John Edgar Hoover, better known as J. Edgar Hoover, served as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the United States’ domestic intelligence and security service, for almost half a century.
He turned the Bureau into a modern and professional law enforcement organisation, able to take on gangsters and Nazi spies alike. But he was also a deeply divisive figure, who used information (not all of it lawfully obtained) as a weapon to bully rivals, while keeping his own private life firmly under wraps.
Here are 10 facts about J. Edgar Hoover, the lawman who pulled the United States’ national security strings for nearly 50 years.
1. He joined the Justice Department in 1917
John Edgar Hoover was born on 1 January 1895 in Washington DC. He studied law at George Washington University while working at the Library of Congress as a messenger, a job that he later said “trained me in the value of collating material”.
After graduating in 1917, he joined the Department of Justice and quickly rose through the ranks. In 1919, aged 24, Hoover became head of the department’s new General Intelligence Division, charged with monitoring political radicals, and 2 years later was appointed assistant director of the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), the precursor to the FBI.
2. He made the Bureau a male-only organisation
In 1924, at the age of 29, Hoover was appointed director of the BOI in the wake of a major political scandal. To combat criticism, he removed agents he regarded as political appointees or unqualified to do the job.
Also among those to leave were the BOI’s sole two female agents. Although Hoover did promote another woman, Lenore Houston, to the position of special agent later that year, after she left in 1928, women did not return to the Bureau’s ranks until after Hoover’s death.
3. He took a scientific approach to crime-fighting
Hoover made other changes to professionalise the Bureau. He introduced rigorous selection and training procedures for new recruits, including background checks and physical exams. He also set up a fingerprint file and forensics laboratory to provide Bureau agents and other law enforcement officials with the scientific support they needed to fight crime.
4. He created a special task force to hunt John Dillinger
In the 1930s, violent gangsters such as John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde were tearing up the Midwest, hogging the headlines by robbing small-town banks and using automatic weapons and speedy getaway cars to outgun and outrun local police.
In response, Hoover set up a special FBI task force in Chicago to hunt down Dillinger, and eventually, the Bureau obtained information that led them to him. Dillinger was shot dead by officers on 22 July 1934.
Hoover also pushed for the FBI to be granted full authority to pursue outlaws across state lines, which was ultimately granted. This allowed the Bureau to go on to catch or kill such notorious criminals as Baby Face Nelson and Machine Gun Kelly.
5. He made the Bureau and its ‘G-Men’ household names
Hoover used the publicity from the Bureau’s successes to bolster its reputation, and the organisation and its agents (popularly known as ‘G-Men’) became household names. Such was the agency’s profile at its height that, according to Hoover biographer Kenneth D. Ackerman, it was “harder to become an FBI agent than to be accepted into an Ivy League college”.
6. Hoover turned spy hunter during World War Two
In 1935 the BOI changed its name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). World War Two was looming, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave Hoover the task of investigating Nazi and communist espionage on US soil. The FBI detained its first German agents in 1938 and continued to track down spies and saboteurs throughout the war.
7. He ran an illegal dirty-tricks campaign to discredit ‘subversive’ figures and organisations
As the Cold War took hold in the late 1940s, Hoover shifted his efforts to focus on the Soviet threat, intensifying the monitoring of communists and left-wingers.
In 1956 he set up COINTELPRO, a covert FBI programme to discredit subversive US political organisations. Its often illegal tactics included aggressive surveillance, infiltration, anonymous letters and calls, harassment and violence, and its targets included the US Communist Party, feminist groups, civil rights and Black Power organisations, and the Ku Klux Klan.
8. Hoover had secret files on Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon and other celebrities
Hoover was acutely aware of the power of information. He kept files on a vast range of individuals, from politicians and government officials to celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, Charlie Chaplin, Muhammad Ali and Albert Einstein. They included information gleaned from surveillance as well as rumours about their sex lives and political ties.
By 1960, he had open files on 432,000 people. He kept the most sensitive ones in his office and used them to intimidate rivals and maintain his position as FBI chief.
9. He left most of his estate to his friend and colleague Clyde Tolson
Hoover had a close friendship with FBI associate director Clyde Tolson. The two regularly lunched, drove to work and holidayed together, and remained close for many years.
As a result of Hoover’s friendship with Tolson, and the fact that Hoover never married, rumors of his possible homosexuality have circled. Ultimately, though, no concrete evidence that Hoover’s relationship with Tolson was sexual has been made public.
Hoover left Tolson most of his estate upon his death.
10. Hoover’s body was taken to ‘lie in state’ at the US Capitol
COINTELPRO’s illegal activities came to light in 1971, but Hoover remained in place as FBI director. He died a year later in his bed of a heart attack at the age of 77. He had spent 48 years at the helm and served 8 US presidents.
After his death, Hoover’s body was taken to ‘lie in state’ at the US Capitol – meaning his coffin was publicly displayed there as a mark of honour. To this day he remains the only civil servant to have received such an honour.