Articles

HELD ON SUSPICION

A young girl thought this Maclean’s editor looked like Gus Hall, most wanted Communist fugitive. So for five hours in Jackson, Miss., he was held under police guard, searched, questioned and fingerprinted, and told his Canadian passport “doesn’t mean a thing”

JOHN CLARE September 15 1951
Articles

HELD ON SUSPICION

A young girl thought this Maclean’s editor looked like Gus Hall, most wanted Communist fugitive. So for five hours in Jackson, Miss., he was held under police guard, searched, questioned and fingerprinted, and told his Canadian passport “doesn’t mean a thing”

JOHN CLARE September 15 1951

HELD ON SUSPICION

Articles

A young girl thought this Maclean’s editor looked like Gus Hall, most wanted Communist fugitive. So for five hours in Jackson, Miss., he was held under police guard, searched, questioned and fingerprinted, and told his Canadian passport “doesn’t mean a thing”

JOHN CLARE

MACLEAN’S MANAGING EDITOR

I’M ALWAYS being mistaken for someone else, no one person but a succession of men whose acquaintances see a close enough resemblance to encourage them to speak to me. As a result, I’m used to being hailed as “Joe” or “Harry” or some other person.

One day in Winnipeg a man walked around my chair in a hotel lobby for at least five minutes, looking at me like a golfer studying a tough putt. Then he came briskly forward and asked if my name wasn’t Prentice and hadn’t we met at the Good Roads Association meeting in Regina a short time before. This case of mistaken identity was resolved in a pleasant chat, like most of the others in which I’m involved.

I had never suffered any inconvenience from having one of those universal undistinctive faces that looks like a great many other faces, until I went to Jackson, Mississippi, recently on a trip for this magazine and was mistaken for a convicted Communist fugitive. A girl whose picture I had taken to accompany the article I was writing telephoned the city police. The police got in touch with the resident FBI special agent and a call went out on the radio to pick me up. I was arrested some time after eleven in the morning and I was detained under armed guard and questioned by a relay of seven police officers who finally passed the baton to the FBI agent late in the afternoon.

During this time I was confined to a small

stifling room in police headquarters off the Jackson chief of detectives’ office. I was searched twice for concealed weapons, my hotel room was turned upside down and my baggage was searched without any show of a warrant. My Canadian passport, together with letters of introduction, was taken from my baggage and retained during the long hot afternoon of questioning. I was told my passport didn’t mean a thing in the State of Mississippi.

When the FBI special agent took over he began the questioning all over again and through a ruse got me to agree to being fingerprinted. I was released late in the afternoon as the result of a belated piece of crime detection so ridiculously elementary that young readers of comic detective

books would find it hard to believe, I am sure, that the famed FBI could be so clumsy.

All through that afternoon my interrogators said to me in a slightly aggrieved tone, when I became testy: “Aw, don’t get sore. We’re trying to help you.” I’m not sore. Not any more, anyway. And if I were that would be a peevish, unworthy motive for writing this story. I’m not writing it because I was pushed around—not physically but by the law used as a very blunt instrument in the hands of enforcement officers. I’m writing this because in that afternoon I had a look, a good look, at how a free people, suddenly nervous about threats to their freedom, can and do act.

I don’t think the FBI is running a police state or wants to. But I saw some things which looked very much to me like the possible beginnings of such a state.

All through the earlier part of my assignment in the United States I had looked forward to going to Jackson, capital city of Mississippi and an interesting part of the Old South I knew only from books. I suppose there is a little of the southerner in each romantic, the same way there is a little of the Parisian in him. Both the South and Paris have a feminine charm that draws you close as soon as you meet them and gives you the feeling that you’re not really a stranger at all. In the South the conquest is swift, half-accomplished before you arrive, and by the time you have driven in from the airport through the soft night, murmurous with the static of insects as a background for the soft slurring speech of the people, you are reduced to emotional consistency of hominy grits by the subtle greeting.

My hotel was the Robert E. Lee, which fitted too. I sat under the lazy swinging paddles of a big fan in my bedroom and looked out over the darkening city toward the river and Vicksburg. The gentle wind came in from the delta, pushing before it a fragrance that could be magnolia. I couldn’t be sure. But I was sure that this was The South,

the South of Beauregarde, Manassa and the Johnny Rebs.

