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1935 Washington Star Article

Historical Documents from the Bureau's Founding

Washington Star, August 18, 1935

Bonaparte Founded G-Men:
As Attorney General Under Theodore Roosevelt, Napoleon's Grandnephew First Organized the Force of Special Agents of the Department of Justice

By Don Bloch

One of the most picturesque figures in American politics, described as a "sort of compound of Sicilian bandit and Scotch bluenose" and actually the grandnephew of Napoleon, first organized the "detective force of special agents" of the Department of Justice now known as G-men. This was Charles Joseph Bonaparte, Secretary of the Navy and later, Attorney General, in the cabinet of Theodore Roosevelt. He was a grandson of Jerome, the younger brother of Napoleon I, who married Betsy Patterson of Baltimore, and the only authentic member of royalty who ever entered American politics.

Known nationally as the "Imperial Peacock," and more intimately as "Souphouse Charlie," Bonaparte wrote prolifically - articles, speeches, essays and books - against public and private sin, on political and social subjects, for the magazines of the early 1900's. He was regarded as the one of the sharpest wits of his day and yet was one of the most humorless of men. He was by instinct a royalist, by profession a democrat and a reformer. He lived his three score and 10, and died childless and poor, June 28, 1921, already long forgotten.

Wed on Christmas Eve.

While on a yacht trip in 1803, the 19-year-old Jerome had met the moneyed, year-younger beauty, Elizabeth of Baltimore. On Christmas Eve these two were married. Napoleon was furious at his younger brother and refused to recognize the union. He suggested forthright desertion. Two years later Jerome and Betsy went back to Europe on the yacht. But they parted at Lisbon, Portugal. Betsy got 60,000 francs a year as settlement; Jerome married again, and took up the business of being King of Westphalia. Then Betsy's son, Jerome Napoleon, was born, to be legitimized later by Napoleon III.

Not until 1915 did Betsy get her divorce from Jerome. Then, using her settlement money, she traveled about and lived among the society of the Continent until 1840, noted for her beauty, caustic wit and her lavish expenditures upon her son. He grew up to call himself Jerome Bonaparte-Patterson, married Susan May Williams of Baltimore and in his turn became the father of two sons. One of them was Charles Joseph; the other Jerome Napoleon, distinguished himself as a roving soldier in various campaigns abroad.

Left Grandsons $1,500,000.

Betsy, now returned to Baltimore, died there at an advanced age in 1879. During these last 18 years in Baltimore she lived obscurely in a small boarding house, plodding about the town in rain or shine, collecting her rents. She took charge of the education of her two grandsons, sent Charles up to Harvard and, when she died, left the two boys $1,500,000 in gilt-edged real estate.

Charles, born on June 9, 1951, was taught early by his mother to keep out of the pride parade which he might have marched in because of his royal blood. She sent him first to a French school near his birthplace in Baltimore, then provided private tutors for him.

At Harvard he was a brilliant scholar, graduating in the class of '72. Two years later he had completed work in the Cambridge law school and September 1, 1875, married Ellen Channing Day of Newport, R.I. He began practicing at once in Baltimore. Having money, he put himself on the side of justice. Public cases appealed to him, so he allied himself with the local reform rings, He became a member of the Baltimore Reform League and helped found the Civil Service Reformer, organ of the Maryland Civil Service League.

Earned Sobriquet in 1884.

It was at this time, 1884, that he earned a sobriquet which followed him all his days thereafter. As a Catholic who was never absent from his pew in Baltimore Cathedral on Sunday mornings, Bonaparte was violently opposed to the public school system, just then getting on its legs in America. "As ridiculous the State should provide free schools," he argued, "as that it should supply free soup houses!"

A newspaper wit took up the phrase and a descendant of the American line of a reigning royal family in Europe became "Souphouse Charlie." Through his civil service reform activities, Roosevelt heard of him. They first met in 1889, while Roosevelt was a member of the Civil Service Commission. Both Harvard men, they worked together. Later, as President, he sought Bonaparte's services on the Board of Indian Commissions, then as special counsel to prosecute alleged frauds in the postal service. These offices lasted from 1902-05.

