Update: Sadly, 94-year-old Marvin Lautzenheiser passed away on June 6, 2023. His obituary can be found here.
Please note that the text below is an automated transcription. As a result, it contains many errors.
Steve Silverman 00:00:01
So back on June 27 of this year, I received the following email: “I enjoyed your podcast #168 re the Hollow Nickel case. Since I was a cryptanalyst at the FBI who actually worked on the code, I have some information that may be of interest to you. Incidentally, I was in charge of the team that read the message. The Bureau would not let me testify at Abel’s trial since I knew too much about the Cryptanalysis Section. So I taught Agent Leonard how to decrypt the code so he could testify; Get in touch if you’re interested. Yes, I am old enough (93) to have worked on it.”
And you know exactly what I did. I immediately replied to Marvin Lautzenheiser. And I must tell you what this man has accomplished in his lifetime is truly amazing. And since that first set of messages, we’ve been going back and forth, and we recorded approximately 8 hours of conversation over five different days. I have to tell you, the story that he had to tell was simply fascinating. He went from being a machinist in Ohio to standing in FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s Washington office in less than a year. As for background, Marvin was not only an FBI special agent, but he obtained a BA in mathematics for Mount Union College in Ohio back in 1953, he has five patents to his name, he’s a member of Mensa, the American Iris Society, and he’s also a member of the American Theatre Organ Society. And wait til you hear our discussion about his theater organ. It’s just incredible.
Now, I’m not going to play it all for you today. I’m planning on probably three or four episodes, to edit it into different sections. Now, in this first installment, Marvin discusses his early life growing up on a farm in Ohio during the Great Depression and World War II, his struggles to attend college while working a full-time job and raising three young children, and how a chance meeting while standing in line at his college graduation got him an interview with the FBI and his dream job as a cryptanalyst. I really think you’re going to enjoy this. So sit back and let’s listen to the first episode of The Cryptanalyst. I am Steve Silverman and this is the Useless Information Podcast.
Now, before I start, I should mention that Marvin used the phone to talk to me, so it’s not the best of microphones. You’ll hear some heavy breathing, some pops, clicks, and so on. Basically, the sound quality is low, and I did my best to tweak it that I could, but I’m not a great sound editor. But what you will hear is that while time has diminished the strength of his voice, his mind is still incredibly sharp. I was quite amazed at how he could just pull dates out of thin air. And as I mentioned in the introduction, there were over 8 hours of recordings here. So what I’ve done is try to condense it down, and in doing so I took out large sections, so you may hear some jumps here and there, but I tried to keep the story as intact as possible. I should also mention I turned my audio track off at times because you don’t need to hear me go mmm hmmm, yup, or whatever. So I turned it off just so he can tell the story. I thought it was more interesting that way. And as he changes from one topic to another, since there are some major edits in here, occasionally I will jump in with a bit of narration and you’ll hear a beep that goes like this. Okay, so let’s get to it. So let me introduce to you, Marvin Lautzenheiser.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:03:32
I was born in Maximo, Ohio. It’s a little burg close to Alliance, not too far from Canton, Ohio.
Steve Silverman 00:03:38
And what year was that?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:03:40
1929. I didn’t cause the depression, but I was sure born into it. And our house burned down when I was not just a couple of weeks short of my fourth birthday. Middle of the night, my mother heard a train which ran about 150 yards behind our house. And it stopped there at three in the morning and just kept tooting its horn. My mother wakened up and saw flames coming up beside her bedroom window. We all got out, and that was January 29.
Steve Silverman 00:04:16
This is what in 19?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:04:22
1933. From then we went, well, we hopped to my grandfather’s place for a few weeks and then to my mother’s father, who was dying of cancer. That was in Louisville, Ohio. A couple of years later. I was about five years old. They bought a small farm, 40 acres, near Homeworth, Ohio, another little burg you’ve never heard of. And I went to school there. It was about a mile and a half walk each way, and I was in the middle of 6th grade in 1940. And in between there, of course, is Depression years. And my father did everything he could to keep food on the table. He did a pretty good job of it. He did everything from raising mushrooms to sell to trying to raise frogs for frog legs to sell. Which didn’t work out. Mushrooms did work out for a while.
Steve Silverman 00:05:22
Let me ask you a question. Before the Great Depression hit, was he a farmer before the Depression, or did he just get into that after?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:05:32
No, he was a stationary steam engineer. He taught himself the whole thing and passed the test in Ohio. And he had a license, so he was a stationary steam engineer at the Alliance Machine Company, the Alliance Electric Power company. And so he was working there and he had a pretty good job. The Depression came along and they shut that whole electric facility down and they were just importing electricity from another city. And so he ended up, this was right after the Depression, I guess about 1934 or 1935. And so he lost his job as one of the engineers there, but he was kept on as the guard. He guarded the plant at night because people were scrounging for everything, and they would have come in and just stolen anything that could have been stolen.
