J. Edgar Hoover
Organized crime, the American Mafia and the national crime syndicate were chartered in the 1920s, concurrent with the establishment of J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. Both groups — according to former FBI agent Neil J. Welch and ex-U.S. attorney David W. Marston, in their book Inside Hoover’s FBI — matured in the 1930s. “Although they were presumptive enemies,” the authors suggest, “during their first four decades they competed primarily for newspaper space.”
J. Edgar Hoover was the best FBI director organized crime could ever have wanted; it was difficult for syndicate members to be antagonized by a law enforcement official who claimed neither organized crime nor a Mafia existed in the United States. Without a man like Hoover heading the FBI it is inconceivable that organized crime and the Mafia could ever have reached the heights of power, wealth and administrative organization.
Prohibition gave new life to the criminal gangs of an earlier era that had started to collapse just prior to World War I. Bootlegging brought about the reconstruction of the gangs; suddenly they became so wealthy and powerful that, instead of being the puppets of the political machines, they pulled the strings. Illiterate punks became the great robber barons of the 20th century, and it was these men who provided the muscle to create organized crime in America (in its truest meaning of a syndicate with interlocking relationships with other mobs around the country).
To establish a national syndicate, various levels of government officials, politicians and law enforcement groups were subverted. Aiding in this task was Hoover, who refused to stalk syndicate gangsters, denying the existence of such groups as a crime syndicate or Mafia.Many theories have been offered for Hoover’s bizarre behavior, and in each there is probably at least partial truth. Hoover probably was fearful that, like other law enforcement agencies that came in contact with organized crime and the Mafia, the FBI would be tarred with the brush of corruption, since syndicate criminals had huge funds available for the fix. He preferred his agents move against such perils to the republic as teenage car thieves. These were readily apprehended, and he could cite endless if meaningless statistics to the Senate Appropriations Committee that XXX numbers of cars worth XXX numbers of dollars were recovered, thus justifying further expansion of the FBI budget.
One-time number three man in the FBI, William C. Sullivan, stated in his book, The Bureau: My Thirty Years in Hoover’s FBI (published just after his accidental death): “. . . the Mafia is powerful, so powerful that entire police forces or even a mayor’s office can be under Mafia control. That’s why Hoover was afraid to let us tackle it. He was afraid that we’d show up poorly. Why take the risk, he reasoned, until we were forced to by public exposure of our shortcomings.” Sullivan, more or less regarded as Nixon’s man in the agency, was most likely to succeed Hoover if Nixon had carried out his wish to fire Hoover, a step that Nixon drew back from. (“Christ almighty,” Assistant Attorney General Robert Mardian once reported to Sullivan of an aborted attempt, “Nixon lost his guts.”)In place of fighting organized crime, Hoover lay special emphasis on relatively easy targets, with a highly publicized war on so-called public enemies — Dillinger, Ma Barker (who never was charged with any crime), Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly (who never fired his gun at anyone in anger) and other targets more easily hit than the Mafia. “The whole of the FBI’s main thrust,” said Sullivan, “was not investigation but public relations and propaganda to glorify its director.” Historian Albert Fried has written that “Hoover paid so little attention to organized crime, indeed, so little that one could accuse him of dereliction of duty.” In The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America, Fried contends that Hoover thought organized crime “constituted no immediate danger to established order. Or, as some have argued, he assumed that the gang/syndicate members . . . were in fact pillars of the status quo. They at least had a vested interest in the health of the free enterprise system, in America’s triumph over communism and for that matter over Socialism and liberalism too—over anything that might remotely threaten their specific opportunities.” Thus, Fried concluded, the more intelligent mobsters, à la Al Capone, Moe Dalitz and Meyer Lansky, were valuable defenders of capitalism and thus to a certain extent “J. Edgar Hoover’s ideological kinsmen.”
A Hoover biographer, investigative reporter Hank Messick, carries the idea even further, declaring, “John Edgar Hoover has received support, as well as more tangible rewards, from right-wing businessmen who, in turn, have dealt directly and indirectly with organized crime figures who have not been disturbed by John Edgar Hoover.”
However, the Fried-Messick theses may be granting a depth to Hoover’s motivations that was not really there. The more standard view is that Hoover simply was too afraid to go after the Mafia and organized crime and rationalized this fear by claiming: 1) the problem didn’t exist and 2) (falsely) that his agency lacked the authorization to do anything anyway. This so the argument goes, suffices to explain his reluctance to war on the syndicate.Additionally, Hoover regarded some members of organized crime as “ideological kinsmen” for reasons other than what Fried states. He once told Frank Costello in the Stork Club, “Just stay out of my bailiwick” and that he in turn would stay out of his. Costello’s bailiwick was gambling. Hoover, an inveterate horseplayer, was very tolerant of that activity and said, “The FBI has much more important functions to accomplish than arresting gamblers all over the country.” Only to Hoover was it not apparent that with the end of Prohibition, gambling became the chief source of revenue to organized crime, the grease that kept the mob’s other rackets functioning—everything from buying protection from the law to financing enormous narcotics enterprises — and murder.
