Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Career of J. Edgar Hoover

The Young Man

John Edgar Hoover was born on New Year's Day in 1895 in Washington, D.C. He was the youngest of the three surviving children born to Dickerson Naylor Hoover and Annie Marie Scheitlin Hoover. J. Edgar's only brother was Dickerson, Jr., fifteen years his senior and his sister Lillian who was thirteen years older. Another sister, Sadie Marguerite was born in 1890 and died of diphtheria in 1893.

Young J. Edgar with parents<br />(National Archives)
Young J. Edgar with parents
(National Archives)

Dickerson, Sr., came from English and German stock and, like his father before him, worked for the Coast Guard and Geodetic Survey. Annie Hoover was from a line of Swiss mercenaries. Her uncle had been the Swiss honorary consul general to the U.S.

The Hoovers lived in a two-story stucco house at 413 Seward Square in what was then a pleasant neighborhood populated heavily by middle managers in the government. Seward Square was three blocks behind the Capitol where North Carolina Avenue intersected with Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a house that Hoover would live in for forty-three years, moving out only when his mother had died.

House on Seward Sq.<br />(National Archives)
House on Seward Sq.
(National Archives)

Richard Gid Powers in his Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover describes the Seward Square area: "Though entirely respectable, the Hoovers' Capitol Hill neighborhood would not have been considered particularly prestigious or wealthy. Seward Square was a microcosm of white, Protestant, middle-class America. There were within its borders few rich and no poor; except for the servants who came each day to do the cooking and cleaning, it was all white."

Annie Hoover was very much in charge of the household and had a very strong and lasting influence on her youngest boy who she called Edgar. Jack Alexander wrote in his 1937 article for the New Yorker that Annie was the disciplinarian in the family, "rewarding obedience and punishing disobedience with military impartiality. Her domestic justice set up in [Edgar] a pattern of scrupulous regard for law and zeal for punishing wrongdoing, a pattern which as Director his is now trying to impress upon the American mind."

Edgar was nicknamed Speed when he was twelve years old and made money carrying groceries. Hoover recalled:" In those days markets did not hire delivery boys, but I discovered that if one stood outside a store, a customer laden with purchases would happily accept a helping hand and gratefully tip anyone who aided with a heavy load. I realized that the quicker I could complete each chore, the more money I could earn, so I spent most of my time running."

His older brother Dick was an important role model for Edgar. Dick introduced him into the church organizations which became increasingly important to Edgar as he grew older.

He was very religious and attended the Lutheran Church of the Reformation every Sunday. In his teens, he went against his mother's wishes and joined the Presbyterian Church because of his devotion to the Reverend Dr. Donald Campbell MacLeod, who had a special appeal to the young people of the neighborhood. Hoover once said, "His concern and compassion for young people made Dr. MacLeod my hero ... If ministers were like Dr. MacLeod, I wanted to be one." Hoover taught Sunday school and became assistant superintendant of the church's junior group.

Hoover's two cousins, who grew up in the house next door, remembered Hoover and his mother as two very forceful personalities, but not ones that conflicted often. Hoover was very affectionate to his mother and often bought her some very nice things, including expensive jewelry.

"He was a tyrant about food," one cousin said. "His favorite breakfast was a poached egg on toast, and if that egg was broken, he wouldn't eat it. It went back to the kitchen and another egg was prepared." He would give the broken egg to his dog Spee Dee Bozo.

Hoover was a dog lover, all seven of which had little graves in the Aspen Hill Pet Cemetery. Spee Dee's headstone said," In Memory of Spee Dee Bozo. Born July 3, 1922. Died May 24, 1934. Our best friend."

Edgar stuttered as a kid. Determined to solve the problem, he started to read about various cures. One article suggested that speaking faster, rather than slower, worked better. He started to talk very rapidy and overcame the problem. Furthermore, he joined the Central High School debating team and turned himself into a persuasive public speaker. Powers saw Hoover's debate experience as a crucial one in molding his character: "It helped develop the combattive personality that would fortify him throughout his career. Just as important, it taught him to make a shrewd analysis of both the strengths of his case and its weaknesses."

Hoover in cadet uniform (FBI)
Hoover in cadet uniform (FBI)

He did very well in school, taking courses like math, physics, Latin and French. When he tried out for the football team, he was rejected because he was only five feet ten inches tall and was very thin. Then he tried the track team, where he was part of a team that won four national championships.

His main interest in high school was the cadet corps. He passed the ROTC exams and was promoted to captain of Company A. Hoover took his responsibilities very seriously and made some dramatic changes in the way things were done: he instilled in the young men a respect for excellence and the will to win. His yearbook called him "a gentleman of dauntless courage and stainless honor."

"Edgar carried away from Central a love of competition in a public arena and the conviction that life is, 'nothing more or less than the matching of one man's wit against another.' Throughout his career he loved dispute and looked for opportunities to lock horns with rivals, enemies, even friends ... Hoover like to fight; most people do not. And so Hoover would eventually wear them down" (Powers).

Young Edgar developed a great deal of self confidence at a young age. Powers saw the young man as "protected by concerned, doting parents, brother, and sister, he took ti for granted that his ideas and observations were just as interesting to others as they were to him. He focused on the objective facts of situations, not his emotional reactions. There is a meticulous, exacting quality to his jottings [diary] and a sense of concern about the opinions of others. Because of his dependence on family rather than friends, and because he spent so much time in the company of his elders, he began to act like an adult while he was still a child."

Hoover as law school graduate<br />(Bettman Archive)
Hoover as law school graduate
(Bettman Archive)

Edgar put aside his thoughts of becoming a minister and decided to study law. He turned down a scholarship to the prestigious University of Virginia and enrolled in a work-study program for government employees at George Washington University in D.C. To qualify for the program, he got a job working for the Library of Congress.

Going into government service was a natural thing for Hoover to do. His father and grandfather had worked for the government. His older brother worked for the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service. He understood government service as a way of life and had picked up a store of wisdom from his relatives about the way one rose to power in the federal bureaucracy.

By working at the Library of Congress, Hoover had a chance to watch Herbert Putnam, a master in the art of bureaucratic empire building. In Putnam's stewardship over the library, he made it one of the most efficient parts of the federal government.

Hoover did well at the Library of Congress. In his four years and a half years there (1913 to 1917), his pay rose steadily to $70 a month. He joined the college fraternity Kappa Alpha. In 1916, Hoover completed his bachelor of law degree and began working on his masters.

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