I got up early the next morning and went out with my camera to take some pictures to go with an article I was doing. I walked up President past the ante-bellum mansions with their white colonnades. I stopped one woman and asked her how to get to the Old Capital where Henry Clay and Jeff Davis once set up a provisional government for the Confederacy. I strolled around this old building, taking pictures and talking to the few people about. One young man who had just moved from Georgia suggested I go over to the battlefields at Vicksburg by bus. It was only forty miles, he said. I looked at my watch. It was almost eleven. I would walk around until noon, have some lunch and go to Vicksburg and be back in time to catch my bus to Birmingham that night.

“Hey, You!” called the Cop

I crossed over one block from President to North State, and walked slowly up the shaded avenue. Across from the big Mississippi Baptist Hospital I stopped in the shade of a cottonwood to talk to Ernest Harrison, a flower seller of fifty-seven who was sitting on a box beside his stand, which was piled high with gladioli.

Ernest told me how he brought his “daddy” in by mule team to the hospital when North State was just a mud road forty years ago. He told me about his son, who died from cancer after coming through the war in the Pacific unhurt. But his son s wife and two children will get. two hundred and twenty-five dollars a month until the children are twenty-one, he said.

When I asked Ernest if I could take a picture of him selling some flowers to a pretty girl the next time one came along, he was willing and anxious to help. He even kept his voice down low like mine, so two girls who were waiting for a bus and who were not pretty wouldn’t hear.

“We won’t wait for one. I’ll get yo< girl right now,” he said, and went across to the Morris Pharmacy. He came bar minutes with Evelyn Hawthorne, a girl who had become eighteen just R he told me.

I took two pictures, posing Evelyn and Ernest by the flower stand with a bunch of glads between them. Evelyn took a pencil from her hair so she wouldn’t look too much like a clerk. When I told her where I came from she laughed and said: “My, you are a no’the;._r, aren’t you?”

When the pictures were taken we chatted for a few minutes, shook hands and I promised to send her a print of the picture. “Nicest little girl you’d ever want to meet,” said Ernest as we watched, appreciatively, her slim figure slip through the traffic, “ ¡ch was getting thicker now.

It WP fhanî% a quarter to twelve when I said go^d-uy u> Einest and started downtown to see about lunch and that bus to the old battlefield of the War Between the States.

I was walking down State, not far from the bus station, when a motorcycle policeman, whose name I later learned to be Firman, pulled up beside me and stopped. “Hey, you!” he said gruffly. I stopped and he dismounted, steering me into a shaded doorway where another policeman, a patrolman, was standing with several colored people who were waiting for a bus.

“You been around here taking pictures?” asked Firman in a voice as thick as corn pone. I looked down at the camera, albatrosslike around my neck, and admitted I was.

“You got permission?” asked Firman.

It was the first time I had ever heard of reporters requiring permission to take pictures.

“You can’t just go around taking pictures. You should know that. We’ve got a report on you and there’s a call out to pick you up. Got any identification?”

I showed him a Continued on page 57

Continued from, page 11

business card, the first of several I was to strew around Jackson police offices like the front man in a paper chase. All they ever did was make the police more suspicious of me.

Firman took the card, read it and walked over to his motorcycle and called headquarters on the radio.

“What did you do, Mac?” the patrolman asked me. He was younger, easier to understand than Firman.

I told him I hadn’t done anything except take a picture of some old buildings, monuments and a young girl and some flowers. I had permission from everyone concerned but Robert E. Lee and his bronze horse Traveler to take the pictures.

“There are lots of guys with cameras who aren’t cameramen,” said the policeman. His eyes grew beady. “You know,” he said “ . . . Girls.”

I tried to explain that any of my shortcomings as a photographer were professional and not moral. I was a writer by trade. Would he like to see my card?

A Ride in the Back Seat

Firman returned to break up this little tableau. “They’re sending a couple of detectives over to talk to you,” he said.

“What about?”

Firman shrugged his big shoulders and walked away to talk to a news dealer, but still keeping a close watch on me.

“It’s that Willie McGee trouble,” said the patrolman. “We put about forty of those Communists from up north in jail when they came in here. They’re bad bastards. They try to stir up the niggers.”

Willie McGee was a young Negro convicted after several trials of raping a white woman. He was electrocuted at nearby Laurel, Miss. At the time of the last trial the Communists moved into Jackson, the scene of the hearing, with some two hundred demonstrators and the police cracked down on them.

“So they don’t like people taking pictures here,” said my informant. “The FBI doesn’t like it at all.”

That was the first mention of the FBI in connection with my case, and as I remained in custody the impression grew that the FBI hovered powerfully

over American life and as mysteriously, if not in the same sinister fashion, as the Communism it was fighting.

