIPT OF YOUR LETTER TO THE ADDRESS ‘V REPEAT V’ AND THE READING OF LETTER NUMBER 1.

2. FOR ORGANIZATION OF COVER, WE GAVE INSTRUCTIONS TO TRANSMIT TO YOU THREE THOUSAND IN LOCAL (CURRENCY). CONSULT WITH US PRIOR TO INVESTING IT IN ANY KIND OF BUSINESS, ADVISING THE CHARACTER OF THIS BUSINESS.

3. ACCORDING TO YOUR REQUEST, WE WILL TRANSMIT THE FORMULA FOR THE PREPARATION OF SOFT FILM AND NEWS SEPARATELY, TOGETHER WITH (YOUR) MOTHER’S LETTER.

4. IT IS TOO EARLY TO SEND YOU THE GAMMAS. ENCIPHER FOR SHORT LETTERS, BUT THE LONGER ONES MAKE WITH INSERTIONS. ALL THE DATA ABOUT YOURSELF, PLACE OF WORK, ADDRESS, ETC., MUST NOT BE TRANSMITTED IN ONE CIPHER MESSAGE. TRANSMIT INSERTIONS SEPARATELY.

5. THE PACKAGE WAS DELIVERED TO YOUR WIFE PERSONALLY. EVERYTHING IS ALL RIGHT WITH THE FAMILY. WE WISH YOU SUCCESS. GREETINGS FROM THE COMRADES. NUMBER 1, 3RD OF DECEMBER.”

After years of having been unable to decode that message, there was little to be learned from it once they had. It was thought to be the first message sent by the KGB in Moscow to Häyhänen, one that he never received. How the nickel containing the message ended up in circulation is unknown. It could be that someone found the coin before Häyhänen received it or he may have accidentally made a purchase with it.

Häyhänen told investigators that he had reported to two different Soviet spies while he was in the United States. From the time of his arrival in 1952 through early 1954, he worked under a man who he only knew as Mikhail. Based on Häyhänen’s description, investigators determined that Mikhail was Mikhail Nikolaevich Svirin, who has served as the first secretary to the Soviet United Nations Delegation in New York from August 1952 through April 1954.

Upon being shown a picture of Svirin, Häyhänen stated, “That’s the one. There is absolutely no doubt about it. That’s Mikhail.”

They now had positive identification, but there was one big problem: Svirin was out of reach of the US justice system because he had already returned to the Soviet Union.

It was a second spy, who Häyhänen only knew as Mark and took over after Svirin left the United States, who proved to be far more difficult to identify.

Häyhänen mostly met up with Mark on the street, in parks, and other places, but occasionally they took short trips together to East Coast cities such as Albany, Atlantic City, and Philadelphia. As a result, Häyhänen was able to provide investigators with a general description of Mark. He was in his 50s, gray hair and balding, and of average height and build. That’s not a whole heck of a lot to go on, but Häyhänen recalled that Mark was an accomplished photographer and on one occasion had accompanied him to a storage room on the fourth or fifth floor of a building in the vicinity of Clark and Fulton Streets in Brooklyn.

That’s a multi-street area, but it wasn’t long before FBI agents narrowed it down to a building at 252 Fulton Street, home to numerous artist studios. Emil R. Goldfus, a photographer who rented room 505 and storage room 509 in the building, was their main suspect. Goldfus lived a quiet life but was friendly with other artists in the building. While he was mainly a photographer, Goldfus was a good, although not great painter. He was friendly with another tenant in the building, famed artist Burt Silverman (no relationship), who painted an oil portrait of Goldfus. In it, Goldfus is seen sitting comfortably in his studio with his arms crossed. Surrounding him are brushes and tubes of pigment, while one of his own paintings hangs on the wall behind him. The only hint in Silverman’s painting that Goldfus could be a spy is the oversized shortwave radio that has been flipped on its side, supposedly because it got better reception that way.

They weren’t certain if Goldfus was the spy that they had been looking for, so the FBI began surveillance of the building. But Goldfus had disappeared. He had told several residents that he was headed south for a seven-week vacation, but investigators wondered if he had fled the country.

Then, on May 28, 1957, a man resembling Goldfus sat down on a park bench across from the building. He watched as people entered and exited the building, and then stood up and left. Agents opted not to follow him, believing that he would eventually return.

At 10 PM on June 13th, the lights suddenly went on in Goldfus’ studio. At 11:52, the room went dark and Goldfus stepped out of the building. This time agents followed him to a nearby subway station and all the way to the Hotel Latham on E. 28th Street.

Two days later, the FBI showed a photograph that they had taken with a hidden camera of Goldfus and showed it to Häyhänen. “You’ve found him. That’s Mark.”

