20 Surprising Facts About J. Edgar Hoover

John Edgar Hoover, the longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
John Edgar Hoover, the longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. / Associated Press, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The first thing to get out of the way is that the J stands for John. The second thing to get out of the way is that it's difficult to know several things about J. Edgar Hoover's life for certain, despite him serving under eight presidents and building the FBI from nearly the ground up. The long-time FBI director's private life was hidden from the public eye even as rumors swirled and stuck. For better and worse, his legacy is tangled up in myths.

What we know of his life for sure is focused on his work and the mixed reputation he left behind at the FBI. It's not that surprising that a man fiercely interested in collecting everyone's secrets had a great talent for keeping his own. Here are 20 facts about the man behind the G-men.

1. J. Edgar Hoover didn't have a birth certificate until he was 43.

Hoover had a mystery to offer as soon as he came into the world. He was born on New Year's Day 1895 in Washington, D.C., but his parents did not file a birth certificate for him. It wasn't filed until 1938, the year his mother Annie died. Their oversight or intentional deception has helped fuel speculation among some biographers that Hoover, who persecuted Black civil rights leaders, had a secret African-American heritage.

2. J. Edgar Hoover’s childhood nickname was “Speed.”

And we don't know why for sure. Several sources say he earned it after learning to speak quickly to overcome a stutter, and early 20th-century journalist Quentin Reynolds claimed it was because of his football prowess (but Hoover never played football). However, an official FBI newsletter said that he scored the cool nickname because he delivered groceries very quickly.

3. In high school, J. Edgar Hoover debated against women's suffrage.

After overcoming his stutter (which he really did), Hoover joined the high school debate team and argued against women getting the right to vote. Adolescent debaters don't always get to choose their topic or their side, but denying women the right to vote falls in line with Hoover's overall life philosophy and had a direct impact on how he ran the FBI later on.

4. J. Edgar Hoover’s first job taught him the value of collecting information.

Hoover worked as a messenger (speedy!) in the Library of Congress's Orders Department when he was 18. Looking back on the experience in a 1951 letter, he stated that the work “trained me in the value of collating material. It gave me an excellent foundation for my work in the FBI where it has been necessary to collate information and evidence.”

5. J. Edgar Hoover ran the Bureau of Investigation's Radical Division.

He was young, too. Hoover was 24 when he was put in charge of the department that oversaw (and attempted to thwart) domestic radicals, officially known as the General Intelligence Division. He was only in the job a few months before leading the Palmer Raids, a series of mass anti-Communist arrests of leftist immigrants in response to an anarchist bombing campaign. The American Civil Liberties Union was founded to counter the brutality and wide scope of the Justice Department effort.

6. J. Edgar Hoover became a Freemason in 1920.

Hoover in 1924.
Hoover in 1924. / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // No Know Copyright Restrictions

Hoover joined the Freemasons as a member of Federal Lodge 1 in Washington, D.C. and worked his way up to the 33rd degree, the highest rank, by 1955.

7. J. Edgar Hoover spied on the Supreme Court.

Hoover's FBI kept close tabs on all sorts of powerful people, justified as a necessary precaution against leftist and Communist ideas taking hold in the United States. He called future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, “the most dangerous man in America,” as he was rising through the judiciary, but he also engaged clerks and aides to Justices to work as informants for the FBI. That's in addition to the wiretaps. All told, 12 Justices were overheard more than 100 times on warrantless wiretaps between 1945 and 1975.

8. J. Edgar Hoover fired all the women in the FBI.

Alaska P. Davidson, the FBI's first female agent.
Alaska P. Davidson, the FBI's first female agent. / FBI, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not straying far from his high school debate career, Hoover fired all woman agents when he took over as head of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924. This was only two years after the Bureau got its first woman special agent, Alaska Davidson. Women wouldn't be allowed in agent roles at the FBI again until July 1972—two months after Hoover's death.

9. J. Edgar Hoover denied the existence of organized crime for decades.

Another one of the myths floating around Hoover is that he was somehow under the thumb of the mob—a belief that stems largely from a baffling position Hoover took for years—namely, that the mob didn't really exist. It wasn't until the United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce (or “the Kefauver Committee” if you're pressed for time) released its results in 1951 that Hoover acknowledged that organized crime operating at a national level was a real thing.

10. J. Edgar Hoover monitored a lot of celebrities.

Hoover kept a close eye on more than just the Supreme Court and politicians. He tracked movie stars and writers, primarily if they went to anti-war meetings or expressed leftist ideas in public. John Lennon, Norman Mailer, Charlie Chaplin, and comedy duo Abbott and Costello are just a few who earned files for potentially being obscene or political.

