9 Intriguing Excerpts From Old FBI Files

Keystone, Hulton Archive // Getty Images
Keystone, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Under J. Edgar Hoover, everybody who was anybody had an FBI file. Here are some interesting things we found while poking around their archives.

1. Albert Einstein

Our favorite scientist’s file is over 1800 pages long. Einstein’s German roots always made the Bureau nervous. It didn’t help that he was an outspoken pacifist and socialist (not to mention a harsh critic of Sen. Joseph McCarthy). When Einstein was asked to join the Manhattan project in 1939, the FBI concluded that, “In view of his radical background, this office would not recommend the employment of Dr. Einstein on matters of a secret nature without a very careful investigation, as it seems unlikely that a man of his background could, in such a short time, become a loyal American citizen.”

The FBI suspected that Einstein was a German spy, and it planned to deport him once they found proof: “Notwithstanding his world-wide reputation as a scientist, [Einstein] may properly be investigated for possible revocation of naturalization.” The Bureau came up empty.

2. Colonel Sanders

Colonel Sanders admired J. Edgar Hoover and occasionally requested favors from him. One time, the Colonel asked Hoover to come to his birthday party, in a letter which now rests in his FBI file:

After searching the Colonel’s criminal record, Hoover gently declined.

3. Extra Sensory Perception

In 1957, William Foos began pretending to read through walls. Weeks later, the FBI was at his door asking if his powers were real:

“Should his claims be well-founded, there is no limit to the value which could accrue to the FBI—complete and undetectable access to mail, the diplomatic pouch; visual access to buildings—the possibilities are unlimited insofar as law enforcement and counterintelligence are concerned… It is difficult to see how the bureau can afford to not inquire into this matter more fully. Bureau interest can be completely discreet and controlled and no embarrassment would result.”

Foos went on to perform elaborate card tricks for FBI agents, CIA members, and leading military officers, but the government became suspicious when he refused to divulge his methods. After consulting a slew of psychologists and university studies, the FBI dropped the case, leaving behind this 40-page file on ESP.

4. The Grateful Dead

Most of the Grateful Dead’s pages are suspiciously blacked out with marker. The file does show, however, how clueless the FBI was about pop music trends. When mentioning the Grateful Dead for the first time, it says, “It would appear this is a rock group of some sort.” The FBI had suspected Jerry Garcia’s group was tied to the criminal drug circle: “LSD originates from San Fransisco, California through a renowned rock group known as Grateful Dead.” Despite its suspicions, the FBI decided not to investigate further.

5. Liberace

The FBI holds over 400 pages on Liberace. Most pages focus on a robbery in 1974, when someone stole hundreds of Liberace’s jewels. Other pages look into numerous extortion attempts that attacked Liberace’s sexuality. A meager two pages, however, show that the rhinestone-clad pianist illegally bet on horse races through a bookie in Buffalo, NY. The FBI considered roasting Liberace before a Grand Jury, but later decided against it.

6. Louie, Louie

The FBI spent 30 months investigating the song Louie, Louie because the lyrics were thought to be dirty. The song was playing across America, and naughty lyrics would have violated a code that forbade “the distribution of obscene material.” Agents listened to the record at different speeds, interviewed band members, and even researched analyses made by teenagers who claimed to know the song’s “true meaning.” The Bureau eventually gave up because they “were unable to interpret any wording in the record.”

7. Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In

The FBI can’t take a joke. In 1971, the bureau penned a 21-page report after Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In made fun of Hoover and the FBI. In one sketch, a troupe of ditzy cheerleaders wore FBI garb. In another, actors pretended to talk to Hoover through a potted flower, suggesting that the FBI had bugged the plant. It obviously hurt the Bureau’s fragile feelings: “Some of the so-called jokes were not only not humorous but did not make any sense, the sight-gags were ridiculously stupid and the fight song featuring the cheerleaders was to a great extent unintelligible.” According to the file, the most hurtful line was this knock-knock joke, which it called “vicious” and “sick-type”:

“Knock, knock”

“Who’s there?”

“Hoover”

“Hoover who?”

“Hoover heard of a 76-year old policeman?”

