When New York City Was a Wiretapper’s Dream

Eavesdropping flourished after WW II, aided by legal loopholes, clever hacks, and “private ears”

15 min read
A man wearing headphones aims a flashlight at some telephone wires in a dark basement room.

Six months after a police raid revealed the existence of a massive illegal wiretapping operation in New York City, the movie Wiretapper was rolled out to theaters across the country. Although based on a different case, the movie built on the growing unease about eavesdropping triggered by the sensational revelations in New York.

Great Commission Films/Ronald Grant Archive/Alamy

On February 11, 1955, an anonymous tip led two New York Police Department detectives and two New York Telephone Company investigators to an apartment on the fourth floor of a residential building at 360 East 55th Street in midtown Manhattan. In the back bedroom of the unit, the group discovered a cache of stolen wiretapping equipment that turned out to have direct lines into six of New York City’s largest telephone exchanges: PLaza 1, 3, and 5; MUrray Hill 8; ELdorado 5; and TEmpleton 8. The connections blanketed an area of Manhattan running from East 38th Street to East 96th Street, a swath of the city’s most expensive real estate.

“There wasn’t a single tap-free telephone on the east side of New York,” professional wiretapper Bernard Spindel remarked of the arrangement. (Spindel was in all likelihood the source of the anonymous tip.) News of the discovery made the front page of the New York Times a week later.

The midtown Manhattan “wiretap nest,” as the 55th Street listening post came to be known, remains one of the largest and most elaborate private eavesdropping operations ever uncovered in the United States. Subscribers whose phones were tapped at the time of the raid included a range of New York commercial interests, with assets both large and small: a modeling agency and an insurance company; an art gallery and a lead mining company; and perhaps most sensationally, two publicly traded pharmaceutical corporations with competing patent interests. (The two firms, Bristol-Myers and E. R. Squibb, were at the time locked in a nasty legal battle over the commercial rights to the antibiotic tetracycline. Evidence later revealed that representatives from a third firm, Pfizer, had employed the wiretap nest to spy on both entities, paying more than $60,000 in cash for the service.)

A woman in theatrical garb appears shocked by what she is hearing over a telephone.Burlesque artist Ann Corio was among the celebrities targeted by an illegal wiretapping operation in New York City in 1955.Bettmann/Getty Images

Contrary to the popular image of the phone tap as either a technology of state surveillance or a tool of corporate espionage, the vast majority of the lines ensnared in the 55th Street operation turned out to be owned by private individuals. Some—like the burlesque artist Ann Corio, whose phone conversations were recorded in a dragnet search for incriminating information on prominent midtown residents—were the targets of blackmail. Others—like the New York socialite John Jacob Astor VI, who wanted someone to keep tabs on his wife—were involved in messy civil suits and divorce cases. By all accounts, the setup had the technical capacity to monitor as many as a hundred telephone lines at the same time. Between 50,000 and 100,000 individual subscribers were alleged to have been tapped over the course of fifteen months.

A man in a double-breasted suit, arms folded over his chest, and with a haughty expression on his face, leans against a wall in a telephone kiosk.New York City private investigator and attorney John G. “Steve” Broady was convicted as the mastermind of the 55th Street “wiretap nest,” the largest illegal wiretapping operation ever to come to light in the United States. Broady paid a high price: Besides being disbarred, he served the entirety of his four-year sentence in jail.Evelyn Straus/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Four men were eventually indicted in conjunction with the raid on the 55th Street wiretap nest: John G. Broady, an attorney and private investigator; Warren B. Shannon, a freelance electrical technician; and Walter Asmann and Carl R. Ruh, two rogue employees of the New York Telephone Company. In the course of the ensuing criminal trial, Shannon, Asmann, and Ruh were all granted immunity in exchange for testifying against Broady, who emerged as the brains behind the operation. Broady ended up receiving an unusually harsh prison sentence—four years, twice as long as the penalty suggested by New York’s penal code. At the close of the proceedings the presiding judge broke custom by publicly chastising the principals in the case: “In my many years as a judge, I have made it a rule not to excoriate defendants when imposing a prison sentence. However, the public interest requires some comment concerning this case. Illegal wiretapping is a slimy activity, which directly and adversely affects our social and economic life. It cannot be condemned too strongly.”

