Notorious Soviet spy Harry Gold was captured in 1950. For most of America, it just meant another enemy agent was no longer working against the nation. It was soon revealed that this enemy agent was part of a sizable espionage network, and one of his most successful ventures came at the expense of a former Kingsport resident.
Alfred Dean Slack came to work for Holston Ordinance in 1943. He, and his wife Julia, lived at 1100 Midland Drive, in the Winston Terrace area. Neighbors thought the couple was strange, however dismissed their eccentricities as the products of a culture clash.
The couple had an adequate house in a respectable neighborhood. Neighbors found it easiest to recall their odd behavior. The couple rarely had company and rarely visited others. Slack said he was an avid woodworker in his spare time, and neighbors often heard machinery operating in the home. Slack claimed the noise was from his saws and other woodworking equipment. The problem was that no one really saw raw wood go into the home, and no one ever witnessed anything Slack might’ve made.
Julia took an active role in the Kingsport chapter of the Girl Scouts, but remained a mystery. She rarely spoke of her past or revealed personal information. The couple surprised everyone when they abruptly moved in 1944. Slack claimed he’d just landed an important job with Oak Ridge and they had to move immediately. In reality, he’d gained a position with the infamous Manhattan Project.
Slack was born and raised in Syracuse, New York. He was born in August of 1905. He attended Syracuse University and was first employed with Eastman Kodak in Rochester. He was a technician by degree, but always ended up working with chemical companies. Julia, according to Slack, was born and raised in Pennsylvania. Although, he never said where she was born or revealed her maiden name.
He was with Rochester Eastman for many years. Next, he transferred to Holston Ordinance, where he worked for 13 months. He then moved on to Oak Ridge, where he worked on the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project was a super-secretive organization during World War II, responsible for the creation of the atomic bomb.
The years passed and most Kingsport residents forgot about the odd couple. Their memories were jarred in June of 1950. The strange neighbors they once puzzled over had made headlines across the nation.
Authorities discovered Harry Gold’s secrets in 1950. The Philadelphia-based spy passed classified information to Klaus Fuchs, a British scientist who was likewise arrested as a spy. Gold’s reports were also made available to Soviet principal Semen M. Semenov.
It was established that Gold had actually visited Kingsport a number of times to retrieve information from Slack. He was on the register at the old Kingsport Inn. Slack not only gave technical information on the high-powered explosive additive RDX, he gave away samples.
Slack was arrested on charges of espionage and treason, charges that could carry the death sentence. Initially, he behaved as if it were a mistake. He said he knew why the charges were brought, but was confident they would be dropped. He claimed he had never given knowledge of atomic weapons or explosives to the Soviets. He said he never supported Communism and had no affiliation to it. He was so assured of his innocence, he didn’t even request an attorney when he first spoke with the FBI. He was taken to Knoxville and held on a $100,000 bond.
Slack’s history was revealed. Beyond his suspected crimes, the most scandalous part of his life was his first marriage. Slack married Edith Zohe in New York. The couple had two sons, but Slack was unfaithful. Zohe sued him for divorce on the grounds of adultery and won. Slack then married his second wife, Julia. By the time he was apprehended in 1950, he had two sons by her.
Slack first went to work for the Eastman Labs in 1928. He befriended coworker Richard Briggs. The two often talked of world events. Slack eventually admitted his admiration for the Russian economic system, and believed it was superior to America’s. Briggs likewise agreed and started asking Slack minor technical questions about his work. He became known as a “rabid socialist,” but grew wary of the label. He began keeping his political opinions to himself.
The information exchange grew formal in 1936. Briggs began giving Slack money in exchange for more detailed information. He wasn’t paid much, but felt he didn’t reveal much. It was just a minor secondary income.
It wasn’t long before Briggs brought in an associate known only as, “George.” Slack then began sharing secrets with both men. He told the court he believed the exchange was friendly, as the two nations were on friendly terms.
Briggs died in 1939, and was replaced by a man named Harry Gold. Slack still didn’t think anything of his talks with the two men. He knew nothing they spoke of had any relation to weapons.
Everything changed when America went to war. Slack was no longer sharing secrets for the betterment of anyone. He worried the exchanges might be seen as something nefarious. He decided to call the exchange off.
Slack came to Holston Ordinance, and rumors suggest the move was to distance himself from those dubious acquaintances. Unfortunately, Gold followed.
Gold demanded to know about the explosive RDX, which was being manufactured at Holston. “Research Department Formula X,” was a stable additive used to make TNT far more potent than it already was. At the time, authorities claimed it was second only to atomic in power. Both American and German militaries used it during World War II.
Slack refused. Gold asked three times and was refused each time. He then turned on Slack. Gold threatened to turn him in as a Soviet spy. He claimed he would tell the authorities all about his previous efforts to sell American secrets to Russia. Gold taunted him with what might happen when he lost his career, and was blacklisted from every other company he might apply to. Slack conceded and provided both technical details as well as samples.
It was also believed Slack’s sudden move to Oak Ridge was more about fleeing Gold, a second time, than career advancement. The authorities didn’t suspect Slack, or his time at Holston Ordinance, until several years later.
Slack’s trial was held at the Federal Court in Greenville, Tennessee. U.S. Attorney James Meek suggested Slack receive a 10-year sentence for his activities. Meek claimed Slack was a “weakling,” and inadvertently became ensnared in the Soviet atomic espionage network.
He was tried before Judge Robert L. Taylor. Judge Taylor ignored the government’s recommendation. He claimed Slack’s activities were, “shocking,” and sentenced him to 15 years in the Federal penitentiary.
Those who were once neighbors of the Slacks were interviewed into the 1970s. Al Kelly was one such neighbor. He said the FBI interviewed him when Slack was captured. They wanted to know if he had met Harry Gold. Kelly knew nothing of him and barely recalled Slack.
Kelly said Slack, “had that damn saw going all the time.” He said Slack’s nephew came to visit that summer and spent most of it in the tree in his yard.
Those who moved into the Slack household after their abrupt departure said equipment had been hooked up in the home’s third bedroom, not in the garage or cellar. No one knows what equipment that actually was.
Slack filed an appeal in 1952. He claimed his attorneys didn’t even tell him what charges he pled guilty to. They just advised him to do so. He was represented by Johnson City attorneys Ray Jenkins and Kyle King. He was incarcerated in the United States Penitentiary, Atlanta, until 1959. He then requested a transfer to Federal Correctional Institution, Danbury, in Connecticut. The reason for the request was not known.
Julia Slack died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1954. Slack blamed the government and his attorneys for her death. He said she died of heartbreak and stress. By that time, the family had moved from their original house. Julia died in a Buffalo hospital.
Whatever happened to Slack, or his family, remains a mystery. His family moved again shortly after Julia’s death. Slack also disappeared after his release in 1960. Not even the FBI knew what happened to the man who once stole secrets from Holston Ordinance.