Elevate Difference

The Curious Case of the Communist Jell-O Box: The Execution of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg

What could possibly be the connection between imitation raspberry Jell-O, communism, and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg? I was intrigued. After all, what self-respecting leftist would not be interested in the case of the Rosenbergs, who at the height of the Red Scare were convicted of smuggling secrets to the Russians? The Curious Case of the Communist Jell-O Box (CCCJB) is a political zine by Michael Hoerger and Mia Partlow, which folds out into a full-sized poster, but for maximum enjoyment you have to read it as you unfold. In other words, the story unfolds as you do.

The authors use the theme of the Jell-O box to great effect. This seemingly innocuous product and its unlikely association with communism initially lighten the darker themes of espionage and subsequent execution. The ubiquitous gelatin dessert box then takes on a more sinister significance when presented at trial as a sophisticated communications device. Yet this evidence, which was central to the prosecution’s case, was never recovered, and unsurprisingly when shown a replica under cross-examination and asked whether they recognized the box, the witnesses all answered “yes.”

In CCCJB, Hoerger and Partlow write that the show trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were used to fuel public paranoia about communists and lefties in order to give the FBI and its leader, J. Edgar Hoover, greater powers to infiltrate and use extralegal means to quell any real or apparent leftist threat. If you read closely, you’ll see that the writers do raise the possibility of our late-defendants’ guilt, but it seems there’s a larger message in this zine—the unnecessary demonizing of the left or anyone who dares to raise the virtues of truth and justice.

Your inner geek will be tickled pink with reproductions of the now-declassified transcripts from the 1950 Grand Jury trial and a declassified CIA memo that supplies background material on how to counter pro-Rosenberg propaganda. The collage of period newspaper clippings and sensational headlines from both sides of the political spectrum with their scratchy and at times illegible letters give the zine a genuine 1950s look and feel.

CCCJB left me wanting to find out more about the Rosenbergs and the two children they left behind, and a link to further reading about the case would have been appreciated. But overall this was a well-planned undertaking and a lot of entertainment for just two bucks. I checked out the authors’ website, and they have other food-related political zines with their own declassified documents… excellent… excellent!

Written by: Heather Leighton, December 21st 2010

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