History of the FBI

President Woodrow Wilson, 1913

President Woodrow Wilson, 1913

With the April 1917 entry of the United States into World War I during Woodrow Wilson’s administration, the Bureau’s work was increased again. As a result of the war, the Bureau acquired responsibility for the Espionage, Selective Service, and Sabotage Acts, and assisted the Department of Labor by investigating enemy aliens. During these years Special Agents with general investigative experience and facility in certain languages augmented the Bureau.

William J. Flynn, former head of the Secret Service, became Director of the Bureau of Investigation in July 1919 and was the first to use that title. In October 1919, the passage of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act gave the Bureau of Investigation another tool by which to prosecute criminals who previously evaded the law by crossing state lines. With the return of the country to “normalcy” under President Warren G. Harding in 1921, the Bureau of Investigation returned to its pre-war role of fighting the few federal crimes.

Al Capone

Al Capone

The years from 1921 to 1933 were sometimes called the “lawless years” because of the many gangsters and the public disregard for Prohibition, which made it illegal to sell or import intoxicating beverages. Prohibition created a new federal medium for fighting crime, but the Department of the Treasury, not the Department of Justice, had jurisdiction for these violations.

Attacking crimes that were federal in scope but local in jurisdiction called for creative solutions. The Bureau of Investigation had limited success using its narrow jurisdiction to investigate some of the criminals of “the gangster era.” For example, it investigated Al Capone as a “fugitive federal witness.”

A federal investigation of a resurgent white supremacy movement also required creativity. The Ku Klux Klan, dormant since the late 1800s, was revived in part to counteract the economic gains made by African Americans during World War I. The Bureau of Investigation used the Mann Act to bring Louisiana’s philandering Ku Klux Klan “Imperial Kleagle” to justice.

Ku Klux Klan

Ku Klux Klan

Through these investigations and other more traditional investigations of neutrality violations and antitrust violations, the Bureau of Investigation gained stature. Although the Harding Administration suffered from unqualified and sometimes corrupt officials, the Progressive Era reform tradition continued among the professional Department of Justice Special Agents. The new Bureau of Investigation Director, William J. Burns, who had previously run his own detective agency, appointed 26-year-old J. Edgar Hoover as Assistant Director. Hoover, a graduate of George Washington University Law School, had worked for the Department of Justice since 1917, where he headed the enemy alien operations during World War I and assisted in the General Intelligence Division under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, investigating suspected anarchists and communists.

After President Harding died in 1923, his successor, Calvin Coolidge, appointed replacements for Harding’s cronies in the Cabinet. For the new Attorney General, Coolidge appointed attorney Harlan Fiske Stone who, on May 10, 1924, selected Hoover to head the Bureau of Investigation. By inclination and training, Hoover embodied the Progressive tradition. His appointment ensured that the Bureau of Investigation would keep that tradition alive.

J. Edgar Hoover, 1924

J. Edgar Hoover, 1924

When J. Edgar Hoover took over, the Bureau of Investigation had approximately 650 employees, including 441 Special Agents who worked in field offices in nine cities. By the end of the decade, there were approximately 30 field offices, with Divisional headquarters in New York, Baltimore, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Chicago, Kansas City, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Portland.

He immediately fired those Agents he considered unqualified and proceeded to professionalize the organization. For example, Hoover abolished the seniority rule of promotion and introduced uniform performance appraisals. He also scheduled regular inspections of the operations in all field offices. Then, in January 1928, Hoover established a formal training course for new Agents, including the requirement that New Agents had to be in the 25-35 year range to apply. He also returned to the earlier preference for Special Agents with law or accounting experience.

The new Director was also keenly aware that the Bureau of Investigation could not fight crime without public support. In remarks prepared for the Attorney General in 1925, he wrote, “The Agents of the Bureau of Investigation have been impressed with the fact that the real problem of law enforcement is in trying to obtain the cooperation and sympathy of the public and that they cannot hope to get such cooperation until they themselves merit the respect of the public.” Also in 1925, Agent Edwin C. Shanahan became the first Agent to be killed in the line of duty when he was murdered by a car thief named Martin J. Durkin.

J. Edgar Hoover, at left, with staff by Harris & Ewing, 1926.

J. Edgar Hoover, at left, with staff by Harris & Ewing, 1926.

In the early days of Hoover’s directorship, a long-held goal of American law enforcement was achieved: the establishment of an Identification Division. Tracking criminals by means of identification records had been considered a crucial tool of law enforcement since the 19th century, and matching fingerprints was considered the most accurate method. By 1922, many large cities had started their own fingerprint collections.

In keeping with the Progressive Era tradition of federal assistance to localities, the Department of Justice created a Bureau of Criminal Identification in 1905 in order to provide a centralized reference collection of fingerprint cards. In 1907, the collection was moved, as a money-saving measure, to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where it was staffed by convicts. Understandably suspicious of this arrangement, police departments formed their own centralized identification bureau maintained by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. It refused to share its data with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. In 1924, Congress was persuaded to merge the two collections in Washington, D.C., under Bureau of Investigation administration. As a result, law enforcement agencies across the country began contributing fingerprint cards to the Bureau of Investigation by 1926.

By the end of the decade, Special Agent training was institutionalized, the field office inspection system was solidly in place, and the National Division of Identification and Information was collecting and compiling uniform crime statistics for the entire United States. In addition, studies were underway that would lead to the creation of the Technical Laboratory and Uniform Crime Reports. The Bureau was equipped to end the “lawless years.”  It was in 1935 that the organization added the word Federal to its name, and became the “FBI.”

Scene in front of the Kansas City Union Station just moments after the  Kansas City Massacre,

The scene in front of Kansas City Union Station just moments after the  Kansas City Massacre,

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March 2019.

Also See:

20th Century

FBI and the American Gangster

Gangsters, Mobsters & Outlaws of the 20th Century

Kansas City Massacre

Source: FBI History

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