In 1953, a news boy got a nickel that felt too light. He suspected that he’d been cheated. Actually, he’d been given a nickel full of microfilm. And it was worth considerably more than the paper he was selling.
The crazy thing about this mystery is we still don’t know how the hollow nickel full of microfilm got into general circulation. The spy it was intended for claims never to have gotten it in the first place. No one has owned up to losing it, and even today, over fifty years after the whole thing has shaken out, we can’t find a record of how the coin managed to find its way out of the spy’s hands.
All we know is that someone cut the front off of one coin and the back off another, making a little hollow space in between. They placed microfilm in a hollow space, and fitted the two halves of a coin together. They also put a tiny hole in the front of the coin, so that their contact could use a pin to pry apart the two coin halves.
And then what? It rolled out of their pocket? They placed it at a drop point and someone else picked it up off the street? They — *gasp* — bought an ice cream cone and mixed up their coins? We don’t know. We just know that eventually it made its way into the hands of a couple of sweet little old ladies who, presumably, have been thoroughly checked out by the CIA, the FBI, and every other national security agency in existence. These women to gave it Jimmy Bozart, a newsboy who was collecting for the Brooklyn Eagle. Having extensive experience with coins, he knew it when he had a false coin on his hands. Throwing the too-light nickel down on the ground, he was surprised to see it break in two halves, with a bit of microfilm in between. He mentioned it to his friend, and she mentioned it to her father, a police officer, and he mentioned it to the FBI.
So far we’ve got a great story. It’s so great a story that it was made into a movie, The FBI Story, in 1959. Unfortunately, for me, this is where the narrative continuity breaks down. The FBI never broke the code that they found on the microfilm, and they never did find any other hollow coins. The nickel simply remained in FBI possession as evidence that there were spies wandering around America. The code didn’t get deciphered until 1957, when the spy it was intended for turned himself in.
Technically, he turned himself in in Paris, but Reino Hayhanen decided that he did not want to end his assignment in America, to go back to Russia. On his flight back, he stopped by the American embassy in Paris and told them everything he knew. Among his effects was a 50 Markka coin from Finland, which reminded the authorities of the nickel. They got Hayhanen to decipher the code. Disappointingly, it turned out to be simple first-day-on-the-job instructions, including congratulations for arriving safely, a reminder that he’d been given a certain amount of local currency, and assurances that he’d get more information soon.
Hayhanen’s information got more valuable when he gave out the names and locations of his contacts. Rudolph Abel had been moving around America under a number of assumed names for many years. When Hayhanen identified him, he was working as Emil Goldfus, a traveling photographer. He was arrested, and sentenced to 30 years, but in 1962 was traded to the USSR for Francis Gary Powers, the pilot of the famous downed spy plane.
Image: : FBI