The gravity of the response to Broady’s conviction only heightened the suspicion that there was more to the story than met the eye. A number of strange details from the early newspaper reports on the case remained unexplained at the end of the trial. The freelance electrician initially indicted for the crime, Warren Shannon, turned out to have been living in the apartment at East 55th Street for more than a year. Although he was at home with his wife when investigators arrived on February 11, no arrests were made, and no wiretapping devices were confiscated. When the NYPD returned to the scene a week later, much of the equipment used in the operation had disappeared.

Considering the size and longevity of the 55th street operation (established, sources said, in December 1953), it seemed possible that NYPD officials were aware of its existence prior to the February 11 raid. Had dishonest cops agreed to look the other way in exchange for the ability to shake down local criminals via wiretap? Such an arrangement would certainly have been consistent with earlier grand jury inquiries into police corruption in NYPD gambling and vice investigations. The fact that the case involved New York Telephone employees only reinforced this conjecture. Bell system linemen were long rumored to have had a hand in the city’s illegal wiretap trade.

Tiny, cheap, and almost impossible to detect in action, induction coils were in wide use in wiretapping operations of all sorts by the late 1930s, and nowhere more so than in New York

According to journalist Ray Graves, the attempted cover-up of the 55th Street scandal was the American public’s first glimpse of “the ‘Big A,’ or The Alliance.” Writing in the July 1955 issue of Confidential Magazine, he identified it as “a group made up of corrupt cops, telephone men, and expert illegal wiretappers in the private eye racket…[that] deals in outright blackmail, selling information, and…does much of its work for big businessmen who want to get the jump on a competitor.” The midtown Manhattan tap nest was one of many private listening posts around the country (“Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, Miami, and Washington all have wiretap centers comparable to the cozy set-up recently exposed in New York”), and the shadowy “Alliance” had a vested interest in keeping their workings under wraps.

The rumors of conspiracy and corruption now seem far-fetched. But at the time, the story was plausible enough to occasion internal handwringing among Bell system providers. In a company bulletin dated March 9, 1955, New York Telephone assured nervous stakeholders that there was “no foundation” to national reports that there was a “corrupt alliance between telephone employees, the police, and illegal wire-tappers.”

Conspiracy or not, the 55th Street “wiretap nest” was itself an unsettling image. That four men could set up shop in a midtown apartment, commandeer an array of stolen electronic devices, and tap into thousands of lines servicing some of the most high-profile addresses in New York City—the story seemed to confirm creeping anxieties about the invasive reach of modern communications systems and their susceptibility to manipulation and control.

A man with dark, closely cropped hair and wearing a glen plaid suit jacket smiles bemusedly.Anthony P. Savarese, a member of the New York State Assembly, headed a commission set up after the discovery of the 55th Street wiretapping operation to investigate the prevalence of illegal eavesdropping in the state.Queens Chamber of Commerce Collection/Queens Borough Public Library Archives

To quell further public uproar, the New York state legislature in Albany appointed Anthony P. Savarese, an assemblyman with connections to the New York City Anti-Crime Committee, to convene an emergency joint commission on the illegal interception of electronic communications. Charged with cutting through the “miasma of hearsay” surrounding the tap-nest scandal and recommending corrective legislation, Savarese began his work in late February 1955. He filed a hotly anticipated preliminary report the following year. But the commission’s official findings only served to bolster the sense that wiretapping was more entrenched and pervasive than the national debates had made it seem.

According to the Commission’s March 1956 report, the 55th Street scandal was the product of a host of developments that had made the New York telephone system “vulnerable to tapping:” technological advances that made phone taps both easier to plant and harder to detect; corruption among state police officers and low-level employees in the telecommunications industry; and the unfettered expansion of the private investigation field in the years following World War II. Yet the Commission’s most enduring conclusion—echoed in later studies like Samuel Dash’s influential 1959 report The Eavesdroppers—was that any honest effort to curb illegal wiretapping in America would have to start at the state and municipal levels.

Excerpted from The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States by Brian Hochman, published by Harvard University Press (2022).