11. Richard Nixon was afraid of J. Edgar Hoover.

When it came to Hoover, Nixon wasn't so carefree.
When it came to Hoover, Nixon wasn't so carefree. / Ollie Atkins, White House photographer, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Perhaps the most occupationally important myth surrounding Hoover was that he had dirt on all the presidents who could have fired him. The thing is, no one fired him, which raises some conspiratorial flags, but Hoover was also incredibly popular with the voting public (the bulk of his tenure coming before the Civil Rights Act), so there were other incentives for Presidents to keep him on. We have audio evidence that at least one president really did fear Hoover's power: Richard Nixon, who thought Hoover might “bring down the temple” if he were sacked.

12. J. Edgar Hoover consulted for Warner Bros.

When Warner Bros. made the 2011 movie J. Edgar, they were kind of making a movie about one of their employees. The FBI director was an advisor on the 1951 movie The FBI Story and later on the mid-1960s TV series The F.B.I. Building on the public legends surrounding the prowess of G-Men who took down serious criminals, Hoover used popular entertainment to bolster the FBI's image with positive, heroic portrayals. He also narrated a WWII propaganda film called The Next of Kin.

13. Four movies were made from one book J. Edgar Hoover wrote.

Hoover wrote several non-fiction titles (or as is widely believed, had them ghost-written by FBI agents, including Bravo personality Tim Gunn's father), but one book fully captured Hollywood's attention. Persons in Hiding was a compilation of several cases, mostly high profile, that Hoover used to show off the detective work of the modernizing investigatory body, released shortly after the name change added the F to FBI. A film of the same name came out in 1939 alongside Undercover Doctor, with Parole Fixer and Queen of the Mob landing a year later, all based on the same book.

14. J. Edgar Hoover had what was possibly the world's largest collection of pornography.

Hoover's “Obscene File” was massive, and contained nude photos and racy movies of celebrities and politicians (primarily seen as blackmail material), as well as official photography taken by the FBI during raids of gay bars. Hoover was also rumored to have nude pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt obtained from comedian W.C. Fields because fiction cannot hold a candle to the truth.

15. J. Edgar Hoover saw the Wright Brothers fly.

The Wright Flyer.
The Wright Flyer. / John T. Daniels, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Wright Flyer made history in 1903. Six years later, a teenage J. Edgar Hoover got the opportunity to see Orville and Wilbur Wright take to the skies (and he got to shake Orville's hand). Interestingly enough, Orville corresponded with Hoover later in life to submit a letter of recommendation for a family friend trying to become a special agent (he got the job).

16. J. Edgar Hoover gave dogs as gifts.

Hoover had a major soft spot for dogs. He had at least one at all times since his childhood, including one named “G-Boy.” He also gave canines as gifts to prominent friends like President Herbert Hoover (no relation) and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson initially named the beagle from the FBI director “J. Edgar,” but that was eventually shortened to “Edgar.”

17. J. Edgar Hoover is the reason FBI directors only serve for 10 years.

Hoover built the FBI and abused its power, which is why he's left behind a legacy controversial enough to warrant repeated calls for the “J. Edgar Hoover Building” that headquarters the FBI to be renamed. It never has, but the 10-year tenure for FBI directors is arguably a much more important impact of his time. Instead of serving 37 years like Hoover, each FBI director gets 10 unless an extension is proposed by the President and affirmed by the Senate.

18. J. Edgar Hoover tried to prevent Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday from becoming a holiday.

This fact isn't surprising at all, considering that Hoover led the FBI charge to spy on Dr. King, publicly revealed his extramarital affairs, and tried to get him to die by suicide. Hoover was a racist who saw MLK and other Black activists at the time as a serious threat to his narrow view of American life. He was reportedly furious when MLK was given the Nobel Peace Prize and tried to stop the celebration of his birthday as a national holiday. That's why the FBI's annual tweet honoring MLK is such fertile ground for dark comedy. There's no doubt how Hoover would feel about the MLK quote etched into the reflection garden at Quantico.

19. J. Edgar Hoover the only civil servant whose body Lay in state.

Lying in state is a rare honor, primarily used for presidents, senators, and notable representatives as well as other important national figures (like Rosa Parks) and military leaders (like Douglas MacArthur). After his death on May 2, 1972, Hoover was eulogized by Chief Justice of the United States Warren Burger while his body lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda, becoming the first and only civil servant to be awarded the honor.

20. Children stole flowers from J. Edgar Hoover’s grave right after the funeral.

Overall, Hoover's funeral was a dignified affair. He lay in state and was called a “giant” by Nixon during the ceremony before being buried at the Congressional Cemetery only a few blocks away from his childhood home on Capitol Hill. The flag draped over his coffin was given to FBI Associate Director Clyde Tolson, who inherited Hoover's full estate and was buried near Hoover when he died a few years later. But the somber atmosphere couldn't stop some local kids from pulling some high jinks. The neighborhood children stole flowers from his gravesite “and carried them away jubilantly.”