Steve Silverman 00:06:33
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:06:34
So he told me about having to shoot into the air one time because of some young man, presumably trying to break in. I went to work with him a few times, and I’d sleep in what they called the rag box, where they kept rags that were waiting to be used for wiping down oil and things. This is when I was five years old. I enjoyed it. Stayed all night with him. And then when my mother’s father died, I moved in there. And I think she inherited the house. And I think that’s where the money may have come from to buy the farm.
Steve Silverman 00:07:15
And what age was that?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:07:17
Steve Silverman 00:07:18
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:07:19
I think he died when I was four, in the late summer. And then in the early spring of 1935, I remember going there while they were putting up a silo on the farm before we moved in.
Steve Silverman 00:07:34
Now, did you have brothers and sisters?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:07:36
Yes. I was the youngest of quite a big family. The next older was Donald. He was six years older than me. The next older was Lawrence. He was three years older than Donald, and then Lela, my sister, was three years older than him, and Russell was three years older than her.
Steve Silverman 00:07:55
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:07:56
So it went right up and then my mother had a child before that, and that was a half-sister. Anyway, that’s the whole history right there.
Steve Silverman 00:08:07
So basically you stayed there all through high school, is that correct?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:08:11
No, we stayed at Homeworth until February 1, 1940, and we moved to a big farm, 247 acres. And a lot of it was swamp, a lot of it was woods. It was kind of like a boys’ camp, but we lived there. One of the not-so-nice things is we had no electricity, and they didn’t have the money to get the electricity brought to the house. It was half a mile away, maybe three-quarters to the nearest place to hook up. So we didn’t have any running water. We didn’t have electricity because we were on a farm way out in the country. Our nearest neighbor was about a half mile away, so it was good and it was bad. There was no heat in the house. We put a furnace in. They had just stoves in a couple of the rooms before, and we lived with that for just about a year. Dad got a furnace and put in, run pipes to all the rooms. It didn’t matter. My bedroom, which really shouldn’t have been a bedroom, but the way the house was built, there was an extra “living room.” I slept in that, and my parents slept in the room next to it. There was still another living room and a dining room in the house, and then the kitchen hung on the side of the house. So we had a stove in the kitchen, we had a stove in the dining room, and no other heat. The snow would come through the windows. They weren’t sealed very well. And I’d see a snow drift inch or too high on the windows when I get up in the morning. The nearest plumbing was the outhouse, which is about 50 or 60ft away. I broke the Olympic records going out to that and back in the middle of a cold night.
Steve Silverman 00:10:03
It reminds me of when I was growing up, my parents bought this 200-year-old house in the Catskill Mountains and it had two three-seater outhouses. There was a men’s and a woman’s outhouse.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:10:14
Yeah, ours were two-seaters, and sometimes we shared. It was the way life was. Anyway, we had a Farmall tractor that would never start. When the Ford tractors came along with the hydraulic lift, my dad was one of the first to buy that. Traded in the Farmall, and my mother was dead set; well I might as well say my mother never agreed with dad on anything. I make the joke that one day my mother said I was a wit, and dad said she’s at least half right. So anyway, that’s the way it was. And she was really a difficult woman for him. She was wonderful to me. I was torn between her favors to me and my dad’s common sense. I never could figure out what to do. Well, at one time, in 1942, she took him to court. She wanted a divorce, and she didn’t really want a divorce, she just wanted to be mean. So I moved to him with my brother’s place, Donald. And dad moved into my Russell’s place, and my mother lived with Lela, and the farm was empty. Even the cows and stuff were taken over to my brother’s place. And I thought I wasn’t going to get registered for high school, but about a week before, they got back together and my mother took me down to Minerva, where I was going to go to high school and got me signed up.
Steve Silverman 00:11:50
Let me set up the next part of this conversation: You’ll hear Marvin talk a little bit about the school he went to before high school. You know, what we call elementary and junior or middle school today. Anyway, listen carefully to how a spelling bee would play a very big part in his life. Let’s get back to the story.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:12:09
When I first moved there, it was cold, snow on the ground, and the way the school, you went down and stood at the end of the lane and the bus driver just stopped and picked you up. He didn’t have to know you were going to be there. He just did. If you were standing there, he’d pick you up and took you out to a two-room school. The lower place was for the one through four, and five through eight were in the upper side. There was no plumbing, no electricity, because it was out in the field, just like our house was at home. And we had a boy’s place and one was a girl’s place outside. So we would get there, they’d drop us on the way to taking the high school kids to Minerva. So we got to school about 7:30 in the morning. The teachers didn’t show up until about eight, but that was all right. Some of the older boys knew about it, and they went in and started a fire in the lower and a fire in the upper, a little pot belly stove, and we just sat there and waited for the teacher. He had come sometimes early, sometimes late, and the school wasn’t supposed to start until nine. But when he got there, in really dark days, we would just gather around the stove and he would give us spelling questions, geography questions, history questions, and see who could answer the quickest and the most of them. And that’s the way I learned a lot about things. A little interesting fact, I think, is in the 7th grade, I was the best speller in our class. So the county had a get-together to gather for certain ones of the schools, and I went there, and all the rest in the 7th grade had been spelled down except two. They gave you a word and you wrote it down. And a girl was keeping even with me. We always had identical scores up through five spelling lists. And then in the 6th one, she got one more word right than I did. Fast forward. I’m in my junior year, between junior and senior years in high school. I’m in 4-H, I go to a 4-H camp. And on the first or second evening there, we were gathered close to the campfire, and this girl said, I know you. And it was the girl that had beaten me in the spelling, if you want to know coincidences. Anyway, well fast forward further. We got married a few years later. And unfortunately, that ended in divorce 30 years later.
