Letters From the Batman
During his long tenure with the New York City Police Department James Richard “Jim” Gordon (1912-1990) was sometimes linked with the masked vigilante or vigilantes known as the Batman. In his posthumously-published 1992 memoir Dark Knight, Blue Knight Gordon revealed that he had, in fact established close ties with the Batman, even forming a secret organization within the NYPD called the Secret Star for the purpose of making use of intelligence supplied by the Batman and protecting the vigilante from police attention. In the following excerpt, Gordon describes how he and the second Batman secretly communicated with each other.
By the mid-1960s I had become a high-ranking NYPD officer and a very public figure. Naturally my becoming Commissioner of Police in 1970 only increased my profile. During my junior years I could meet the Batman in shadowy alleys now and then without much chance of discovery, as long as we were discreet about it. Now that was hardly possible. He could not come to me without serious risk of discovery. I could not get away by myself to go looking for him without exciting suspicion. Because of this, you could count the number of face-to-face meetings with had in the 1960s and 1970s on the fingers of one hand.
Instead the other members of the Secret Star and I kept in touch with the Batman through the use of what could only be called cloak-and-dagger methods. Usually this meant employing what is known in the espionage trade as a “dead drop.” The Batman supplied us with a set of dead drop spikes. These were hollow metal spikes, about an inch to an inch and three quarters in diameter, and seven to nine inches long. They had threaded, knurled caps with watertight seals. They were easy to pound into the ground and pull back up. If you didn’t know where to look, they were almost impossible to spot. Spies and their handlers have long used these devices to exchange documents, film, money, and the like.
It worked like this: the Batman, or somebody working for him, would plant one of these overnight at a location in the city that had soil and grass suitable for concealment. Usually it would be near a tree or park bench in an out of the way corner of Central Park. Early the next morning, before too many people were out and about, one of our Secret Star operatives would go to retrieve it. In the evenings, again when there weren’t likely to be too many people around, we would conceal spikes containing our correspondence for the Batman to find. We never used the same location more than a few times in a row, to avoid establishing a pattern that somebody might notice.
During the early years I personally retrieved and planted them on a number of occasions. It was a nervous business. Sometimes I had to wait until some passerby had gotten out of sight before making my move—it seemed as if everybody in town wanted to wander by just as I needed a little privacy. Sometimes I had a bit of trouble finding the spike and went through agonies of wondering whether it had been retrieved by somebody else, or whether I had the right place. Then when I found it there was the ordeal of trying to pull it up out of the ground and get it stashed in my briefcase or rolled-up newspaper before the next wanderer chanced by and saw me. With practice it took only a few seconds to pull up or set down a spike. Those were nonetheless the longest seconds in my life. I was not displeased when, as Commissioner, I had an excuse to get completely out of spike retrieval duty.
Messages were always typewritten, to avoid incriminating handwriting. We never used our own office typewriters. They could have been traced. We did actually try to trace the Batman’s typewriter. The expert we consulted determined that it must be a European make that was not sold in the United States. Apparently our caped correspondent had gone to the trouble of personally importing an obscure foreign typewriter for just that purpose! For all practical purposes there was no prospect of our tracing the machine without deploying more resources than we had at our disposal for the effort. He was nothing if not a clever one!
About a year or so into our correspondence, we received a message telling us to dig in a very specific location in Staten Island. We recovered a box containing a Jefferson disk cipher device, with instructions on how to use it. The Batman had determined that we should begin encrypting portions of our messages, in case any were intercepted. This particular cipher device consisted of a set of disks with letters of the alphabet. Without going into too much detail, the idea was to arrange them on an axle in a predetermined order to encrypt and decrypt the text. Modern methods of cryptanalysis could break the Jefferson disk cipher, but ordinary criminals and corrupt cops were unlikely to have the necessary sophistication. Whether all the additional effort paid off I don’t know. We did lose one spike containing a message over the years. We never had any evidence that anybody had succeeded in reading it.
We didn’t only get text messages. Now and then we’d receive a film cartridge from a Minox miniature camera. These commercially available, high-quality cameras were standard equipment in the spy world. The Batman’s images always showed either interesting meetings between underworld figures and cops, businessmen, or politicians they had subverted, or shots of incriminating documents. Due to the source, we couldn’t use any of this evidence in court. But it did give us a good idea of where to direct our own investigations and intelligence-gathering efforts in hopes of finding evidence we could use, of which more in subsequent chapters.
On several occasions we received directions to buried caches similar to the one that contained the Jefferson disk device. These held either reels of reel-to-reel audio tape, or long rolls of still camera film. The audio tape made us privy to some rather interesting conversations over the years. The still camera film appeared to have been taken with a type of concealable automatic surveillance camera that could be set to take shots at intervals. How the Batman and company managed to get some of this footage, let alone where he got the specialized audio and camera equipment needed to obtain it, is beyond me. Again, the significance of this inadmissible evidence lay in the way it helped us to direct our efforts. If the Batman could find evidence establishing certain links, then we figured we could find our own way of doing so. We made good use of the guidance he supplied in this way.
My favorite message was one we received in 1970, right after the press announced that I had become Commissioner of Police. It consisted of a single, well-encrypted line that read:
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, who when he found an especially valuable one, sold all he had to buy it.