At 7:30 AM on June 21, 1957, there was a knock at Goldfus’ door at the Hotel Latham. Moments later, three men burst in and arrested him. He was charged with illegal entry into the United States and taken by immigration agents to McAllen, Texas to await deportation. The Soviet embassy was informed, and they requested that Goldfus be deported at once. The US government stalled, secretly building up a case against the suspected spy.

A search of his hotel room and studio turned up a treasure trove of spy equipment. They found radio receivers, both cameras and film to produce microdot images, cipher pads, hollowed-out coins, bolts, pencils, and cufflinks. Several messages were also recovered. While some were cryptic, one made it clear that Goldfus knew that he was being followed. “I bought a ticket for the next ship – Queen Elizab for next Thursday, 1-31. Could not come because three men are tailing me.” One has to wonder why he didn’t flee the country at that point.

Two American birth certificates were also discovered. The first was a forged certificate for Martin Collins, the name that he registered at the Hotel Latham with. The second was for Emil Goldfus, the name he had assumed in his artist studio. That birth certificate was real, but it clearly didn’t belong to this man that they had just arrested. That’s because the real Emil Goldfus, who was born in New York City on August 2, 1902, died at two months of age.

Goldfus had used many other names as well. For example, he had first entered Canada in 1948 with a European passport issued to one Andrew Kayotis. After sneaking into the United States, he would do his banking using the name of Alan Winston.

So, who was this man that the feds had in custody? He wasn’t saying much, but he did admit that his name was Colonel Rudolph Ivanovich Abel. It would later be learned that even that was an assumed name. Abel had been born Vilyam Genrikovitch Fisher (anglicized as William August Fisher) in the United Kingdom to Russian émigré parents. He had been accepted to London University in 1920, but after the Russian Revolution, his family picked up and moved to Moscow the following year. Fluent in five languages and trained as a radio operator, Goldfus, aka, Abel, aka Fisher, making him the perfect candidate to be a Soviet spy.

Colonel Rudolph Ivanovich Abel.
Colonel Rudolph Ivanovich Abel. Find-A-Grave image.

The US government continued to collect evidence and build its case against Abel. On August 7, 1957, a federal grand jury indicted Colonel Rudolph Abel. The feds claimed that he was the highest-ranking Russian spy ever captured in the United States.

In September 1957, Jimmy Bozart would once again be drawn back into the investigation. Jimmy was now a 17-year-old freshman at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and was asked by an FBI agent if he would be willing to tell his hollow-nickel story in court if needed. Jimmy agreed to do so and became a minor celebrity in the press.

At trial, Jimmy was one of sixty-nine witnesses called to the stand. While not essential to the government’s case, Jimmy’s statements backed up the testimony of the man who really sealed Abel’s fate, Reino Häyhänen.

On October 25, 1957, a jury took just three hours to find Abel guilty on all counts. Then, on November 15, Judge Mortimer W. Byers sentenced Abel as follows, to be served concurrently:

  • Count One – Conspiracy to transmit defense information to the Soviet Union – 30 years imprisonment.
  • Count Two – Conspiracy to obtain defense information – 10 years imprisonment and a $2000 fine.
  • Count 3 – Conspiracy to act in the United States as an agent of a foreign government without notification – 5 years imprisonment and a $1000 fine.

Abel’s attorney James B. Donovan filed an appeal with the United States Supreme Court, arguing that the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibited unreasonable search and seizures, but the conviction was upheld in a 5 to 4 ruling.

James B. Donovan (r) with President John F. Kennedy in 1962.
James B. Donovan (r) with President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Wikipedia image.

Abel’s time in prison would be short. On February 10, 1962, he was exchanged on the German Glienicke Bridge for American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. If this all sounds vaguely familiar, the bridge was coined the “Bridge of Spies” during the Cold War and was also the title of Steven Spielberg’s 2015 telling of Rudolph Abel’s capture and prisoner exchange. Mark Rylance played Colonel Abel and Tom Hanks played lawyer James Donovan. Definitely worth viewing if you have never seen the film.

While that coin and the microfilm that it contained may not have led investigators directly to Colonel Abel, it was an important piece of the puzzle.

Jimmy Bozart never got that nickel back, but it changed his life forever. An anonymous citizen rewarded him with an Oldsmobile 98, which Jimmy sold one year later. He used that money to purchase stock in the Texas Gulf Sulphur Company. In a 2015 interview, he told a reporter, “We had a tip that they had discovered the largest sulfur deposit ever in Canada. It turned out to be true, and we made a bunch of money.”

From that first windfall, Bozart would go on to be a part of many successful businesses, including vending machine companies, restaurants, discotheques, and hotels.

And to think that it all started with a single nickel. Who said that a nickel doesn’t buy much these days?

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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