When the patrol car came fifteen minutes later Firman talked to the two men in the front seat for a minute and then beckoned to me. Detective A. H. Martin, a thin-faced man who was driving, told me gruffly to get in the back. His partner slid out of the front seat and joined me.

The two men had shed the jackets of their tropical worsted suits, and their gun belts and big-butted pistols looked out of place on their stylish clothes.

“What seems to be the trouble?” I asked the man beside me.

“You’ll find out,” he said abruptly. I noticed both men were using the tone of voice some white men in the South use when speaking to colored people.

Martin was a little franker. “We don’t know nothing,” he said out of the side of his mouth, without turning around.

At headquarters I was taken to a room outside the chief of detectives’ and given a rickety chair near a halfopen window. Two detectives filling out reports on the burglary of a colored restaurant, the New Moon, delicately withdrew, leaving me with Detective Martin. He was a poor interviewer because he sucked a toothpick while he talked in a sort of broken-down southern accent. He complicated these natural and acquired hazards by holding his hand to his mouth frequently, the way men do when they have bad teeth.

He asked me all the questions you might expect: age, birthplace, occu-

pation and things like that. When he wanted to know my church, my marital status, was I a Mason, where I had come from to Jackson, what was my destination, what kind of pictures was I taking, I asked him what all this had to do with what. Martin leaned forward and snarled at me.

“We’re trying to help you. You’re far from home and we’re trying to help you. See.”

I asked him if he would stop trying to help me and tell me what it was all about.

Lieutenant of Detectives J. P. Shipp entered from the chief’s office at this point. He was a pale man who wore his thin hair combed over a big bald spot. He looked as though he might have stomach trouble.

He indicated by the briskness of his manner that he was taking over. Mar-

tin withdrew. Shipp wanted to know where my papers were.

I had a passport at the hotel.

“No,” he said impatiently. “Your papers. Your permission to be here in the U. S.”

“You don’t need any,” I said. “I have a passport, but you don’t need it. I told your immigration officer at Detroit where I was going, why and for how long. That’s all there is to it.”

“You don’t understand,” he said. “You must have some kind of papers. Didn’t the immigration man give you some kind of a paper? You can’t just roam around talking to people and taking pictures.”

I told him that’s how it was in the world outside Mississippi.

“Why didn’t you come here to the police and get permission to take pictures? Don’t you always check in with the police?” he asked.

I tried to explain to him they don’t do things that way where I came from or where I’d been up until now.

He looked at me quickly. “You ever been in trouble before?” I shook my head.

He wanted to see my identification. My passport was at the hotel but in my pocket I had an air-travel card issued by the international authority, bearing my specimen signature, and I still had a few business cards I hadn’t passed out to the police.

“These don’t mean a thing,” said Shipp. I tried to explain the air-travel card was a pretty personal document. Anyone could get it, he said. And as for the business cards, he said, anyone could have them printed up. They would take me to the hotel and see if that passport was there, but first they had to frisk me.

He and Martin, who returned talking about a heavy lunch of butter beans, green peas, ham hocks and corn bread, pawed me in turn. A pipe in my trouser pocket made their hands flutter expectantly.

I tried to persuade them to stay in the car while I went up to my hotel room and got the passport but they insisted upon marching me through the lobby like Eugene Aram, except I had no gyves on my wrists. The lobby came awake momentarily at the sight of a guest being squired by two unmistakable cops.

I put my camera on the writing table and started to open my bag when Shipp said curtly: “Stand back.” He went

through my bag and took a batch of letters of introduction written for me by a friend in Los Angeles. He selected one and put it in his pocket and then stepped back. “I can’t find it,” he said. I picked the passport out of a side pocket of my bag and handed it to him.

Here the lieutenant of detectives displayed a lack of experience shared by his colleagues—I am sure they had never seen a passport before. His reaction to his first look into mine was: “This ain’t no more than a birth certificate.” I tried to show him that was what a passport, in essence, was. Later I asked him if he had ever seen one before and he mumbled about being a long way from the border.

While Shipp and I were discussing passports his helper went through the hotel room opening drawers, taking the bed apart, looking under towels in the bathroom. They stopped before the light Swiss typewriter I was carrying. “That thing, what is it?” they asked together.

I opened it for them.

We returned to headquarters from the hotel and in the sprint across the lobby I managed to leave them far enough behind so that they might be mistaken for a couple of travelers from Memphis.

At headquarters I was allowed to

have a drink of water, with Martin at my side. I was allowed to go to the toilet alone but he waited for me outside the door. Shipp, who seemed baffled by the turn of events which had produced the passport, explained my fate now rested with the FBI, to whom he had turned over the whole case. My guard was to be Lieutenant Brown, who started his shift by asking me all the same questions Martin and Shipp had askedBrown was a big man, wearing a pale - blue tropical worsted suit and a big bone-handled pistol.

