On May10, 1924, Hoover was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge to be the sixth director of the Bureau of Investigation.
When Hoover took over the bureau had 650 employees, including 441 Special Agents.
In those days ideas of science and technology to fight crime was still in its infancy and the agency was at the mercy of citizens for information. Often, agents were sent off to remote locales that turned out to be red herrings due to bad information.
As a leader Hoover made incredible changes to the bureau and formed the foundation for what would eventually become
one of the most preeminent investigative agencies in the world. But he was not without his detractors. Hoover was sometimes accused of being short tempered, thin skinned or downright vindictive.
Hoover frequently fired agents; singling out those who he thought "looked like stupid truck drivers" or those he considered "pinheads." Agents who displeased Hoover were often sent on career-ending assignments.
Special Agent Melvin Purvis was one of the most effective agents in capturing and breaking up 1930s gangs and received
substantial public recognition for killing Public Enemies Pretty Boyd Floyd and John Dillinger. Unfortunately, Hoover didn't like the media attention being paid to Purvis and he ruined him.
Hoover used the media to hype Public Enemies of the 1930’s to promote the FBI. Criminals were highlighted – often elevated to almost super criminal status – only to be arrested or killed by Hoover’s men. It made for great press and the media rarely looked past the headline. One such example was in 1933 when George Kelly Barnes, a hapless small time bootlegger who never even fired his gun in anger, found himself labeled “Machine-Gun” Kelly, Public Enemy Number 1. Kelly wound up on the bureaus radar when his wife talked him into kidnapping a wealthy man and his friend. The victims eventually escaped and the chase was on. It culminated 56 days later in Memphis when bureau men kicked in the door of his hotel room. Legend has it Kelly threw up his arms and shouted, “don’t shoot G-men, don’t shoot.”
Official reports paint a different story. Agent's stated Kelly came to the door, dropped his pistol and said, "I’ve been waiting for you all night." In a 1933 newspaper interview with one of the agents at the arrest commented Kathryn Kelly put her arms around George and said, "These G-men will never leave us alone."
Regardless of the truth, the FBI press machine generated the G-Man story to build its own reputation.
By 1935 Hoover had parlayed the Public Enemy success to help transform his agency from the Bureau of Investigation – a reactive agency, into the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an elite squad of crime fighters.
One Public Enemy that did deserve his status was Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, a violent two bit crook with associates to the Barker family. When newspapers reported Hoover referred to Karpis as a filthy rat, Karpis set out to personally embarrass the FBI director by robbing a train of $27,000 – a crime that had not occurred since the days of the old west.
Hoover was humiliated. Eradicated crimes were not supposed to come back. The subsequent press led to congressional
hearings. The personal low-point for Hoover came at an April 1936 US Senate hearing when Tennessee Senator Kenneth D.
McKellar lambasted the director for allowing a train robbery and having never personally arrested anyone.
After the hearing a determined Hoover vowed he would capture Karpis personally.
Hoover didn’t have to wait long. On May 1, 1936, FBI agents located Karpis in New Orleans and Hoover flew in to make the collar. As a dozen agents swarmed Karpis's car, Hoover announced he was under arrest.
There are two versions as to what happened next.
Karpis claims Hoover came out only after all the other agents had him safely surrounded. The FBI reported Hoover reached into the car and grabbed Karpis before he could reach a rifle in the back seat. Karpis countered by stating his car, a Plymouth coupe, did not have a backseat.
One thing both men agreed on was that Hoover when told his men to "put the handcuffs on him" they discovered none of
the agents had cuffs. Karpis had to be restrained with a necktie.
The capture of Creepy Karpis essentially ended the age of the big-name Public Enemies. Most of the other high profile criminals such as Legs Diamond, Mad Dog Coll, Jelly Nash, Dutch Schultz and John Dillinger were all dead. Even Al Capone was in Alcatraz slowly going insane with syphilis.
By 1939 Hoover had expanded the Identification Division to compile the largest collection of fingerprints in the world.
Hoover also helped expand the FBI's recruitment and created a world class crime laboratory.
The end of the 30’s also saw the FBI as the pre-eminent agency in the field of domestic intelligence. Under Hoover the FBI spied upon tens of thousands of suspected subversives and radicals. According to critics however, Hoover tended to exaggerate the dangers of the subversives and many times overstepped his bounds in his pursuit of eliminating that perceived threat.
As the 1940’s opened the FBI was investigating rings of German saboteurs and spies and had primary responsibility for counterespionage. The first arrests of German agents were made in 1938 and continued throughout World War II.
During World War II, German U-boats set two small groups of Nazi agents ashore in Florida and Long Island to cause acts of sabotage within the country. Members of the teams were apprehended after one of the would-be saboteurs contacted
the FBI and confessed. President Harry Truman later wrote in his memoirs: "The country had reason to be proud of and have confidence in our security agencies. They had kept us almost totally free of sabotage and espionage during World War II."
The FBI also participated in the Venona Project, a pre–World War II joint project with the British to eavesdrop on Soviet spies. It was not initially realized that espionage was being committed, but due to multiple wartime Soviet use of one-time pad ciphers, which are normally unbreakable, redundancies were created, enabling some intercepts to be decoded, which established the espionage. Hoover kept the intercepts—America's greatest counterintelligence secret—in a locked safe in his office, choosing not to inform President Truman, Attorney General McGrath, or two Secretaries of State. He eventually informed the Central Intelligence Agency of the project in 1952.
