Ask Hoover: The FBI was the pre-internet era’s answer to Google

It’s the 1940s, and you’re not sure if a celebrity is still alive. With the internet still decades away, who do you turn to? Why, the Bureau, of course!

Written by JPat Brown
Edited by Michael Morisy

It’s the 1940s, and you’re not sure if a celebrity is still alive. With the internet still decades away, who do you turn to? Why, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, of course!

Yes, as this charming exchange from the file of legendary litigator Clarence Darrow (released last year to Matt Guariglia) illustrates, before Google, people didn’t think anything at all about asking FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the most powerful man in the country, to help them settle a bet at work.

And the amazing part is, Hoover didn’t appear to mind.

Apparently, the Director found the time in his busy schedule of safeguarding the American public against its enemies - dubious as some of those enemies might have been - to serve as our nation’s Wikipedia General of a sorts. In the Darrow file alone, Hoover fielded requests for help with homework assignments …

and research projects …

with a kind of apologetic dismissiveness that predated Siri for a good fifty years.

And these were far from isolated occurrences - at various points, Hoover was asked for, and provided, crime stats

celebrity contacts

and, something that should be familiar to anybody who’s been guilty of using a search engine under the influence, his opinion.

For all of his faults - and you can read about those at length here - there is something oddly refreshing about how seriously Hoover took the role of public servant. Nowadays, it feels as if you wanted to ask the FBI the time of day, you better get ready to lawyer up.

Read Darrow’s file embedded below, or on the request page:


Image via Wikimedia Commons