It must have been a quiet day at headquarters because most of the staff found it convenient at one time or another to drop into the room where I was held and take a look at me. I would hear them whispering outside before they came in. “That’s him,” one would say.. “Firman brought him in.” As the afternoon wore on I began to feel like an eighteen-pound lake trout on display on a dock.

By the time a young man called Bell from the News, a local paper, came in to interview me, after a whispered parley outside my door, I was tired, the chair had grown unbearably hard. My mouth tasted like a motorman’s glove from smoking too much and I was hot and hungry and angry.

Bell was a shy plump man who introduced himself and then asked: “What were you doing when you were picked up—just walking along the street?”

“What the hell do you think I’d be doing?” I asked. I borrowed the voice intonation from Lieutenant of Detectives Shipp. Bell fled.

During this interview Martin, who had taken over from Brown once again, had been sitting outside the door, cleaning his pistol. He came in and sat down and began to talk. His voice was probably meant to be conciliatory but it came out in a whine.

“You got no idee the problem we got in this country,” he said. “Do you know that half of the hundred and twenty-five thousand people in this town is niggers? Yessir. Oh we keep ’em down pretty good but be just a little bit lenient with them and you got trouble. And that’s why we got to be so careful about anything that will stir them black bastards up. We built them a two-hundred-and-fiftythousand - dollar auditorium all for themselves and that should keep them quiet for a while.

“Some folks up north say we treat the nigger bad, but we treat him good. We treat ’em so good that some of ’em who go north come back here. We need ’em of course because we couldn’t run the country without them. They do lots of jobs no white man would touch.

“And that,” he concluded, “is why people are really frightened down here. They’re frightened of anything that might arouse these niggers. Don’t you see?”

Brown entered briskly with a darkhaired young man who introduced himself with credentials as Roy H. McDaniel, special agent of the FBI. I had been there for three hours, for the most of that time on that chair, and now for the first time I was to hear what the complaint against me was. McDaniel, who had a crisp cold kind of courtesy in his approach, gave it to me fast.

“You took a picture of a girl this morning,” he said. “She called in to say she thought she recognized you from a picture in the afternoon paper.” He showed me a layout of four pictures of top Communists who had jumped bail. The girl said I resembled one called G us Hall. I could see little resemblance, but then if Santa Claus had been one of the group you’d have

had serious trouble picking him out.

McDaniel talked quickly, repeating frequently that all this was routine.

“If you’re not Hall there will be nothing to it,” he said.

“What do you mean if I’m not Hall?” I asked. “I can’t be Hall. There’s my Canadian passport.”

McDaniel tossed down the little document, keeping it closer to him than me. It landed with a plop.

“Doesn’t mean a thing. That picture could be anyone. Anyone could get one of those,” he said crisply. The photograph, unlike the traditional passport picture, was an unmistakably good likeness. I tried to tell him that “anyone” couldn’t get a Canadian passport. Men and women had risked death to get one of those blue-covered documents. This was my nationality, my identity as a Canadian citizen, my refuge in a foreign country. What did he mean saying it didn’t mean anything?

McDaniel shook his head slowly. “Just what I said,” he repeated.

For the first time that afternoon I felt real concern. What if he kept my passport? What if they ran into difficulties checking me in Toronto and Ottawa or wherever they checked you when they didn’t believe the valid passport you carried. The way things were going it looked as though I was going to lose a lot of time and perhaps spend most of it in jail.

Earlier I had been a little amused; later angry and bored. But now I was eager to get out of there.

Hot Tips from a Psycho

“If you don’t accept my passport what will you accept?” I asked McDaniel.

“Fingerprints.”

I told him I didn’t want to be fingerprinted by the FBI, like a criminal.

He shrugged his shoulders. “Of course I can’t force you to. But whether you do or not we are going to check on you. If you don’t you may be picked up again. And if you aren’t Gus Hall I don’t see why you object.”

“Stop saying if I’m not Gus Hall,” I shouted. I pointed to the passport and then remembered Special Agent McDaniel had broken off diplomatic relations with Canada.

He tried to mollify me. “Don’t get sore,” he said, calling me by my first name. He tried to tell me this was something they had to do. It was routine. I had the unpleasant feeling that it was. Earlier in the afternoon I had heard the detectives talking about other pickups like mine. One citizen kept a pocket file of newspaper clippings of all men wanted by the FBI. This psychopath called the police with hot tips several times a week, they said. Behind McDaniel’s head was a poster issued by J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, urging good Americans to “be alert” and fight espionage and subversive elements. They were told their vigilance could save American lives, keep America free.