Hoover’s morning-noon-and-night devotion to duty has always been a bit exaggerated; within the FBI his disappearances in the afternoon were legendary. He and his lifelong sidekick Clyde Tolson would head for a bulletproof car in the courtyard of the Department of Justice after announcing they were off to work on a case. Actually, they would be on their way to make the first race at Bowie, Pimlico, Charleston, Laurel, Havre de Grace—wherever the bangtails were running. Hoover’s preoccupation with the races became so pronounced that he was frequently photographed at the $2 window and had a form letter that was sent out to irate citizens objecting to his wagering. (He said he was really only interested in the improvement of the breed and only bet $2 now and then so as not to embarrass his hosts.)
In truth, Hoover played the role of decoy at the $2 window. As Sullivan stated, and others have confirmed, “He had agents assigned to accompany him to the track place his real bets at the hundred-dollar window, and when he won he was a pleasure to work with for days.”
But nobody seemed more determined to keep Hoover happy than the boys in the mob. A happy Hoover was not likely to destroy gamblers and syndicate criminals, and so the mob developed a technique to stroke the FBI kingpin. The key in this operation was Costello and a mutual friend, gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Hoover got horse tips from Winchell who got them from Costello who, in turn, got them from Frank Erickson, the nation’s leading bookmaker. The tips were on “sure things,” a term that does not connote in mob vernacular the best horse in a race as much as the one who was going to win. Erickson and Costello spelled sure thing: “F-I-X.”
This cozy arrangement, corroborated by Winchell staffers, had the desired effect from Costello’s viewpoint. He was a man whom Hoover could not dislike, one whom he invited for coffee at the Waldorf Astoria. “I got to be careful of my associates,” Costello told him. “They’ll accuse me of consortin’ with questionable characters.” But as long as Costello provided Hoover with solid tips — and didn’t run with a youth gang heisting cars or join the Communist Party — he was relatively safe from retribution.
Some may object to the idea of Hoover being influenced so simply by the mob, through a few race winners, but only a true horseplayer can really comprehend the warm feelings a gambler has for the man giving him a tip that stands up.
Whatever the reason, from malfeasance to nonfeasance, to laziness, to fear, to stroking by the mob, J. Edgar Hoover kept right on denying the existence of organized crime. The charade ended by what FBI agent Welch called “an accident.” The accident was the discovery of the underworld conference at Apalachin, New York, in 1957. As Welch stated:
“The victims of this accident came in through crime figure Joe Barbara’s front door. The lucky ones made it out into the woods . . . Sixty others left in state police cars. It was the biggest roundup of organized crime bosses in national history, and it was an accident.”
And another casualty was Hoover. The New York Herald Tribune wondered in an editorial where Hoover and his FBI were while organized crime was growing in America. Not even Hoover had the nerve to go on with the line that it didn’t exist. He threw the FBI into a turmoil, demanding his agents now get him off the hook and prove there was a Mafia and that the bureau had known about it all the time.
The hot potato was thrown to the research and analysis section and the FBI was off on an incredible three-decade game of catch-up, learning everything about the previously invisible forces of organized crime and the Mafia. Several agents were put on the research, and one agent, Charles Peck, stayed in the office every night until 11 or 12, reading no fewer than 200 books on the Mafia and checking through the New York Times coverage of “organized crime” for the previous 100 years. The conclusion was inevitable: The Mafia existed and had operated in America for many decades.
While many FBI agents now felt free to launch investigations against the mobs, Hoover soon tired of the chase and probably would have eased back on FBI crackdowns as the heat dissipated. But the appointment in 1961 of Robert Kennedy as attorney general kept Hoover on his toes. Unlike his predecessors, who had been fearful of tangling with Hoover, Robert Kennedy pushed the FBI chief hard; he had to go after the “Cosa Nostra.”
When Kennedy resigned office, Hoover saw to it, as Sullivan put it, that “the whole Mafia effort slacked off again.” In fact, the FBI war against the Mafia remained slack until Hoover’s death in 1972. Since then the Mafia and the FBI have been in a persistent confrontation.
On the day of Hoover’s death in 1972 three men, identified to an onlooker as “Gambino guys from Brooklyn,” were leaving Aqueduct Racetrack in New York. One picked up a copy of the New York Post headlining the FBI chief’s demise and rushed back excitedly to the other two. One of them, clearly the highest-ranking of the three, kept up a brisk pace and announced with a shrug of the shoulders: “You know what I feel about this—absolutely nothing. This guy meant nothing to us one way or the other.”