“We are a fact-gathering organization only. We don’t clear anybody. We don’t condemn anybody.” – J. Edgar Hoover
J. Edgar Hoover Biography
John Edgar Hoover was born on 1 January 1895, in Washington D.C. in the United States. His mother, Anna Marie was from a Swiss-German background. There was also German, mixed with English ancestry in his father’s background too. Interestingly, although two of his siblings had birth certificates, which was a requirement at the time in Washington, John Edgar didn’t have one, and what’s more, one would not be filed for him until 1938 when he was 43 years old.
Hoover’s first job came along when he was eighteen years old, in 1913. It was this job, as a messenger in the orders department for the Library of Congress that Hoover credited with giving him a foundation for collecting and collating material and information, something which would be profoundly important when he began to accumulate evidence and profiles during his work at the FBI.
Hoover grew up in the neighborhood of Capitol Hill in an area called Eastern Market and went to Central High School. He taught himself to talk at a fast pace in order to overcome a stutter and this characteristic would continue into adulthood. After High School, J. Edgar attended the George Washington University Law School from where he graduated with a bachelor’s law degree in 1916. He received a masters degree in law the following year.
As soon as he received his master’s degree, he was hired by the Justice Department’s War Emergency Division and became head of the Alien Enemy Bureau which was given powers to arrest and detain without trial at the beginning of World War I any foreigners who were deemed to be disloyal.
After the war, in 1919, J. Edgar Hoover became head of the new General Intelligence Division within the Bureau of Investigation and later in 1921 became the Bureau’s deputy head. On 10 May 1924, he was made the sixth director of the Bureau of Investigation by President Calvin Coolidge. When he took over, Hoover was found to be unpredictable in his management style, often firing agents or managing them out of the Bureau simply for looking stupid or because they were “pinheads”. Law enforcement officers around the country though often received praise and support from Hoover, a tactic which enabled him to create a huge network of support and admiration across the country.
During the 1930’s J. Edgar Hoover moved to get certain crimes such as bank robberies and the activities of criminal gangs recognized as federal crimes so that his department could get involved and take credit for apprehending suspects. Eventually, this paid off, after some setbacks, most notably in Hoover’s attempt to arrest notorious bank robber John Dillinger, something which came close to ending his career, Hoover’s men started to gain notable successes. Machine Gun Kelly was arrested in 1933 and sent to Alcatraz, John Dillinger was killed by Bureau agents in 1934, and on 1 May 1936, a year after the Bureau changed its name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or the FBI for short, the gangster Alvin Karpis was arrested by Hoover himself.
In the late 1930’s and in the lead-up to the Second World War, the FBI investigated any possibility of German saboteurs planning attacks within the United States and was the primary agency responsible for counterespionage in the United States. It was during the war that the FBI received permission to wiretap persons suspected of subversive activities from President Roosevelt although including within this was a requirement for the Attorney General to be informed of each case where wiretaps were used. The Attorney General at the time, though, General Robert H. Jackson essentially left it up to Hoover to decide when these methods would be deployed.
After World War II had ended and into the 1950’s Hoover became increasingly of the opinion that more action should be taken against those who had dangerous political opinions, most notably those of communist persuasion. He would become more and more frustrated though at the decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court which limited his ability to act. At the same time, Hoover seemed to turn a blind eye to organized crime such as prostitution and extortion and the vice rackets operated by the Mafia. He even went as far as to deny that the Mafia was even operating in the United States at the time. However, when the fact that the Apalachan Meeting had taken place and had been attended by an estimated 100 Mafiosi members from all over the country hit the newspaper front pages, Hoover had no choice but to do something, and the fight against organized crime suddenly became the FBI’s top priority.
After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson removed the mandatory retirement age of 70 for Government employees, thus allowing Hoover to stay on at the FBI indefinitely. Hoover personally led the investigation into Kennedy’s assassination and testified at the Warren Commission hearings.
During his time at the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover became almost too powerful, but there was little that various administrations at the time were able or even willing to do about it. Both President Kennedy and President Truman considered getting rid of him but ultimately decided that the political fallout would be too big to tolerate. Even when Richard Nixon took office in 1969, when Hoover was 74 years old, he proved too difficult to remove due to the amount of power he wielded in Washington.
J. Edgar Hoover remained as Director of the FBI until on 2 May 1972 he suffered a heart attack at his home in Washington and died. His body lay in state at the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol and was then buried in the Congressional Cemetary in Washington D.C. next to the graves of his parents and sister.