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The New Yorker
June 18, 1938

Wire-tapping got its start in New York in 1895, when a former telephone worker who had joined the city police suggested that it might be a good idea to listen in on wires used by criminals. William L. Strong, who was Mayor at the time, gave the project his blessing and for years after that wire-tapping flourished secretly. It was something the public of that period wouldn’t worry about, anyhow, because in the nineties the telephone was not generally regarded as a household fixture.

In those days police wire-tappers just walked into the Telephone Company’s offices, asked for the location of the wires they were interested in, and got the information without fuss. Lines were usually tapped right in the cellar of the house or at an outside wall box.

There was an uproar when people got wind of the prevalence of wire-tapping. An investigation of public utilities in 1916 called attention to it. Those, of course, were war days and eavesdropping of all kinds was widely encouraged. The government was tapping thousands of lines. A complete central-office switchboard had been set up in the New York Custom House, with taps running into it from all parts of the city. Every time a suspected alien lifted his receiver a light showed on this board and a stenographer, with headset clamped on, took a record of the conversation.

Inevitably it was claimed that wire-tapping violated a citizen’s rights, and a large section of the press cried out against the practice, but nothing ever came of it. The furor, however, made the wire-tapper’s job more difficult, because the Telephone Company, finding itself in an uncomfortable position, refused from then on to cooperate with the police in helping them locate suspect wires. Drawing itself up to its corporate height, it assumed a haughty manner toward detectives and since that time the company officially has refused to assist in tapping. To make matters worse, the wiring system grew more and more complicated. Today there are nearly 1,700,000 telephones in the city, and even an experienced wire-tapper would be unable to find a particular circuit if he did not know the right people in strategic telephone posts.

That is why most police wire-tappers, following the precedent of the man who introduced the science in the department, are former employees of the Telephone Company. They have not only the background of an inside view of the system, but friends in the organization upon whom they count for surreptitious assistance. Moreover, an experienced wire-tapper who is familiar with the trade terms used by Telephone Company workers is able to pose convincingly as an employee when he wants to learn the location of a particular set of wires.

If the special operator who handles test calls is suspicious and asks “Who’s your foreman?” or “What’s your order number?” the expert tapper is ready with the answers picked up from his cronies in the company. With the necessary information he can go out, find the circuit, make his tap, run his extension wires to an empty flat or office, and prepare to listen.

Wire-tappers are seldom caught at their work. They know they must remove their listening equipment if they hear a telephone subscriber complain to the operator that “something is wrong with the wire.” When it is discovered that a line has been tapped, the company for the next five days makes regular inspections of that particular circuit. Detectives are aware of this routine, and when the five-day period has expired, hook right in again.

It’s pretty hard to detect a wire-tapper by the sound of your telephone. Foreign noises on the line are more apt to be caused by worn-off insulation, dampness in the cables, or some other natural disarrangement. A good wire-tapper is rarely guilty of creating “swing,” which is the professional term for the crackling noise sent over a telephone circuit by a faulty tap. Wherever possible, he fastens the wires of his instrument to nut-and-washer connections found in panel boxes, the terminals from which extension lines are run. Such connections are practically swing-proof. If circumstances compel him to resort to a “raw” tap, for which he must cut in somewhere in the middle of the line, he uses improved clips with central piercing needles to make a tight connection with the wire.

As a rule, though, wire-tappers are pretty grave fellows. They spend a lot of their own time and money fussing with new listening appliances or trying to improve old ones. Most of them rig up experimental stations in their homes. They shop busily in Canal Street stores which deal in second-hand electrical equipment, buying apparatus discarded by the telephone and telegraph companies. Out of these experiments, in 1930, came the dial-detector, an indispensable instrument for tapping wires in a city where few numbers are now called orally. Once it was easy for cops to ascertain the whereabouts of both parties in an outgoing phone conversation: they knew where the tapped wire led and they could hear the number called by the suspect. But when dials were installed they could not check on the destination of a call. Just when the new instruments were threatening to put a serious crimp in the tappers’ usefulness, a detective who had been a Telephone Company mechanic came to the rescue of the craft. His dial-detector, which he made out of second-hand telegraph parts, records as a series of dots on a thin paper tape, the clicks you hear when you dial. The tapper can read the number called from these symbols.

In most cases the old-school wiretappers prefer their homemade equipment. They find they can duplicate the store sets without much trouble and at considerable saving. This is true even of the newest contraption, an especially powerful induction coil which resembles a five-inch firecracker. It is a magnet wrapped in eight thousand turns of very fine wire — a sinister contrivance that inhales a telephone conversation without being connected to the circuit, the coil merely being placed near the wires leading to the telephone under observation. It will pick up sounds through an eighteen-inch wall.

Police tappers resent newcomers in the business, and are especially bitter toward the graduates of the Treasury Department wire-tapping schools. Few if any of these young men have served apprenticeships with the Telephone Company, which the police eavesdroppers regard as the only worthwhile alma mater.

The police complain that the Treasury Department rookies aren’t taught how to work with telephone linesmen and operators. As a result, they say the youngsters are always committing blunders which make it just that much harder for the old-timers to get cooperation from telephone men.

The Treasury Department headmasters seldom educate their charges in the technical details of wire-tapping. Pupils in the kindergartens – as the self-made tappers call the federal schools — are drilled primarily to avoid detection once they have settled themselves at a listening post. They are warned to take their clips off lines when they hear peculiar noises which might mean that the company’s wire chief is testing, but never to meddle otherwise with the apparatus, because it is set up for them by older men. This makes a New York detective smile wryly; he always does his own hooking up. The courses in Washington also offer such simple advice as “Don’t let strangers into the listening post,” “If a janitor or some building official must enter the post, cover the equipment with clothing or a newspaper,” “Never leave any notes or reports behind you when you leave your post.”

City tappers agree with federal men, however, on one point. Both consider the practice exclusively a government privilege and look upon wire-tapping by private detectives as something illegal and unethical. The private agencies usually get radio men to help them in their telephonic skulduggery. These tappers have one trick, a modification of the wooden horse of Troy that they use frequently in helping clients who are suspicious of their wives or paramours. The agency tells the man to get his lady a radio; if she already has one they tell him to get her a better set. When the apparatus is delivered it contains a hidden microphone that will pick up a whisper at the far end of a large room. The listening wire is spliced to the aerial led-in wire which runs to the roof. After that, listening is easy.

The first private detective agency to use wire-tapping was the William J. Burns outfit. Early in the World War period they cut in on the wires of a law firm in the Equitable Building, at 120 Broadway, trying to find out whether one of J.P. Morgan’s clerks was relaying through it secrets about the Allies’ munitions orders. Another agency, a bitter competitor of Burns, learned about the tap and warned the victims out of spite. The information came a bit late. The tappers, suspecting they might be caught, had departed.

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