On this date, May 10, way back in 1924, J. Edgar Hoover started his ridiculously long tenure with the FBI. How long was it? Well, for starters, when he took the reins, it wasn’t even called the FBI yet. It was just called the Bureau of Investigation. The “Federal” bit wasn’t added until 1935. Unbelievably, he held that office until 1972. Along the way, there were all sorts of twists and turns.
We’ve decided to dedicate today’s Stuff You Should Know to this somewhat dubious anniversary. Here are ten things you should know about J. Edgar Hoover…
Hoover Had an Unsavory Early Hero
While attending law school at George Washington University, Hoover was keenly interested in the teachings and methods of Anthony Comstock. Who is that? We’re glad you asked!
Comstock was a United States Postal Inspector and head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, a group that was every bit as awful as the name implies. He successfully lobbied Congress to pass what came to be known as the “Comstock Law,” which forbade the delivery or transportation of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material.
Not only would your subscription to Playboy be illegal if this guy was still in charge, but so would your subscription to Maxim (which probably wouldn’t be much of a loss). Oh, and he also managed to get things like anatomy texts and information about birth control banned under the law.
In other words, he was a total party animal. And J. Edgar Hoover loved his bullshit.
The Bureau Was a Bit Smaller When Hoover Took Over
The FBI might be a law fighting behemoth these days, but it was unsurprisingly much smaller when he assumed power. Upon taking over, Hoover was in control of a Bureau staff of approximately 650 employees. Today, there are over 35,000 employees. There were 441 special agents on staff during Hoover’s first year. Nowadays, there are almost that many resident FBI agencies scattered across the country.
This comparatively tiny staff likely made our next point even more troublesome for those it affected…
He Was a Shitty Boss
In his 1975 book No Left Turns: The FBI in Peace & War, author Joseph Schott noted that Hoover often fired FBI agents on the grounds that they “looked like stupid truck drivers.”
Hoover also famously drove agent Melvin Purvis from the ranks of the FBI. What did Melvin Purvis do to deserve it? He acted on a tip he received as director of the Chicago field office that resulted in the killing of John Dillinger. That’s a good thing, of course, it’s just that Hoover was jealous of all the attention Purvis received for it.
But don’t get it twisted. Hoover wasn’t all bad. Not by any stretch of the imagination. For one thing…
He Was An Innovator
Under Hoover’s watch, the FBI went from being a loosely connected group of agent offices to the intelligence and data gathering machine that it is today. He was the pioneering force behind innovations like centralizing fingerprint files into what is still the largest fingerprint database in existence.
He also helped develop the first FBI forensics labs. Are we implying that J. Edgar Hoover was singlehandedly responsible for reviving the career of David Caruso? No, we’re not.
Or *puts on sunglasses*…are we?
That was our half-hearted attempt to recreate the opening of every episode of CSI: Miami. We hope you enjoyed it, now let’s get back to J. Edgar Hoover.
He Was Tough on Bank Robbers
Hoover’s FBI agents were responsible for taking down a number of high profile criminals. Along with the aforementioned John Dillinger, they also nabbed Alvin Karpis and Machine Gun Kelly. In fact, it was this work that led to the Bureau being granted expanded powers and being rechristened the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Before that, they were just the Bureau of Investigation. How fucking lame is that?
He Was Less Tough on Organized Crime
As much of a hard ass as he may have been on bank robbers, he was a little less vigilant when it came to organized crime. How little regard did he pay to the premier troublemakers of the Prohibition era? Approximately “denied their very existence” little.
Hoover felt that the Bureau had “much more important functions” than chasing after a bunch of bookmakers and gamblers. This could have had a little something to do with the fact that he was an enthusiastic gambler himself, often sending special agents to place bets on horse races in his name.
But He Was Super Tough on “Radicals”
Hoover may have been lax on organized crime, but he more than made up for it by being terrifyingly overzealous in his pursuit of those he deemed “disloyal” to the United States. The FBI spied on tens of thousands of Americans under Hoover’s watch. Don’t worry though, because they totally don’t do that anymore.
Sometimes, his spying was a good thing, like when a group of Nazi saboteurs were caught after crossing into the United States via the shores of Long Island and Florida.
Other times, his spying was downright terrifying, like when the Korean War broke out and he presented Harry Truman with a list of 12,000 Americans he considered “disloyal” and suggested that the writ of habeas corpus be suspended so they could be detained. Thankfully, Truman never acted on this suggestion.
And then there was that whole COINTELPRO thing, which could be an article all its own. He wiretapped Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as part of that program, if that gives you any idea of what kind of shenanigans were afoot there.
He May Have Been a Bit of a “Radical” Himself
Hoover was often accused of carrying on some shady affairs, but that was nothing compared to the other rumors that dogged him for most of his life.
Put simply, people accused him of being gay. In some cases, it was a closeted, we’re-just-best-friends kind of gay. He had a remarkably close relationship FBI associate director Clyde Tolson. How close? Well, they worked together during the day, dined together and went to clubs at night and often vacationed together. Tolson also received the flag that draped Hoover’s casket after his death and was the heir to his estate. So there’s that.
An even more scandalous rumor was put forth in the 1993 book Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J Edgar Hoover. Journalist Anthony Summers quoted a witness, Susan Rosenstiel, as saying that she witnessed Hoover dressed in women’s clothing at homosexual orgies.
But Probably Not
The cross dressing rumors caught on so quickly and spread so wide that they’re pretty much accepted as fact these days, but here’s the thing, they probably aren’t true. As it turns out, that “witness,” Susan Rosenstiel, is kind of a shitty witness. So much so that she actually spent time in Rikers Island (that’s a prison) for, you guessed it, perjury.
Others argued that such a reckless lack of discretion would be totally out of character for Hoover, no matter what way he swung. There was even evidence that a Soviet plan to discredit the United States included spreading gay rumors about Hoover.
But America loves gossip, so don’t expect the Hoover was gay rumors to die down anytime soon.
He Did Secretly Control the World Though
Well, he secretly controlled the world depending on who you talk to. You see, he was a Freemason. A really good one. He was a Thirty-Third Degree Inspector General Honorary in the Southern Scottish Rite Jurisdiction and was also awarded the Scottish Rite’s highest recognition, the Grand Cross of Honour, in 1965. That means absolutely nothing to most people, but to conspiracy theorists, he might as well be a finger on the hand that guides the very course of world affairs and history.
And he did it all while wearing a frilly black dress! Wait, we decided that wasn’t true, didn’t we? We told you that rumor would be hard to kill.