Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Career of J. Edgar Hoover

The Director

When Hoover took over the Bureau in 1924, President Coolidge's new team was cleaning up the corruption of the Harding administration. Hoover was looked upon as a progressive, honest, efficient and thoroughly modern manager. Those who knew what a miserable state the Bureau was in wondered if even the tireless, ambitious and driven Hoover could rescue it from the morass it had become.

Attorney General Harlan Stone, who guided Hoover every step of the rebuilding process, told Hoover that he wanted the staff cut drastically and the budget sharply reduced. Stone made it abundantly clear that the Bureau was to stop collecting information on lifestyles and politics and concentrate on investigating violations of the law. The domestic surveillance activities of the General Intelligence Division were for the most part suspended until 1936 when Roosevelt ordered that they be resurrected.

Hoover cut the staff from 441 agents in 1924 to 339 agents in 1929. He focused all of his energies on making the Bureau the model of good organization and efficiency. A few days after taking over, Hoover had gone through the personnel files and identified those agents who should be fired. Sixty-one employees were let go in the first year and five of the fifty-three field offices were closed and many more would follow. He gave back $300,000 of his $2.4 million budget appropriation.

Agents that didn't get fired were retrained. The hiring standards for new agents were raised considerably, requiring training in law or accounting. A training school was reestablished for various skills and, more importantly, to learn the new Bureau procedures and behavior code. Hoover was determined to make the Bureau into the most elite law enforcement corps in the world. Promotion would be based upon efficiency and performance unless you were related to somebody very important to the Bureau or Hoover.

Gentry points out that Hoover's own standards "became those of the agents, accountants, secretaries, file clerks, and other Bureau employees. Nor was it enough to adhere to the letter of the law in such matters; even the appearance of improper conduct was to be avoided." During Prohibition, the Director made it perfectly clear that he was abstaining from alcohol and that Bureau employees better do the same thing or face dismissal.

Having the right caliber of agents was only half the challenge. Equally important was managing them and measuring how well the agents did. He increased their authority, but complete accountability went along with it. He developed a system of record keeping and supervision that was unique to a government entity. Control and standardization was the theme that ran through all of his procedures and rules. "No single individual built the Bureau, but one individual can destroy it." Not while he was alive.

During the 1920's, Hoover gained weight and he developed ulcer-like stomach symptoms. His doctor had him drinking a quart of acidophilus milk every day and smoking a cigarette to help him relax after each meal.

T.Frank Baughman (FBI)
T.Frank Baughman

The former Sunday school teacher evolved into a very sharp dresser. He and his close buddy Frank Baughman had a particular fondness for white linen suits. He always had a silk handkerchief in his pocket that matched his tie. Antique collecting was becoming one of his favorite hobbies.

Anthony Calomaris, interviewed in Ovid Demaris' J. Edgar Hoover: As They Knew Him, was Hoover's next door neighbor and fellow collector: "We were both avid collectors of antiques. For years, he went to C.G. Sloan's auction house whenever they had estate sales ... He collected Chinese jade and ivory."

Hoover had been working directly for the attorney general, but technically he reported to the assistant attorney general on the Justice Department organization chart. Eventually, Stone hired William Joseph "Wild Bill" Donovan to be Hoover's boss. Donovan was a flamboyant character with many accomplishments and the ambition to be the first Catholic president.

The chemistry was bad from the very beginning. Hoover considered Donovan an amateur and a meddler, while Donovan saw Hoover as an unimaginative, annoying civil servant. When Stone approached Donovan about making Hoover's position permanent, Donovan told Stone not to do it, but to fire Hoover instead.

Stone went ahead anyway and on December 10, 1924, gave Hoover the title he would hold for the rest of his life. He was made the Director instead of the Acting Director. Hoover always remained grateful to Stone and continued to have Stone's portrait hang in his inner office.

Hoover shortly after his appointment as director<br />(National Archives)
Hoover shortly after his
appointment as director
(National Archives)

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