The FBI and the American Gangster, 1924-1938
The “war to end all wars” was over, but a new one was just beginning—on the streets of America.
It wasn’t much of a fight, really—at least at the start.
On the one side was a rising tide of professional criminals, made richer and bolder by Prohibition, which had turned the nation “dry” in 1920. In one big city alone— Chicago—an estimated 1,300 gangs had spread like a deadly virus by the mid-1920s. There was no easy cure. With wallets bursting from bootlegging profits, gangs outfitted themselves with “Tommy” guns and operated with impunity by paying off politicians and police alike. Rival gangs led by the powerful Al “Scarface” Capone and the hot-headed George “Bugs” Moran turned the city streets into a virtual war zone with their gangland clashes. By 1926, more than 12,000 murders were taking place every year across America.
On the other side was law enforcement, which was outgunned (literally) and ill-prepared at this point in history to take on the surging national crime wave. Dealing with the bootlegging and speakeasies was challenging enough, but the “Roaring Twenties” also saw bank robbery, kidnapping, auto theft, gambling, and drug trafficking become increasingly common crimes. More often than not, local police forces were hobbled by the lack of modern tools and training. And their jurisdictions stopped abruptly at their borders.
In the young Bureau of Investigation, things were not much better. In the early twenties, the agency was no model of efficiency. It had a growing reputation for politicized investigations. In 1923, in the midst of the Teapot Dome scandal that rocked the Harding Administration, the nation learned that Department of Justice officials had sent Bureau agents to spy on members of Congress who had opposed its policies. Not long after the news of these secret activities broke, President Calvin Coolidge fired Harding’s Attorney General Harry Daugherty, naming Harlan Fiske Stone as his successor in 1924.
Al Capone after his arrest in 1929.
The first graduates of the Bureau’s training program for national police executives, the forerunner of today’s National Academy, in 1935.
A good housecleaning was in order for the Bureau, and it came at the hands of a young lawyer by the name of J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover had joined the Department of Justice in 1917 and had quickly risen through its ranks. In 1921, he was named Assistant Director of the Bureau. Three years later, Stone named him Director. Hoover would go on to serve for nearly another half century.
At the outset, the 29-year-old Hoover was determined to reform the Bureau, quickly and thoroughly, to make it a model of professionalism. He did so by weeding out the “political hacks” and incompetents, laying down a strict code of conduct for agents, and instituting regular inspections of Headquarters and field operations. He insisted on rigorous hiring criteria, including background checks, interviews, and physical tests for all special agent applicants, and in January 1928, he launched the first formal training for incoming agents, a two-month course of instruction and practical exercises in Washington, D.C. Under Hoover’s direction, new agents were also required to be 25 to 35 years old, preferably with experience in law or accounting.
When Hoover took over in 1924, the Bureau had about 650 employees, including 441 special agents. In five years, with the rash of firings it had just 339 special agents and less than 600 total employees. But it was beginning to become the organized, professional, and effective force that Hoover envisioned.
One important step in that direction came during Hoover’s first year at the helm, when the Bureau was given the responsibility of consolidating the nation’s two major collections of fingerprint files. In the summer of 1924, Hoover quickly created an Identification Division (informally called “Ident” in the organization for many years to come) to gather prints from police agencies nationwide and to search them upon request for matches to criminals and crime evidence.
A young J. Edgar Hoover
New agents train on the rooftop of the Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C., where FBI Headquarters was located from 1933 to 1972.
It was a vital new tool for all of law enforcement—the first major building block in Hoover’s growing quest to bring the discipline of science to Bureau investigations and scientific services to law enforcement nationwide. Combined with its identification orders, or IOs—early wanted posters that included fingerprints and all manner of details about criminal suspects on the run—the Bureau was fast becoming a national hub for crime records. In the late 1920s, the Bureau began exchanging fingerprints with Canada and added more friendly foreign governments in 1932; the following year, it created a corresponding civil fingerprint file for non-criminal cases. By 1936, the agency had a total reservoir of 100,000 fingerprint cards; by 1946, that number had swelled to 100 million.
Welcome to the World of Fingerprints
We take it for granted now, but at the turn of the twentieth century the use of fingerprints to identify criminals was still in its infancy.
More popular was the Bertillon system, which measured dozens of features of a criminal’s face and body and recorded the series of precise numbers on a large card along with a photograph.
After all, the thinking went, what were the chances that two different people would look the same and have identical measurements in all the minute particulars logged by the Bertillon method?
Not great, of course. But inevitably a case came along to beat the odds.
It happened this way. In 1903, a convicted criminal named Will West was taken to Leavenworth federal prison in Kansas. The clerk at the admissions desk, thinking he recognized West, asked if he’d ever been to Leavenworth. The new prisoner denied it. The clerk took his Bertillon measurements and went to the files, only to return with a card for a “William” West. Turns out, Will and William bore an uncanny resemblance (they may have been identical twins). And their Bertillon measurements were a near match.
The clerk asked Will again if he’d ever been to the prison. “Never,” he protested. When the clerk flipped the card over, he discovered Will was telling the truth. “William” was already in Leavenworth, serving a life sentence for murder! Soon after, the fingerprints of both men were taken, and they were clearly different.
