Born: John Edgar Hoover January 1, 1895 Washington, D.C., U.S.
Died: May 2, 1972 (aged 77) Washington, D.C., U.S.
John Edgar Hoover (January 1, 1895 – May 2, 1972) was the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States. He was named director of the Bureau of Investigation – the FBI’s precursor – in 1924 and played a key role in the organization’s formation in 1935, where he served for another 37 years until his death in 1972 at the age of 77. Hoover is recognized for growing the FBI into a larger crime-fighting agency than it was when it was founded, as well as implementing several technological advancements in law enforcement, such as a centralized fingerprint database and forensic laboratories.
Hoover is also recognized for creating and expanding a nationwide blacklist known as the FBI Index or Index List, which was renamed the Terrorist Screening Database in 2001 and is currently maintained by the FBI.
Hoover became a controversial figure later in life and after his death, as evidence of his covert abuses of power began to surface. He was discovered to have utilized the FBI to harass political dissenters and activists, accumulate secret files on political leaders, and collect evidence using illegal means, all while exceeding the FBI’s jurisdiction. As a result, Hoover accumulated a significant degree of influence and was able to coerce and threaten others, including several sitting US presidents.
Early Life and Education
On January 1, 1895, in Washington, D.C., John Edgar Hoover was born to Anna Marie (née Scheitlin; 1860–1938) and Dickerson Naylor Hoover (1856–1921), chief of the printing section of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey and formerly a platemaker for the same institution. Dickerson Hoover’s ancestors were English and German. John Hitz, Hoover’s maternal great-uncle, was a Swiss honorary consul general to the US. He was the closest in his family to his mother, who was their moral counselor and disciplinarian.
Hoover was born at a house on Seward Square near Eastern Market in Washington’s Capital Hill area, which is now the site of the Capitol Hill United Methodist Church. In the church, he has a stained glass window dedicated to him. Hoover did not have a birth certificate when he was born, even though one was needed in Washington in 1895. Although two of his siblings had certificates, Hoover’s was not filed until he was 43 years old, in 1938.
Hoover spent his entire life in Washington, D.C. He went to Central High School, where he sang in the choir, was a member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, and was a member of the debate team. During arguments, he fought against women having the right to vote and the death sentence being removed. His “cool, relentless logic” was praised by the school newspaper.
Hoover stammered as a child, which he overcame by teaching himself to speak quickly—a technique he maintained throughout his adult life. He eventually spoke at such a faster rate than stenographers struggled to keep up.
When Hoover accepted his first work at the Library of Congress, an entry-level position as a courier in the orders department, he was 18 years old. His house was half a mile from the library. As Hoover remarked in a 1951 letter, “the experience affected both Hoover and the construction of the FBI profiles.” “This assignment taught him, the importance of gathering information. It provided him with a solid foundation for his work with the FBI, where he had to gather information and proof.”
Hoover earned a Bachelor of Laws from George Washington University Law School in 1916 and an LL.M. from the same university in 1917. He was a member of the Alpha Nu Chapter of the Kappa Alpha Order. Hoover was inspired by Anthony Comstock, the New York City U.S. Postal Inspector, who launched protracted battles against fraud, immorality, pornography, and birth control as a law student.
Department of Justice
War Emergency Division
Hoover was employed by the Justice Department to serve in the War Emergency Division shortly after receiving his LL.M. On July 27, 1917, at the age of 22, he accepted the clerkship. The employment was exempt from the draught and earned $990 per year ($20,000 in 2022).
He rose quickly through the ranks of the Division’s Alien Enemy Bureau, which was established by President Woodrow Wilson at the start of World War I with the authority to arrest and imprison supposedly disloyal foreigners without charge or trial. The 1917 Espionage Act gave him greater authority. The Bureau detained 98 Germans living in the United States from a list of 1,400 suspects and designated 1,172 as arrestable.
Bureau of Investigation
Head of the Radical Division
Hoover, then 24, was appointed head of the Bureau of Investigation’s new General Intelligence Division in August 1919, also known as the Radical Division since its mission was to monitor and disrupt the activities of domestic radicals. One of Hoover’s first responsibilities was to carry out the Palmer Raids, which marked the start of America’s First Red Scare.
Hoover and one of his selected associates, George Ruch, kept tabs on a range of radicals in the United States intending to punish, arrest, or deport people whose politics they deemed to be harmful.