Finally I told McDaniel I would submit to the fingerprinting if he would give me a clearance so I could travel on without danger of being picked up again. His friends, the police, had said I should have had a paper. He had impressed me with the fact that there was such a reasonable doubt about my identity that only the prints would clear me.

“What good would a letter from me do you? No FBI man would accept it. The letter might be a fake,” he said.

All they trusted were the fingerprints, he said. All they trusted were Continued on page 60

Continuad from paga 58 the grotesque patterns on file in Washington and through which the FBI was enforcing the law.

After a long discussion I agreed reluctantly. Lieut. Brown took the prints and it was a messy long job because of some difficulty he had in selecting my right hand when lie needed it. McDaniel took the prints and retired to the chief of detectives’ office which he had taken over.

My new guard was a white-haired detective who wandered in and sat down with my passport in his hands.

He said he had thought a passport would look different. Brown returned to summon me. He weighed me, took my height and I was returned to the room where I was joined by McDaniel after another half hour. It was now past four. I had been picked up around twelve.

“I have just been talking to New Orleans,” he said, “and they haven’t got Hall’s prints there. So they will have to check with Washington.”

“How long is that likely to take?” I asked.

He didn’t know.

“A day, a month, a year?” I demanded.

Once again I was urged not to “get sore.” McDaniel was just doing his duty. Routine duty.

“I’m going to let you go,” he said quickly.

“But you haven’t checked my fingerprints,” I said. “That’s why I let you have them—so I could get out of this mess.”

“When I called New Orleans they told me that Hall was five foot eleven. You’re six foot three and I don’t think even a Commie could grow four inches

overnight. The newspaper today didn’t have any of his measurements,” said McDaniel. His smile was cosy, as though he expected me to see the joke.

I said I wanted to get this straight.

I had been picked up on the complaint of a foolish girl who had seen a badly smudged newspaper picture. The FBI had ordered me held, questioned and fingerprinted on the basis of no more information than the girl had. The Associated Press could supply its member newspapers with pictures of Hall, but the FBI could not or did not. The FBI was checking me against a dangerous enemy of the state and they didn’t even have his height. How did they know he wasn’t seven feet tall? What reason had they for holding an outsize Canadian, complete with passport, when all the time he could obviously not be a standard-size American?

McDaniel said something about Hall looking a little like me about the eyes but not around the chin, now that you looked closely.

I wanted to be fair to him because he was probably doing important work, even if I thought he was doing it clumsily and stupidly. I hoped they could catch G us Hall because he is a convicted enemy of the American people. But I didn’t see how they were going to catch him unless they told their agents who were arresting suspects what he looked like.

I wanted to be fair to McDaniel, but I concluded that he must be either a fool or a liar. Since he released me on learning Hall’s height he was wrong to hold me before he knew what he was looking for, even though the pretty girl panicked. If he did know Hall’s size he lied to me when he pressured me into giving my prints by saying that it was essential to have these to clear me. 1 had no indication that a check was ever made about me in Washington, my home office in Toronto or Ottawa. My fingerprints still hadn’t been checked and I was being released on information which had always been available.

I took my papers back from him and got up. “Be sure they’re all there,” he called after me. I shoved them in my pocket and walked out. I was glad to be going. I would miss those long talks with Detective Martin, but I was glad to be going. The detectives were gathered in the big front office. Brown was grinning. “You’re a free man, eh?” he said.

I nodded and kept walking out into the sunlight. Back at the hotel T was sure the people in the lobby stared at me, not that it mattered. But I didn’t like being stared at by people who were encouraged to wonder if I were a Communist fugitive.

In my room the wind was blowing in from the southland the way it had the night before. It was a hot hard wind now, all softness gone from it.

A handful of papers was lying on the floor beside my bed. Had Shipp done that while I had been here or had they been back while I was detained? I couldn’t be sure. The camera was the way I had left it. I had been pretty sly about that. I had left it at a certain angle and it was still that way.

I sat on the edge of the bed. I felt suddenly shaky, probably because I hadn’t eaten since early morning and it had been a long hot hard afternoon. I leaned back on the rumpled bed.

Through the open window I could hear the sound of distant music. Of course, I had forgotten. This was the Fourth of July, Independence Day.

I got up off the bed and called the desk and told them I would be checking out. “Come and see us again, real soon,” the pleasant-voiced girl said in the traditional Southern farewell. if