When Did the FBI Start Using “Wanted” Posters?


On a December night in 1919, a 23-year-old soldier named William N. Bishop managed to slip out of the stockade at Virginia’s Camp A.A. Humphreys and escape into the surrounding woods. Unable to locate Bishop, the army requested the assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Division of Investigation, the precursor to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The Division’s assistant director, Frank Burke, compiled all the information he could get on Bishop – a complete physical description (including a note on a mole in his right armpit), names and addresses of people he might visit or stay with, a photostat (a type of early photocopy) of his most recent portrait, and more – and sent a copy, dated December 15, 1919, and labeled “Identification Order No. 1,” to all the Division’s agents and other law enforcement in the search area.

The memo was, essentially, the first FBI wanted poster, before it was even called the FBI. The IO, as it quickly came to be called by law enforcement, helped immensely in the manhunt for Bishop, who was captured and returned to the army less than five months after his escape. Over the next decade, IOs became a staple of fugitive-hunting for federal, state and municipal law enforcement agencies, and were soon adopted in Canada and Europe, too.

By the 1930s, the IO had evolved into a standard format used across the country. They were made as 8x8 flyers, and displayed the fugitive’s photos, criminal record and background information, as well as images of their fingerprints pulled from the FBI’s growing repository. Around this time, the Bureau also started sending the IOs to more than just the agents and officers directly involved in a case by making them available to police stations and post offices around the country.

Since the hunt for Bishop in 1919, the FBI has issued almost 6,000 Identification Orders. You can see ones for some famous fugitives – including “Pretty Boy” Floyd (IO No. 1194), “Machine Gun” Kelly (No. 1203), John Dillinger (No. 1217), “Baby Face” Nelson (No. 1223) and Bonnie and Clyde (No. 1227) – at the Bureau’s website.

A Different Kind of Top 10

In the 1950s, the Bureau took IOs in a new direction and created the “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” list. Ninety-four percent of the fugitives featured on the list since its first release have been captured.

Whenever one of these “Ten Most Wanted” fugitives is caught, the Bureau holds something of a fugitive casting call and asks each of its field offices for suggestions for a new listee. Armed with nominations, Special Agents go over the fugitives’ files and add a new one to the list, largely based on two considerations: whether or not the fugitive is a danger to society, and whether adding them to the list would significantly increase the likelihood that they would be caught.