|John Edgar Hoover|
March 22, 1924 – May 2, 1972
|President||Franklin D. Roosevelt
Harry S. Truman
Dwight D. Eisenhower
John F. Kennedy
Lyndon B. Johnson
|Preceded by||Office created
(was BOI director)
|Succeeded by||L. Patrick Gray|
May 10, 1924 – March 22, 1935
Franklin D. Roosevelt
|Preceded by||William J. Burns|
|Succeeded by||Became FBI director|
|Born||January 1, 1895
|Died||May 2, 1972 (aged 77)
John Edgar Hoover (January 1, 1895 – May 2, 1972) was the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States. Appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation—predecessor to the FBI—in 1924, he was instrumental in founding the FBI in 1935, where he remained director until his death in 1972. Hoover is credited with building the FBI into a large and efficient crime-fighting agency, and with instituting a number of modern innovations to police technology, such as a centralized fingerprint file and forensic laboratories.
Late in life, and after his death, Hoover became an increasingly controversial figure. His critics have accused him of exceeding the jurisdiction of the FBI. He used the FBI to harass political dissenters and activists, to amass secret files on political leaders, and to collect evidence using illegal methods. It is because of Hoover's long and controversial reign that FBI directors are now limited to 10-year terms.
Hoover was born on New Year's Day 1895 in Washington, DC, to Anna Marie Scheitlin, who was descended from a line of Swiss mercenaries, and Dickerson Naylor Hoover, Sr., of English and German ancestry, and grew up in the Eastern Market. Annie's uncle had been the Swiss honorary consul general to the US. Hoover worked at the Library of Congress during college and also became a member of Kappa Alpha Order (Alpha Nu 1914). In 1917, Hoover obtained a law degree from The George Washington University. While a law student, Hoover became interested in the career of Anthony Comstock, the New York City US Postal Inspector, who waged prolonged campaigns against fraud and vice (including pornography and information on birth control) a generation earlier.
During World War I, Hoover found work with the Justice Department. He was soon promoted to head of the Enemy Aliens Registration Section. In 1919, he became head of the new General Intelligence Division of the Justice Department (see the Palmer Raids). From there, in 1921, he joined the Bureau of Investigation as deputy head, and in 1924, the Attorney General made him the acting director. On May 10, 1924, Hoover was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge to be the sixth director of the Bureau of Investigation, following President Warren Harding's death and in response to allegations that the prior director, William J. Burns, was involved in the Teapot Dome scandal. When Hoover took over the Bureau of Investigation, it had approximately 650 employees, including 441 Special Agents.
Hoover was noted as sometimes being capricious in his leadership; he frequently fired FBI agents, singling out those whom he thought "looked stupid like truck drivers" or he considered to be "pinheads". He also relocated agents who had displeased him to career-ending assignments and locations. Melvin Purvis was a prime example; he was one of the most effective agents in capturing and breaking up 1930s gangs and received substantial public recognition, but a jealous Hoover maneuvered him out of the FBI.
In the early 1930s, an epidemic of bank robberies in the Midwest was orchestrated by colorful criminal gangs who took advantage of superior firepower and fast getaway cars to bedevil local law enforcement agencies. To the chagrin and embarrassment of authorities, such robbers were often viewed as somewhat noble in their assaults upon the banking industry, which at the time was evicting many farmers and families from their homesteads. That empathy reached the point that many of these desperadoes, particularly John Dillinger (who became famous for leaping over bank cages and his repeated escapes from jails and police traps), were de facto folk heroes whose exploits frequently made headlines. State officials began to implore Washington to aid them in containing this lawlessness. The fact that the robbers frequently took stolen cars across state lines (a federal offense) gave Hoover and his men the authority to pursue them. Things did not go as planned however, and there were some embarrassing foul-ups on the part of the FBI, particularly clashes with the Dillinger gang. A raid on a summer lodge named "Little Bohemia" in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, left an agent and a hapless civilian bystander dead, along with others wounded. All the gangsters escaped. Hoover realized that his job was now on the line, and he pulled out all stops to capture the culprits. Hoover was particularly fixated on eliminating Dillinger, whose misdeeds he considered to be insults aimed directly at him and "his" bureau. In late July 1934, Purvis, the Director of Operations in the Chicago office, received a tip on Dillinger's whereabouts. The tip paid off when Dillinger was located and killed outside the Biograph Theater.
In the same period, there were numerous Mafia shootings as a result of Prohibition, while Hoover continued to deny the very existence of organized crime. Frank Costello helped encourage this view by feeding Hoover, "an inveterate horseplayer" known to send Special Agents to place $100 bets for him, tips on sure winners through their mutual friend, gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Hoover went on to say the Bureau had "much more important functions" than arresting bookmakers and gamblers.
