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Federal Bureau of Investigation: History

The Gangster Era And The Rise Of Crime

In the late 1920s through the 1930s, numerous high-profile crimes and criminals took center stage with J. Edgar Hoover and his agents, who became known as "G-Men." Gangsters, in particular, became larger than life, capturing the imagination of millions of Americans. Gangsters like "Machine Gun" Kelly, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, "Baby Face" Nelson, John Dillinger, Al Capone, "Ma" Barker, and others became notorious heroes. Director Hoover rose to the challenge, and with the assistance of Hollywood and detective fiction writers, he was able to portray his agents (and himself) as mythical foes of the gangsters. While gangsters were portrayed as public enemies, the Bureau of Investigation's G-Men were cop-heros, and J. Edgar Hoover was top-cop.

Even beyond this skillful portrayal, Hoover was able to make the good battle against gangsters a personal struggle and to use the public's interest to his and the bureau's advantage. For example, in 1933 four of the bureau's agents and several police officers were escorting bank robber Frank "Jelly" Nash to Levenworth Prison when they were ambushed by three men with machine guns. Three officers and one agent were killed. At least in partial response to this tragic event, Congress passed nine major crime bills giving Hoover much more authority and power. Congress also authorized agents to carry firearms for the first time.

In 1932 the nation was transfixed by the news of the kidnapping and murder of the infant son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh. Kidnapping laws were passed by Congress and the Bureau of Investigation was made responsible for this and other kidnapping investigations. When the kidnapper was apprehended, it was due more to the work of the Treasury agents on the case and an attentive gas station worker (who wrote down the license plate number of the kidnapper's vehicle) than skillful investigatory work on the part of the bureau. Nevertheless, J. Edgar Hoover was able to take credit and reap the political rewards.

The bureau was not immune from bungled investigations. John Dillinger proved a case in point. When bank robber John Dillinger escaped from jail on 3 March 1934, the bureau mounted a full-scale operation to catch him. For two months Dillinger eluded the bureau's traps. Then Agent Purvis received a tip that Dillinger and members of his gang were hiding in Little Bohemia, a resort in Wisconsin. As agents converged on the lodge, several men ran from the area. As they drove away, agents fired on them, killing one and seriously injuring the others. As it turned out, these men were not part of Dillinger's gang. Dillinger and his associates had escaped through a back window. This latest failed attempt to capture Dillinger was a major embarrassment to Hoover and the bureau. Dillinger became public enemy number one. Acting on another tip several weeks later, Purvis shot and killed Dillinger as he left a theater. Purvis got the glory as the man who got Dillinger (and later "Baby Face" Nelson) and Hoover resented it.

Even with its relatively short history, by the mid-1930's Hoover had marshalled the imagery to argue convincingly that the Bureau of Investigation protected American citizens from communists, gangsters, and even kidnappers. By most accounts, it was masterful public relations. But there was more. Starting in 1935 a series of G-men movies were produced. Hollywood's film codes and censorship laws only allowed gangsters in movies if they were being captured or killed by agents of the bureau. Hoover became public hero number one.

Through the 1920s and 1930s, the bureau embarked on several initiatives, each of which helped solidify its reputation as the top law enforcement agency in the country. For example, Hoover received authorization and funding for a national fingerprint identification service, and in 1924 the Bureau's Identification Division was created. The Bureau would serve as the national repository and clearinghouse for fingerprint records, and it began a campaign to collect fingerprints from every American. Representatives of the bureau even went door-to-door in an effort to collect prints.

In 1930 the bureau began administering the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and began to serve as the central clearinghouse for information on crimes as reported by local, state, and federal police and law enforcement agencies. While there were (and continue to be) serious problems with the UCR as a measure of crime, this mechanism placed crime control, and information about crime, as a central responsibility of the bureau and portrayed the bureau as a supervisory entity to other law enforcement agencies.

In 1932, with a borrowed microscope and a few other pieces of equipment, the bureau's laboratory opened. During its first year of operation, the laboratory conducted 963 examinations—nearly all of which involved examinations of handwriting in extortion cases (F.B.I., 1990).

In 1935 the Bureau began operation of the National Police Academy (later known as the F.B.I. National Academy) to train select local police officers in investigative methods. Also in 1935, the bureau changed its name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawFederal Bureau of Investigation: History - Before The Beginning Of The F.b.i., The Beginning Of The F.b.i.