Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sad Final Days of Samuel Coplon, Adirondacks’ Santa Claus

If you followed the story of Samuel Coplon, Santa Claus of the Adirondacks, which appeared here during the past several weeks, you know he was a remarkably caring and giving man dedicated to making Christmas a special time for many needy children and adults in the Adirondacks.

For more than a quarter century, he bought numerous gifts and collected thousands more from friends and clients (Sam was a salesman representing several toy distributors), packed and shipped them to North Creek at his own expense, and traveled north to distribute them just before Christmas Day.

The story ended when Samuel, struggling with health issues in his late fifties, was forced to retire from the Santa Claus business, but left a wonderful legacy of charity and Christmas joy.  Sam lived for another twelve years after the Christmas trips to the Adirondacks came to a halt in the 1930s. It’s sad but true that his life ended under unfortunate and undeserved circumstances. To a degree, his good name and reputation were tainted amid lurid national and international headlines related to the activities of one of his children.

The same year that he gave up the Santa Claus gig (1937), Sam’s son, Bertram, 21, graduated from New York University. They were soon in business together as S. M. Coplon and Son, representing several toy manufacturers, just as Sam had done in his younger days. As Bert learned the business and flourished, Sam eased his way into retirement and continued to battle poor health.

His daughter, Judith, born in May 1921, chose a different path. A highly accomplished student, she excelled at two elementary schools in Brooklyn and won a good-citizenship award at James Madison High School, from which she graduated in 1939. That fall she began attending Barnard College on a full scholarship, majoring in history. During the summer of 1940, she worked as a summer-camp counselor in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and did the same in 1941 at Camp Wayne in Wayne County, Pennsylvania. At other times during her college career, she worked several different jobs in New York City.

Such ambition and accomplishments were commendable, but there was more to come, including graduation cum laude (with honors) from Barnard in 1943. By then, with America at war for 18 months, women were increasingly called upon to fill positions traditionally held by men. Within a month of graduation, Judith was hired by the Economic Warfare Section, War Division, Department of Justice, on Broadway in New York City as an “expert, junior economist.” According to FBI records, she was “transferred to the position of analyst in the Foreign Agents Registration Act Section of the Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., such transfer to be effective January 16, 1945. The transfer was actually effected on February 16, 1945.”

Displaying the same initiative that brought success to her grandfather (Morris) and father (Samuel), she sought continuous improvement. During the next several years, as her government record reveals, Judith “attended George Washington Law School for seven nights, attended courses at American University (both in Washington, D.C.), and has completed all of the requirements for an MA degree with the exception of the writing of a thesis at the latter institution.”

By all appearances, hers was a career on the rise. Samuel and Rebecca were proud parents of a successful daughter, although when friends asked them about her job, they were told it was secret government work that prevented Judith from sharing any details. Such questions seldom arose during the latter half of the 1940s, when both of her parents were troubled with serious health issues. Rebecca had heart problems, and Samuel had become a “paralytic invalid” after suffering a stroke. Nearly every weekend, Judith visited at their Brooklyn home.

But on March 5, 1949, stunning national headlines left the Coplons’ life in shambles. Judith, their seemingly all-American, highly accomplished daughter, had been arrested for espionage — providing government secrets to the Russians through a Soviet engineer named Valentin A. Gubitchev.

When the news broke, Bertram became by default the family spokesman and frontline protector of his dad and mom, who were immediately and continuously harangued by reporters. He beseeched the media to leave his sick and elderly parents alone.

“We are completely shocked. We don’t know anything about this. My mother and father are both quite ill, and this kind of hounding can kill them. We are emotionally upset. The phone and doorbells have been ringing since 5 am.”

His comments were triggered in part by an early phone call that made it through and caused extreme distress in the household. Judith’s mother, not yet aware that a crisis was brewing, answered the phone and became distraught at the suggestion of trouble. “What’s the matter? What’s the matter with my daughter?… Oh, God, please tell me,” she said. When the reporter informed her of spying charges against Judith, Rebecca broke into sobs, replying, “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I’ll never believe it!” Judith’s aunt then took the phone and said, “We — our family — do not believe it. We’ll never believe anything like that of Judith. Never! Never! Never! This is our country. We were all born here and have lived here all our lives. It is our country.”