Steve Silverman 00:14:50
So let me ask you, you didn’t go to high school with her, though? You just were in the spelling bee with her?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:14:55
No, she went to a different high school than I did. But because of that chance meeting, when we got home, I asked for her phone number and I called her and we started dating. And all through high school, we dated even though we’re not in the same school.
Steve Silverman 00:15:12
What was dating like back then? I mean, compared to today?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:15:16
Well, a date was I went and picked her up. We went to a movie, and I took her home. Sometimes we had a nice parking visit in between. She had an absolute maximum time to be home by midnight. Or else. And she just was traumatized by the fact she might be not at home. So we’d end up in her lane, her father’s lane, and we would visit there a little bit, and then at about 20 minutes to the minute, she would race the 40ft from the car to the house to get in. She told me about her father, and so she was terrified of him. She just hated him, and he hated me until I became an FBI agent. And then he was so proud of me that he could hardly keep it in. So he had to tell everybody about that. But there’s a lot happening between high school and that.
Steve Silverman 00:16:21
Now, at this point, we discussed a bit about his various activities in high school and what he planned to do after graduation. And this led into a short discussion about a girl who was in blackface and his dad’s attitude towards minorities back then. As you listen, just keep in mind this is the late 1930s into the mid-1940s. So I have to tell you, I was on Ancestry.com, and I found your high school yearbook.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:16:47
Steve Silverman 00:16:49
Yeah. So I’m going to tell you what I read, and I assume it had to be you. You wanted to be a teletrician, which I had never heard of before, so I had to look it up. That’s a radio-telephone technician, is that correct?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:17:01
It was radio TV.
Steve Silverman 00:17:03
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:17:04
Yeah. I knew a person who repaired them, and I was so taken in by what he did and all the parts laying around and everything that I thought, gee, I’d like to be this, and there was a correspondence course that I got to take on that. And they called you teletricians. And that’s where I picked it up. It was just a made-up word. But I stuck with it, and that’s what I thought I was going to try to do. It didn’t work out at all.
Steve Silverman 00:17:37
It actually worked out better for you. So here are some other things. You were in National Honor Society. There were eleven members, of which two were boys. You were one of them. I did a quick count because there’s so many kids per page. There were about 98 students in the graduating class, and only eleven were in Honor Society. And you were one of the two boys.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:17:56
Yes. Actually, the number graduating, I think, was 101 because a few of the GIs joined our class in the senior year and they didn’t get in the book because they came in too soon to get the stuff in.
Steve Silverman 00:18:11
Right. There was some sort of addendum at the end saying something to that effect.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:18:15
Yeah, go ahead.
Steve Silverman 00:18:17
So it also said you were associate editor of the Crescent, which I assume is a yearbook.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:18:21
Yeah, that was the yearbook.
Steve Silverman 00:18:23
You were assistant editor of The Diary, which I think was a school newspaper.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:18:27
Steve Silverman 00:18:28
You were also in the junior and senior play.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:18:30
Steve Silverman 00:18:31
And I also found your junior yearbook. You were in a play called Brother Goose, and you played a truck driver.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:18:37
Steve Silverman 00:18:37
What I found most interesting about this, and there’s no way this could happen today, there was a girl named Hazel Walter, and she played, “Sarah, a colored maid. “And she was in blackface in the photo. Yes, definitely, you could never, I mean, that’s very unacceptable today.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:18:55
Yes. And we didn’t think much of it. My father, during the war, he worked in a plant where they built some parts of the rockets and he did the stationary engineering to keep the place warm, keep the steam up, and so on. And he worked with a black man. And the black man, I don’t know what the arrangement was, but a lot of times the black man just came home with him and he’d get breakfast, go to sleep a while in our spare bedroom, and then go out and work. Well, sometimes he’d go out and work in the barn first, and then he’d sleep. And then he’d wake up and get some lunch. We called it dinner. Supper was the big meal of the day later. And then he’d go out and he’d worked in the field with him. He was a wonderful person. I always thought I hope I can be as nice as he is when I grow up.
Steve Silverman 00:19:46
So do you think you succeeded?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:19:48
I don’t know. Average of match (???), but my memory of him is not that good either. So maybe I came close, but I tried. It was kind of my goal.
Steve Silverman 00:19:58
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:19:59
In high school, we had a couple of black girls in the school. I don’t think they were as accepted as I hoped they would be, but they were nice. They went to our classes and so on. No problems. So anyway, dad always said everybody bleeds the same color. And that was his word. If anybody mentioned something about Jews or blacks or anything, he said, oh, everybody bleeds the same color. So I got that in me, and I just believed it my whole life, I’ve never had any feelings other than he did.
