Hoover Becomes the Director of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

J. Edgar Hoover transformed an ineffective and inefficient government bureau into the best-known national crime-fighting organization. Among his other accomplishments, Hoover oversaw agents’ rigorous training and established scientific procedures and laboratories.

Summary of Event

When J. Edgar Hoover became director of the Bureau of Investigation (renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, on July 1, 1935), the organization was recovering from inefficiency and scandal. Hoover had been an assistant director under President Warren G. Harding’s administration, and he was appointed by Harry M. Daugherty, who chose legendary detective William J. Burns as director. Burns was the personification of the independent crime-fighter romanticized in western and detective novels and films: He had first gained national attention as a Secret Service detective before he established the Burns International Detective Agency. After he accepted Daugherty’s invitation to return to government work, Burns was caught in the scandals that became known after Harding’s death in 1923. In particular, the Teapot Dome scandal Teapot Dome scandal —which involved the leasing of oil fields not subject to rules of competitive bidding—gave further credence to charges that had been leveled since Daugherty’s appointment as attorney general. Daugherty was accused of corruption, and investigators specifically questioned his hiring of unsuitable personnel for the Justice Department and his inappropriate involvement in enforcement of Prohibition-related regulations. President Calvin Coolidge fired Daugherty in March of 1924, and Burns was forced to resign. [kw]Hoover Becomes the Director of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation (Dec. 10, 1924) [kw]U.S. Bureau of Investigation, Hoover Becomes the Director of the (Dec. 10, 1924) [kw]Bureau of Investigation, Hoover Becomes the Director of the U.S. (Dec. 10, 1924) [kw]Investigation, Hoover Becomes the Director of the U.S. Bureau of (Dec. 10, 1924) Federal Bureau of Investigation:J. Edgar Hoover[Hoover] [g]United States;Dec. 10, 1924: Hoover Becomes the Director of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation[06180] [c]Crime and scandal;Dec. 10, 1924: Hoover Becomes the Director of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation[06180] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 10, 1924: Hoover Becomes the Director of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation[06180] [c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 10, 1924: Hoover Becomes the Director of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation[06180] Hoover, J. Edgar Burns, William J. Daugherty, Harry M. Coolidge, Calvin Stone, Harlan Fiske Palmer, A. Mitchell

J. Edgar Hoover.

(Library of Congress)

Coolidge and his new attorney general, Harlan Fiske Stone, later chief justice of the Supreme Court, were committed to restoring public faith in the integrity of government. To that end, J. Edgar Hoover seemed a logical appointment. Unlike Burns, Hoover was highly educated; he had received both his B.A. and law degrees from George Washington University while working at the Library of Congress. Hoover’s family had a history of government service, and, like many Americans, Hoover feared the new waves of immigrants and growing political dissent in the country, sentiments he would zealously maintain long after the culture around him had changed. Hoover, unlike Burns, had excellent organizational abilities; until he became director of the Bureau of Investigation, his greatest source of pride was his leadership of a high school military cadet unit at the elite Central High School in Washington, D.C.

Hoover joined the U.S. Department of Justice on July 26, 1917, and quickly became known for his efficient, detail-oriented style of leadership. By the end of World War I, when the communist revolution in Russia had succeeded and communists worldwide believed that revolution was at hand, Hoover shared the sense of horror expressed by many middle-class Americans. As director of the Radical Division (created by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer on August 1, 1919, and renamed the General Intelligence Division in 1920), Hoover was responsible for organizing the arrest and attempting the deportation of thousands of alleged subversives. The sweeping arrests—which were often based on little or no evidence—and the brutal conditions under which many were housed produced a backlash that ruined Palmer’s political career. Hoover, however, was not blamed; most people believed that he had simply been obeying orders.

Hoover was named acting director of the Bureau of Investigation on May 10, 1924, and after a brief probationary period he was named director on December 10, 1924. In an attempt to terminate the bureau’s surveillance of both political radicals and the violations of “conventional morality” described in the White-Slave Traffic Act (1910), White-Slave Traffic Act (1910)[White Slave Traffic Act] Stone had ordered that the bureau’s personnel be reduced and that investigations be limited to actual violations of law. Hoover used Stone’s call as an opportunity to remove the bureau from the influence of party politics and the taint of corruption. Political appointees were terminated, and a merit system was established. Hoover wanted to choose future employees from candidates who had been trained either in law or accounting, although he was forced to make some exceptions for a few applicants who were better versed than their college-educated counterparts in practical matters of investigation.