In 1905, with the expectation of succeeding to the Attorney Generalship on the retirement of William H. Moody, he accepted the portfolio of Secretary of the Navy in a long-winded letter to Roosevelt.

At the time, there was great newspaper raillery directed at him; "The grandnephew of the Little Corporal as head of the United States Navy." But then, as all his life, he was indifferent to newspaper comment. He was probably one of the most indolent Secretaries the Navy has ever had. For weeks running his attendance at his office was limited to an hour a day. He still kept his residence in Baltimore and, leaving there by the 11 o'clock train daily, he got to Washington at noon, dashed to the Navy Department and then caught the 1 o'clock train back to Baltimore. He lingered longer in the Capital only on cabinet-meeting days.

Became Attorney General.

In December, 1906, when he was 45, he became Attorney General. This office suited his abilities better. He appeared before the Supreme Court personally in 560 cases during his incumbency and delivered 138 opinions through the Department of Justice to the President and heads of departments. Only three of these latter were not completely his own. He argued 49 cases orally before the court and submitted seven on briefs. Twenty of these cases came under the anti-trust laws, helping to dissolve the American Tobacco Co. and earning him another epithet - the "trust buster" - which only amused him.

While in this capacity he aided in the organization of a body of special agents which in later days have come to be known as "G-men." They gained no great reputation during his regime, it is said, because, wishing "to make his own mistakes," Bonaparte kept such tight check on his detective force that he left them little room for initiative. An interesting sidelight on this point would reveal the origins of this force of men about whom so much has been in print lately but about whose beginnings little has been told.

Contrary to prevalent opinion, the G-men are in no sense a recent governmental development. A specific act of Congress of May 27, 1908, is responsible for their establishment and J. Edgar Hoover, far from being their first head, is their sixth.

Archives Aid Story.

Pieced together from interviews with two men - David D. Caldwell and Staley Finch, both still active in the Department of Justice - and old records from the archives for the Attorney General, the story, briefly, is this:

Part of the reason Bonaparte had been appointed to the office of the Attorney General by Roosevelt was to give over his special talents to the prosecution of offenders in the vast land fraud activities going on in the West at that time - 1905-10. When he came into office the newspapers were also carrying frightful stories of timber frauds, peonage and crimes against the Treasury laws of one sort or another.

As far back as 1878 the reports of the Attorney General had called to the attention of Congress the fact that he had really no force for the investigation of "official acts, records ad accounts" of district attorneys, marshals and clerks. The following year a small appropriation was provided for such a group of examiners. The report for 1884 shows that the Attorney General was using examiners to look up the accounts of the court offices in the field where there was also much corrupt practice. Records then become vague for a time, but it is certain that these examiners were being hired from other departments of the Government having detective forces. It is certain also, that not a few men were impressed from the Treasury Department secret service branch, but being paid by the Department of Justice out of special funds appropriated for this usage.

Organized Own Bureau.

By act of Congress in 1908 this practice was forbidden. The Attorney General was forced to organize his own Bureau of Investigation. In 1906 the Attorney General had reported that criminal identification records were accumulating at the Federal penitentiaries. He recommended that Congress authorize the collection and classification of those records and their exchange with the States. In 1908 he announced that arrangements were being made for the exchange. The following year, the records had been transferred to Washington the year before all were sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary, in Leavenworth, Kansas. There the first Bureau of Identification was set up. It was not until 1923 that this Bureau was again moved to Washington and made a part of the Bureau of Investigation. Before 1908 the Department of Justice's group engaged in collecting evidence of Federal law violations then was a mixed group hired from other departments, but paid for from different appropriations from the Department of Justice. They were called an office of examiners, and subdivided into seven services - for land and timber frauds, peonage, etc., investigations.