Steve Silverman 00:20:37
Now, at this point, the conversation transitions into what happened after high school.
Steve Silverman 00:20:44
What year did you graduate high school?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:20:46
Steve Silverman 00:20:48
How long after that did you get married?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:20:51
Jean and I wanted to get married for sure, but we had raised that if either one of us could go to college, we would not get married until afterwards. But dad had always talked about college for me until it came time and he simply didn’t have any money. I think it was $200 a year, and I didn’t have any money. So in October, college had already started. We were not in it, so we got married. Jean really wanted to get married sooner, but we just got married and I moved out. She had found an apartment of two rooms for $8 a week, and she had found a job with a jeweler, a store where they sold jewelry. She was working in the office and sometimes as a clerk. So she was making $18 and something for a six-day week, and I was making 37 something for a five-and-a-half-day week together. We actually had quite a bit of money for those days. A lot of people were living on 35 or 40 total for the week. So we moved into our little apartment. The interesting thing in between there is when I got out of high school, dad had a Ford Coupe, and he had wrecked the door. So he sold the engine and transmission out of it to a local garage. And he had always promised me I would get the car. But lo and behold, the engine was gone and my brother had taken the differential, and the seats were rotted out. They were sitting there open, and the door was crumpled. And I asked, can I have that? Well, I built a car out of that, and I worked on it every day, every payday. I would take all the money I could to buy something else for it. I’d go around to the junkyards and look for the parts. And I got the differential back from my brother. He hadn’t used it anyway. He wanted it for some weird project. And so I had the stuff, except I needed a motor. And I found an engine and found the transmission, got them all put together. I took the engine apart and rearranged it and re-ground the valves and put it back together. Got the transmission, bought the parts. I found seats from a 36 coupe. I had no wall between the seats and the trunk, but that didn’t matter, and I had to rewire it because all the wiring was gone. Anyway, I built a car that ran, and I used it for a while, and it was a good car. In those days, as soon as I got it built, I was offered more money than you could have believed for it, because there were no cars. They hadn’t built any since 1941.
Steve Silverman 00:23:41
Yeah. Because of the war.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:23:42
Yep. And if you want to buy a new car, you went into the dealer and you said, I’d like to buy a car like this. And they’d say, okay, put your name on this list, and six months, eight months, or a year later, you would get the call your car is in. So all the used cars were precious. Anyway, our marriage depended both on college and did I get the car to work. So when those coincided, we got married.
Steve Silverman 00:24:11
Wow. Because we had spoken a few weeks back and you told me that you got a job in a machine shop and then you figured out how you could go to college during that time. So why don’t you explain that?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:24:25
Well, there was a shop out in the country where a guy built equipment for the pottery industry. And he had patents on some of the most weird machines that were used for the pottery. I don’t know what you know about making dishes, but they have to mix the mud in something. So they have the big mixers, a pugmill they called it. If you knew about very, very old dishes, some would have a blister in the bottom and that was because there was air mixed in the mud when they put it into the mold. So this guy had a patent on a thing that would take the air out of the mud. It was called a de-airing mill. Other people had them, but they didn’t work very well. His was the one that worked. The shaft down through it was only supported at one end. They accidentally welded that shaft in crooked, just a little bit. It was just a wobble and they thought well we’ll try it anyway. And he got a patent on that wobble because it worked. Anyway, he was a great inventor, but the weirdest guy. When I got a job there, they decided that they could never find the parts. They ordered them, but they couldn’t find them when they came in. They couldn’t find the tools. They would set up a tool shop, a tool bin and a parts area. They put a fence around it so nobody could get in. They hired me for seventy cents an hour to sit in there and hand out the tools. If somebody came for it, I signed them out, signed out the drill or whatever, and then sign it back in. So they had to be clear at the end of the day. Well, that job was right outside the mesh fence was the machine shop portion. It had lathes and milling machines and so on. But I usually had enough spare time to watch the machinist out there running that lathe. And I went out and watched him. Sometimes I just go out of the cage and wait and watch to see what he did. And then one day he didn’t come to work. They were desperate. We got to have this shaft. What are we going to do? And I said, I’ll make it for you. They said oh, okay, go ahead. I went out and I made the shaft. I never went back into the bin again. I was machinist. So anyway, I got a lead on the shop in the super best shop in the area to work in: Alliance Machine Company. I got the chance to go in there and I was working the second shift. By then, of course, I was married. I didn’t tell you about the shack. We rented for, let’s see, from 46 to 48. In 48, Jane was very aggressive about getting us out of the renting. And she found a place, a house on three-quarters of an acre of land for $1,800. And she also knew a neighbor farmer of her father’s who lent money to people. So at 6% interest, he loaned us $1,500 and we had come up with $300 from savings. And we bought the shack. No running water. It had electricity. It was really a shack built out old crates and stuff. This guy who had lived there built that. He worked in a shop and he took home all the spare lumber and he built a house out of it. So we moved in. It had a fairly decent kitchen. The living room was about 9ft wide and about 10ft long. It was a pretty nice room. The bedroom, there was only one really, was next to that. And then there was a little room that you could put a single bed in and you could have about a foot to walk in, crawling beside it. Well, with children, by the time I went to college, by the time we did that, we had a second baby. He was born a few weeks before I went to college and that’s part of what it was about. He and my daughter, who I adored, and my wife and I were driving back past the college in Ohio, Alliance, Ohio. And I offhandedly said I should start taking some courses. I’m working from two to ten. I have my mornings free. Maybe I could take some courses there. The next day, she said, Get up and go up there and sign in.
