What no one could know that morning was that one theater of the metaphoric war Roosevelt invoked would in fact involve guns and blood and death on American soil. It would be fought across a great swath of the country’s midsection, beginning at a railroad station in Kansas City before engulfing the streets of Chicago, pine-shrouded lodges in northern Wisconsin, dust-bowl farms in weary Oklahoma, and battle sites scattered from Atlantic City to Dallas, St. Paul to Florida. It would be fought not by soldiers but by another branch of the federal government, an obscure arm of the Justice Department, headed by an equally obscure bureaucrat named John Edgar Hoover, who in a span of twenty short months would rise from nowhere to hunt down a series of criminals whose exploits were to become a national soap opera, and then a legend.
When one looks back across a chasm of seventy years, through a prism of pulp fiction and bad gangster movies, there is a tendency to view the events of 1933-34 as mythic, as folkloric. To the generations of Americans raised since World War II, the identities of criminals such as Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, “Ma” Barker, John Dillinger, and Clyde Barrow are no more real than are Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones. After decades spent in the washing machine of popular culture, their stories have been bled of all reality, to an extent that few Americans today know who these people actually were, much less that they all rose to national prominence
at the same time.
They were real. A wastrel Dallas thief turned multiple murderer, Clyde Barrow was born in 1909, the same year as Barry Goldwater and Ethel Merman. Had he lived, he would have been sixty-five years old when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974, an aging coupon-clipper, maybe, spending evenings in a Barcalounger chuckling at Archie Bunker. Baby Face Nelson’s widow died only in 1987, after years of watching her grandchildren drum their fingers to MTV. After spending twenty-five years in prison, Machine Gun Kelly’s widow died in Tulsa in 1985. There remain people alive today who crouched behind teller cages as Dillinger robbed their neighborhood bank, who watched as Bonnie and Clyde shot innocent sheriffs, who tossed baseballs with Baby Face Nelson. Kelly and Floyd gave birth to children who still tell their parents’ stories.
They were the bogeymen for the children who have become known as The Greatest Generation. In the spring of 1933, when men like John Dillinger were ascending the national stage, a twenty-two-year-old named Ronald Reagan was broadcasting college baseball games on WHO radio in Des Moines, twenty-year-old Richard Nixon was acting in plays at Whittier College in Southern California, while a pair of third graders, James Earl Carter in Plains, Georgia, and George Herbert Walker Bush in Greenwich, Connecticut, were learning multiplication tables. At high school dances in Hoboken, New Jersey, girls were swooning to a seventeen-year-old crooner named Francis Sinatra. At a house on Judson Avenue in Evanston, Illinois, a hyperactive nine-year-old named Marlon Brando was learning to box.
Yet as these and other members of that generation pass from the scene, it is difficult to imagine a time when name-brand outlaws stalked twentieth-century America. In a world of pocket telephones, Internet shopping, and laser-guided bombs, the notion of marauding gangs of bank robbers wreaking havoc across the country is almost too outlandish to grasp, a story one might hear of the Wild West. But it wasn’t the Wild West. It was America in 1933, eight years before Pearl Harbor, twelve years before Hiroshima, twenty-three years before Elvis, thirty-six before Woodstock. For all the surface contrasts—there was no Internet, no television, no infrared cameras or satellite imagery—America in 1933 wasn’t all that different from America today. Long-distance telephone calls were routine. So was air travel; both cops and robbers could and sometimes did fly to their jobs. The most influential publications included the
New York Times
magazine. Men and women dressed much as they do today; the only marked difference was a preference for hats—men in sharp fedoras and jaunty straw boaters, society women in frilly lace things, ordinary girls in Gilligan hats pulled low over their bangs. Hollywood dominated mainstream culture; popular films that spring were Boris Karloff’s
Johnny Weismuller’s first
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Mutiny on the Bounty
topped bestseller lists. Radio was up and running, but barely half the country’s homes had a set.
What distinguished those early months of 1933 was that so many Americans had no money to enjoy any of this. The stock market crash of 1929 had degenerated into an economic depression. Hundreds of thousands of men lost their jobs. On reflection, that spring would be seen as a low point. Muddy shantytowns spread along the Potomac River, beneath Riverside Drive in New York, and in Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco. Thousands of families, including a legion of dirty children, lived nomadic lives in railroad cars rumbling across the Midwest, lurching from town to town in search of a better life that was nowhere to be found. In Washington there were marches, some of them violent, scenes of tanks and soldiers pushing back desperate men hungering for jobs. People were angry. They blamed the government. They blamed the banks.
