Born of anarchist bombers and gangsters, the early FBI was a crack team of ‘Commie hunters’ and counter-spies bending the law to protect the USA

It was late-summer of 1901 and the eyes of the world were on Buffalo, NY, the eighth-largest city in the United States at the time. Buffalo was hosting the Pan-American Exposition, where electric light was still a novelty and the first X-ray machine was on display. On 5 September, US President William McKinley toured the exposition and gave a speech on the glories of progress and human genius. It was the last speech he’d ever give.

On 6 September, while standing in a receiving line outside the Temple of Music, McKinley was approached by an unemployed factory worker named Leon Czolgosz, an American-born anarchist inspired by the writings of Emma Goldman.

Hidden beneath Czolgosz’s white handkerchief was a .32 Iver Johnson revolver. Czolgosz shot McKinley twice in the abdomen at point-blank range. Ironically, the doctors on the scene chose not to use the X-ray machine to locate the bullets, as they were worried about the effects of radiation.

Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency under a cloud of homegrown terror. Czolgosz was a lone gunman, but he was not alone in his beliefs. Pockets of anarchists worldwide were spreading their ideology of equality through the destruction of all forms of power. McKinley was one of many late-19th-century political leaders — including the president of France and prime minister of Spain -who were assassinated by anarchists.

Roosevelt was intent on rooting out political extremists on American soil, but he was hamstrung by the legal landscape of the early-20 th century. When Roosevelt took office, the federal government was not in the criminal investigation business. Why? Because there were almost no federal laws that gave it jurisdiction over criminal activities. All criminal investigations were handled by local and state police forces. Not all of these squads were created equal either. Many policemen were poorly trained and underpaid, and a good number of the police chiefs were political appointees with no investigative experience.

This method of fighting crime worked fine in largely rural 19th-century America, but it wasn’t remotely equipped for the realities of the new century. Rapid industrialisation led to rapid urbanisation. America’s expanding cities — 100 with populations over 50,000 by 1908 — were not only absorbing the rural poor but also waves of European immigrants. Italian, Polish, Irish and German arrivals settled in unsanitary, overcrowded tenements — conditions ripe for organised crime, prostitution and political upheaval.

Before Roosevelt, the United States was just that — a union of largely independent, self-governing states. But industrialisation, urbanisation and technological innovation — the railroads, the telephone, electricity and the car, etc — had combined to erase the old borders and call into question the old ways of keeping law and order.

Roosevelt was a former New York City police commissioner and outspoken progressive. The progressives believed that the federal government played a critical role in reforming broken institutions, upholding the rule of law and creating a more just society. In 1902, Roosevelt used the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 to bust the ‘trust’ (read: monopoly) of the most powerful industrialist in America at the time, JP Morgan.

Roosevelt championed the conservation of public lands under national parks for the use and enjoyment of the people. And he wanted the federal government to play a stronger role in the protection of the American people from threats like the anarchists, organised crime and corruption.

In 1906, Roosevelt appointed Charles Joseph Bonaparte, another prominent progressive and civic reformer, to be his attorney general in charge of the Department of Justice (DOJ). But Bonaparte was like a cop without a gun. He had no staff investigators of his own, so he rented them case-by-case from the Secret Service and even hired private detectives. When US lawmakers caught wind of this expensive habit, Congress passed a law forbidding Bonaparte from renting agents.

The law was a blessing in disguise. With Roosevelt’s approval, Bonaparte quietly recruited nine Secret Service members to join a new corps of federal investigators reporting directly to Bonaparte’s chief examiner, Stanley Finch. In a one-page memo dated 26 July 1908, Bonaparte proposed the creation of a ‘regular force of special agents’ to aid Department of Justice investigations. The earliest seeds of the FBI were sown.

Bonaparte’s under-the-radar investigators didn’t have a name yet, but their ranks rose to 34 before the attorney general stepped down with Roosevelt in 1909. It was Bonaparte’s successor, Attorney General George Wickersham, who officially christened the Department of Justice’s agents the Bureau of Investigation on 16 March 1909.

The nascent Bureau of Investigation might have had a name, but it still had no teeth. There were few federal laws that gave it jurisdiction to act in criminal cases. That changed with the passing of the Mann Act in 1910. Known as the White Slavery Traffic Act, the law forbade the interstate transportation of females for ‘immoral purposes’.

Progressive reformers, railing against prostitution in America’s cities, declared a crisis of white slavery, in which unwitting young white women were being tricked by nefarious foreigners into lives of prostitution. Pulp journalists were happy to supply the lurid — if not entirely accurate — details, and the issue made it all the way to the US Congress.

The Bureau of Investigation was given the lead in all Mann Act cases and earned a dubious reputation enforcing a dubious law. The black prizefighter Jack Johnson was trailed by federal agents for years and eventually convicted of transporting prostitutes across state lines. The Bureau followed him to Europe and Mexico before the beleaguered champ turned himself in to authorities.

