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Birth of the FBI Lab

The Birth of the FBI’s Technical Laboratory—1924 to 1935

John F. Fox, Jr. FBI Historian

Technicians working in the FBI Technical Laboratory

Harrington Fitzgerald, Jr., a mental patient in a Pennsylvania veterans’ hospital more than one hundred miles away from his nearest relatives, opened and quickly sampled the box of chocolates from “Bertha.” Perhaps he thought the November 1933 delivery was an early Christmas present, if so, it was the last one he received. Fitzgerald died soon after eating the first poisoned treat. As the crime occurred on federal property, agents of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation [the FBI’s predecessor] investigated. Mr. Fitgerald’s sister, Sarah Hobart, quickly became the primary suspect and so agents solicited samples of her handwriting. These samples along with the package’s wrapper and card were sent to Headquarters for analysis in the Bureau’s new Technical Laboratory.1

Special Agent Charles Appel

There, Special Agent Charles Appel, a balding, meticulous investigator, received the evidence and began to compare the handwriting samples to the note card.2 He reported that the note from “Bertha” and the Hobart samples revealed no match. More analysis could be done, he suggested, if the investigating agents would obtain samples from Hobart’s husband and track down the family’s typewriter.3 Diligent detective work led Philadelphia agents to a typewriter Mrs. Hobart had conveniently sent in for repair at a local shop. Using samples of type from the Hobart machine, Appel quickly determined that it was the machine on which the mailing label on package of poisoned candy was typed. Confronted with the evidence, Sarah Hobart confessed.4

At the time Special Agent Appel solved this case, he was the Bureau’s only scientist and its Technical Crime Laboratory had been in operation for little more than a year. Its official birthday was set as November 24, 1932; the date was arbitrarily decided because the founding of the lab took place over several months during the summer and fall of 1932.5 Whatever its birth-date, by 1935, the lab was a key component in both the work and the image of the G-Men of the FBI and an important force for the professionalization of American law enforcement.6

Director J. Edgar Hoover, 1930

The origins of the Bureau’s lab may be traced back to the 1920’s. The latest developments in the field of scientific crime detection had captivated Hoover and other Bureau officials for years. After he became Director in 1924, Hoover encouraged the Bureau to keep an eye on the latest insights into Bureau work that science provided. At first this interest was focused on fingerprint identification matters, especially those dealing with the discovery of latent fingerprints, but the use of scientific analysis in other matters was becoming prominent in law enforcement circles, and Hoover wanted the Bureau to use these methods where applicable.

By 1930, the Bureau began using outside experts hired for such work on a case-by-case basis. That same year the Bureau began a criminology library for the use of its agents and support personnel,7 and it took over the collection and publication of uniform crime statistics from the International Association of Chiefs of Police. In its new agent training program, the Bureau included expert lecturers on subjects like the use of the comparison of handwritings, the comparison of typewritings, the taking of fingerprints, the classification of fingerprints, moulage, ballistics and similar technical criminological subjects.8

Clearly, the application of science to criminal investigations was becoming a Bureau priority.

Colonel Calvin Goddard

The work of Colonel Calvin Goddard brought the Bureau even more fully into the application of science to detective work.9 Goddard, a pioneer in forensic ballistics, was instrumental in the opening of the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory, then affiliated with Northwestern University, in Chicago. The Bureau learned much from Goddard’s lab and it supported many of the efforts made by this organization over the next several years.10

When the Lab began publishing the American Journal of Police Science, Hoover strongly encouraged his special agents in charge to subscribe to it and he supplied articles on fingerprint issues and Bureau responsibilities to the journal. The following year the Bureau contributed three articles for the journal’s series entitled “Organized Protection Against Organized Crime.” Hoover also sent a number of representatives to a symposium that Goddard sponsored on scientific crime detection where they heard Cook County Coroner Bundsen exhort the audience: “The only way in which crime problems in our American cities can be successfully attacked is by the use of modern scientific methods of investigation.”

Reporting on the Bureau’s involvement in this conference, reporter Rex Collier noted that:

Ultra modern detectives in the United States Bureau of Investigation are being trained to out-Sherlock Sherlock Holmes, …the progressive director of the bureau, J. Edgar Hoover…the Government's most versatile detective force is a thorough believer in science as a formidable weapon against crime.11

Hoover was the primary source for Collier’s article.

