The Case of the Telephone in His Hat (1894)

The history of science provides me with a practically never-ending set of delightful surprises!  Case in point is a set of articles I found while browsing through volume 17 of Current Literature, “A Magazine of Record and Review,” published in 1895.  Current Literature was an eclectic compilation of writings from a variety of other publications, including literature, science, and news magazines.  I not only found exactly the bit of physics history that I was looking for (more to be said in a future post) but also a bunch of other weirdness.

The first one that caught my eye was an article with the rather curious title “With a telephone in his hat.”  Reprinted from The Electrical Review, it turns out to be a very early, and in retrospect silly, true story of electronic eavesdropping!  I reprint it in its entirety below, with only short comments appended.

A little background on the history of the telephone is probably worthwhile.  Though a number of people were independently working on voice-transmitting devices, it was Alexander Graham Bell who managed to patent the first telephone in 1876.  The development of telephone exchanges progressed remarkably rapidly: the first exchange, with 21 subscribers, opened in New Haven, Connecticut in 1878.  By 1880, the New Haven District Telephone Company earned the right from Bell’s company to service all of Connecticut.

By the 1890s, telephones were still rather rare.  In 1893, the teledensity (telephones per 100 persons) in the U.S. was only 0.4, though it was presumably significantly higher in the cities and lower in the country.  There were apparently enough, however, for them to be tapped: Wikipedia lists the first wiretaps as occurring in the 1890s.  The case described below, though, was likely one of the very first cases in which personal electronic surveillance was used.

Lawyer Laflin Mills, of Chicago, is the author of a very ingenious scheme, involving the use of a telephone in a silk hat, by which he secured certain direct evidence he desired. Two or three weeks ago, Mr. Mills received a call from Dr. Peter Janss, who desired professional assistance. A man, who had not been extremely careful to conceal his identity, had been writing letters to Mrs. Janss. This man, he said, was a lawyer named Charles Ioas, with whom Dr. Janss was for some  years intimate, but with whom he had a disagreement over a
year ago. Soon after the alienation began, Warren Inslow, a clerk in Dr. Janss’ office, received a typewritten letter signed “Thomas Jefferson,” requesting him to hand an inclosed note to Mrs. Janss. As the writer said : “Do not let the doctor see it; it’s about girls.” Winslow, therefore, handed the letter and the inclosure to Dr. Janss instead of Mrs. Janss. Dr. Janss suspected Ioas at once, and went straight to him and accused him of it. Ioas boldly admitted it and defied Janss.

It is a little unclear what is going on from the description here, though it seems that Ioas was writing harassing, even threatening, letters to Mrs. Janss.  One wonders if Victorian sensibilities kept the author of the piece from elaborating.

Mr. Mills decided at once that additional evidence against Ioas would be necessary before it would be wise to make an arrest. He called in Post Office Inspector Stuart, and the practicability of proving the crime by comparing it with other work done on Ioas’ typewriter was discussed. This plan was abandoned, and then Mr. Mills suggested the use of a telephone to get additional evidence of Ioas’ confession. Subsequently, Mr. Mills consulted with his friend, J. P. Ellacott, an electrician, and a line of procedure was soon agreed upon. Dr. Janss was having occasional interviews with Ioas, in which Ioas would confess his authorship of the letter, but he was careful not to do so in the hearing of any third party. It was decided, therefore, to conceal a telephone on Dr. Janss’ person, by means of which a third party at a distance could hear Ioas’ confessions.

After discussing the cuff button, the necktie, and other parts of a man’s attire as the best hiding-place for a transmitter, it was finally decided to conceal it in the crown of Dr. Janss’ silk hat. The hat was provided with two crowns and the transmitter put between them. The outer crown had through it a few eyelet holes for admitting sound. A battery was arranged for the coatpocket, and this left only the wires and the receiver to be provided for.

Ah, yes — wires!  In 1894, the radio transmitter had literally just been invented, so any electronic eavesdropping would require wires.

The wire was 100 feet in length, and consisted of two fine copper twin conductors. The wire was attached to the transmitter in the hat, passed down the doctor’s neck to the battery, and thence down his trousers’ leg to the heel of his shoe. When he next visited Ioas he was accompanied by Inspector Stuart and Detective Sandemeier. As he passed into the office Detective Sandemeier fastened the coil to the heel and unreeled the wire into a neighboring office. There Inspector Stuart connected it with the receiver and held the receiver to his ear. Ioas conducted Dr. Janss through several rooms, closing the doors as they passed, before he would talk. He did this without noticing the wire trailing at the doctor’s heel.

It is a little mind-boggling to think that Ioas didn’t notice that Janss had something like 100 feet of copper wire dragging from his shoe!  Dr. Janss must have been quite adept at deception or, probably more likely, telephone surveillance was so unusual that Ioas just didn’t even think to look for anything.

Then he [Ioas] talked long, loud, and freely-right into the hat which Janss held in his lap-and boasted, as before, that he had written the letter. The conversation lasted an hour, and Stuart took notes. As they came out Ioas discovered the wire, saw at once what was up, and immediately followed its course until he came to Stuart. But the inspector had already detached the receiver and looked innocent and absent-minded.

“Who, me?  What telephone receiver?”

It is probable that if matters had gone no further Ioas would still have been safe, for no court has ever yet accepted a telephone as a witness. But Stuart afterward confronted Ioas and read from a paper all that he had said to Dr. Janss. Ioas broke down and confessed everything to the inspector. The result of this was that United States Commissioner Wirt held Ioas to the grand jury in bonds of $1,500.

Case closed!  It is interesting to note that the validity of telephone communication in legal proceedings was apparently already under debate, and that telephone evidence was not typically accepted in court.

I can’t help but wonder, in this era of warrantless electronic surveillance and the controversy surrounding it, whether the people of 1894 felt a bit of a chill reading about the “telephone in his hat.” Were they concerned, as we are now, with new challenges to privacy?  I suppose the answer is out there in other articles and opinion pieces…

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2 Responses to The Case of the Telephone in His Hat (1894)

  1. kaleberg says:

    Are there any stories of tapped telegraph lines? They could be used in war time or for financial intelligence. (I guess there was the old wire con, but that didn’t involve invasion of privacy.)

    This may be the first example of electronic eavesdropping, but the introduction of a simpler technology, Venetian blinds, was quickly associated with men spying on their wives having sex with another man. That’s why they are sometimes called jalousies or jealousies.

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