It was this incident that caused the Bertillon system to fall “flat on its face,” as reporter Don Whitehead aptly put it. The next year, Leavenworth abandoned the method and start fingerprinting its inmates. Thus began the first federal fingerprint collection.
In New York, the state prison had begun fingerprinting its inmates as early as 1903. Following the event at Leavenworth, other police and prison officials followed suit. Leavenworth itself eventually began swapping prints with other agencies, and its collection swelled to more than 800,000 individual records.
By 1920, though, the International Association of Chiefs of Police had become concerned about the erratic quality and disorganization of criminal identification records in America. It urged the Department of Justice to merge the country’s two major fingerprint collections—the federal one at Leavenworth and its own set of state and local ones held in Chicago.
Four years later, a bill was passed providing the funds and giving the task to the young Bureau of Investigation. On July 1, 1924, J. Edgar Hoover, who had been appointed Acting Director less than two months earlier, quickly formed a Division of Identification. He announced that the Bureau would welcome submissions from other jurisdictions and provide identification services to all law enforcement partners.
The FBI has done so ever since.
Using fingerprints to catch the guilty and free the innocent was just the beginning. The lawlessness of the 1920s got the nation’s attention, and a number of independent studies—including the Wickersham Commission set up by President Herbert Hoover in May 1929—confirmed what everyone seemed to already know: that law enforcement at every level needed to modernize.
One glaring need was to get a handle on the national scope of crime by collecting statistics that would enable authorities to understand trends and better focus resources. Taking the lead as it did in many police reforms in the early twentieth century, the International Association of Chiefs of Police created a committee to advance the issue, with Hoover and the Bureau participating. In 1929, the Chiefs adopted a system to classify and report crimes and began to collect crime statistics. The association recommended that the Bureau—with its experience in centralizing criminal records—take the lead. Congress agreed, and the Bureau assumed responsibility for the program in 1930. It has been taking this national pulse on crime ever since.
The third major development was a scientific crime lab, long a keen interest of Hoover’s. After becoming Director, he had encouraged his agents to keep an eye on advances in science. By 1930, the Bureau was hiring outside experts on a case-by-case basis. Over the next few years, the Bureau’s first technical laboratory took root, thanks in large part to a visionary special agent named Charles Appel. By 1932, the lab was fully operational and soon providing scientific examinations and analysis for the Bureau and its partners around the country.
Employees of the “Ident” division in 1929. The Bureau began managing the nation’s fingerprint collections five years earlier.
This trio of advances came just in time, as the crime wave that began in the 1920s was about to reach its peak. By the early 1930s, cities like St. Paul, Minnesota, had become virtual training grounds for young crooks, while Hot Springs, Arkansas, had turned into a safe haven and even a vacation spot for the criminal underworld. Al Capone was locked away for good in 1931 (thanks in part to the Bureau), but his Chicago Outfit carried on fine without him and would actually experience a resurgence in the coming decades. The “Five Families” of the New York Mafia were also emerging during this period, with “Lucky” Luciano setting up the “Commission” to unite the mob and “Murder, Inc.” to carry out its hits. Prohibition was ultimately repealed in 1933, but by then, the Great Depression was in full force, and with honest jobs harder to come by than ever, the dishonest ones sometimes seemed more attractive than standing in soup lines.
By 1933, an assortment of dangerous and criminally prolific gangsters was wreaking havoc across America, especially in the Midwest. Their names would soon be known far and wide.
There was John Dillinger, with his crooked smile, who managed to charm the press and much of America into believing he was nothing more than a harmless, modern-day Robin Hood. In reality, Dillinger and his revolving crew of gunslingers—violent thugs like Homer Van Meter, Harry “Pete” Pierpont, and John “Red” Hamilton—were shooting up banks across America’s heartland, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars and murdering at least one policeman along the way.
The Birth of the FBI Lab
In the pages of FBI history, November 24, 1932, is considered the official birthday of the FBI Laboratory. But it is really a “declared” anniversary for what was an evolving concept.
From the 1920s on, Director Hoover had been actively interested in scientific analysis, and by 1930 he had authorized the use of outside experts on a case-by-case basis in identification and evidence examination matters. Then, over a two-year period, the first true “technical” laboratory functions began to take shape. When all these functions moved into Room 802 of the Old Southern Railway Building in Washington, D.C., it seemed appropriate to recognize that a true lab had been born.
It was Special Agent Charles Appel (pictured) who was its midwife. He had served as an aviator in World War I before joining the Bureau in 1924—and right from the start he focused on meticulous investigations based on scientific detection.
Appel was an extraordinary man with extraordinary vision, fully backed by Director Hoover with the necessary resources. He took courses to further his knowledge of state-of-the-art techniques, and by 1931, he began seeking expert opinion on starting a crime lab. In July 1932, when he proposed “a separate division for the handling of so-called crime prevention work” under which “the criminological research laboratory could be placed,” he got an immediate endorsement. By September, Room 802 in the Old Southern Railway building was fully equipped. By November 24, it was in business.