8. I Was a Communist for the FBI (Movie)

In 1941, an FBI agent named Mathew Cvetic joined the Communist Party with the objective of spying on its members. A decade later, Cvetic wrote about his spy adventures. His story appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and was eventually picked up by Warner Brothers, who turned it into an ultra-patriotic (but romanticized) film called, I Was a Communist for the FBI. The film made the Bureau a little nervous. Some parts revealed how the FBI operated; others were just gross misrepresentations. The FBI reported that “Cvetic has no right to presume to speak for the FBI…it might be necessary for us to publicly deny Cvetic’s alleged insinuations.” The FBI later denied that Cvetic had ever been an agent.

9. Roswell’s UFO

You may be surprised to learn that the file that made UFOs (and weather balloons) famous is only one page long:

Text:
“Headquarters eight air force, telephonically advised this office that an object purporting to be a flying disc was recovered near Roswell, New Mexico, this date. The disc is hexagonal in shape and was suspended from a balloon by cable, which balloon was approximately twenty feet in diameter. (censored) further advised that the object found resembles a high altitude weather balloon with a radar reflector, but that telephonic conversation between their office and Wright Field had not borne out of this belief. Disc and balloon being transported to Wright Field by special plane for examination. Information provided this office because of national interest in case. And fact that National Broadcasting Company, Associated Press, and others attempting to break story of location of disc today. (Censored) advised would request Wright Field to advise Cincinnati office results of examination. No further investigation being conducted."

11 Masks That Will Keep You Safe and Stylish

Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods
Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods

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10 Fascinating Facts About Herman Melville

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born in New York City to a wealthy and socially connected family, Herman Melville (1819-1891) chose a life as exciting as that of his Moby-Dick narrator Ishmael. He spent years at sea on whaling ships and traveled to far-flung places, but also struggled to make it as a novelist while supporting a large extended family. To celebrate his birthday on August 1, we’re diving into Melville’s adventures and fishing for some surprising facts.

1. Herman Melville's mother changed the spelling of their last name.

Despite his family’s wealth and pedigree—his mother Maria Gansevoort descended from one of the first Dutch families in New York, and his father Allan Melvill came from old Boston stock—young Herman had an unstable, unhappy childhood. Allan declared bankruptcy in 1830 and died two years later, leaving Maria with eight children under the age of 17 and a pile of debt from loans and Allan’s unsuccessful businesses. Soon afterward, Maria added an "e" to their surname—perhaps to hide from collection agencies, although scholars are not sure exactly why. "It always seemed to me an unlikely way to avoid creditors in the early 19th century," Will Garrison, executive director of the Berkshire Historical Society, tells Mental Floss.

2. Herman Melville struggled to find employment.

Thanks to a national financial crisis in 1837, Melville had difficulty finding a permanent job, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He served as a bank clerk, teacher, land surveyor, and crew member on a packet ship before signing on, in 1841, to the whaler Acushnet of New Bedford, Massachusetts, then the whaling capital of the world. He served aboard a few different whalers and rose to the role of harpooner. His adventures at sea planted the seeds for Melville’s interrogation of man, morality, and nature in Moby-Dick. In that novel, Melville (in the voice of Ishmael) says, "A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard."

3. Herman Melville jumped ship in the middle of a three-year voyage. 

Melville and the Acushnet’s captain didn’t get along, so when the ship reached the Marquesas Islands, Melville and a friend, Richard Tobias Greene, hid in the forests until the ship departed. They spent a month living with the Pacific Islanders. Melville was impressed with their sophistication and peacefulness; most Europeans believed that Polynesians were cannibals. He also found reason to criticize European attempts to "civilize" the islanders by converting them to Christianity. Melville drew on his South Pacific experiences in his first two novels, which became runaway bestsellers: Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).

4. Herman Melville was inspired by a mountain.

Herman Melville's home, Arrowhead, in Pittsfield, MassachusettsDaderot/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Melville moved to Arrowhead, his charming mustard-colored home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with his wife Elizabeth and their son in 1850, after he achieved fame as a popular adventure novelist. In the upstairs study, he set up his writing desk so he could look out the north-facing window, which perfectly framed the summit of Mount Greylock, Massachusetts’s tallest mountain. Gazing at the peak on a sunny day, Melville was struck by how much the horizontal apex looked "like a sperm whale rising in the distance." He arranged his desk so he would see the summit when he happened to glance up from his work. In that room, in early 1851, Melville completed his manuscript of Moby-Dick.