Later, the Bureau would redeem itself by using its Mann Act powers for good. In the 1920s, the white supremacist organisation the Ku Klux Klan made a resurgence in the American South. Leading the KKK recruitment efforts was Edward Young Clarke, an advertising executive from Louisiana who served as the terrorist organisation’s ‘Imperial Kleagle’. The KKK became so powerful in Louisiana — through lynchings, kidnappings and extortion -that the state’s governor begged the Bureau to take action. Without the jurisdiction to investigate Clarke on murder charges, the Bureau jailed the Imperial Kleagle for driving his mistress across state lines.

Back in 1916, the US claimed neutrality in the conflict roiling in Europe. But German spies knew otherwise. Early on a Sunday morning in July, a massive explosion ripped through lower Manhattan and Jersey, shattering windows for dozens of blocks and killing four people. German agents had ignited 2 million tons of American munitions stowed in a railyard for secret transport to the British.

Incensed by Germany’s provocations, the US finally declared war in 1917 and Congress quickly passed three new laws that greatly expanded the wartime powers of the young Bureau of Investigation: the Selective Service Act, the Espionage Act and the Sabotage Act.

When President Woodrow Wilson signed the Selective Service Act, he created the first mandatory conscription, or draft, in America.

The Bureau was charged with pursuing draft dodgers and identifying ‘enemy aliens’ — suspicious German citizens living on American soil. With the Espionage Act, the Bureau’s agents entered the counter-spy game. In a famous case, the New York office of the Bureau received word that the German Embassy had stashed top-secret documents in the Swiss Consulate to avoid capture by the US military. Rather than raid the Swiss offices in broad daylight, the local Bureau chief, Charles DeWoody, staged a covert series of night-time break-ins.

When Bureau agents located the cache of documents, they were sealed in boxes with colour-coded tape, ropes and wax seals. Each night, the agents would peel back the tape on a single box, carefully remove the ropes and seals, swipe a few of the most interesting documents, then meticulously return the boxes to their original condition. After months of covert work, they delivered thousands of pages of classified German documents to the Justice Department, where translators uncovered critical intelligence like clues to Germany’s coded spy transmissions and its complicated system for transporting war materials under neutral flags.

When the war ended in Europe, a new battle began on American soil. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia spawned a legion of communist and anarchist sympathisers in the United States. In April 1919, a gang of Italian anarchists attempted to mail at least 36 packages stuffed with dynamite to some of America’s most prominent politicians and judges. One package blew off the hands of an unfortunate housekeeper who answered the door for US Senator Thomas Hardwick. Luckily, most of the dynamite-laden packages were never delivered due to ‘insufficient postage’.

June 1919 brought more explosions in eight American cities, including a failed suicide bombing in front of the attorney general’s home in Washington DC (the blast blew out the windows across the street at the residence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was then assistant secretary of the US Navy, and his wife, Eleanor). The Department of Justice suspected that Moscow was funding anarchist terrorists in America, and determined to put its best men on the task of rooting out ‘Reds’ and other radical elements. A young J Edgar Hoover, the man whose 48-year career as director of the FBI would define the institution for generations, was named the chief of the Justice Department’s newly minted Radical Division.

Hoover proved more than up to the task. Assembling a crack team of Bureau agents and undercover informers, Hoover quickly gathered secret files on more than 60,000 individuals suspected of communist and anarchist sympathies. Using the powers granted to the federal government by the broad Immigration Act of 1918, Hoover and congressional supporters won the deportation of Emma Goldman, the public face of American anarchy, whose writings had inspired the young assassin Leon Czolgosz. The Bureau also orchestrated raids on the American Socialist Party and the Union of Russian Workers. In December 1919, Goldman and a boatload of other convicted radicals were shipped to Russia on an ocean liner nicknamed the Red Ark by the press.

Hoover’s boss in the Justice Department, and his closest collaborator in extinguishing the Red menace, was Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer. Palmer, who had his sights set on the White House, was the same attorney general whose home was almost destroyed by an anarchist suicide bomber. Empowered by broad immigration law and emboldened by Palmer, Hoover orchestrated a co-ordinated series of raids in the week after New Year’s Day 1920. In just two nights, Bureau agents arrested more than 2,500 suspected communists. Over the next week, thousands of legal aliens were swept up in the so-called ‘Palmer Raids’.

Hoover and Palmer truly believed they were protecting America from a revolutionary menace in its own backyard. Palmer openly warned of massive terrorist acts corresponding with May Day 1920. But as 1 May came and went without incident, and reports of false arrests during the Palmer Raids began to surface, Palmer and Hoover were called to task by Congress. Palmer’s political aspirations were quickly snuffed and the young Bureau learned a lesson about sacrificing civil liberties for security.

The 1920s brought increasing criticism and public distrust of the Bureau of Investigation. The Bureau’s agents were charged with enforcing Prohibition, a wildly unpopular law in many circles. Then there were concerns that the Bureau was nothing more than America’s ‘secret police’ intent on suppressing political dissent more than upholding the law. The Bureau further sullied its reputation by spying on congressmen who had exposed the Teapot Dome Scandal — an ugly example of government corruption leading all the way up to the presidency. In 1924, during the aftermath of the scandal, the attorney general lost his job, as did the head of the Bureau. His replacement? None other than the 29-year-old J Edgar Hoover.