Executive Force Lacking.

Then came Bonaparte. His first report, for 1907-8, says in part: "The attention of Congress should be called to the anomaly that the Department of Justice has no executive force, and, more particularly, no permanent detective force under its immediate control. This singular condition arises mainly from the fact that before the office of Attorney General was transformed into the Department of Justice a highly efficient detective service had been organized to deal with crimes against the Treasury laws, which force has been in effect lent from time to time to this department to meet its steadily increasing need for an agency of this nature, without, however, being removed from the control of the Treasury Department."


He further suggests that if the Department of Justice "had a small, carefully selected and experienced force under its immediate orders, the necessity of having these officers (i.e. the mercenaries from the Treasury Department, etc.) suddenly appointed as special deputies, possibly in considerable numbers, might be sometimes avoided, with greater likelihood of economy and a better assurance of satisfactory results."

But behind this recommendation there had been an inter-office memorandum from one David D. Caldwell, then a young attorney in the office of the Assistant to the Attorney General, Bonaparte. It had been suggested, in the early months of 1907, that this force of hired men from the Secret Service and elsewhere, who had been doing the criminal investigation for the Department of Justice, be made a permanent part of the office of the Attorney General, under the head of one man there. These Secret Service men, loaned by John E. Wilkie, then their chief, were doing good work - riding bumpers and rods on trains out West, gathering information, and arresting their men at straggling village water tanks. But they were not under the controls of the Department of Justice. Caldwell, now attorney with the Department of Justice, saw this as a situation likely to need correction. He is perhaps the first man who planted the seed which later grew into the Department of Federal Investigation.

Finch Headed Examiners.

Within the Department of Justice at this time, as nominal head of the examiners, was Stanley W. Finch, now attached to the Accounts Division of the Department of Justice. He had been connected with the Department since 1893, and by 1908 was chief bookkeeper in the division which took charge of investigations. He, too, saw the great need of organizing this heterogeneous group of examiners under on head in the Department of Justice. Therefore, with the advent of Bonaparte, he prepared …

[p.6, c.1]

… memoranda for the Attorney General which would bring about such a result.
The ball had begun to roll. Caldwell, plus Finch, plus Bonaparte, was too much for Congress. The act of 1908 brought matters to a head. The Department of Justice was forced to organized its own Bureau of Law Violation Investigators. The seven services were congealed, and Finch was given the title of chief examiner. Then the prisons branch was lopped off and put in charge of R. V. La Dow, and that department is now known as the Bureau of Prisons, with Sanford Bates director.

Finch Gathers 25 Aides.

With the title of chief examiner, Finch became first head of what was later to be known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. By authority of Bonaparte, Finch grouped about him approximately 25 men - the original G-Men. Together, Finch and the Attorney General went over the list of men available for this special investigating work. First, a set of standards was worked out, corresponding very much to present-day qualifications; the men, of course, were to be physically fit; they were to be well educated - preferably graduates of some college and members of the bar; they were not to be unusual in appearance, so that they could pass unnoticed in a crowd; they were to have a knowledge of language, if possible. They were to be appointed by Bonaparte, upon Finch's recommendation. In this first batch appointed were half a dozen of the men formerly fired, from the Secret Service. These taught shadowing and "policing" to the others. One of them, Finch recalls, was a linguist who came form the Immigration Service; some came from the Treasury and other departments' accounting divisions. All were competent criminal investigators of one sort or another.

In the report of 1908, Bonaparte describes these first G-Men as "Special Agents, under direct orders of the Chief Examiner, who receives from them daily reports and summarizes them for submission to the Attorney General *** directly controlled by this department, and the Attorney General knows at all time what they are doing and cost."

In his last report, he said, "The last six months shows clearly that such a force is, under modern conditions, absolutely indispensable to the proper discharge of the department, and it is hoped that its merits will be augmented and its attendant expense reduced by further experience."

