Magazine article History Today

An FBI Conman: Alex Goodall Looks Back at the Career of One of the Shadiest Agents Ever Hired by the FBI in Its Hundred-Year History

Magazine article History Today

An FBI Conman: Alex Goodall Looks Back at the Career of One of the Shadiest Agents Ever Hired by the FBI in Its Hundred-Year History

Article excerpt


The enduring image of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which celebrates its centenary this year, is of the G-man: a smartly suited, clean-cut agent, incorruptible and professional. But, in its early years, the organization's reputation was very different. To be effective, the Bureau chose to rely in part on people with intimately personal experience of the criminal world--characters that Humphrey Bogart would later make a career out of playing on the big screen. Operating in the murky underbelly of American society, the Bureau was wide open to enterprising fraudsters who could see that the cachet of government employment could be used for personal profit.

One such was Gaston Bullock Means, a burly, six-foot, bald-headed agent who worked for the Bureau in the early 1920s: a smart, fast-talking master of the long con. Means was described by his biographer, E. P. Hoyt, as 'possibly the most spectacular rogue' in American history. He was right-hand man to William J. Burns, the Bureau of Investigation's Director between 1921 and 1924, having previously worked closely with him in the Burns private detective agency. Before the United States entered the First World War, Burns had worked for the British. Means, meanwhile, had been on the payroll of the Germans, planting agents in shipyards and bribing ships' captains to violate the US neutrality policy in the hope that heightened Anglo-American tensions would keep the Americans out of the war. The Burns agency was thus able to work for both sides during the conflict.

It is impossible now to tell which of Means's early German espionage activities were real and which were elaborate concoctions. His imagination was fertile and capacious and he had an eye for detail, which allowed him to construct fantastic and convoluted stories. He would wrap his false information up in recorded and verifiable public facts. This created an information 'short circuit', where those attempting to check the accuracy of his claims would find elements fully substantiated in the press. Persons apparently unrelated to him would appear on the scene and 'spontaneously' endorse his fabrications.

In 1916 and 1917 Means ingratiated himself with a very rich and naive North Carolina widow, Offering her protection and reinforcing her dependency on him by sending her anonymous, menacing letters, he gradually assumed control of her financial affairs. The relationship came to an end when King met a mysterious death by shooting. Means, the only witness to the event (not to mention the owner of the pistol that killed her), swore that her death was an accident. However, police suspicions were aroused by the discovery of a will, later shown to be a forgery, in which her 'protector' was named chief beneficiary. Means was tried for murder, but narrowly avoided punishment when he offered several trunks of secret German espionage documents to US military intelligence. The trunks, of course, were empty when they arrived and Means's old friend and ally William Burns was forced to step in. Burns assured the intelligence service that his friend was reputable and that the only possible explanation for the documents having vanished was that they had been stolen by the Department of Justice to prevent the truth emerging.

Having learned from this episode the importance of having friends in high places, Means jumped at the chance to join Burns in the Bureau of Investigation in 1921. Subsequently, he became friendly with other members of the notoriously corrupt Harding administration, including the president's closest associate, Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty, to whom the Bureau was responsible. At the time, the main priority of the Bureau was the futile war on alcohol. Means set about using his new position of power to earn thousands of dollars by offering protection to bootleggers. Eventually, Attorney General Daugherty began to worry about the scale of his activities and suspended Means just before he was indicted on over a hundred counts of violating the prohibition laws. …

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