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J Edgar Hoover & the G-men

While the Lindbergh Law assigned jurisdiction over kidnapping to the United States Bureau of Investigation (BOI) within the Department of Justice, that authority applied only if the kidnap victim was transported across a state or international border. Unfortunately, the law as originally written failed to provide a practical trigger for BOI intervention in a case. In the absence of some clue dropped by the kidnappers, or the violation of some other federal statute by the suspects, such as the Dyer Act (1919) forbidding interstate transportation of stolen vehicles, the BOI lacked the authority to investigate. In the face of public demand for action, the legal barrier proved no bar to the Bureau’s ambitious and aggressive chief, John Edgar Hoover

Intelligent, well educated, and an efficient organizer of men and resources, Director Hoover was also an unsurpassed bureaucratic politician, with a limitless capacity for work and a boundless interest in filing for future use the secrets of anyone who might prove useful or damaging to him or to the agency he led. Applying all these traits, and his instincts as natural born “hunter of men,” it had taken him just seven years to rise from law clerk in the Justice Department to head of a scandal-ridden bureau in 1924 at the age of 29. [1]

Hoover wasted no time in reshaping the bureau to fit his vision of a thoroughly professional and ostensibly incorruptible federal investigative agency. His administrative and hiring reforms, his reliance on scientific investigation, and other initiatives addressed an array of compatible goals, among them (1) enhancing dramatically the bureau’s ability to solve federal crimes within its jurisdiction, (2) securing support among the public and public office holders for its growth in responsibilities, budget, and reputation, and (3) ensuring his own indispensability to the nation, particularly the President, no matter his political party.

Hoover placed great reliance on science to catch criminals. The BOI’s collection of fingerprint records grew from 800,000 cards in 1924 to more than four million records ten years later.  By 1934, over 7,200 participating local enforcement officials and agencies contributed 2,500 files every day. In addition, in late 1932 Hoover began to phase out the ad hoc contracting of crime lab services by creating the BOI’s own Technical Laboratory. This unit studied “problems of ballistics, microphotography, and forensic chemistry and the examination of questioned documents involving analysis of handwriting, erasures and paper textures.” Any evidence uncovered by agents in the field and requiring expert examination was forwarded to the technical laboratory. If the trial of a suspect turned upon expert opinion regarding forensic evidence, a U.S. Attorney might opt to have outside forensic experts weigh in. Any conflicting opinion might sink the government’s case, no matter how convinced Hoover was that his agents had caught their man.[2]

Hoover made great efforts to build cooperation between the bureau and state and local law enforcement agencies and officials, albeit on his terms. Perhaps the most obvious carrot offered was access to the DOI’s fingerprint files. The local agencies that contributed fingerprints received access to the bureau’s monthly bulletin including lists of names, aliases, descriptions, and other information on wanted fugitives.[3] In speeches around the country, to police chiefs, identification experts, and bar associations, Hoover urged local sheriffs, police chiefs, and prosecuting attorneys to cooperate with the Bureau in fighting a crime wave he compared to a “prairie fire” sweeping the nation.[4]

Out in the field, cooperation was easier said than done. In order to secure and maximize cooperation, Bureau agents might remain in the background, at least at first, hiding their involvement from the criminals they hoped to trap. By staying in the shadows, they allowed local lawmen to take the limelight, thus decreasing resentments and increasing amiable cooperation. But secretiveness also enabled any jealous local authorities to more easily ignore their publicly invisible partners. The June Robles kidnapping (1934) offers a case example of the difficulty in establishing and maintaining a true partnership among the multitude of law enforcement bodies supposedly seeking shared goals, in this case the girl’s safe return and the meting out of justice to her captors.

The mass media offered another challenge to the fulfillment of the Bureau’s mission. In the spring of 1934, the public’s fascination with its “Public Enemies,” especially bandits, was at its height. Lurid headlines sold newspapers, whatever the facts. Hollywood films glorifying celebrity criminals sold tickets. They turned bloody exploits into adventure and lives of champagne, room service, and sexy molls into romance. Hoover’s special agents had not yet emerged as popular heroes. [5] In the absence of a well-oiled public relations office, the BOI was sometimes behind the curve, responding to and seeking to counter unfavorable or fiction-laden newspaper headlines rather than generating favorable press. Even more damaging could be the press’s release of any closely guarded information indicating the law was closing in on their suspects. Such leaks might prompt kidnappers to kill their captive and flee. Initially taken unawares when the June Robles kidnapping story broke with a special edition of Tucson’s newspaper, Hoover got a handle on coverage by personally making himself available to wire service and other reporters with large audiences. Feeling the heat from their boss when newspapers carried negative, misleading or sensitive stories, the Special Agents in Charge did their best to guide the press back to controlled accounts casting the government men as doing their job, investigating all leads, with success an inevitable conclusion. If the special agents were not yet demi-gods and idols, kidnappers were certainly cast as the worst of villains, the most vile public enemies. Marked down in the press as “baby snatchers,” even if a child well past toddler stage, the kidnappers could expect little, if any, practical help from citizens, and that, if any, only from their very closest associates.

[1] Books about J. Edgar Hoover and his controversial half-century leadership of the FBI fill shelves, and range from hagiographic to damning. Perhaps the most sympathetic biography is Hoover’s FBI: The Inside Story by Hoover’s Trusted Lieutenant (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1995), by Cartha D. “Deke” DeLoach a senior official during the last decades of the Hoover era. DeLoach successfully, I believe, lays to rest the unsubstantiated claims that Hoover was a cross-dressing homosexual but is less successful in dealing with Hoover’s secret files. Richard Gird Powers, Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover (New York: The Free Press, 1987), and The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition (Bantam paperback, NY, 1990) expose Hoover’s extreme interest in secret information on politicians and celebrities. Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (WW. Norton & Co., NY, 1991; paperback edition 2001) is decidedly unfriendly to the Director. As Publisher’s Weekly put it, “It is hard to imagine another portrait of Hoover that could surpass this one for detail, depth and sheer vitriol.” For Hoover’s particular set of talents and his leadership of the Bureau during the “Public Enemies” era, I have also relied upon Bryan Burrough, Public Enemies (Penguin, NY, 2004; p bed 2009), and Claire Bond Potter, War on Crime: Bandits, G-Men, and the Politics of Mass Culture, Rutgers Univ. Press, NJ, 1998). The phrase “hunter of men” is from Gentry, 69.

[2] John Edgar Hoover, “The Work of the Division of Investigation, United States Department of Justice,” Tenn. L. Rev., XII:3, April 1935, 149-157.

[3] John Edgar Hoover, “The Work of the Division of Investigation, United States Department of Justice,” Tenn. L. Rev., XII:3, April 1935, 149-157.

[4] John Edgar Hoover, “Local Law Enforcement in Relation to National Crime, Address of J. Edgar Hoover… before the Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association of Oklahoma, at Tulsa, Oklahoma, January 13, 1936.”

[5] Warner’s Brothers’ corrective film, “G Men,” starring tough guy James Cagney as an incorruptible federal agent, was a year away from release. “Junior G-Men” had not yet been invented. Hoover personally responded to reporters’ calls about the Kansas City Massacre. See Burrough, Public Enemies, 58; Potter, War on Crime, 136.