BYTE OUT OF HISTORY
Hollow Nickel, Hidden Agent
What's a nickel worth?
No, it's not a riddle.
It's a case straight from the pages of FBI history.
It all started
51 years ago this month, when a Brooklyn newspaper boy picked
up a nickel he'd just dropped. Almost like magic, the coin split in half.
And inside was a tiny photograph, showing a series of numbers too small
Even if the boy kept
up with the front page news on the papers he delivered, he probably never
would have guessed that this extraordinary coin was the product of one
of the most vital national security issues of the day: the growing Cold
War between the world's two nuclear powers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
begins. The coin ultimately made its way to the FBI, which opened
a counterintelligence case, believing the coin suggested there was an
active spy in New York City. But who?
New York agents
quickly began working to trace the hollow nickel. They talked
to the ladies who passed the nickel on to the delivery boy, with no success.
They talked to local novelty store owners to see if they had sold something
similar. None had seen anything like it. A lot of shoe leather was ruined,
but no hot leads emerged.
coin itself was turned over for expert examination. FBI Lab
scientists in Washington pored over it. They immediately realized the
photograph contained a coded message, but they couldn't crack it. But
the coin did yield clues. The type-print, Lab experts concluded, must
have come from a foreign typewriter. Metallurgy showed that the back
half was from a coin minted during World War II. Ultimately, the coin
was filed away ... but not forgotten.
The key break
came four years later ... when a Russian spy named Reino Hayhanen
defected to the U.S. Hayhanen – really the American born Eugene
Maki – shared all kinds of secrets on Soviet spies. He led FBI
agents to one out-of-the-way hiding place, called a "dead drop," where
FBI agents found a hollowed-out bolt with a typewritten message inside.
When asked about it, Hayhanen said the Soviets had given him all kinds
of hollowed-out objects: pens, screws, batteries, even coins. He turned
over one such coin, which instantly reminded agents of the Brooklyn nickel.
The link was made.
From there ...
Hayhanen helped investigators crack the code of the mysterious hollow coin
and then put them on the trail of his case officer, a Soviet spy named "Mark" operating
without diplomatic cover and under several false identities.
After painstaking detective
work, agents figured out that "Mark" was Colonel Rudolf Abel,
who was arrested on June 21, 1957. Though Abel refused to talk, his hotel
room and office revealed an important prize: a treasure trove of modern
Abel was eventually
convicted of espionage and sentenced to a long jail term. In 1962, he was
exchanged for American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been shot
down over the USSR.
In the end, a nickel
was worth a great deal: the end of a Soviet spy and the protection of a
For all the details
and more pictures, see Famous
Cases: Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (Hollow Nickel Case).