True to his name, Hoover set out to clean the Bureau ranks of incompetents and political hacks. Hoover believed in bureaucracy and meritocracy. He imposed rigorous standards for all new agents — only men between the ages of 25 and 35 need apply — submitting aspiring ‘G-men’ (government men) to a series of interviews, plus psychological and physical tests. In 1928, he launched the first formal training programme for special agents, which included a two-month intensive course. In his first five years as director, the ranks of active special agents thinned from 441 to 339 as Hoover built his ideal investigative force.

From the start, Hoover wanted to employ the latest scientific techniques in Bureau investigations. The first big step came with the consolidation of the nation’s fingerprinting records under the Bureau’s new Identification Division (Ident).

The new division assumed responsibility for matching fingerprints from every crime scene in America with the centralised archive. In 1936, Ident managed more than 100,000 fingerprint cards on file. By 1946, Ident grew so large — its archives containing more than 100 million sets of fingerprints — that it was moved to a federal armoury the size of an aircraft hangar.

Hoover was also instrumental in creating the FBI Lab in 1932 — one of the first forensic crime labs in the country. For its first year or so, the FBI Lab was staffed by one man: Special Agent Charles Appel, an expert in handwriting analysis. Under Hoover’s direction, Appel received more training from the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in Chicago in the latest forensic techniques like serology (study ol blood and other bodily fluids), toxicology, moulage (for taking plaster cast impressions), metallography and typewriter analysis. Appel’s handwriting comparisons helped to convict Bruno Richard Hauptmann of the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby, a major murder case of the 1930s.

With Hoover at the helm, the Bureau transformed from a loose band of federal lawkeepers into a highly trained, highly secretive army of well-educated, well-armed G-men. In the 1930s, the Bureau would chase down — and gun down — notorious gangsters like John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde, and also earn itself a new name: the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Today, 105 years after its controversial founding, the FBI is the top law enforcement agency in America, and the most technologically advanced investigative unit in the world.


Theodore Roosevelt

Born: 27 October 1858 Died: 6 January 1919 After the shocking assassination of McKinley in 1901, 43-year-old Teddy Roosevelt became the youngest president in American history. Roosevelt was a beloved Spanish-American War hero and New York City police commissioner. He brought a new vibrancy to the American presidency — a progressive reformist spirit that greatly broadened executive power. Roosevelt was instrumental in the creation of a federal investigative force to identify and confound anarchists and other homegrown terrorists.

Charles Bonaparte

Born: 9 June 1851 Died: 28 June 1921 The grandnephew of Napoleon, Charles Bonaparte was Roosevelt’s equal in family wealth and progressive fervour. President Roosevelt first appointed Bonaparte as his secretary of navy and then as attorney general. In 1908, following Roosevelt’s orders, Bonaparte asked Congress for money to start a ‘small, carefully selected and experienced force’ to serve the Department of Justice. When Congress refused — citing fears of forming a secret police — Bonaparte hired nine agents on the sly — the first recruits of the FBI.

J Edgar Hoover

Born: 1 January 1895 Died: 2 May 1972 Hired at 22 years old by the Bureau of Investigation, John Edgar Hoover would go on to become the first director of the new Federal Bureau of Investigation — a post he would hold for an astonishing 48 years. Lauded for his professionalisation of the force, Hoover was also a controversial figure, amassing detailed secret files on suspected leftists, communists, celebrities and politicians who disagreed with his world view.


John Dillinger

Born: 22 June 1903 Died: 22 July 1934 Dillinger and his associates robbed dozens of banks across the American Midwest in 1933 and 1934, escaping twice from prison and famously posing as a salesman of bank security systems to ‘test’ his product on the bank’s safe. The Bureau failed to catch Dillinger in the disastrous raid on Little Bohemia, Wisconsin, but famously gunned down the gangster as he exited the Biograph movie theatre in Chicago.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow

Born: Parker: 1 October 1910/Barrow: 24 March 1909

Died: 23 May 1934 Bonnie and Clyde captivated the American public and eluded Texas law enforcement for more than a year as they robbed, murdered and fell in love on the front pages of every newspaper in America. Without the jurisdiction to investigate murder charges, the Bureau trailed the duo for driving a stolen car across state lines. FBI agents tracked the couple to rural Louisiana, where state police officers shot them dead on sight.

Aldrich Ames

Born: 26 May 1941 Died: N/A

A veteran CIA agent, Ames was an expert on the KGB, the Soviet foreign intelligence service. In 1985, he secretly offered his services to the USSR Embassy in Washington DC. Over the next few years, Ames would disclose the names of KGB agents on the CIA payroll, many of whom were executed by the Russians. Ames was paid millions for his betrayal, but his wealth is what triggered the FBI’s suspicions. Ames was convicted after a ten-month FBI investigation and sentenced to life without parole.

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