As Roosevelt delivered his inaugural address that drizzly March morning, a group of government bureaucrats in dark suits listened around a radio in a third-floor office at the corner of Vermont and K Streets in downtown Washington. What they did was little known to anyone outside their families. Their supervisor was a squat, beady-eyed man, thirty-eight years old, with a flattened nose and loose bags under his eyes. His resemblance to a bulldog was much remarked upon. That morning J. Edgar Hoover was preoccupied with keeping his job.
Today, going on four decades after his death in 1972, it’s difficult to remember a time when Hoover was not the monolithic figure whose secret files cowed American presidents, who underwrote Senator Joseph McCarthy’s star chamber, who hounded national figures as varied as Martin Luther King, Jr., Alger Hiss, and the Rosenbergs. For four decades Hoover dominated American law enforcement as no person before or since, single-handedly creating the country’s first national police force. His legacy is as complex as the man himself. Before Hoover, American law enforcement was a decentralized polyglot of county sheriffs and urban police departments too often crippled by corruption. By and large, it was Hoover who brought the level of efficiency, professionalism, and centralized control the nation knows to this day. But his accomplishments will forever be sullied by the abuses of power—rampant illegal wiretapping, break-ins, and harassment of civil rights groups—of his later years.
Hoover’s power did not evolve slowly. It erupted during the Great Crime Wave of 1933-34. He entered this period an anonymous federal functionary, his bureau struggling to shake past scandals. In twenty months he emerged a national hero, a household name lauded in films, books, and comic strips. In six hundred days, the modern FBI was born. This book is the story of how it happened.
That morning, Hoover was director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation. Not the Federal Bureau of Investigation; it wouldn’t get that name for another two years.a
He had been in office nine years, since 1924, but he had enemies, lots of them, and Roosevelt’s men made it clear that he would probably be replaced. The final decision was to be made by the new attorney general, a confirmed Hoover-hater named Thomas Walsh. That Thursday, two days before Roosevelt’s address, Walsh, a seventy-two-year-old senator from Montana, had boarded a train from Miami to Washington with his new bride, a Cuban debutante. Friday morning Mrs. Walsh awakened aboard the train in North Carolina and found her husband dead; whispers in the capital suggested the elderly senator had expired following an athletic bout of sex.
For Hoover the reprieve was temporary. After all he had achieved in the last nine years, it was galling to him that mere politicians held his fate; if not for him, the Bureau of Investigation might have been eliminated years before. It was an odd little outfit, “a bureaucratic bastard,” one critic called it, responsible for investigating a grab bag of federal offenses, including sedition, interstate auto theft, breakouts from federal prisons, and crime on Indian reservations. One writer termed it “an odd-job detective agency with fuzzy lines of authority and responsibility.” Hoover’s agents did not possess arrest powers; if they wanted to mount a raid, they were obliged to bring along local policemen. Nor did they carry guns. This was a policy, not a law; Hoover’s model was Scotland Yard. His men were investigators, not policemen. “Fact finders” was the word his aides used.
The Bureau had a sordid history. Created in 1908 to investigate antitrust cases, it had devolved over the ensuing fifteen years into a nest of nepotism and corruption. By the early 1920s, its agents, scattered across fifty domestic offices, were hired mostly as favors to politicians. Its most notorious employee, a con man named Gaston Means, earned his money blackmailing congressmen, selling liquor licenses to bootleggers, and auctioning presidential pardons. In the wake of a mid-1920s Congressional investigation, the Bureau acquired the nickname “The Department of Easy Virtue.”
The day he was promoted to clean up the Bureau in 1924, Hoover was a stoic twenty-nine-year-old government attorney who still lived with his adoring mother in the house where he was raised, a two-story stucco building at 413 Seward Square in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. He was a boyhood stutterer who overcame his disability by teaching himself to speak rapidly, in staccato bursts so fast that more than one stenographer was unable to keep up. Neat, intense, and disciplined, Hoover grew up surrounded by civil servants in the bosom of the Washington bureaucracy. There was little question that he would follow his father, a deskman at the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, into government work. Hoover went to night school at George Washington University, where he joined the Kappa Alpha fraternity. Working days as a clerk at the Library of Congress, he received his bachelor of law degree in 1916 and his master’s a year later, the same year that he passed the District of Columbia bar.