To be sure, the failings of New York state wiretap law were legion. A comprehensive court-order system had governed the phone tap protocols for New York law enforcement agencies since 1938. Although many policy experts considered the system a model for federal wiretap reform, the Savarese Commission discovered that judicial oversight was easy to circumvent, and existing criminal laws offered the state little room to prosecute police officers who chose to tap wires illegally. The foundations of New York’s laws against private wiretapping (i.e., wiretapping conducted by individuals acting outside of the state’s “sovereign authority”) were even shakier. The New York penal code prohibited any attempt to “cut, break…or make connection with any telegraph or telephone line, wire, cable, or instrument,” a clear sign that wiretapping without the written permission of a state judge was a criminal offense.

The problem was that the statute was written in 1892. Six decades’ worth of technological advancements had all but rendered it obsolete—so much so, the Commission noted, that almost every attempt to prosecute illegal wiretapping in the state of New York since 1892 had failed on technical grounds.

A man places an electronic device near a wire while a woman operates recording gear.Eavesdroppers started using induction coils to tap into phone calls in the 1930s. Here, technicians demonstrate the state of the art in 1940.FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images

One major challenge to New York’s 1892 wiretap law, frightful for midcentury observers to behold, was the rise of what was known as induction wiretapping, a newfangled eavesdropping technique that didn’t require a physical connection to a telephone line. With the help of simple magnetic devices called “ induction coils”—essentially spare radio parts, available at most any hardware store—the induction method amounted, somewhat paradoxically, to a wireless wiretap. In the words of one electronics manufacturer, “Simply slip [an induction coil] under the base of a desk phone or lay on top of a ringer box of wall phones” and achieve “optimum results.”.

Tiny, cheap, and almost impossible to detect in action, induction coils were in wide use in wiretapping operations of all sorts by the late 1930s, and nowhere more so than in New York. In part this was because the state’s penal code had explicitly defined illegal wiretapping as an unwarranted physical connection to a telephone line. As the Savarese Commission pointed out, it was impossible to bring criminal charges against wiretappers caught using induction coils when they never so much as touched the phone company’s equipment.

The 55th Street operation had relied on wiretapping techniques that were more primitive than induction. But the Savarese Commission went to great lengths to show that even simple wiretap installations were impossible to prevent and prosecute according to the letter of the law. For most of the twentieth century, both private surveillance experts and law enforcement officials mostly relied on what was known as the direct wiretap method. As its name suggests, this technique involved connecting directly to the circuitry of the telephone system, either by scraping away the insulation along the route of a phone line and appending an extension wire, or by attaching an amplifier and headphones to a telephone junction box, where multiple residential lines met and joined the system’s main frame.

Direct wiretapping was tedious work that became both more and less difficult to carry out in the postwar years. More difficult, because installing a direct wiretap required the ability to find the subscriber’s line and pinpoint the location where the tap wire needed to be connected. Identifying this location, known as an “ appearance” point or location, became increasingly difficult as the telephone system expanded its labyrinthine reach. By World War II, telecommunications providers had also wised up to security concerns, adding locks to the most obvious direct tap locations, such as basement junction boxes.

But direct wiretapping proved less difficult to carry out in this period for almost the exact same set of reasons. The sprawl of the telephone system also meant that communications hardware and infrastructure—and, more importantly, the employees who managed them on a daily basis—were impossible to oversee in their entirety. For the right price, the Savarese Commission discovered, anyone who wanted to find a line to tap could bribe a phone company employee for the relevant cable appearances, or even for direct access to the main frame, just as John Broady had when setting up the tap nest.

The wiretapping statute was written in 1892. Six decades’ worth of technological advancements had all but rendered it obsolete

“90 per cent of all tappers today are old telephone company men,” reported William J. Mellin, a retired government investigator who claimed to have tapped more than 15,000 lines during his forty years of work for the Internal Revenue Service. Mellin’s estimate would have the ring of hyperbole if the Savarese Commission hadn’t come to the same conclusion.

What truly distinguished the Empire State in the 1950s—what made it America’s “ eavesdropping capital,” in the words of the privacy law expert Alan Westin—was yet another loophole in state wiretap law, one that raised doubts as to whether the sort of wiretapping that the NYPD discovered at East 55th Street was even illegal at all.