5. Herman Melville fictionalized an actual whaling disaster.

While on the Acushnet, Melville had learned about an infamous shipwreck from the son of one of its survivors. In November 1820, a massive sperm whale had attacked and sunk the whaleship Essex of Nantucket in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Its crew, stranded in three small boats with little food or water, chose to drift more than 4000 miles to South America instead of 1200 miles to the Marquesas Islands—where Melville had enjoyed his idyll—because they thought they’d be eaten by the natives. Ironically, some of the castaways ended up eating their dead shipmates to survive.

Melville used the disaster to form the climax of Moby-Dick, in which the Pequod of Nantucket is destroyed by the white whale. Melville visited Nantucket for the first time only after the novel was published. He personally interviewed the Essex’s captain, George Pollard, who had survived the terrible ordeal and become the town’s night watchman. Later, Melville wrote, "To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered."

6. Moby-Dick was a flop.

Readers who were expecting another rip-roarin’ adventure like his earlier novels Typee or Redburn were sorely disappointed when Melville’s masterpiece was published in November 1851. The British edition of Moby-Dick, or The Whale received some positive reviews in London newspapers, but American reviewers were shocked at its obscure literary symbolism and complexity. “There is no method in his madness; and we must needs pronounce the chief feature of the volume [the character of Captain Ahab] a perfect failure, and the work itself inartistic,” wrote the New York Albion. The reviewer added that the novel's style was like "having oil, mustard, vinegar, and pepper served up as a dish, in place of being scientifically administered sauce-wise."

7. Herman Melville was very fond of his chimney.

Arrowhead became the locus of Melville’s family life and work. Eventually, he and Lizzie, their two sons and two daughters, his mother Maria, and his sisters Augusta, Helen, and Fanny all lived in the cozy farmhouse. For a couple of years, Nathaniel Hawthorne was such a frequent guest that he had his own small bedroom off Melville’s study. After Moby-Dick, Melville wrote the novels Pierre and The Confidence-Man, his collection of works called The Piazza Tales, short stories including “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and many other pieces there. Melville grew very attached to the house, especially to the massive central chimney, which he immortalized in his 1856 short story “I and My Chimney.” Yet his financial struggles after Moby-Dick failed to find an audience led Melville to sell Arrowhead to his brother Allan in 1863. As an homage, Allan painted a few lines from “I and My Chimney” on the chimney's stonework, which are still visible today.

8. Herman Melville finally got a day job.

Melville’s chronic money woes prompted a return to New York City, into a brick townhouse at 104 East 26th Street in Manhattan, where the family benefited from being back in the bustle of civilization. Melville finally found regular employment as a district inspector for the U.S. Customs Service and maintained an office at 470 West Street. At the same time, he mostly abandoned writing short stories and novels in favor of poetry. In between inspections he wrote Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, based on his visit to the Middle East in 1857. Because of its length—at more than 18,000 lines, it's the longest poem in American literature—and unconventional approach to its subject, Melville once called it "eminently adapted for unpopularity."

9. Herman Melville's last major work was discovered by accident.

The centennial of Melville’s birth renewed interest in his novels and poems, most of which were long out of print by then. Raymond Weaver, a literature professor at Columbia University working on the first major biography of Melville, collaborated with Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Melville’s granddaughter and literary executor, who gave him access to the author’s papers. In 1919, while poking through letters and notes, Weaver discovered the unfinished manuscript of Billy Budd in a tin breadbox. Melville had started to write the short story about a tragic sailor in 1888 but, by his death in 1891, had not completed it. Weaver edited and published the story in 1924, but initially considered the tale "not distinguished." Other scholars asserted that Billy Budd was Melville’s final masterpiece.

10. You can see Herman Melville's personal collection of knick-knacks.

Just a short drive from Arrowhead, the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield holds the world’s largest collection of Melvilliana in its Melville Memorial Room. Along with first editions of Melville’s work and a full library of books about him, there are priceless objects owned by or associated with the author. Fans can geek out over the earliest known portrait of Melville, painted in 1848; carved wooden canoe paddles that he collected in Polynesia; his walking stick; his favorite inkstand, quills, and other desktop tchotchkes; a collection of scrimshaw, maps, and prints; and Elizabeth Melville’s writing desk. There's a section of the first successful transatlantic cable, which Melville valued as a prized souvenir, and even the actual breadbox in which Billy Budd had been hiding.