Steve Silverman 00:28:46
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:28:48
We hadn’t even talked about it, but she just took that on her own. Get up there and go in. Get signed in. You don’t need to go to work until 1:30. Just get out there and go. So I went in, I talked to the registrar. It turned out to be the last day I could sign in for that year. And anyway, I told him about it and I said, is there any way I could get some help on the tuition? He says, well, if you’re going full time I could maybe get you a scholarship. But if you go part-time, we can’t help you. He says, besides, if you’re working in a machine shop and you’re working 8 hours a day on hard work, there’s no way you can go full time and you’d have to go full time to get a scholarship. He said, I’ll sign you up for two courses. So he did. A math course and an English composition. After my stuff in high school with the newspaper and everything, composition was a snap for me. Trigonometry was just, I could do it. No work at all. It was just a lot of fun to do. So I went to those two courses and I went in to sign up for some more courses. He says, would you consider going full-time? And I said, well, I have to work. He says, but if we arranged it that you would only have courses in the morning and one afternoon so you can still get out of school in time to go to work, would you try it? I said, if you think so. And he said, well, if you do that, I can give you a 50% scholarship.
Steve Silverman 00:30:21
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:30:22
Well, I signed up, but I had to go talk to my superintendent of the plant, the big boss, over everybody. And I said, I need to get to work 15 minutes late. It was about a three-mile drive from school. My class got out at 1:50, and I could not make it in ten minutes. But in 25 minutes, I could go down and change clothes in the car and race in through the shop down to the place where you punched in. And he said, you can try it. He said, you can come in at 2:15, and you leave at 10:15. So everybody clicked all together. And here I was, signed up for full courses. The whole thing.
Steve Silverman 00:31:03
In the four years you were in college, did that ever become a problem? Were you ever really late or anything?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:31:08
Never late. But let me tell you. My senior year, I had to work night shifts because I had afternoon classes I hadn’t been able to take all through the year.
Steve Silverman 00:31:19
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:31:19
And I had some classes in the morning, some in the afternoon, and go to work at midnight, at ten at night, and then try to sleep 2 hours, go to school 2 hours. I swear I was going to die. I was going to quit. My wife said, you can’t quit now. You’re so close. And I counted off the days. By the last semester, I really felt I’d rather die than go into school or work again. But anyway, I did, and it was four years. It’s not describable. The first year was tough. The second year was nearly impossible. The third year, I didn’t know how I was going to handle it. And my senior year, I was just surviving. But I still got magna cum laude.
Steve Silverman 00:32:09
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:32:10
So I was juggling full-time at work. I was juggling the family, and I was juggling school. It was terrible. I had no life.
Steve Silverman 00:32:21
How did your wife feel about this? She probably had to assume a lot of the responsibilities that you couldn’t do.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:32:27
Oh, I don’t dare say this in front of my current wife, but she was so wonderful. It’s unbelievable. She took care of everything. When I didn’t have the money sometimes to finish out the tuition, she would go in and arrange for a $30 loan. And she did that twice. I just said, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I can’t take the exams and I don’t have $30. So she went in and made arrangements. She did everything she had to do, which was, what should I do? I would sleep a little bit. When I came home from work at 10:15, 10:30, I’d get home, I would eat a sandwich or something, and then we had a table I used for a desk, and I would go there and I just start studying. About three or four in the morning, If I wakened up, I’d go to bed, and I had to get up at seven. But a lot of times I didn’t wake up. She would come out and tap me on the shoulder. I’d have my head laying down on the table at four or five in the morning, and it was too late to go to go to bed, and I had to go to school. I know it sounds like bragging, but I don’t know how I lived through it.
Steve Silverman 00:33:39
Well, you made it through and it changed your life forever.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:33:43
Everything got changed because I was in line to graduate and I had already lined up an offer from a rubber company, which is one of the main industries around there, to go into their laboratory as a starter and something or other and the girl in front of me was also a math student. And she said, did the FBI get in touch with you? I said, what are you talking about? And she said, well, they were coming around looking for the best math students. They’re doing this all over the country. They’re looking for 30 good math students to take in for cryptanalysis training. I said, I never heard of it. She said, well, why don’t you give the Cleveland office a call and see what’s going on? So I did after graduation. And lo and behold, they said, come on up to Cleveland for an interview. They were impressed with my math grades. I had all A’s but one B. And I went up and talked to them and they said, well, here, well fill in this application and you go home and we’ll be in touch.