Training in these methods was a key step in implementing the Director’s vision. Special Agent Charles Appel was equally committed to this vision. He looked for all opportunities to secure such training and so when Goddard’s lab in Chicago began what was one of the first national scientific crime detection training programs, Appel told Hoover. Hoover immediately signed Appel up for the program. During April and May of 1931, Appel learned serology, toxicology, moulage, metallography, hand-writing and typewriter analysis, and other subjects as well. His fellow classmates said the course of study had made them “mentally groggy.” Commented one classmate, although there was no homework, “we almost wore our arms out on those exams.”12 Hoover was so satisfied with the training that when Goddard asked for a fingerprint expert to lecture at the forensic science training school he quickly assigned a Bureau agent to address the school.13

Returning from Chicago, Appel worked to introduce scientific investigation in the Bureau’s work. He began to sound out other experts about what would be needed for a crime laboratory and what areas of work it should pursue. As the Bureau explored the hiring of expert examiners on a case-by-case basis, Appel continued to acquire knowledge of various crime detection matters, developing connections with other scientific crime examiners, acquiring important articles on these issues, and soliciting catalogs of scientific equipment that would be needed for a lab.14

On July 7, 1932, Appel proposed “a separate division for the handling of so-called crime prevention work” under which “the criminological research laboratory could be placed.”15 In a memo two weeks later, Appel expressed a clear vision of the scope the Bureau lab should have and the role it was to play in American law enforcement:

I believe the Bureau should be the central clearing house for all information which may be needed in the criminological work and that all police departments in the future will look to the Bureau for information of this kind as a routine thing…16

Hoover shared this vision and supported Appel’s work to enact it.

Room 802 of the Old Southern Railway Building

By September 14, Appel reported to Hoover that room 802 in the Old Southern Railway Building was ready for use as a crime lab. A new ultra-violet light machine was already set up and was ready to be used. The microscope on loan from Bausch and Lomb would be transferred to the new room as soon as the requisition for its purchase was finalized. A machine to examine the interior of a gun barrel was ordered, and would be set up for use and demonstration as soon as it arrived. Amenities were not forgotten. Appel acquired a carpet that another office was not using and ordered custom cabinets to hold the microscope, moulage kit, a wiretapping kit, photographic supplies, chemicals, and other items for the lab.17 Room 802 had been a break-room for Identification Division personnel and Appel thought that it could double for this purpose as soon as the lab was fully set-up.

Among the first things Appel tackled in the new lab was evidence in the Lindbergh kidnapping case. Earlier that year, the son of noted aviator Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped and killed. Appel was tasked with comparing the handwriting on the ransom notes sent to the Lindbergh family with samples from 300 suspects. The task took many months of fruitless effort. It finally yielded results when Bruno Richard Hauptman was arrested. Appel identified Hauptman as the author of the Lindbergh ransom notes based on the similarity of the his handwriting to the notes and testified to this at Hauptman’s trial. This identification was part of the chain of evidence that led to Hauptman’s conviction and execution for the crime.

During the course of this investigation an important aspect of Bureau policy was approved. In October 1933, policies were implemented to ensure control of evidence coming into the Bureau and restricting the number of persons involved in handling it. The issue arose when, one night in October, Hoover needed the Lindbergh ransom notes and was upset to learn that they were not in the file when he called for them. Upset, Hoover was ready to require the lab to send such evidence to file as soon as examination was finished.

Appel opposed this, replying that he was still using the letters and needed the originals to make comparisons. He also defended lab procedures noting that by keeping evidence in the lab, chain of custody was strengthened because only one or two persons had contact with the evidence. Hoover agreed to the procedures Appel had set up for the maintenance of certain original evidence in the lab and Appel continued his work on the ransom notes.

Special Agent Appel using a comparison microscope

Appel had many other duties besides handwriting analysis. He provided regular training to new agent groups, including a hands-on lesson using a dummy murder victim and contrived crime scene. He also initiated many of the Bureau’s early reference collections, pursuing samples of inks, dyes, tread marks, etc. The New York Office contributed to the effort as well by overseeing a typist who copied a watermark file held by a private individual.18

Under Appel, the lab also began providing forensic services to other law enforcement officials. Hearing of the new lab, Sherriff Ross Smiley of Red River County, Texas, wrote to say that he had a bloodstain from the scene of a burglary and a suspect with a suspicious cut. He wanted to know if the suspect and the sample could be linked. Appel wrote the sheriff that it was possible to determine if the stain was human blood and what type the blood was, but the state of the art in blood science at that time could not prove whether a specific suspect had left the stain.

Another goal of Hoover’s and Appel’s vision, though, was not met immediately. Forensic science research was severely limited at first. Tight appropriations prevented the Bureau from obtaining equipment it desired and personnel to work with Appel. Even if he had the time, certain pieces of lab equipment had been sent to Chicago for exhibition at the 1933 World’s Fair and would not be returned to the Bureau for several months. Given the number of investigations Appel was then performing, his ability to pursue other research was minimal. Still, he worked on not only submitted evidence, but research and writing projects as he could. During the summer of 1933, he began compiling frequency tables for use in cases involving ciphers and pursued research into marking bills for ransom drops.