In July 1917 he took a job as a clerk at Justice. Many of the department’s up-and-coming young lawyers were gone, enlisted in the war effort, and Hoover, sharply dressed and a demon for detail, stood out, earning two promotions in his first six months. He went to work in the alien-registration section and moved up quickly; by 1919, at the age of twenty-four, he was named head of the General Intelligence Division, a newly created bureau charged with prosecuting labor radicals, anarchists, and Communists. He earned high marks—and his first interview in the
New York Times—
as a driving force behind the department’s January 1920 raids on Communists in thirty-three cities, which led to the arrest of more than three thousand people. He lobbied for and received his new job as assistant director of the Bureau of Investigation in August 1921.
A Senate probe of the Bureau in 1924 led to the resignations and indictments of the BI chief and the attorney general. The new attorney general, Harlan Fiske Stone, was at a loss about what to do with the Bureau. He scribbled down notes of its problems: “filled with men with bad records . . . many convicted of crimes . . . organization lawless . . . agents engaged in many practices which are brutal and tyrannical in the extreme.”2
Stone had no idea who could reform such an outfit. A friend suggested Hoover. He was young, but he was honest and industrious. Stone asked around, liked what he heard, and on May 10, 1924, summoned Hoover to his office and handed him interim leadership of the Bureau.
Hoover’s first priority was transforming his force of field agents (which numbered 339 in 1929). His vision was precise: he wanted young, energetic white men between twenty-five and thirty-five, with law degrees, clean, neat, well spoken, bright, and from solid families—men like himself. He got them. In a matter of weeks Hoover cleared out the deadwood, stopped patronage hiring, and instituted a meritocracy. Applicants were screened on “general intelligence,” “conduct during interview,” and “Personal Appearance,” either “neat,” “flashy,” “poor,” or “untidy.”
Hoover ruled by absolute fiat. His men lived in fear of him. Inspection teams appeared at field offices with no notice, writing up agents who were even one minute tardy for work. Hoover tolerated no sloth, sloppiness, or deviation from the new rules that came pouring into every field office, each commanded by a special agent in charge, known as a SAC. (There were twenty-five in 1929.) The tiniest infraction could cost a man his job; when a Denver SAC offered a visitor a drink, he was fired.
“I want the public to look upon the Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice as a group of gentlemen,” Hoover told an audience in 1926. “And if the men here engaged can’t conduct themselves in office as such, I will dismiss them.”
Those who survived, and those Hoover hired, were a homogenous lot. Many were Southern. More than a few came from Hoover’s alma mater, George Washington, especially its Kappa Alpha chapter. Hoover’s wizened number two man, Harold “Pop” Nathan, a BI administrator since 1917, was a KA; for years he was also the Bureau’s only Jew. Visiting agents sometimes stayed at the Kappa house. It was there that Hugh Clegg, a courtly young Mississippi attorney who would rise to become an FBI assistant director, was hired. Like all new men, Clegg was rotated through a series of field offices in his first few months. It was in the field that many of the new hires first encountered the hostility of police departments, who viewed Hoover’s men as unarmed, inept dilettantes intent on seizing their territory. They mocked them as “Deejays” or “College Boys.”
The cops were onto something. In Hoover’s new Bureau, appearance, loyalty, and hard work were prized above law-enforcement experience. Few of his new hires had any, as Hoover was uncomfortably aware; the saying within the Bureau was that Hoover liked his men “young and grateful.” While publicly mandating that all agents have law degrees, Hoover quietly retained some nonlawyers as well, mostly veteran Southwestern lawmen. These “Cowboys” were a breed apart. They chewed tobacco and drank and spit, infractions Hoover ignored. The Cowboys knew how to run investigations, and that’s what they did. In violation of Bureau regulations, several carried guns: in Washington, John Keith wore matched Colt .45s; in Dallas, Charles Winstead used a .357 Magnum; in Chicago, the former Texas Ranger James C. “Doc” White favored a bone-handled Colt, accenting it with a knife hidden in his boot. The two agents assigned to run key cases in Hoover’s early years were veteran Cowboys: Gus T. Jones, the San Antonio SAC, and Doc White’s older brother, an ex-Ranger named Thomas White, the Oklahoma City SAC.