The loophole was the result of a curious court decision involving a Brooklyn businessman named Louis Appelbaum, who sued his wife for divorce in 1949. The evidence in the suit was partly based on telephone conversations that Appelbaum had permitted Robert La Borde, a notoriously prolific New York private investigator, to record on his home line. The presiding judge dismissed the divorce suit and went on to charge both Appelbaum and La Borde for violating the state’s wiretapping law. Both men were convicted. But an appellate court reversed the ruling in 1950, reasoning that telephone subscribers maintained a “paramount right” to tap their own lines.

The language of the appellate court’s opinion in People v. Appelbaum (1950) was unambiguous in its support for what would become known as “one-party consent” eavesdropping: “When a subscriber consents to the use of his line by his employee or by a member of his household, or by his wife, there is a condition implied that the telephone will not be used to the detriment of the subscriber’s business, household, or marital status…. In such situations, the subscriber…may have his own line tapped or otherwise checked so that his business may not be damaged, his household relations impaired, or his marital status disrupted.” For a resident of New York in the early 1950s—a man, most likely, because the gendered language of the ruling perversely implied that men had more claim on subscriber’s rights than women—it was entirely legal, under Appelbaum, to record any conversation made on your home telephone. It was also entirely legal to hire someone else to do it for you.

The Savarese Commission spent most of its investigative energy working to understand the effects of the Appelbaum decision, eventually coming to the conclusion that it had encouraged a “lively, active, and lucrative” private eavesdropping industry throughout New York State. According to the Commission’s March 1956 report, the case had thrown into confusion what was left of New York’s 1892 wiretap law. It had also created a growing market for an urban professional whose doings had long preoccupied studies of electronic surveillance nationwide: the wiretapper-for-hire—or, more colloquially, “private ear.” These were men (again: almost all were men) with a uniquely modern expertise. They knew how to tap any telephone, and they knew how to locate any telephone that was tapped. The tools of their trade were cheap, easy to use, and virtually impossible to detect in action. Appelbaum gave them license to bring their work, long maligned as dirty and disreputable, out into the open.

Two men in suits stand near a table heaped with tape-recording and other electronic gear.Among the committees set up to investigate illegal wiretapping after the sensational revelation of the 55th Street “wiretapper’s nest” in New York City was one in the U.S. House of Representatives led by Emanuel Celler [right], a New York Democrat. On 3 May 1955, professional wiretapper Bernard Spindel startled Celler by playing back for the congressman recordings of his own recent telephone calls. Bettmann/Getty Images

After 1950, in the words of the Savarese Commission, New York private ears were “immune practitioners in a nonhazardous occupation.” They went about their business as freely as plumbers, housepainters, and insurance salesmen.

Reliable facts and figures about the private eavesdropping industry that prospered under Appelbaum are difficult to find. The Savarese Commission conducted months of closed-session interviews to create a thumbnail sketch of the men who were offering freelance wiretapping services around the state of New York. Most were either proficient in electronics early on, tapping their first lines by the age of twelve or thirteen, or had received special technical training while serving in the military. Most had gone on to find paying jobs in telecommunications, law enforcement, or freelance private investigation, three professional fields that expanded dramatically after World War II. And in the course of their regular duties, most had the opportunity to discover that telephone lines were easy and lucrative to tap—easy and lucrative enough, in any event, to turn wiretapping into a dedicated career, despite the risks that occasionally came with it. In 1955, the year of the 55th Street scandal, private wiretapping contractors were reported to net as much as $250 per day in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The jobs with the most legal exposure commanded the highest rates.

The biggest names in the profession— Robert La Borde, John Broady, Bernard Spindel—tended to make their money monitoring telephone lines for New York businesses. Many more found work in the domestic sphere, helping to litigate civil and marital disputes.

A man in a suit stands next to a woman in a white sleeveless dress holding a fur coat.John Jacob Astor VI was among the powerful people whose name was dredged up by the investigation into the 55th-Street wiretapping operation. Shortly after returning from his honeymoon, Astor had filed for divorce from his third wife, the former Dolores Margaret “Dolly” Fullman, and was thought to be seeking incriminating evidence against herBettmann/Getty Images

The Savarese Commission discovered that divorce wiretapping was far and away the most common job for private eavesdropping specialists in the 1950s. Because New York divorce laws were “adversarial,” requiring one party to show fault in the other before the state could terminate a union, wiretap recordings that captured evidence of infidelity could have a dramatic effect on the outcome of individual cases. This was why John Jacob Astor VI had turned to John Broady—Astor believed that a wiretap would prove that his wife was having an affair with another man. The Savarese Commission found the arrangement to be surprisingly common. New York’s private ears tapped more lines to monitor cheating spouses than their counterparts in law enforcement did to gather criminal evidence.

