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Things You Should Know But Don’t: The FBI & Forensic Science

Posted December 19, 2022

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation was created in 1908 by Attorney General Charles Bonaparte. At the time, the U.S. was growing rapidly in terms of industrialization and population.  Between political corruption, poor working conditions, and the rise of organized crime, cities quickly became a hotbed for felons. Federal law enforcement was limited, and often times local government only had small, untrained forces at the town level.  The U.S. was in need of an organized, systematic department that could rival the growing crime rates. A staunch believer in criminal reform, Bonaparte found that his hands were often tied when he tried to build cases and investigate. Rather than having a dedicated team to work for him, Bonaparte had to hire Secret Service agents. And it wasn’t long before even that option was taken away from him, when Congress passed a law in May 1908 that banned the Secret Service from working on missions outside their own federal department. Instead, with President Theodore Roosevelt’s blessing, Bonaparte created his own team of 34 agents with the express purpose of conducting investigations for the Department of Justice.

Initially known as the Bureau of Investigation, the “F” in FBI would be officially introduced in 1935 when J. Edgar Hoover was selected to “clean up” the agency. The first couple decades were rough for the FBI, including one incident that had thousands of young men falsely accused as draft dodgers during World War I, and another that led to mass-arrests done illegally. It was under Hoover’s direction that the FBI won back the respect of US citizens. Hoover immediately began to standardize several of the Bureau’s practices. In terms of hiring and promotions, he set stricter guidelines that favored performance and experience rather than seniority. The FBI began implementing more accurate ways to identify and track criminals, such as keeping ID records and fingerprints. Eventually, the FBI managed to arrest a handful of America’s most notorious gangsters.

It was around the time of Hoover’s directorship that the FBI also developed its first technical lab. Hoover saw the value in having a technical lab primarily to ease the process of fingerprint identification. The focus of the lab, however, expanded as various law enforcement circles became interested in more scientific methods of investigation. FBI agents started being trained in things such as handwriting analysis, fingerprinting, and ballistics, and in 1932 the Technical Crime Laboratory was founded. At first it only employed a single worker, Special Agent Charles Appel, for the first few years of operation. The first case solved using the FBI’s lab was the murder of Harrington Fitzgerald, Jr., who had been poisoned by his sister, Sarah Hobart. She had sent him a gift box of chocolates laced with arsenic and a note saying the sweets were from a woman named “Bertha.” Using a mix of handwriting samples and markings left from her typewriter, Apel was able to pin Sarah for the crime and she later confessed. Apel (and eventually other employees) went on to solve a number of cases, including the Lindbergh kidnapping case, and set the standards of handling evidence for years to come.

Originally, the FBI set up its technical lab in the backroom of a railroad building. As the number of staff members grew and the importance of forensic evidence became clearer, so did the need for a more robust lab. A new building with new equipment soon followed.

Forensic science was proven to be a game-changer in the mid-20th Century, and it continued with the introduction of DNA profiling in the late 1980s.  By 1998 the FBI launched their National DNA Index System, which contains records of the DNA profiles of known offenders. Once again the FBI found itself spearheading the use of a new science, seeing the promise it held for criminal investigations. Combined with the increasing doubt around some of the previously tried-and-true forensic methods, the importance of DNA cannot be overstated. Today, the FBI has over 20 million DNA profiles in its system and has aided in over 545,000 investigations, including murders, kidnappings, and missing persons cases.

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