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On the twentieth anniversary of Watergate, a recently discovered diary reveals a similar conspiracy four decades earlier
May/June 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 3
“Pete got a soap impression of the door lock, and Bob Murray made us a key. The following Monday morning we went in.”
Through the telephone people I traced the lawyer [Justin] Campbell, in whose name the Salmon Towers office had been. He has re-established himself in an office in the Lincoln Building, but it is small and he is now alone.
But what had become of O’Brien remained a mystery until the other day. All we could find out was that on the day of the flight trucks drove up and took everything away during a two hour period when Pete was absent from the building. No, nobody knew what address they moved to. No, there was no forwarding address for their mail. Nothing. Just a blank. They had covered up beautifully. But not quite.
Pete’s persistent though careful questionings finally got results. He found a freight man who had been casually hired for a special trip with a table they had forgotten to put on their trucks and had remembered afterward. Sure he remembered the address. It was so and so Greenwich Avenue.
His memory was correct. We found the O’Brien living there in the 4th story, furniture and papers complete but giving every appearance of having fallen on evil days. We shadowed him for a bit and then I came to the conclusion that no President of the United States need be afraid of a ham-and-egger like this O’Brien.
I told Lewis Strauss that my opinion was that the O’Brien has been these many months stringing along Tammany with the tale that he had the goods on Mr. Hoover. I believe that Tammany provided him with office space and facilities for preparing a book. I further believe that Tammany finally called him for a showdown and that the result of this showdown was the throwing out of Salmon Towers of the O’Brien—on his ear.
All these beliefs I duly retailed to Lewis Strauss, who transmitted them to Larry Richey who informed the President who told Larry to tell Lewis to tell me to call off my watch and to consider the case closed.
So closed it is, and that’s that.
Whether or not President Hoover actually authorized Howell’s mission remains unclear. Strauss emphasized the President’s commitment to the venture, but conceivably the financier, as Hoover’s loyal friend and political supporter, was acting without his knowledge. There is, however, some strong, indirect evidence that Lawrence Richey, the President’s confidential secretary, not only knew about the venture but even was an instigator. The evidence consists of two letters from Strauss to Richey describing the investigations, one dated June 9, 1930, and the other, undated, from a few days later. This in turn suggests—that is an acceptable inference—that President Hoover himself may have been involved.
Richey apparently had a taste for this kind of thing. He would later be suspected of carrying out other “dirty work” for Hoover and the GOP. At one point, in May 1933, Attorney General Homer Cummings warned the Roosevelt cabinet that Richey was directing an effort to penetrate the New Deal to gather embarrassing material. And decades later, in 1957, Richey turned over seventy-eight names to the FBI for checking—apparently in connection with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and presumably at the secret behest of Hoover himself.
On June 17, 1930, Strauss was in Washington, D.C., and he met with Richey at the White House. It is likely that they discussed the O’Brien case; the President may have been present. Strauss’s appointment book noted Hoover as being there, but Hoover’s own calender listed a cabinet session at the time. After he had returned to New York, Strauss, acting on White House directions—or so he told Howell—called off the surveillance on O’Brien. The case was officially closed. This early, almost laughable, Republican conspiracy was over, and the evidence about it would not surface for more than five decades.
But O’Brien’s obsession with Herbert Hoover was by no means over. Obviously trying to milk his meager findings for all they were worth, he turned up again in the news in 1932, when he sued a fellow blackmailer, one John Hamill, for publishing The Strange Career of Mr. Hoover, or Under Two Flags, which used material that both men had gathered but that only O’Brien had paid for. The book accused Hoover of having defrauded mine investors (”racketeering in the billions“) and of having failed to save the life of a British nurse from a German firing squad. The litigation dragged on for a year, during which time Hamill, under threat of libel, repudiated his own book and O’Brien published a similar volume, Hoover’s Millions and How He Made Them. Just a few weeks before the defeated Hoover left the White House in 1933, a New York court dismissed the case of O’Brien v. Hamill on the grounds that both “were guilty [through their books] of attempting to deceive the American public,” and therefore neither merited any legal relief in their bitter dispute.