The Savarese Commission’s report would inaugurate a new day for wiretapping in the Empire State—or so it seemed on the surface. In July 1957, after more than two years of legislative wrangling, policymakers in Albany added an amendment to the New York penal code that expanded the state’s definition of illegal eavesdropping to include both direct and induction wiretapping and levied hefty fines on phone companies that failed to report violations of the new law. The amendment also closed the Appelbaum loophole, prohibiting one-party consent eavesdropping and barring the use of wiretap recordings or transcripts in civil court proceedings. But when the Savarese Commission recommended tightening oversight of law enforcement wiretapping, police officials pushed back, and lobbyists in Albany eventually pressured the legislature to keep the state’s court-order system intact. The resulting compromise seemed to place New York law enforcement beyond the reach of reform.

In 1955, the year of the 55th Street scandal, private wiretapping contractors were reported to net as much as $250 per day in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The legacy of the 55th Street scandal in New York was thus mixed. By the end of the decade, it seemed as though both everything and nothing had changed. When Congress held exploratory hearings on “ Wiretapping, Eavesdropping, and the Bill of Rights” in the winter of 1959, ranking members of the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights wrote to Wellington Powell, New York Telephone’s vice president of operations, to testify about the outcome of the wiretap nest case. In an official letter later introduced into the congressional record, Powell expressed optimism about the success of the Savarese Commission’s effort to curb illegal wiretapping in New York.

“The new laws have strengthened privacy of communications by providing new sanctions and by eliminating loopholes and administrative difficulties under old laws,” he reported. To bolster the new legal regime, New York Telephone had also “added more specially trained personnel to [its] special agents’ forces” and intensified “indoctrination and supervision concerning security practices.” But between the lines, Powell’s letter offered an ominous set of statistics that underscored just how unworkable the twin ideals of privacy and security were in the field of telecommunications. In Manhattan alone, the New York Telephone Company managed 75,000 terminal boxes. Those 75,000 boxes connected to more than 4,000 miles of cable, and those 4,000 miles of cable contained more than 3 million miles of telephone wire. The entire New York Telephone System serviced an estimated 7,900,000 handsets. In a communications network so unmanageably vast, preventing an isolated illegal act was nothing less than a Sisyphean task.

Federal agencies wouldn’t begin to face political consequences for the abuse of wiretaps in national security investigations until the 1970s. In the wake of the 55th Street controversy, state and municipal governments around the country likewise passed a flurry of wiretap reforms, many of which sought to prohibit the private use of electronic surveillance equipment. But at least in New York, the sense among those who knew best was that aggressive policy measures amounted to little more than sound and fury.

“You can’t legislate…against illegal wiretapping,” warned New York District Attorney Edward Silver. “They did it before there were statutes and they will do it regardless of what you do.” On the other side of the law, private ears like Bernard Spindel offered equally worrisome predictions about the spread of the wiretap trade in the face of new policies: “Never before have so many people been willing to pay so much to find out what others are thinking and doing. Never before have we been so capable of accomplishing these desires. Whatever legislation may be enacted…is already many years too late.” Futility was the order of the day. “Most experts believe that no matter what legislation is enacted, the unhappy outlook as of now is that wiretapping is here to stay and will increase,” Newsweek reported in an article on “The Busy Wiretappers” in the spring of 1955. The tumultuous decade that followed proved all of the predictions right.

This article appears in the August 2022 print issue as “1950s New York Was a Wiretapper’s Dream.”

The Conversation (2)
Nina Yerkes
Nina Yerkes26 Sep, 2022

The United States has installed all kinds of monitors around us

Gregorio Valdivia
Gregorio Valdivia12 Aug, 2022

Comment "paying more than $60,000 in cash for the service...." made me wonder if it was 1955 or 2022 dollars? Inflation calculator says its $663,000 (2022) still a steal of a deal. 😂