Hoover’s reorganization transformed the Bureau. Unproductive field offices were closed. Bureaucracy was streamlined. A chain of command was drawn. Paperwork was standardized. After six months the Bureau was on its way to becoming the very model of a modern, efficient government organization. The “interim” was removed from Hoover’s title. Once the Bureau was retooled, the challenge became finding something for its agents to do. In Hoover’s first six years his men spearheaded a corruption investigation at the federal prison in Atlanta and a probe of murders and oil-rights thievery on Indian lands in Oklahoma. They were minor cases, all run by the Cowboys; Tom White handled the Atlanta and Oklahoma investigations. When White was named warden at Leavenworth in 1927, Hoover summoned Gus Jones to supervise a vain attempt to capture a set of high-profile escapees.
On all these cases Hoover’s men did the legwork but stepped aside when it was time to make arrests, sometimes to the snickers of police. “I can remember [calling] policemen when a wanted fugitive is at such-and-such place,” Hugh Clegg recalled. “The policeman will tell me, ‘Well, you guard the back and I’ll go in the front. You don’t have a gun, so I’ll go in.’ I’ve stood at the back door of a house, had [only a] brickbat in my hand, hoping that [the fugitive] would not come out that way . . . If he’d come out shooting, I had no defense at all, no weapons, no offensive weapons, and you’re just at his mercy.”3
Hoover’s role was strictly administrative. He seldom left Washington, where he worked from an office decorated with fine Chinese antiques. In the spring of 1933, while billing himself as the nation’s leading law-enforcement expert, Hoover himself had never made an arrest, much less fired a gun in anger. The SACs ran the investigations, Hoover peering over their shoulders, firing off memos at anything he disliked. He and Pop Nathan could be scathing in their appraisals. Privately both knew they had few competent men. “I believe that the trouble with many of our offices is that our Agents in Charge are somewhat foggy mentally,” Nathan wrote in a memo to Hoover in June 1932. “Or at any rate they function slowly along mental lines.”4
Like any good civil servant, Hoover made certain the public knew how well he was doing. He gave speeches and occasional newspaper interviews, emphasizing the Bureau’s integrity and its devotion to what he called “scientific policing,” based on fingerprints and evidentiary analysis. Not all the press was receptive. A 1933 article in
characterized the Bureau as Hoover’s “personal and political machine. More inaccessible than presidents, he [keeps] his agents in fear and awe by firing and shifting them at whim; no other government agency had such a turnover of personnel.” It was the
article that first hinted at Hoover’s Achilles’ heel, the rumors of his sexual orientation. “In appearance Mr. Hoover looks utterly unlike the story-book sleuth,” it noted. “He dresses fastidiously, with Eleanor blue as the favored color for the matched shades of tie, handkerchief and socks . . . He is short, fat, businesslike, and walks with mincing step.”
After eight years of pursuing minor crimes, Hoover’s first opportunity to perform on the national stage came in June 1932, with the passage of the Lindbergh Law, three months after the kidnapping (and subsequent murder) of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son in Hopewell, New Jersey. The new law made kidnapping a federal crime but only where the kidnapper or his victim had crossed a state border. The Lindbergh kidnapping spawned a rash of copycat crimes throughout 1932, but to Hoover’s frustration, none of the kidnappings fell in his domain.
But as word spread in the underworld of massive ransoms to be had, kidnappings flourished. The year 1933 brought twenty-seven major cases, more than twice the number reported in any previous year, so many that the
New York Times
began charting them in a periodic column. Beginning with the kidnapping of the millionaire Charles Boetscher II in Denver that February, FBI agents stormed into a half-dozen high-profile cases, for the first time finding themselves involved in solving crimes the public actually cared about.
As Roosevelt took office that spring, kidnapping stories thronged front pages across the country. Coming on the heels of the surge in crime during the 1920s symbolized by Al Capone, these reports added fuel to the debate over the need for a federal police force. On one side were reformers who charged that municipal police were too often corrupt and ineffective, and unable to deal with increasingly mobile criminals who crossed state lines like cracks in a sidewalk. On the other side were powerful city governments, jealous of their turf, backed by congressmen who viewed federal policing as the first step toward an American Gestapo. Antifederalism still ran strong in America. There remained, especially in the South and Midwest, an undercurrent of deep mistrust toward Washington, feelings that grew as citizens came to blame politicians for the Depression. The debate intensified with Roosevelt’s election. His advisers were pushing hard for a strong central government that could revive the economy by taking control of many areas managed by state and municipal governments, including law enforcement.