Due to several highly-publicized captures or shootings of outlaws and bank robbers including Dillinger, Alvin Karpis, and Machine Gun Kelly, the Bureau's powers were broadened and it was re-named the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. In 1939, the FBI became pre-eminent in the field of domestic intelligence. Hoover made changes, such as expanding and combining fingerprint files in the Identification Division to compile the largest collection of fingerprints ever. Hoover also helped to greatly expand the FBI's recruitment and create the FBI Laboratory, a division established in 1932 to examine evidence found by the FBI.
Hoover was concerned about subversion, and under his leadership, the FBI spied upon tens of thousands of suspected subversives and radicals. Hoover tended to exaggerate the dangers of these "subversives", and many times overstepped his bounds in his pursuit of eliminating that perceived threat.
The FBI had some successes against actual subversives and spies. However, in the Quirin affair during World War II, when German U-boats set two small groups of Nazi agents ashore in Florida and Long Island to cause acts of sabotage within the country, the members of these teams were apprehended only after one of the would-be saboteurs contacted the FBI, confessed everything, and then betrayed the other seven men. Nevertheless, President Harry Truman 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". 
Another example of Hoover's concern over subversion was his handling of the Venona Project. The FBI inherited a pre-World War II joint project with the British to eavesdrop on Soviet spies in the UK and the United States. 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 J. Howard McGrath, or two Secretaries of State—Dean Acheson and General George Marshall—while they held office. He informed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the Venona Project in 1952.
According to documents declassified in 2007, Hoover maintained a list of 12,000 Americans suspected of disloyalty with the intention of detaining them and to do so by suspending the writ of habeas corpus. Hoover submitted his plan to Truman at the outbreak of the Korean War, but there is no evidence that Truman accepted the plan.
In 1956, Hoover was becoming increasingly frustrated by Supreme Court decisions that limited the Justice Department's ability to prosecute people for their political opinions, most notably, Communists. At this time he formalized a covert "dirty tricks" program under the name COINTELPRO.
This 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 organizations such as the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s SCLC, the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party and others. Its methods included infiltration, burglaries, illegal wiretaps, planting forged documents and spreading false rumors about key members of target organizations. Some authors have charged that COINTELPRO methods also included inciting violence and arranging murders. 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 (D-Idaho) and these activities were declared illegal and contrary to the Constitution. Hoover amassed significant power by collecting files containing large amounts of compromising and potentially embarrassing information on many powerful people, especially politicians. According to Laurence Silberman, appointed Deputy Attorney General in early 1974, FBI Director Clarence M. Kelley thought such files either did not exist or had been destroyed. After The Washington Post broke a story in January 1975, Kelley searched and found them in his outer office. The House Judiciary Committee then demanded that Silberman testify about them. An extensive investigation of Hoover's files by David Garrow showed that Hoover and next-in-command William Sullivan, as well as the FBI itself as an agency, were responsible.
In 1956, several years before he targeted King, Hoover had a public showdown with T.R.M. Howard, a civil rights leader from Mound Bayou, Mississippi. During a national speaking tour, Howard had criticized the FBI's failure to thoroughly investigate the racially motivated murders of George W. Lee, Lamar Smith, and Emmett Till. Hoover not only wrote an open letter to the press singling out these statements as "irresponsible" but secretly enlisted the help of NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall in a campaign to discredit Howard.
In the 1950s, evidence of Hoover's unwillingness to focus FBI resources on the Mafia became grist for the media and his many detractors, after famed reporter Jack Anderson exposed the immense scope of the Mafia's organized crime network, a threat Hoover had long downplayed. Hoover's retaliation and continual harassment of Anderson lasted into the 1970s. His 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. The treatment of Martin Luther King, Jr. and actress Jean Seberg are two cited examples.
Hoover personally directed the FBI investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. 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.
Presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson each considered dismissing Hoover as FBI Director, but all of them ultimately concluded that the political cost of doing so would be too great.
Hoover maintained strong support in Congress until his death in 1972 from the effects of high blood pressure. Operational command of the Bureau passed to Associate Director Clyde Tolson. Soon thereafter, President Richard Nixon appointed L. Patrick Gray, a Justice Department official with no FBI experience, as Acting Director, with W. Mark Felt remaining as Associate Director. Being passed over to head the FBI is said to have contributed to Felt's decision to become the informant later referred to as "Deep Throat".
Hoover was a consultant to Warner Brothers on a 1959 theatrical film about the FBI, The FBI Story, and in 1965 on Warner Brothers' long-running spin-off television series, The F.B.I. Hoover personally made sure that Warner Brothers would portray the FBI more favorably than other crime dramas of the times.
In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) under Senator Richard Schweiker, which had re-opened the investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy, reported that Hoover's FBI "failed to investigate adequately the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President". The HSCA further reported that Hoover's FBI "was deficient in its sharing of information with other agencies and departments".
The FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC is named after Hoover. Because of the controversial nature of Hoover's legacy, 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. However, the Senate never adopted the amendment.
Since the 1940s, unsubstantiated rumors have circulated that Hoover was a homosexual. It has been suggested that Clyde Tolson, an associate director of the FBI who was Hoover's heir, may also have been his lover.
Some authors have dismissed the rumors about Hoover's sexuality and his relationship with Tolson in particular as unlikely, while others have described them as probable or even "confirmed", and still others have reported the rumors without stating an opinion. Hoover described Tolson as his alter ego: the men not only worked closely together during the day, but also took meals, went to night clubs and vacationed together. This closeness between the two men is often cited as evidence that they were lovers, though some FBI employees who knew them, such as Mark Felt, say that the relationship was merely "brotherly".
Tolson inherited Hoover's estate and moved into his home, having accepted the American flag that draped Hoover's casket. Tolson is buried a few yards away from Hoover in the Congressional Cemetery. Attorney Roy Cohn, an associate of Hoover during the 1950s investigations of Communists and himself a closeted homosexual, opined that Hoover was too frightened of his own sexuality to have anything approaching a normal sexual or romantic relationship.
In his 1993 biography Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J Edgar Hoover, journalist Anthony Summers quoted a witness, "society divorcee" Susan Rosenstiel, (who later served time at Rikers Island for perjuring herself in a 1971 case) who claimed to have seen Hoover engaging in cross-dressing in the 1950s; she claimed that on two occasions she witnessed Hoover wearing a fluffy black dress with flounces and lace, stockings, high heels and a black curly wig, at homosexual orgies.
In 1958 the bisexual millionaire distiller and philanthropist Lewis Solon Rosenstiel asked Susan [Rosenstiel], his fourth wife, if—having been previously married to another bisexual man for nine years—she had ever seen "a homosexual orgy". Although she had once surprised her sixty-eight-year-old husband in bed with his attorney, Roy Cohn, Susan told Summers that she had never before been invited to view sex between men. With her consent, the couple went one day, soon after this odd question, to Manhattan's Plaza Hotel. Cohn, a former aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy and a Republican power broker, met them at the door. As she and her husband entered the suite, "Susan said, she recognized a third man: J. Edgar Hoover", director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), whom she had met previously at her New York City Upper East Side townhouse. Hoover, Lewis had explained, gave him access to influential politicians; he returned these favors, in part, by paying the director's gambling debts.
Summers also said that the Mafia had blackmail material on Hoover, and that as a consequence, Hoover had been reluctant to aggressively pursue organized crime. Although never corroborated, the allegation of cross-dressing has been widely repeated, and "J. Edna Hoover" has become the subject of humor on television, in movies and elsewhere. In the words of author Thomas Doherty, "For American popular culture, the image of the zaftig FBI director as a Christine Jorgensen wanna-be was too delicious not to savor." Most biographers consider the story of Mafia blackmail to be unlikely in light of the FBI's investigations of the Mafia. Along these lines Truman Capote, who helped spread the rumors, once remarked that he was more interested in making Hoover angry than determining whether the rumors were true.
Hoover hunted down and threatened anyone who made insinuations about his sexuality. He also spread destructive, 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.
The opening of Soviet archives revealed evidence that there was a Soviet campaign to discredit the United States which used allegations of homosexuality to discredit Hoover.
A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Washington Post revealed that longtime Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti, a special assistant and confidant to President Lyndon Johnson, was investigated by Hoover's FBI in 1964. The investigation, which was carried out despite Valenti's two-year marriage to Johnson's personal secretary, focused on rumors that he was having a gay relationship with a commercial photographer friend.
Hoover was a "devoted" Freemason and was coronated a 33rd Degree Scottish Rite Freemason in the Southern Scottish Rite Jurisdiction. He was raised a Master Mason on November 9, 1920, in Federal Lodge No. 1, Washington, DC, just two months before his 26th birthday. During his 52 years with the Craft, he received innumerable medals, awards and decorations. Eventually In 1955, he was coroneted a Thirty-third Degree Inspector General Honorary and awarded the Scottish Rite's highest recognition, the Grand Cross of Honour in 1965 by the Southern Masonic Jurisdiction. Today a J. Edgar Hoover room exists within the House of the Temple. The room contains many of Hoover's personal papers and records.
J. Edgar Hoover has been portrayed many times in the media. Some notable portrayals include:
J. Edgar Hoover was the nominal author of a number of books and articles. Although it is widely believed that all of these were ghostwritten by FBI employees, Hoover received the credit and royalties.
William J. Burns
as Director of the Bureau of Investigation
|Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
1924 – 1972
L. Patrick Gray
|Persons who have lain in state or honor
in the United States Capitol rotunda
May 3 – May 4, 1972
Lyndon B. Johnson