All of these criminals would become “public enemies,” actively hunted by law enforcement nationwide. At first, the Bureau was playing only a bit part in pursuing these gangsters, since few of their crimes violated federal laws. But that began to change with the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping, which gave the Bureau jurisdiction in these cases for the first time; with the “Kansas City Massacre” in June 1933, a bloody slaughter at a train station that claimed the lives of four lawmen, including a Bureau agent; and with the rise to national prominence of John Dillinger.
Using whatever federal laws it could hang its hat on, the Bureau turned its full attention to catching these gangsters. And despite some stumbles along the way, the successes began to add up. By the end of 1934, most of these public enemies had been killed or captured.
Bonnie and Clyde were the first to fall, in May 1934, at the hands of Texas lawmen (with the Bureau playing a small supporting role in tracking them down). In July, Melvin Purvis and a team of agents caught up with Dillinger, who was shot dead leaving a Chicago theater. “Pretty Boy” Floyd, one of the hired hands of the Kansas City Massacre, was killed in a shootout with Bureau agents and local law enforcement on an Ohio farm in October 1934. And Nelson died the following month after a bloody firefight with two special agents, who were also killed.
The Bureau caught up with the rest soon enough. Agents arrested “Doc” Barker in January 1935, and the infamous “Ma” Barker and her son Fred were killed by Bureau agents in Florida eight days later. Alvin Karpis, the brains of the gang, was captured in May 1936 and ended up in Alcatraz.
In just a few transformative years, thanks to the successful battle against gangsters, the once unknown Bureau and its “G-Men” became household names and icons of popular culture. Along the way, Congress had given it newfound powers, too, including the ability to carry guns and make arrests. In July 1935, as the capstone of its newfound identity, the organization was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation—the FBI.
As the decade came to a close, the FBI would find itself shifting gears once again. War was brewing in Europe, and pro-Nazi groups were becoming more and more vocal in the U.S., claiming fascism was the answer to American woes. The gangsters, it turned out, were just a prelude to the dark days to come.
The Birth of the FBI Lab
In the pages of FBI history, November 24, 1932, is considered the official birthday of the FBI Laboratory. But it is really a “declared” anniversary for what was an evolving concept.
From the 1920s on, Director Hoover had been actively interested in scientific analysis, and by 1930 he had authorized the use of outside experts on a case-by-case basis in identification and evidence examination matters. Then, over a two-year period, the first true “technical” laboratory functions began to take shape. When all these functions moved into Room 802 of the Old Southern Railway Building in Washington, D.C., it seemed appropriate to recognize that a true lab had been born.
It was Special Agent Charles Appel who was its midwife. He had served as an aviator in World War I before joining the Bureau in 1924—and right from the start he focused on meticulous investigations based on scientific detection.
Appel was an extraordinary man with extraordinary vision, fully backed by Director Hoover with the necessary resources. He took courses to further his knowledge of state-of-the-art techniques, and by 1931, he began seeking expert opinion on starting a crime lab. In July 1932, when he proposed “a separate division for the handling of so-called crime prevention work” under which “the criminological research laboratory could be placed,” he got an immediate endorsement. By September, Room 802 in the Old Southern Railway building was fully equipped. By November 24, it was in business
The FBI Laboratory’s first home: Room 802 of the Old Southern Railway Building in Washington,and the modern day lab.
The new lab was pretty sophisticated by 1932 standards. It included a brand new ultra-violet light machine; a microscope, on loan from Bausch and Lomb until the requisition for its purchase could be finalized; moulage kits (for taking impressions); photographic supplies; and chemical sets. A machine to examine the interior of gun barrels was on order.
For about a year, Appel was the Bureau’s one-man lab. His handwriting and typewriter font analysis solved a poisoning case in 1933. His analysis of handwriting on the Lindbergh kidnapping ransom notes ultimately helped convict Bruno Richard Hauptmann.
Agents across the Bureau soon started receiving training on what this new lab could do for them and their cases, and they spread the word about the value of scientific work to their law enforcement partners.
By January 1940, the lab had a total of 46 employees. As America headed into a second world war, its growing skills and capabilities would be needed more than ever.
Donnie and Kate (Ma Barker)