The effect of the terrible news on Samuel Coplon was devastating. When reporters discovered that Judith’s father was once known famously as the Santa Claus of the Adirondacks, that information was added to her file in the Associated Press Name Card Index. Countless newspapers soon carried headlines about his past holiday heroics, accompanied by allegations of his daughter’s treasonous acts, thus besmirching his once-stellar reputation via guilt by association. (He fortunately wasn’t privy at the time to other impacts of her actions. It was later revealed that because she was Samuel’s daughter and often stayed at her parents’ house, her mother and father had both been secretly investigated by the FBI, their home was surveilled, and their phone tapped.)

Five days after her arrest, Judith was indicted for attempting to provide documents to Gubitchev, an act that carried potential penalties of 35 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Six days later, she was indicted a second time on charges of removing secret files from the Department of Justice, including FBI reports on espionage and counter-espionage activities. Shortly after learning the news of her second indictment, Sam Coplon suffered another stroke that left him incapacitated. Although his name had been soiled and his daughter stood accused of treasonous acts, he had no opportunity to respond or defend her. Thirteen days later, he died from a cerebral hemorrhage.

It was a sad, unfair ending to a life that had brought happiness to so many. Perhaps there’s some solace in the fact that his passing prevented Sam from hearing the lurid details of her two trials, both resulting in convictions punished by sentences of prison time and fines. Both convictions were overturned by an appeals court, and she served no prison time, but the indictments were not dismissed because a judge found the evidence against Judith to be “overwhelming.” And yet despite that assessment, her third trial never happened. The charges remained pending, but after 17 years passed, the government finally declined to prosecute. In 1967, the charges were dropped and her bail was returned.

But it wasn’t a decisive victory by any means. The information leading to her arrest had come from a highly secret program known as Venona — a forerunner of today’s National Security Agency (NSA) — that used wiretaps to monitor the communications of Soviet diplomats. Some of the intercepted messages provided clear proof that Judith Coplon, code name Sima, was a U.S. government employee cooperating with the Soviets. However, one of the issues causing both of her convictions to be reversed was that wiretaps, illegal at the time, were used to help bring charges against her. Another issue was that Venona was a top-secret program, and if FBI agents were required to testify, it could blow their cover and reveal the sensitive surveillance program.

The bulk of Judith’s story as told here was derived from FBI records and Venona documents, many of which were not made public until 1995, nearly 50 years after her arrest. Those records make both fascinating and terrifying reading because they reveal what can happen when a private citizen falls under government suspicion. Every possible detail of that person’s life is monitored whenever possible.

For example, within a few memos, agents shadowing Judith Coplon provided the name of street after street she crossed, and made note of such minutiae as pausing in front of store windows to primp at her reflection. When she left a hotel room temporarily, agents examined every item in the room, detailed the contents of her purse and luggage (even including brand names of cosmetics), and read her diary updates. To speed up the process of snooping, they photographed items and later created a written record.

Worse yet from the perspective of innocent, uninvolved people, they recorded all names, addresses, and phone numbers from her address book and looked into each person’s background. Because she frequently stayed with her parents, who were innocent of any wrongdoing, the FBI maintained court-approved wiretapping of Sam Coplon’s personal telephone at all times and kept the home under surveillance. Such is the fate of private citizens oblivious that one of their friends, relatives, or casual acquaintances might have wronged the government, which casts a wide net of suspicion.

It’s unfortunate that just such a situation caused a sad end-of-life experience for Samuel, who gave so much of himself to make friends and thousands of strangers happy at Christmastime.

Photos from above: Judith Coplon is taken into custody (1949, US government); headlines, Brooklyn Eagle (1949); headlines, Utica Observer-Dispatch; Adirondack Santa Claus headlines from four newspapers—Syracuse Post-Standard, Albany Times Union, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ticonderoga Sentinel; a page of Judith Coplon’s file from the top-secret Venona program (1945)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

6 Responses

  1. Joe Hansen says:

    What a cruel and bizarre twist of fate for Sam and Rebecca.

  2. Beth Rowland says:

    What an amazing and sad story….how do you find this stuff, Larry?!

    • Larry says:

      Well, Beth … I thought my wife, Jill, explained it when she called me a “stable genius,” putting me in company with Mr. Ed. Turns out, that’s not what it meant … and it’s not a compliment!

      • Balian the Cat says:

        Larry – I see what you did there and have to take you to task. The comparison isn’t fair to Mr Ed!

  3. stan says:

    Nothing has changed, has it? Guilt by assumed association. Gov’t panic and over-reach ruining lives.

  4. Harv Sibley says:

    Big brother watching you….not such a new thing after all…

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