Steve Silverman 00:34:46
So she was a math major also, right?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:34:50
The girl in front of me? That’s how she knew that I would be. They wouldn’t take girls. But she knew about this because… I don’t know if they came into the class. I don’t know how they got in touch with her. But anyway, she said they were looking for excellent math students. That’s the way she put it, because they didn’t want anything but the very best. And out of the whole country, they took 30 people.
Steve Silverman 00:35:18
And did you know anything about cryptanalysis at the time, or you were just a math major?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:35:23
No, but it was a nice hobby. I love to do the little codes that were in magazines and things. So I thought, I’m going to be paid for doing what I like to do. And I was higher than a kite. After a couple of months after, I called up the FBI office in Cleveland because they had gone about four or five weeks. So I called them, they said the investigation was all done of your background, and we’re just waiting for the letter with the offer to come to you in a couple of days. So I got the offer on the first of August. I packed up my car. My wife was all enthused about it. She stayed back there living in the shack while I go to Washington. She had three children by then.
Steve Silverman 00:36:12
And what year was this?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:36:14
That was 1953. Graduation was in June and late August, no, middle August when I went down to Washington. So she was back there in a shack. By this time I had put in running water incidentally. That was a godsend. But anyway, she had not much else.
Steve Silverman 00:36:40
Unfortunately, at this point we lost our connection, so I had to call back. And then Marvin continued where he left off.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:36:47
The chance to work at the FBI, even though I wasn’t an agent, was still so great that we were both so enthused. We couldn’t believe that I would just work at breaking code, my favorite pastime. Get paid for it and I’d be working for the FBI. Anyway, she was all enthused. I packed up enough clothing for a week, thinking I’d go home. It was a 350 mile drive back then, shorter now with all the good roads. So I said I’ll come home Friday night and get more clothes and things. And so she took me back down that time. My mother took care of the children for the weekend. So my wife came down with me, took the car home, and after a couple of weeks she came down and started looking for a house. She was trying to sell her house in Ohio. And she came down looking for a house – that was in September by then – and she found the house I’m in right now. She went home and we sold the house up there. In a funny way, we got $1,000 down and it was $2,900 on what they called a land contract, where they moved in and they acted like they owned the house and they paid on it every so often. And when it all got paid, then they would get title to the house. She come down a few days before the first of October and we had already signed the house up a week before that or two weeks, and she come down with the kids and we went into the empty house. The owner, he was in danger of losing the house on a construction loan. He was about to lose it. He wanted $17,500 and we got it for $13,500, and he let us stay in the house for the first two days before the paper was official. So we came in, we had blankets and stuff to lie on the floor and we had some furniture we had hauled down. The rest of it hadn’t arrived yet. Anyway, that’s how we got this house. So anyway, I got here and the course, I started in October, no, I started in August and I was supposed to be done with the course in about a year, which would have been October. I was done in April. They had promised that I would get two grade raise from seven to nine. I cut from $4800 at the machine shop to $4200 here.
Steve Silverman 00:39:26
So when you’re a machinist, you are basically earning around $53,000 in today’s money.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:39:31
Steve Silverman 00:39:31
And when you switch the FBI, you’re earning about $44,000.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:39:36
Okay? But they promised I’d go back up in a year after I got my grade nine. They never had anybody finish in less than a year, so it wasn’t a problem for them. There’s a federal rule that you can’t get a two-grade raise like that in less than one year. And here I am in April saying where’s my raise? And so the boss, Downing, who I have so much to say about him later, as you know, went to bat for me. And he got it in June, which was a couple months late, but it was still several months early. That was very good with him to do that.
Steve Silverman 00:40:15
My question to you would be, you went through this faster than most people. Were you sitting in classrooms or were you working through like a program? How did you get through it faster than anybody else?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:40:30
We were on our own. We were assigned a mentor who was in charge. He would give us a new type of code to study and figure out, and then he’d give you one to break or a couple. And if you broke those, then you went on to the next step. Each one was on his own at his own speed. By this time, the class had weeded down from the large number of the team, we were down to about ten very shortly. 12, 14 maybe.
Steve Silverman 00:41:01
Not surprisingly, Marvin was not allowed to breathe a word of what he was up to to anyone. And that included his wife. And in this next section he briefly mentioned Charlotte, North Carolina. And that’s where he did his FBI field training, which was required before becoming a cryptanalysist.
Steve Silverman 00:41:19
I assume your wife knew you were doing this.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:41:22
She knew it because I had told her that’s what I was being picked up for, I was being hired for. But I never breathed the word cryptanalysis again after that tour. I could not tell her anything I did as soon as I was in the lab. When I got to Charlotte, I could tell her little bits, but I had to be careful what I said. So I would tell her. I would get calls at ten or eleven or midnight to go out. And I didn’t tell her. I just said I have to go out on a case. But that was Charlotte. It was the best time of my FBI career.