During the first hundred days of the Roosevelt administration, a period that famously saw dozens of pieces of New Deal legislation stream through Congress, the leading voice for a federal police force was a Roosevelt adviser named Louis Howe. The attorney general chosen to replace Thomas Walsh, a Connecticut attorney named Homer S. Cummings, was, perhaps unsurprisingly, possessed of similar views. That spring Howe and Cummings began discussing how best to reform the Justice Department and what role, if any, it might play in federal policing.
For Hoover, Roosevelt’s election was an all-or-nothing proposition. Of the few pundits who took notice, most believed Hoover would be fired. Had Senator Walsh lived, he almost certainly would have been. But if he could somehow persuade the White House of his value, Hoover could see there was a chance—a remote one, to be sure—that his little bureau might serve as the centerpiece of a federal police force. A number of his government competitors had the same idea, most notably Elmer Irey, the head of the Internal Revenue Service’s aggressive investigative arm, which could boast of its 1931 toppling of Capone.
That spring, Hoover launched a vigorous lobbying campaign to keep his job and to position himself for something more. SACs were ordered to arrange letters of support from prominent politicians. Hoover’s old boss Harlan Fiske Stone, now a Supreme Court justice, wrote Justice Felix Frankfurter, who contacted Roosevelt. Still, anti-Hoover sentiment remained widespread. One Roosevelt adviser later wrote there was “tremendous pressure on Roosevelt by various city politicians to replace Hoover with this or that police chief whom they believed would be more amenable to them for patronage.”5
All that spring Hoover’s future hung in the balance. Only a cynic would have pointed out the obvious. What Hoover needed was a tangible achievement, something to grab headlines, a case that would thrust him into the public spotlight and underscore the Bureau’s transformation. He was about to get it, but from a group of criminals over whose activities the FBI had absolutely no jurisdiction: bank robbers.
The first recorded U.S. bank robbery, actually a nighttime burglary, came in 1831, when a man named Edward Smith snuck into a Wall Street bank and made off with $245,000. He was caught and sentenced to a five-year term in Sing Sing. Smith’s brainstorm led to an early advance in U.S. bank security—the advent of safes—in 1834. Until the Civil War, armed robberies of banks were all but unknown. During the war, Confederate raiders robbed several Northern banks, but the first recorded bank robbery by a civilian came on December 15, 1863, when an irate man named Edward Green wandered into a bank in Malden, Massachusetts, shot a banker in the head, and, as an afterthought, scooped up $5,000. For his place in history Green earned an 1866 date with a noose.
The first organized bank robbery in peacetime, an 1866 raid in Liberty, Missouri, was carried out by a ragtag band of out-of-work Confederate irregulars led by the brothers Frank and Jesse James. The James Gang’s string of robberies over the next fifteen years was glamorized by the press, bringing bank robbery to the attention of a number of Western imitators, including the Dalton Brothers, Bill Doolin, and the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. With the migration of Cassidy’s core group to South America in 1901 and the shrinking of the Western frontier, bank robbing faded from popular consciousness. Banks continued to be robbed, but no outlaw achieved national notoriety, and while statistics are unreliable, the number of armed robberies probably fell during the years before World War I.
Nor did they soar after the war. Until the mid-1920s, most ambitious thieves preferred nocturnal bank burglaries. A case in point was the Newton Gang, a band of four Texas brothers who hit dozens of Midwestern banks between 1919 and 1924. Their tactics were those of burglars across the nation; they broke into banks at night, used a nitroglycerine explosion to “pop” safe doors, and were generally gone before a sheriff could mobilize pursuit. This strategy worked until banks reacted in the mid-1920s by introducing reinforced safes and alarms. The Newtons and their peers were forced to initiate daylight robberies. Their biggest strike, the $2 million robbery of a mail train in Roundout, Illinois, outside Chicago, was the decade’s largest.
