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Today in Security History: Special Agent Tom White

In May 1924, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge appointed 29-year-old J. Edgar Hoover as acting director of the 16-year-old Bureau of Investigation (BOI), forerunner of today’s FBI. By December, Coolidge had made the appointment permanent.

Hoover mandated that his special agents hold a college degree in law or accounting. He promptly fired female agents and began purging the Bureau of frontier lawmen types.

But the new director stopped before completely clearing the ranks.

In 1923, Osage leaders requested federal government assistance investigating murders of tribal members in the Oklahoma oil fields. The BOI assigned one special agent: Tom White. After a year passed with little progress, Hoover knew his job depended on results. Rather than fire White, a former Texas Ranger, Hoover put White in charge of the Oklahoma City Field Office and the failing murder investigation. 

Standing six foot four, White had tracked fugitives, murderers, and stick-up men for the State of Texas; he commanded respect and was a dead shot.

Hoover kept more of his frontiersmen on the books and assigned them to Special Agent in Charge (SAC) White. The SAC would need them. Before White’s arrival, several investigators had been killed while looking into the Osage murders. White’s team included a 56-year-old former New Mexico sheriff; a former Texas Ranger; a Native American who had been fired and rehired; and another Texan who listed his interests as pistol practice and man hunting.

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In a little more than a year, White and his team brought to trial the individuals responsible for the Osage murders. And he had uncovered the motive—head rights to the Osage’s oil reserves were transferable upon death. During the 1920s, the Osage were among the wealthiest people in the United States because of oil that had been discovered on Osage Nation property.

On 28 October 1926, a trial of accused Osage murderers ended in the conviction of two men.

In solving the murders, Director Hoover hit upon a formula that works today—diversity of investigators—those who fulfill the Bureau's motto of "Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity."

Read more about the gunfighting agents of the Bureau of Investigation in Killers of the Flower Moon, an award-winning book by David Grann. A book review is available here.

R. Scott Decker, Ph.D., is a retired FBI agent and author of Recounting the Anthrax Attacks: Terror, the Amerithrax Task Force, and the Evolution of Forensics in the FBI.