Steve Silverman 00:41:59
Shortly after completing his cryptanalysis coursework, Marvin applied to be an FBI agent. And I was really surprised by this, but one of the requirements was that you needed to lead tours around the FBI facility.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:42:12
I guess I should pick up really quickly. Right after I finished in April and I was doing cryptanalysis work and for some reason they needed agents. And they said anybody with a degree who’s already working here, doesn’t have to be the law degree – mine was mathematics – can apply. They didn’t say you were going to make it because it was a rocky road from there. They had three or four things you had to get through. One of them was tour training. Now, the kid from Ohio on the farm was not ready to lead tours around the FBI, especially since it was impressed on you that when you lead a tour, you are the face of the FBI, and people will go home and tell their friends about the FBI based on what you say and how you behave. But every Tuesday I would go down, wait in the waiting room with half a dozen others who we took turns. They tried to limit us to three tours a day because on the fourth tour you can’t remember what you told, what story you told. It was about Dillinger, it was about somebody this, that. So the fourth tour was always very difficult. Once in a while we were forced to do that and we met the people and they said who we were, and that I’d be with them for the next hour, and welcome to the Bureau. So the first day I went down there and I did it and I enjoyed it. It was a little uneasy to start with, but I got along. I loosened up and they were wonderful people. They were so anxious to hear about the FBI that I could have done anything, but they were good people. And after about three or four weeks of this, I got the notice to go for extra training because I had been named the VIP tour leader. And so I got extra training. The VIP tours got a little extra and you started at Mr. Hoovers’ outer office. So people would go there. If they were a senator or a judge or a high official, anything, or just a friend of one Hoover’s cohorts. So anyway, I went out to training and they said, now you’ll just be on call and Miss Gandy will call you. She was his secretary, and that will mean you go to his office and there’ll be somebody waiting there and you will take them on your special tour that you just finished training.
Steve Silverman 00:44:52
Now, on these special tours, there weren’t as many people. I assume it’s just a couple of people, three to four people, is that correct?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:44:59
It could be anywhere from two to five people. I think five was the highest group ever. Quite often it would be a senator and his family, or a representative and his family, or a judge and his family. That was the kind of nature. We also had some high officials in some of the churches come in with two or three people. But anyway, it was fun. You got a little extra time. You got an extra room where you have special exhibits. And you got front of the line when you get down to the basement where the firearms was. We had the firearms. You went in and you crowded around. A special marksmen put five bullets right straight in the center spot of the target. And then the target came back, and you gave them the target. Big deal. And then you went on. So that was the last thing on the tour. You took them back to Mr. Hoover’s office. You took them back to the elevator. It would be in the basement. We get on the elevator and we’d go past the first floor where you’re worried that Hoover would be waiting to get on. And then you went up to the, I think it was fifth or sixth floor, where his office was. And you went in and you turned them over to Miss Gandy, thanked them for their visit, and you went back to your office.
Steve Silverman 00:46:22
Now, I have to ask at this point did you meet Hoover or you just would go and meet a secretary? Have you ever met him at that point?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:46:30
No. I was so lucky because we had special training. What do you do if you meet Mr. Hoover along the way because you’re using his private elevator? There’s a good chance you’ll meet him. And so we had special things about how you introduced him and you introduced your group and said something like how great it was to work with him. You had something nice to say, but you already had to be prepared because it was very likely you would meet him. But I was lucky. I never did. I did have the occasion, that something happened afterwards, but we’ll get to that later.
Steve Silverman 00:47:11
Of course, becoming an FBI agent required far more than just giving tours to visitors and VIPs. Marvin needed to pass a law exam. Now, keep in mind, his major in college was mathematics, not law. And he had a funny story to tell about that exam. Let’s listen.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:47:29
I did get a break on the law test. I went over to the man’s office where I was supposed to take the law test. It was done individually for the ones that made it this far. I went in, and he said, just have a seat. I thought, well, he knows who it is. I’m on time. He knows who I am. Right after that a maintenance man brought in his chair. He was using a temporary chair while his was being repaired. And so they took the other one out and they took his new chair around the back of the desk. I just sat there and watched. And he sat down. He got up and he fumbled with the chair, turned it over, put it back, fumbled with it. And about the third time, I said, Can I help you? He says, yeah, I can’t get this adjusted. So I went over, and I looked at, and I adjusted it for him. He said, now that’s just right. And he says, Why are you here? He had forgotten I was scheduled. And so he gave me a stack of books and some papers with cases on them. And he said, take these in here, figure out which ones are cases that we have jurisdiction, and if you find out the points on which we base our investigation and what the points of the law is that they violated. And he said that it’s all in these books. And they were books about two inches thick, about three of them, I think. And so he said, you have 3 hours. Two hours later, I walked out with the paper and handed it to him. I said, I’m all done. And he says, did you finish? I said, yes, I’m done. And he said, okay, sit down. He looked through them. He looked into the papers. After a while, he looked up, he says, you can go now. It’s supposed to be an oral test after the written one. I said, not the oral test? He said, oh, you passed. So that was the easiest one I had.