When the federal government suddenly found itself engaged in open warfare with groups of heavily armed bank robbers in 1934, many asked why. The common answer was the Depression. It was true, as far as it went: many bank robbers were desperate, unemployed men. But blaming the Great Crime Wave of 1933-34 on the Depression ignores the fact that the years between 1925 and 1932 amounted to a golden age for American bank robbers, known in the press as “yeggmen,” or “yeggs.” Robberies along what came to be known as the “crime corridor,” from Texas to Minnesota, soared. Between 1920 and 1929, the Travelers Insurance Company reported that property crimes—from bank robberies to drugstore stickups—jumped from 17 to 965 a year in its Dallas office; 30 to 300 in Gary, Indiana; 9 to 836 in Saginaw, Michigan.6
The violence that catapulted men like John Dillinger to prominence in 1934 wasn’t thebeginning
of a crime wave; it was the end of one.
The spread of bank robberies was the result of technology outstripping the legal system. Faster, more powerful weapons, especially the 800-bullet-per-minute Thompson submachine gun introduced after World War I, allowed yeggs to outgun all but the best-armed urban policemen. But the greatest impetus was the automobile, especially new models with reliable, powerful V-8 engines. While a county sheriff was still hand-cranking his old Model A, a modern yegg could speed away untouched. A Frenchman may have been the first to use a car to escape a bank robbery, in 1915; one of the first Americans to try it was an aging Oklahoma yegg, Henry Starr, who used a Nash to rob a bank in Harrison, Arkansas, in 1921. The practice caught on.
“Seventy-five percent of all crimes now are perpetrated with the aid of the automobile,” one crime writer noted in 1924. “Automobiles and good roads have done much to increase certain types of banditry. We now have a definitely established type called an automobile bandit who operates exclusively in motor vehicles, whether it is to perpetrate a holdup on a bank or merely to stick up pedestrians and rob homes.”7
Lawmen were powerless to chase the new auto bandits across state lines, making border areas, especially the notorious tristate region of Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas, magnets for crime. The federal government was of no help: bank robbery wasn’t yet a federal crime. Coordination between police departments was spotty; only a few states had introduced statewide police, and those that had had seldom possessed the resources to break a major case. In their place, vigilante committees sprang up across the Midwest. Not that it mattered: if a yegg fled a bank robbery without getting shot, there was little chance he would ever be caught.
All of which made bank robbery a tempting vocation to a Midwestern populace that faced more temptations than ever. During the 1920s, mass-produced goods such as dresses, washing machines, and radios became widely available. Yet with the drought and the resulting downturn in the Midwestern farm economy, fewer citizens could afford the goods that lay out of reach behind department-store windows. A single bank robbery could change a dirt farmer’s life. At a time when the average household income in states like Oklahoma and Missouri hovered below $500 a year, bank robbers could make off with $10,000 for a morning’s work.
The Newton Brothers typified the mistake-prone amateurs who ushered in the motorized age; they were arrested in the wake of their Roundout, Illinois, job. The criminal credited with introducing a new level of professionalism to bank robbery was Herman K. Lamm, a German émigré known as “The Baron.” Born in 1880, Lamm is a quasimythic figure; some claim he began his career with the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. What is known is that around 1917, while in a Utah prison, he developed a rigorous system for robbing banks. Lamm pioneered the “casing” of banks, the observation of bank guards, alarms, and tellers; a bank was known as a “jug,” and an expert caser of banks was known as a “jug marker.” Each member of Lamm’s gang was assigned a role in the robbery: the lookout, the getaway driver, the lobby man, the vault man.
Most important, Lamm is credited with devising the first detailed getaway maps, or “gits.” Once he targeted a bank, Lamm mapped the nearby back roads, known as “cat roads,” to a tenth of a mile, listing each landmark and using a stopwatch to time distances. Any teenager with a birdgun could rob a bank; it was getting away that posed a challenge. Lamm’s detailed gits, clipped to the dashboard of a car, took the guesswork out of the getaway. His gang was credited with dozens of robberies during the 1920s, until Lamm was shot and killed near Clinton, Indiana, in 1930. By then his system had been widely imitated. Two of his men would teach it to an Indiana prison inmate named John Dillinger.