The new lab was pretty sophisticated by 1932 standards. It included a brand new ultra-violet light machine; a microscope, on loan from Bausch and Lomb until the requisition for its purchase could be finalized; moulage kits (for taking impressions); photographic supplies; and chemical sets. A machine to examine the interior of gun barrels was on order.
For about a year, Appel was the Bureau’s one-man lab. His handwriting and typewriter font analysis solved a poisoning case in 1933. His analysis of handwriting on the Lindbergh kidnapping ransom notes ultimately helped convict Bruno Richard Hauptmann.
Agents across the Bureau soon started receiving training on what this new lab could do for them and their cases, and they spread the word about the value of scientific work to their law enforcement partners.
By January 1940, the lab had a total of 46 employees. As America headed into a second world war, its growing skills and capabilities would be needed more than ever.
There was Clyde Barrow and his girlfriend Bonnie Parker, an inseparable, love-struck couple who—partnered at times with the Barrow brothers and others—were robbing and murdering their way across a half dozen or so states.
There was the ruthless, almost psychopathic “Baby Face” Nelson, who worked with everyone from Roger “The Terrible” Touhy to Al Capone and Dillinger over the course of his crime career and teamed up with John Paul Chase and Fatso Negri in his latter days. Nelson was a callous killer who thought nothing of murdering lawmen; he gunned down three Bureau agents, for instance, in the span of seven months. And there was the cunning Alvin Karpis and his Barker brother sidekicks, who not only robbed banks and trains but engineered two major kidnappings of rich Minnesota business executives in 1933.
All of these criminals would become “public enemies,” actively hunted by law enforcement nationwide. At first, the Bureau was playing only a bit part in pursuing these gangsters, since few of their crimes violated federal laws. But that began to change with the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping, which gave the Bureau jurisdiction in these cases for the first time; with the “Kansas City Massacre” in June 1933, a bloody slaughter at a train station that claimed the lives of four lawmen, including a Bureau agent; and with the rise to national prominence of John Dillinger.
The rising popularity of the FBI’s “G-men” spawned hundreds of toys and games.
Using whatever federal laws it could hang its hat on, the Bureau turned its full attention to catching these gangsters. And despite some stumbles along the way, the successes began to add up. By the end of 1934, most of these public enemies had been killed or captured.
Bonnie and Clyde were the first to fall, in May 1934, at the hands of Texas lawmen (with the Bureau playing a small supporting role in tracking them down). In July, Melvin Purvis and a team of agents caught up with Dillinger, who was shot dead leaving a Chicago theater. “Pretty Boy” Floyd, one of the hired hands of the Kansas City Massacre, was killed in a shootout with Bureau agents and local law enforcement on an Ohio farm in October 1934. And Nelson died the following month after a bloody firefight with two special agents, who were also killed.
The Bureau caught up with the rest soon enough. Agents arrested “Doc” Barker in January 1935, and the infamous “Ma” Barker and her son Fred were killed by Bureau agents in Florida eight days later. Alvin Karpis, the brains of the gang, was captured in May 1936 and ended up in Alcatraz.
The Florida home (right) where “Doc” and “Ma” Barker were killed in a shootout with Bureau agents. The cache of Barker weapons recovered by agents after the firefight is shown in the inset.
In just a few transformative years, thanks to the successful battle against gangsters, the once unknown Bureau and its “G-Men” became household names and icons of popular culture. Along the way, Congress had given it newfound powers, too, including the ability to carry guns and make arrests. In July 1935, as the capstone of its newfound identity, the organization was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation—the FBI.
As the decade came to a close, the FBI would find itself shifting gears once again. War was brewing in Europe, and pro-Nazi groups were becoming more and more vocal in the U.S., claiming fascism was the answer to American woes. The gangsters, it turned out, were just a prelude to the dark days to come.
“Machine Gun” Kelly and the Legend of the G-Men
Before 1934, “G-Man” was underworld slang for any and all government agents. In fact, the detectives in J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation were so little known that they were often confused with Secret Service or Prohibition Bureau agents. By 1935, though, only one kind of government employee was known by that name, the special agents of the Bureau.
How this change came about is not entirely clear, but September 26, 1933, played a central role in the apocryphal origins of this change.
On that day, Bureau of Investigation agents and Tennessee police officers arrested gangster George “Machine Gun” Kelly. He was a “wanted fugitive” for good reason. Two months earlier Kelly had kidnapped oil magnate Charles Urschel and held him for $200,000 in ransom. After Urschel was released, the Bureau coordinated a multi-state investigation, drawing investigative information from its own field offices as well as from other police sources, as it identified and then tracked the notorious gangster across the country.
On September 26, “Machine Gun” Kelly was found hiding in a decrepit Memphis residence. Some early press reports said that a tired, perhaps hung-over Kelly stumbled out of his bed mumbling something like “I was expecting you.” Another version of the event held that Kelly emerged from his room, hands-up, crying “Don’t shoot G-Men, don’t shoot.” Either way, Kelly was arrested without violence.
The rest is history. The more colorful version sparked the popular imagination and “G-Men” became synonymous with the special agents of the FBI.