Steve Silverman 00:49:24
Marvin also had to spend 16 weeks at the FBI training academy. And here he talks about his first day on the firing range.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:49:33
There are a few things interesting happened. My dad, we had guns at home, but he had a revolver and we had a shotgun and a rifle. But I only ever fired a gun maybe five or six times in my whole life, and it was probably a .22 rifle we had. So I wasn’t prepared much for firing a gun. But the first day, we got 50 rounds and we fired five. We reloaded and fired five more. Before we had a break, I had already used up over 50. I was in my second 50. And they were alphabetic. They had a tower where the trainers could stand up over and watch over what we were doing, because they were concerned these men were firing guns. Some of them, like me, for the first time. All through the academy, we had carried a gun with us on our holster, but it had a firing pin removed. It had a red handle, and the firing pin was out. But you carried it so you knew what it was going to feel like in the holster when you got the real one. So they just had drilled into us. You never pointed a gun at someone, unless you’re going to intend to kill them. It was just exactly that way. And they just kept hammering that home. Then we got down there, I had the holster and I had the real gun. So anyway, just before a break, we were lined up alphabetically, and the tower was at the middle. Lautzenheiser came right at the middle. So I was straight under the tower. And after about, I don’t know, 25, 40, 50 rounds, they said, Lautzenheiser, are you looking at those sights like you were told? I thought, my God. Yes, I am. I said, yes, sir. And he said, the rest of you pay attention. That’s the way it’s supposed to be done. I was shrinking, about to die, and they were complimenting me. So we went through that whole day firing. I nearly had a blister on my trigger finger by the end of the day, but it was okay and it was freezing cold, so we moved on. Then we had to go on to the rifle range, and the shotgun, and the submachine gun, and it was quite something.
Steve Silverman 00:51:56
In our last segment of today, Marvin discusses a typical day while training at the Marine Corps facility at Quantico, finding out where his field placement would be, and then his brief first, but not last encounter with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:52:13
We got up at six. We got showered and cleaned up. You made your bed and you were down at the dining hall by seven. You had great breakfast and great meals all the time. I had more for breakfast if you wanted it, than I would usually have for dinner. Anyway, then you’d go to classes and you’d have classes for a couple of hours. Then you go down to the gym for a defensive practice and make an arrest. How to do that, how to handcuff, what it’s like to be handcuffed? Well, just everything you can think of in that order. We had exercises for muscle building. It was a strenuous time. And then he went back for a couple of hours of classes and you went to dinner. After dinner, you were free to study and do anything you wanted to. But study was the only thing you could do. If you didn’t study, there would be a test the next day on what was yesterday. You had no choice but to spend the evening studying for them. And once in a while we’d have a little lighter one and we get to play checkers or chess. But usually, by 9:00, we wanted to be in bed. It was so tiring. When we got down to the last day before we actually graduated, they told us each one, they whispered to each one in our ear where we were going. I was going to Charlotte, but the teachers were breaking the rule to let us know that a day ahead. And so they were sworn, if you make any fuss about that, you’re out. So then we had the ceremony and we went up to Hoover’s office. Then after you had finished everything else and you waited in this outer room. Then one at a time, you went back to his private office and he would be standing up and you’d shake hands and you’d say how happy you were to be there and some trivial thing. And he’d congratulate you on getting through the Academy, and it would be great to have you as an agent. And he thought you’d enjoy, in my case, Charlotte, and so on. Three, four, five minutes at the most, and you’re out of there. And you were going home to report to the Academy. This would be a Friday. On Monday, you reported to the Academy. Anyway, that’s pretty much the story. And then I finished the Academy in March or April, and I got my notice to go to Charlotte, which has a lot of wonderful stories, but we can’t possibly cover them all.
Steve Silverman 00:54:54
And that’s probably a good place to end part one of my interview with Marvin. In the next segment, Marvin will tell a couple of stories from Charlotte, and that includes making an arrest the first day he was actually out in the field on his own. What are the chances? Plus, we’ll talk about how he ended up back at FBI headquarters as a cryptanalysist. And, of course, the reason I spoke to him in the first place: he’ll talk about the Hollow Nickel case and how his team, after others had been unsuccessful, how his team finally cracked the code. And I should mention, while he has information about this case and many others that he’ll carry to his grave, he does have details that nobody else knows that he can add to the story. And I’ll post that as soon as I finish editing it. And I have to tell you, it takes a long time to do so. This particular episode you’re listening to right now took me about three and a half days to edit down. So I need to get some exercise. I need to get moving around. I can’t just keep sitting here. So figure one and a half to two weeks before I get that segment posted. In the meantime, if you have any comments about this episode, feel free to send me an email at email@example.com. You can also contact me through Facebook Messenger, or you can use the contact form on my website, which is also uselessinformation.org. And if you have a message you’d like me to pass on to Marvin, I’d be happy to do so. Just send it my way, and I will pass it on to him. Anyway, stay tuned for part two of The Cryptanalyst. And if you’re already subscribed to the podcast, you should get fairly instant notification of when it’s available. Most of the services take 15 minutes to a half-hour to update, but you will get fairly instant notification. Anyway, thanks for listening and take care everyone. Bye.
Click here to listen to Part 2 of The Cryptanalyst.