John Edgar Hoover (January 1, 1895 – May 2, 1972) was an American law-enforcement administrator who served as the final Director of the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) and the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Hoover became instrumental in founding the FBI in June 1935, where he remained as director for an additional 37 years until his death in May 1972 – serving a total of 48 years leading both the BOI and the FBI and under eight Presidents.

On October 20, 2023, the movie Killers of the Flower Moon was released in theaters. The film is both directed and produced by Martin Scorcese. It stars Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone. It has a strong supporting cast with actors like John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser.

It is based on a 2017 book of the same name by David Grann that explores murders of wealthy Osage people in Oklahoma in the 1920’s, after massive oil deposits were found on their land. While the official count was twenty murders of Osage Indians, Grann speculates that it could be in the hundreds. It is ironic that David Grann’s 2017 book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI went into detail about the start of the FBI and its founder, the highly controversial J. Edgar Hoover. Ironically, it brought to light the issue of Hoover’s stuttering.

J. Edgar Hoover was the sixth director of the Bureau of Investigation, the agency that was the forerunner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was the catalyst in the founding of the FBI in 1935 and remained the director until his death at age 77 in 1972.

As a young person, he made an effort to overcome his stuttering by teaching himself to speak very quickly. This speaking style carried on throughout his life and was noted by others. His speech was so fast as an adult that stenographers regularly had difficulty following him.

Killers of the Flower Moon states, “Hoover, who believed that his men should conquer their deficiencies the way he conquered his childhood stutter, purged anyone who failed to meet his exacting standards.” The April 28, 2017 New York Times review of the book Solving a Reign of Terror Against Native Americans states about Hoover being an unlikely candidate to become the first FBI Director, “He was diminutive, struggled with a stutter and a fear of germs, and lived with his mother.”

The 2011 movie J. Edgar, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role, makes light of the fact that Hoover used a practiced cadence of speech to circumvent stuttering. The mention of the nickname “Speed” suggests that fast talking was the result of stuttering. The 1993 book The True Story of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI by Barry Denenberg echoes the origin of the nickname “Speed” in relation to Hoover’s “machine gun-like manner of speaking and states, “In order to overcome an early stuttering problem, he spent hours practicing in front of his bedroom mirror.”

An article on the 2011 biopic titled The Making of ‘J. Edgar’ in the November 2, 2011 edition of The Hollywood Reporter stated that director Clint Eastwood wished to confirm with screenwriter Dustin Lane Black certain aspects of Hoover’s life portrayed in the script. Black said about Eastwood, “He wanted to know about the stutter [that Hoover had as a youth]. He said, 'Did you make up the stutter?' Things he thought were really good, he wanted to make sure weren’t just convenient. I really respected that.”

Another 2011 review from the site From the Front Row made mention of Hoover’s stuttering when describing his relationship with his mother: “……. While not an overbearing woman, demanded greatness of her son, and had trained the stutter out of him.”

With speech therapy not advanced during the years of Hoover’s youth, he no doubt practiced one of the many the “home remedy” techniques which were promoted by self-styled speech correctionists of the time. The 1991 biography J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets by Curt Gentry gives an insight into the speech exercises practiced by a young Hoover. “As a youth Hoover stuttered. Researching the subject, he found an article which asserted that for some the cure was to talk not slower but faster. Practicing alone in his room (his young nieces sometimes surreptitiously listening), he learned to talk rapidly – and except in moments of great stress – overcame the problem. But he didn’t stop at that. A nightmare common to all stutterers is the prospect of addressing a crowd. Hoover took up debating, and by his junior year at Central High School had led the team undefeated through twelve straight contests, himself taking the affirmative on such topics as, “Cuba Should Be Annexed to the United States.”

Another biography, J. Edgar Hoover: Controversial FBI Director by Kevin Cunningham (2006), gives more insight, “Though Edward did well in school, he began stuttering in the first grade. His father thought it would work itself out, but his mother sought treatment. The solution proposed was that he talk faster. Edgar practiced in his room for hours with a single-mindedness that would show throughout his life. It took time to master fluent speaking. Even in adulthood he needed to practice. But he conquered the stutter enough that he became star of his debate team in high school.”

Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover by Richard Hack, a 2004 biography, offers further insight, “By the time he entered  his first year at Brent Elementary School several blocks from his home, Edgar was a precocious reader with a shy personality that intensified when he developed a stutter as the school year was ending……..While his father chose to comfort his son with promises that the condition would pass with time, young Hoover’s mother took him to specialists in search of an immediate cure.” Later in the book, a passage about Hoover’s years as FBI Director, “He was, however, far from satisfied. Despite years of speech making, Hoover was troubled by the occasional stutter, practicing long into the night to overcome the affliction.”

The release of the movie Killers of the Flower Moon will not address Hoover’s stuttering like the book version but will provide a look at how the modern FBI was formed. People who stutter will no doubt be amazed that the very first FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover was a person who stuttered and successfully managed his speech throughout his life and high-profile career that remains controversial to this day.

From the Spring 2024 Magazine