During Prohibition, the bureau had been significantly hampered by its loose organization and by the lack of surveillance over Prohibition agents, and corruption had become widespread at all levels. In response, Hoover began to reorganize the bureau at its most fundamental levels. He strengthened the chain of command from Washington, from the commanders of field offices (special agents in charge, or SACs) down to individual agents. Efficiency became the sole criterion for promotion, and Hoover graded SAC performances himself using a strict system of merits and demerits. An inspection team ensured that this system was implemented.

Hoover quickly standardized reporting so that federal prosecutors could quickly ascertain whether a case could be taken to court. This was an especially important change in policy because in the past many cases could not be prosecuted because of inadequate reporting. To avoid even the appearance of corruption, Hoover attempted to standardize every aspect of an agent’s life by creating rules about dress and conduct. During Prohibition, for example, an agent’s consumption of alcohol, even off duty, could result in immediate dismissal. In 1927, Hoover began to distribute loose-leaf notebooks that explicitly described procedures for investigation and reporting, and other strict rules followed. Later, these rules demoralized many agents and handicapped others in their work, but they were initially necessary to change the public’s perception of federal law enforcement as corrupt.

A believer in the value of science and education, Hoover also wanted to make the Bureau of Investigation into a law-enforcement agency that would provide models, services, and education for police departments across the country. The invention of the automobile and the freedom it gave criminals who wanted to cross state lines pointed to the need for centralizing certain activities and regularizing police training and procedures. The trend toward centralization had begun long before Hoover became director, however: In 1904, the International Association of Chiefs of Police International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) had realized the value of the fingerprint system of identification, and in 1923, Attorney General Daugherty ordered the federal fingerprint system at Leavenworth and the IACP system to be housed and administered by the Bureau of Investigation. Fingerprinting Hoover was in charge of implementing this change, which would allow local and state police to identify criminals from other parts of the country. The IACP had begun to collect crime statistics in 1922, and both the organization of these statistics and police training programs were also centralized. In 1925, Hoover established a training school for agents in New York, but funding eventually became a problem for the relatively small New York office.


Hoover’s centralization projects required time and congressional appropriations. To enhance the image of police professionalism in the United States, Hoover moved the officers’ training school to Washington in 1928; in 1972, it became the FBI Academy located in Quantico, Virginia. In 1935, police training was expanded to include local and state police officers, and the Police Training School was renamed the FBI National Police Academy in 1937 and the FBI National Academy in 1945. In June of 1930, Congress authorized the FBI’s establishment of the Division of Identification and Information, which housed fingerprinting and similar functions. On November 24, 1932, Hoover established a Technical Lab, and this office became the preeminent crime laboratory in the United States. Eventually, it housed forensic scientists, handwriting analysts, and other specialists.

Hoover made sure that national crime statistics were reported and available through the Uniform Crime Reports, Uniform Crime Reports which were first published in 1930. To counteract the widespread demoralization caused by the Depression, he courted publicity as the FBI pursued and captured or killed high-profile criminals such as John Dillinger. Hoover also worked with writers and Hollywood filmmakers to publicize these cases, creating the image of the FBI as an effective, efficient, and incorruptible force that led the country’s fight against crime and provided facilities and training beyond the scope of any individual police force. As such, the agency was popularly perceived as a force for social stability in a time of national danger. Despite continual criticism by civil libertarians and by social activists, the image would remain relatively intact long after Hoover’s death. Federal Bureau of Investigation:J. Edgar Hoover[Hoover]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burrough, Bryan. Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Contrasts actual events with their portrayals by the FBI and popular media.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gentry, Curt. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Extensively uses interviews, research materials, and previously classified government documents to show how Hoover created the image of an uncorrupted FBI while abusing his power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hack, Richard. Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. Beverly Hills, Calif.: New Millennium Press, 2004. Readable personal biography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunt, Willam R. Front-Page Detective: William J. Burns and the Detective Profession, 1880-1930. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990. Serious study of the legendary detective’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kessler, Ronald. The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. A readable study of the FBI from the beginning; an epilogue for the 2003 paperback edition covers the investigations that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powers, Richard Gid. Broken: The Troubled Past and Uncertain Future of the FBI. New York: Free Press, 2004. Focuses on procedures and problems in the past that led to failure of the FBI to anticipate the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover. New York: Free Press, 1987. Balanced, well-documented study emphasizing the social and historical forces that shaped Hoover’s thought and actions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Theoharis, Athan. The FBI and American Democracy: A Brief Critical History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004. Readable, short history of the FBI from the formation of the Secret Service through the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2001.

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Categories: History