Case Analysis

History of the FBI: 1901-1930s

Contributor Mimic has provided us with an interesting collection of articles about the very employer of Mulder, Scully, Doggett, and Reyes, the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Article by Mimic.
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The Federal Bureau of Investigation is a uniquely American arm of law enforcement. We've all seen the typical Special Agent as portrayed in the media, gun drawn, shouting "Federal Agent! Drop your weapon!" and we pretty much take for granted that's how it's always been. But did you know that the FBI just celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008? For a relatively new organization, it's come a long way. And surprisingly enough, their original purpose wasn't quite what we've all come to accept from what we see on TV.

The Origins of the FBI and the Early Years - 1901 to 1921

Created as a division of the Department of Justice at its inception in 1870, the investigation of federal crimes was initially carried out by hired private detectives and, later, investigators from other federal agencies such as the Secret Service. Federal jurisdiction covered interstate crimes and crimes which were committed on federal government reservations. That was it. Most other crimes, including murder, were handled by the local law, whether city, county or state.

In those days, law enforcement was often political rather than professional, but in 1901, a "Progressive" mindset was ushered into the White House with the election of Theodore Roosevelt as President. He believed efficiency and expertise, rather than political connections, should determine the best person for any job. That view was shared by Charles Bonaparte, Roosevelt's choice for Attorney General in 1908. Bonaparte applied his Progressive beliefs to the Department of Justice by creating a new group of Special Agents who would be responsible for investigating federal crimes. There was no formal training, so the most desirable candidates came with a background in law enforcement, such as the private detectives and former Secret Service members who originally free-lanced for the Department of Justice itself. At that time, this corps of 34 men didn't have a name, or even a leader other than the Attorney General. But when Roosevelt recommended, as he left office in 1909, that they be made a permanent part of the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Investigation was officially born.

In the early years of the Bureau there was very little federal crime. The ones they did investigate involved banking, bankruptcy, naturalization, antitrust and land fraud. In 1910, those duties were expanded to include crimes of "white slavery": the transporting of women across state lines for immoral purposes. Their first official task was to visit and survey houses of prostitution in preparation for enforcing the Mann Act. When the US entered World War I in 1917 during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the scope of federal crimes was further expanded to include espionage and enemy aliens (a job performed by a young agent named J. Edgar Hoover for a number of years). When the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act was passed in 1919, the Bureau was provided with another tool to use against those who had previously evaded the law by crossing state lines.

During those early years, the number of Special Agents increased from 34 to 300, with an additional 300 support personnel. Field offices were a part of the Bureau right from the beginning, with most of them being located in large cities, their Special Agent in Charge reporting directly to Washington. Several field offices were also placed along the Mexican border where they investigated smuggling and neutrality violations and gathered intelligence, often in connection with the Mexican revolution taking place at that time.

In 1908, the first official head of the new investigative arm of the Justice Department was Chief Examiner Stanley W. Finch. All new agents reported directly to him. In 1909, his title was officially changed to Chief of the Bureau of Investigations. When Finch became Commissioner of White Slavery Act violations in 1912, Special Examiner Bruce A. Bielaski took over as the Bureau Chief. In 1919, the former head of the Secret Service, William J. Flynn, was appointed Director of the Bureau of Investigations. He was the first to use that title, but certainly not the last.

The Lawless Years and the New Deal - 1921 to the late 1930's

The reign of gangsters and Prohibition spanned more than a decade, yet the Department of the Treasury, not the Bureau of Investigations, was in charge of federal crimes committed by people selling or importing alcoholic beverages. The Bureau was forced to be creative in order to help catch some of the really big offenders. They investigated Al Capone for racketeering and eventually had him convicted for income tax evasion rather than liquor bootlegging and smuggling. Through use of the Mann Act, they played a decisive role in reducing the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been dormant since the 1880's but reemerged during this time in response to economic gains made by African-Americans during World War I. These types of activities, along with their ongoing investigations of neutrality and antitrust violations helped the Bureau to grow in stature and influence.

For a time, the Bureau's administration was in a constant state of flux. After a former detective agency owner, William J. Burns, was appointed the new Director of the Bureau of Investigation, he also appointed 26-year-old John Edgar Hoover as Assistant Director. When President Warren G. Harding died in 1923, Calvin Coolidge replaced Harding's cronies with his own choices, naming Harlan Fiske Stone as the new Attorney General. In 1924, Stone picked J. Edgar Hoover as the new Director of the Bureau of Investigations, ushering in the longest tenure of any Bureau director in its history. In fact, when Hoover died after nearly 48 years of service, legislation was passed limiting future FBI directors to a maximum of ten years.

At the time Hoover took over the Bureau, it employed a staff of 650 employees, which included 441 Special Agents and field offices in nine cities. He immediately fired any agents he considered to be unqualified and scheduled regular inspections of all field offices. In 1928, he created a formal training course for new agents, including a new age requirement of 25 to 35 years, and a return to the earlier preference for a background in law enforcement. Hoover knew it would be easier to fight crime with public support, so he insisted that his agents be held to the highest standards in order to earn the public's respect. Just as Hoover was taking over directorship of the Bureau, a long-held goal of law enforcement was realized with the creation of a centralized fingerprint collection system in 1926.

While the administration of the Bureau kept changing up until Hoover's appointment, the name of the organization itself also seemed to be in periodic doubt. Renamed the United States Bureau of Investigation in 1933, it retained that name for exactly one year before it became the Division of Investigation, which included a sub-branched Bureau of Prohibition. Special Agents from the Investigation arm were so often confused with Prohibition Agents (of which Eliot Ness was a member) that in 1935, the organizations were remerged and permanently named the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The stock market crash in 1929 and the following Great Depression led to an upswing in the public's desire to find escape from their troubles in the media, and the media seemed to be especially interested in the war against crime. Hoover took advantage of this interest to spread the message of the FBI to the public. In 1932, he released the first issue of what would become the Federal Law Enforcement Bulletin, called Fugitives Wanted by Police. Before 1933, most people thought of Special Agents as interchangeable with other law enforcement. Because of Hoover's genius as a publicist, by 1936 identification with the FBI commanded recognition and respect from the general public.

Change inside the FBI was no less dramatic than what was taking place outside its walls. The Bureau's jurisdiction continued to increase, partly because of a 1932 federal kidnapping statue passed by Congress after the highly-publicized Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Criminals crossing state lines resulted in new federal crime laws. Special Agents were given the authority to carry guns and make arrests. A Technical Laboratory was established in 1932, strictly for research at the outset, but eventually expanding to include specialized microscopes and extensive reference collections. In 1935, the FBI National Academy was created to train police officers, not just agents, in investigative techniques because most police departments offered little or no training. In the 1940's, that training was offered to law enforcement world-wide.

Continued in History of the FBI: 1930s to present

Federal Bureau of Investigation: Official Site
Wikipedia: FBI History