The FBI Turns 113
Monica Grover: Welcome back to Inside the FBI!
On previous episodes of our podcast, we’ve explored unsolved cases and investigative wins, shared stories of remarkable teammates, and discussed how to guard against a variety of scams.
Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory: But today—on the occasion of the Bureau’s 113th birthday—we’re taking a look at how the FBI was born.
Grover: I’m Monica Grover.
Oprihory: And I’m Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory.
Grover: And this is a brief history of how the FBI came to be.
* * *
Grover: While the Bureau was founded on July 26, 1908, its story technically started decades earlier, in large part through the friendship of two men: Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt and Charles Bonaparte.
Oprihory: Roosevelt looms large in our minds for his time as president, but his chapter in the Bureau’s story started way before that, when he was a young politician serving in the New York State Assembly.
Oprihory: As an assemblyman, he helped get a New York civil service reform law passed. Years later, he was asked to head up the country’s Civil Service Commission, where he investigated and rooted out misconduct and laid a foundation for the government to place a higher value on the personal merit of its employees.
And while he was making plenty of waves on his own, he crossed paths with Charles Joseph Bonaparte, and the two struck up a friendship for the history books.
Grover: Charles Bonaparte—who counted the Napoleon Bonaparte among his ancestors—was a Baltimore-born, Harvard-educated lawyer who founded the National Civil Service Reform League, a non-profit that looked at the efficiency of the government, as well as the Reform League of Baltimore.
The two men grew closer in the early 1890s, when Roosevelt made investigative trips to Baltimore, and Bonaparte helped him navigate the intricacies of his hometown. At one point, Roosevelt delivered a report to Congress suggesting that two dozen officials in Baltimore be fired for crime and corruption.
Oprihory: About a decade later, Teddy Roosevelt’s political career took him to the office of vice president—and then, suddenly, to the position of president of the United States following the assassination of William McKinley.
While president, Roosevelt recruited his old friend Bonaparte to help him investigate alleged fraud within the U.S. Postal Service and alleged corruption in Indian Country.
Bonaparte did such a good job that Roosevelt appointed him U.S. Attorney General in 1906.
Grover: In that role, Bonaparte took on a number of investigations—often busting monopolies—and it didn’t take him long to realize he needed backup. Since his agency—the Department of Justice—didn’t have in-house detectives, he had to frequently borrow personnel from the Secret Service for support, literally on a case-by-case basis.
Oprihory: But about two years later, Congress made it illegal for the Treasury Department—which controlled the Secret Service—to loan out its employees to other federal departments.
Grover: And this put Bonaparte—and the Justice Department—in a bind.
Oprihory: Undeterred, he got Roosevelt’s blessing to form his own group of detectives, hiring 34 people from across the Secret Service and Justice Department to serve as what he called a “regular force of special agents.” In a memo dated July 26, Bonaparte directed Department of Justice attorneys to refer most investigative matters to Stanley W. Finch.
Grover: Finch was the Justice Department’s chief examiner, which you can think of as the equivalent to a lead white-collar crime investigator. He was given oversight of this new cadre of agents and is recognized as the Bureau’s first director.
Grover: And so it’s with that memo that the FBI—in mission, though not yet in name—was born.
Oprihory: About five months later, Bonaparte told Congress what he’d done, explaining the impetus for the Bureau’s formation, and reporting that the effort had proven to be “on the whole, moderately satisfactory” thus far.
Congress raised no objections to this plan—and doubled the Bureau’s funding and expanded its legal authorities within a year.
Grover: And that is the short story of how a friendship built on a shared passion for civil service helped birth the Federal Bureau of Investigation, now the world’s premier law-enforcement agency.
You can read more about the Bureau’s history—from the sociopolitical background against which it emerged, to famous cases and criminals we've chased over the course of more than a century—by visiting fbi.gov/history. But in the meantime...
Grover and Oprihory: Happy Birthday, FBI!
Oprihory: This has been another production of Inside the FBI. You can follow us on your favorite podcast player, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. You can also subscribe to email alerts about new episodes at fbi.gov/podcasts.
I’m Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory...
Grover: ...and I’m Monica Grover...
Oprihory: ...from the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks again for tuning in.