J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar Hoover

Hoover, J. Edgar (John Edgar Hoover), 1895-1972, American administrator, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), b. Washington, D.C. Shortly after he was admitted to the bar, he entered (1917) the Dept. of Justice and served (1919-21) as special assistant to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. In this capacity he directed the so-called Palmer Raids against allegedly radical aliens. Director of the Bureau of Investigation (renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935) after 1924, Hoover built a more efficient crime-fighting agency, establishing a centralized fingerprint file, a crime laboratory, and a training school for police. During the 1930s, to publicize the work of his agency in fighting organized crime, he participated directly in the arrest of several major gangsters. After World War II, Hoover focused on the perceived threat of Communist subversion. In office until his death, he became increasingly controversial. His many critics considered his anticommunism obsessive, and it has been verified that he orchestrated systematic harassment of political dissenters and activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Hoover accumulated enormous power, in part from amassing secret files on the activities and private lives of political leaders and their associates. After his death reforms designed to prevent these abuses were undertaken. His writings include Persons in Hiding (1938), Masters of Deceit (1958), and A Study of Communism (1962).

See biographies by T. G. Powers (1987) and A. G. Theoharis (1988); D. J. Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1981); K. O'Reilly, Hoover and the Un-Americans (1983); A. G. Theoharis and J. S. Cox, The Boss (1988); B. Burrough, Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 (2004).

John Edgar Hoover (January 1, 1895May 2, 1972), generally known as J. Edgar Hoover, 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.

Hoover was highly regarded by much of the U.S. public, but throughout his career and after his death he became an increasingly controversial figure. His many critics assert that he abused his power and exceeded the jurisdiction of the FBI. He is known to have used the FBI to harass political dissenters and activists, to have amassed secret files on political leaders and to have used illegal methods to collect evidence. It is because of Hoover's long and controversial reign that FBI directors are now limited to 10-year terms.

Early life and education

Hoover was born on New Year's Day in 1895 in Washington, D.C., to Anna Marie Scheitlin and Dickerson Naylor Hoover, Sr., and grew up in the Eastern Market section of the city. Few details are known of his early years; his birth certificate was not filed until 1938. What little is known about his upbringing generally can be traced back to a single 1937 profile by journalist Jack Alexander. Hoover was educated at George Washington University, graduating in 1917 with a law degree. During his time there, he worked at the Library of Congress and also became a member of Kappa Alpha Order (Alpha Nu 1914). While a law student, Hoover became interested in the career of Anthony Comstock, the New York City U.S. Postal Inspector, who waged prolonged campaigns against fraud and vice (as well as pornography and information on birth control) a generation earlier. Hoover is thought to have studied Comstock's methods and modeled his early career on Comstock's reputation for relentless pursuit and occasional procedural violations in crime fighting.

FBI career

During World War I, Hoover found work with the Justice Department. He soon proved himself capable and was 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 financial scandal(s) of the Harding administration. 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 by singling out those who 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 more effective agents in capturing and breaking up 1930s gangs and received substantial public recognition, but a jealous Hoover maneuvered him out of the FBI.

Gangster wars

In the early thirties, there was an epidemic of bank robberies in the Midwest orchestrated by colorful criminal gangs who took advantage of superior firepower and fast get-away cars to bedevil local law enforcement agencies. To the chagrin and increasing discomfort 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 from their homesteads. That empathy reached the point that many of these desperadoes, particularly the dashing 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 captured 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, Melvin Purvis, the Director of Operations in the Chicago office, received a tip on the whereabouts of John Dillinger. That paid off when the gangster was cut down in a hail of gunfire outside the Biograph Theater.

Because of 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.

Investigation of subversion and radicals

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 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. For example, in the Quirin affair 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. Although the members of these teams were apprehended, this was due entirely to the fact that one of the would-be saboteurs went to the FBI and confessed. 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 the World War II".

Another example of Hoover's concern over subversion is 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. Hoover kept the intercepts — America's greatest counterintelligence secret — in a locked safe in his office, choosing not to inform Truman, his Attorney General McGraith, 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 President Harry 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 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 such organizations such as the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s SCLC, the Ku Klux Klan, 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-ID) 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, 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.

Response to Mafia and civil rights groups

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 muckraker 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. Hoover has also been accused of trying to undermine the reputations of members of the civil rights movement. His alleged treatment of actress Jean Seberg and Martin Luther King, Jr. are two such 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.

Late career and death

Presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson each considered firing Hoover but 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 Nixon appointed L. Patrick Gray, a Justice Department official with no FBI experience, as Acting Director, with W. Mark Felt remaining as Associate Director.


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." As a result, various conspiracy theories abound regarding the negligence of Hoover's leadership in performing due diligence with regard to the JFK assassination.

The FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. 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. The amendment was not adopted by the Senate.

Personal life

Hoover was a lifelong bachelor, and since at least the 1940s, rumors have circulated that he was homosexual despite no concrete evidence of these claims. It has also been suggested that his long association with Clyde Tolson, an associate director of the FBI who was also Hoover's heir, was that of a gay couple. 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 them without stating an opinion. Attorney Roy Cohn, an associate of Hoover during the '50s 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.

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. The exceedingly close relationship between the two is often cited as evidence that the two were lovers, though some FBI employees who knew them, such as Felt, say that the relationship was merely "brotherly".

Tolson inherited Hoover's estate worth approximately USD$551,000 and moved into his home, having also accepted the American flag that draped Hoover's casket. Tolson is buried a few yards away from Hoover in the Congressional Cemetery.

Hoover's biographer Richard Hack reports that Hoover was romantically linked to actress Dorothy Lamour in the late '30s and early '40s, and that after Hoover's death, Lamour did not deny rumors that she'd had an affair with Hoover in the years between her two marriages. Hack additionally reports that during the '40s and '50s, Hoover so often attended social events with Lela Rogers, the divorced mother of dancer and actress Ginger Rogers, that many of their mutual friends assumed the pair would eventually marry.

In his 1993 biography Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J Edgar Hoover, Anthony Summers quoted a witness who claimed to have seen Hoover engaging in cross-dressing and homosexual acts on two occasions in the 1950s. 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 actual investigations of the Mafia.

Hoover has been described as becoming increasingly a caricature of himself towards the end of his life. The book No Left Turns, by former agent Joseph L. Schott, portrays a rigid, paranoid old man who terrified everyone. For example, Hoover liked to write on the margins of memos. According to Schott, when one memo had too narrow margins he wrote, "watch the borders!" No one had the nerve to ask him why, but they sent inquiries to the Border Patrol about any strange activities on the Canadian and Mexican frontiers. It took a week before an HQ staffer realized the message related to the borders of the memo paper. Schott has also stated that the mistakenly increased border activity during this period resulted in the arrest of American Communist Party leader Gus Hall.

African American author Millie McGhee claims in her 2000 book Secrets Uncovered to be related to J. Edgar Hoover. McGhee's oral family history holds that a branch of her Mississippi family, also named Hoover, is related to the Washington, D.C., Hoovers, and that further, J. Edgar's father was not Dickerson Hoover as recorded, but rather Ivery Hoover of Mississippi. Genealogist George Ott investigated these claims and found some supporting circumstantial evidence, as well as unusual alterations of records pertaining to Hoover's officially recorded family in Washington, D.C., but found no conclusive proof. J. Edgar Hoover's birth certificate was not filed until 1938, when he was 43 years old.


See also


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.

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References and further reading

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  • External links

    Time.com - 'The Truth about Hoover', December 22, 1975


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