Marcus Garvey, Rose Pastor Stokes and Cyril Briggs, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, and future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter were also targeted during this time, according to Hoover, who called Frankfurter “the most dangerous man in the United States.”
Edgar Hoover, when 25 years old, was initiated as a Freemason in Washington, D.C.’s Federal Lodge No. 1 in 1920, advancing to the 33rd Degree Inspector General Honorary in 1955.
Late Career and Death
Kenneth Ackerman, one of his biographers, argued that the claim that Hoover’s secret files prevented presidents from firing him was “a fantasy.” Richard Nixon, on the other hand, was recorded in 1971 saying that one of the reasons he didn’t fire Hoover was because he was terrified of Hoover’s retaliation against him. Similarly, Presidents Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy considered removing Hoover from his position as FBI Director but decided that the political cost would be too high.
In 1964, Hoover’s FBI investigated Jack Valenti, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s closest aide, and confidant. Despite Valenti’s two-year marriage to Johnson’s secretary, the investigation focused on reports that he was having a gay connection with a friend who works as a commercial photographer.
Hoover supervised the FBI’s investigation into President John F. Kennedy’s killing. President Lyndon B. Johnson waived the then-mandatory U.S. Government Service Retirement Age of 70 in 1964, just days before Hoover testified in the early stages of the Warren Commission hearings, allowing Hoover to remain FBI Director “for an extended amount of time.” In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations produced a report critical of the FBI’s, the Warren Commission’s, and other agencies’ performance. The report chastised the FBI’s (Hoover’s) unwillingness to fully explore the possibility of a plot to assassinate the President.
When Richard Nixon took office in January 1969, Hoover had just turned 74. There was a growing sentiment in Washington, D.C., that the aging FBI chief should retire, but Hoover’s power and friends in Congress remained too strong for him to be forced to do so.
Hoover remained director of the FBI until his death from a heart attack on May 2, 1972, at his Washington residence, when he handed over operational leadership to Associate Director Clyde Tolson. Nixon named L. Patrick Gray, a Justice Department official with no prior FBI experience, as Acting Director of the FBI on May 3, 1972, and W. Mark Felt as Associate Director.
Hoover’s body was laid to rest in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol, where he was eulogized by Chief Justice Warren Burger. According to The New York Daily News, Hoover was the only public officer to lie in state at the time.
The New York Times said at the time that this was “a distinction conferred on only 21 people before, eight of whom were Presidents or past Presidents.” (A list of all those honored can be found on the Architect of the Capitol’s website, which includes Capitol Police murdered in the line of duty in 1998 and 2021.) At the National Presbyterian Church’s memorial service, President Nixon offered another eulogy, describing Hoover as “one of the Giants, [whose] long life brimming over with spectacular achievement and committed service to this country which he loved so dearly.” Hoover was laid to rest in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., among his parents and a sister who died in childhood.
Hoover was a consultant for Warner Brothers on a theatrical film about the FBI, The FBI Story (1959), and in 1965 on Warner Brothers’ long-running spin-off television series, The F.B.I. Hoover personally ensured that Warner Brothers portrayed the FBI more favorably than other crime dramas.
The House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), led by Senator Richard Schweiker, reopened the investigation into President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1979 and reported that Hoover’s FBI failed to fully explore the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President. According to the HSCA, Hoover’s FBI was ineffective in sharing information with other agencies and departments.
● During commencement proceedings at Oklahoma Baptist University in 1938, Hoover was awarded an honorary doctorate and gave a speech.
● Hoover received the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1939.
● Hoover is made an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by King George VI of the United Kingdom in 1950.
● President Dwight D. Eisenhower bestowed the National Security Medal on Hoover in 1955.
● President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Hoover with the State Department’s Distinguished Service Award for his work as FBI Director in 1966.
●1973: The J. Edgar Hoover Building, a newly constructed FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., is named after J. Edgar Hoover.
● 1974: J. Edgar Hoover: Tribute Tributes in the Congress of the United States and Various Articles and Editorials Relating to His Life and Work was published as a memorial book by Congress.
● 1974: A elementary school in Schaumburg, Illinois was named after J. Edgar Hoover.
● After details regarding Hoover’s illicit activities became public in 1994, the school’s name was changed to Herbert Hoover instead.