Office Name Changed.

Under George W. Wickersham, who succeeded Bonaparte, it was built up to a "substantial force," says Finch who remained in the position of its head until 1911. Still further to augment his division and strengthen its position, he prepared two letters which Bonaparte signed. One changed the name of this Division from Office of the Chief Examiner to Federal Bureau of Investigation. The other named him chief of the newly named bureau. The first real activities of the G-Men, as such, were to gather details and make arrest in the then all-important "bucket-shop" cases which sprang up all over the country, and to break up the strong rings of violators of the Mann act. Thus were born the G-Men of today, really a governmental body 27 years old.

With the retirement of President Roosevelt in 1909, Bonaparte went back to his law practice in Baltimore after three years and eight months in the cabinet. For the remainder of his life he remained active in politics, however. As a lawyer, he was sharp in repartee, was an eloquent speaker, noted for his wit, vocabulary and sarcasm - "keen as a Damascus blade," according to contemporaries. He became founder of the National Municipal League, and later its president. He was for 12 years an overseer of Harvard University. He was much in demand as a public speaker in civil service reform, remaining an advocate of the merit system to the end of his days.

Florid, Complex Style.

He wrote continuously and voluminously for newspapers, magazines and in book form. He was frank in his writing, hating waste and hypocrisy in a deadly way. His style was florid and complex, with sentences 500 words long a commonplace. Books, speeches and essays now moulder forgotten.

His relationship undoubtedly got him a certain prestige, but he never mentioned it. Once, denounced as a "transplanted Frenchman" and therefore sinful, he promptly replied that he was Italian and Scotch, and without a drop of French blood. He never visited France or the Bonaparte family in Europe, and it irritated him to be told he looked like Napoleon. It is probable that he harbored the remembrance of Betsy's desertion and the annulment of the marriage by Napoleon.

He had few intimates during this latter portion of his live, visited no places of amusement, and was seen rarely at social functions. He became a values advisor to Cardinal Gibbons, and seems to have made this great Catholic his main companion. In this capacity, and as trustees for many years of Catholic University in Washington, he rated the newspaper reputation of  "one of the greatest Catholic laymen in America."

He is described by those who knew him as tall, sturdy, with a large, strong neck and a massive head: "A vast round, rugged head; a double-decker head; a cannon ball head, like a warrior's, with room for two sets of brains, bald and shiny." His hair and eyes were jet black, his hands and feet small. He had the clear ruddy complexion of an outdoorsman. He constantly wore black, carried an umbrella - not a cane - and looked like a "studious professor." He did much of his thinking on the street, striding briskly along, his massive head-"with curious rises over the temples"-swaying from side to side. Thus in transit he seldom recognized his most intimate friends until roused.

Newspaper men liked to interview Charles Joseph. He was always good for an interview, always "good copy." They liked to say, "Beneath the forehead lurks the Bonaparte smile. It is there all the time." His interviews show him to have been conscientious, a man of many peculiar tastes, but with few sympathies. His property gradually slipped through his fingers, although he was diligent with his accounts and never missed a day at his office. When not at work in the modest legal quarters he maintained, he divided his time between his town and his country house. This latter was Bella Vista, about 15 miles from Baltimore. From there he used to drive to town each morning behind a pair of fast-stepping "roadsters."

He was fond of the life of a gentleman farmer, and on his 300-acre place, stocked with blooded horses, 33 cows, fine sheep, hogs and poultry, he maintained a studious neatness, from stable to dog houses. He was a good judge of horseflesh and fond of French harness. For seven months of the year, from May to December, he lived as a Maryland farmer, in this grass-covered valley. He rose punctually at 5:30, walked an hour, then drove to Baltimore, silent on the trip. He habitually retired at 9 in the evening and, a fresh-air "fiend," insisted on open windows and doors. Thus he passed his last days.

As a neighbor once said, "sensible folks like him, and the damn fools don't."