In 1946, US Attorney General Tom Clark authorized Hoover to compile a list of potentially disloyal Americans who might
be detained during a wartime national emergency. In 1950, at the outbreak of the Korean War, Hoover submitted to President Truman a plan to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and detain 12,000 Americans suspected of disloyalty. Truman didn't act on the plan.
In the 1950s, evidence of Hoover's unwillingness to focus FBI resources on the Mafia became fodder for the media and
his detractors. Moves against people who maintained contacts with subversive elements, some of whom were members of the civil rights movement, also led to accusations of trying to undermine their reputations.
Hoover hunted down and threatened anyone who made insinuations about his sexuality. He also spread unsubstantiated rumors that Adlai Stevenson was gay to damage the liberal governor's 1952 presidential campaign. His extensive secret files contained surveillance material on Eleanor Roosevelt's alleged lesbian lovers, speculated to be acquired for the purpose of blackmail.
During WWII Hoover started a file on a young Naval officer sleeping with a woman rumored be a German spy. That officer, Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, later went on to become President of the United States.
By 1956 Hoover was becoming increasingly frustrated bySupreme Court decisions limiting the Justice Department's ability to prosecute people for their political opinions, most notably, Communists. In response he formalized a covert dirty tricks program under the name COINTELPRO. The program remained in place until it was revealed to the public in 1971, and was the cause of some of the harshest criticism of Hoover and the FBI.
COINTELPRO was first used to disrupt the Communist Party and later the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr. and others. Methods included infiltration, burglaries, wiretaps, planting forged documents and spreading false rumors about key members of target organizations.
By this time Hoover had amassed significant power by collecting files containing large amounts of compromising and potentially embarrassing information on many powerful people, especially politicians.
By the 1960’s Hoover was at the height of his power. In 1962 President John F. Kennedy called Hoover on the director’s private line. Hoover quickly hung up. Within minutes President Kennedy received a call from Clyde Tolson, the number two at the FBI and a long time Hoover confidant Tolson told the president, “don’t ever call the director on his private line again. If you wish to speak with him you go through me.”
After the November 1963 assignation of President Kennedy, Hoover personally directed the FBI investigation. Later, the House Select Committee on Assassinations issued a report in 1979 critical of the performance by the FBI, the Warren
Commission as well as other agencies. The report also criticized what it characterized as the FBI's reluctance to thoroughly investigate the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the president.
In 1964, just days before Hoover testified in the earliest stages of the Warren Commission hearings, President Lyndon B. Johnson waived the governments mandatory retirement age of seventy allowing Hoover to remain the FBI Director "for life." President Lyndon Johnson later commented to his confidants here was no way he could ever fire Hoover “he has files on everyone.”
It's rumored Hoover was a racist. Employment data during his reign would seem to back that up. Until the 1960’s there were no African-American agents. By the early 1970’s the number still hovered around 1%.
Another rumor exists that when Hoover learned of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, he exclaimed, “we finally got the son of a bitch.” In reality that phrase was most likely uttered by a field agent in the Atlanta office. Despite his known hatred for Dr. King, it was Hoover’s men in the Identification Bureau who worked tirelessly to make a fingerprint match between the murder weapon and James Earl Ray.
In 1969 President Richard Nixon made the most serious attempt to fire Hoover. After a closed door meeting lasting over an hour the director left with his job still intact. The subject was never brought up again.
Hoover maintained strong support in Congress until his death at his Washington, D.C. home on May 2, 1972. The cause
was a heart attack attributed to cardio-vascular disease. His body lay in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where Chief Justice Warren Burger eulogized him. There are rumors that immediately upon the news of Hoover’s death his private secretary rushed to FBI headquarters and began shredding files in a locked room.
Hoover was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. next to the graves of his parents and a sister who died in infancy.
Operational command of the bureau passed to Associate Director Clyde Tolson. On May 3, 1972, President Nixon appointed L. Patrick Gray, a Justice Department official with no FBI experience, as Acting Director, with W. Mark Felt remaining as Associate Director. Felt would later be revealed to be “Deep Throat”, an insider who fed politically damaging information to the Washington Times. The information later played a part in forcing the resignation of President Nixon.
In 1975, the activities of COINTELPRO were investigated by the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Called the Church Committee after its chairman, Senator Frank Church, many of these activities were declared illegal and contrary to the Constitution.
Hoover’s most lasting legacy is the FBI Headquarters in Washington DC is named after him. But, because of his controversial nature, there have been periodic proposals to rename it. In 2001, Senator Harry Reid sponsored an amendment to strip Hoover's name from the building. "J. Edgar Hoover's name on the FBI building is a stain on the building", Reid said. The Senate never adopted the amendment.
JOHN EDGAR HOOVER
His name was once synonymous with law enforcement and, at
one time, he may have held more power than the president of
the United States. The man was J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI. His 48 years as director set a tenure
record for top law enforcement executives that may never be
John Edgar Hoover was born on New Year's Day 1895 in
Washington, D.C. The nephew of the Swiss consul general, he
obtained a law degree from George Washington University in
1917. While a law student, Hoover became interested in the career of U.S. Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock who waged
prolonged campaigns against fraud and vice, including pornography and information on birth control, a generation earlier.
As a young man Hoover applied for credit in a Washington DC
hardware store. He was denied. Another man by the name of
John Hoover had stiffed the store on a purchase. Never
wanting to be associated with a scofflaw, Hoover immediately
changed his name to J. Edgar and carried it the rest of his life.
During World War I, Hoover began working in the Justice
Department and was soon promoted to head the Enemy Aliens
By 1919 he ran the new General Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Investigation.