Another project was delayed by a lack of staff too. During the summer of 1933, Appel began, writing an “Introduction to the Use of Science in Investigations.” When it was finally completed in the spring of 1934, it was titled “Scientific Aids in Crime Detection.” Hoover was especially interested in this project and regularly prodded Appel to get it done. On an October 1933 note reporting Appel’s progress, Tolson wrote “Christmas Present!” Hoover replied “I fear we will all be dead of old age before Rip Van Winkle gets this done.” The criticism was in jest; Hoover realized the amount of work Appel was doing and by December had arranged to assign more personnel to the lab to aid his lone lab examiner in the rapidly increasing workload.19

The handling and control of evidence submissions was a more pressing concern. In an extortion case at Kansas City, the Bureau, and Hoover specifically, were criticized because evidence in the case being tried was not at the trial in Kansas City, but in Washington, D.C. The judge threatened to throw out the charges if the material was not obtained by the next day. In reviewing the matter, Appel said that the lab work had not been finished as he was preparing the exhibits for the trial. He had phoned Kansas City with the results and it was based on that the US Attorney had proceeded with the prosecution. Appel argued that it was typical practice for an expert examiner to maintain control of the original evidence until such time as he was called to testify. The examiner would then bring the evidence and exhibits detailing his findings to the trial. This, Appel said, was the procedure he had been following. Hoover amended the earlier policy and ordered that original evidence, when fully examined, should be returned to the originating office along with exhibits created based on the evidence.20

With additional personnel, the Lab pursued a wider research agenda. Mr. Samuel F. Pickering came on board first and specialized in chemical analysis. By the summer of 1934 Appel had two additional colleagues in the lab, Special Agents Conrad and Parsons. Appel continued to handle handwriting and typewriter analyses and pursued research related to ballistics. Conrad investigated frequency tables for ciphers, infra-red ray research, and dyes for extortion packages. Parsons investigated the chemical development of latent fingerprints, the marking of ransom money, and blood grouping.21

Technicians analyzing evidence at the Technical Laboratory of the FBI

It was at this point that the Bureau began to move to the new Justice Department Building between 9th and 10th Streets and Pennsylvania Avenue. The lab acquired two large rooms on the 7th floor of this new building, sharing the floor with the Identification Unit, the Single Fingerprint Section, and the Photographing, Photostating, and Printing Section. Appel’s lab had evolved from the former break room to a state-of-the-art facility that fulfilled Hoover’s and Appel’s vision of a facility providing investigative assistance to the Bureau and other law enforcement agencies and pursuing cutting-edge research into the application of scientific insight to the detection of crime.22

[1] Memo, Appel to Director, 7 December 1933, 80-11-276.

[2] Charles A. Appel was born in 1895 and served as an aviator in World War I. He entered on duty on October 24, 1924 and served in the Bureau until retiring in December of 1948. From 1932 to 1948 Appel was assigned to the FBI’s laboratory, where he specialized in document examination. [67E-HQ-966].

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. She was subsequently found to be insane and likely was not tried for the murder.

[5] The official date set by E. P. Coffey, the Assistant Director in charge of Division 5. [Note by E. P. C. on Memo, Appel to Director, 11/26/1932, 80-11-86]. Existing records indicate that the lab was in operation as early as September of that year. Evidence also indicates that Appel was performing document analysis in his office even earlier.

[6] The nickname “G-Men”came to be used with reference to Bureau agents ca. 1934. Congress officially assigned the name FBI to the Bureau in 1935. During the range of years covered by this article, the official name of the Bureau was, successively, the Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Bureau of Investigation, and the Division of Investigation. “Bureau”is used throughout to avoid confusion.

[7] Letter, Hoover to Special Agent Hardy, 1/10/1930, 80-11-1.

[8] “History of the Bureau of Investigation,”by Charles A. Appel, 11/18/1930, typecopy by RCU/OPCA,, FBI, 2/2002. Moulage entailed the use of a moulding compound to make exacting 3-D models of objects for comparison and courtroom exhibits.

[9] The relationship between the Bureau and Goddard began with contention but quickly became cooperative. By the summer of 1935, though, this cordial relationship disappeared.

[10] The Goddard picture was from the Washington Star, 28 July 1931, clipping in 94-1-15294-81X.

[11] Newsclipping at 94-1-15294-53X.

[12] Ibid. The quote is from a newsclipping, Washington Daily News, 5/15/1930, at 94-1-15284-75X [was 62-14949075X]

[13] 94-1-15294, Sec.1

[14] Memo, Tolson to Director, 26 May 1932, 67-19269-6.

[15] Memo, Appel to Director, 12 July 1932, 80-11-4.

[16] Memo, Appel to Director, 26 July 1932, 80-11-6.

[17] Memo, Appel to Director, 14 September 1932, 80-11-34.

[18] The picture of Appel is from The Washington Evening Star, 13 February 1933, clipping in 80-11-NR.

[19] Memo, Appel to Director, 18 August 1933, 80-11-201; Memo, Appel to Director, with comments by Tolson and Hoover, 9 October 1933, 62-29799-1.

[20] Memo, Coffey to Tolson, 21 December 1933, 80-11-292; Letter, Conroy to Hoover, 29 December 1933, 80-11-293; and Memo, Hoover to Edwards, 3 January 1934, 80-11-290.

[21] Memo, Coffey to Tolson, 4 August 1934, 80-11-552.

[22] Chart, August 1934, 80-11-552.