The U.S. Secret Service: It Took 42 Years to Protect the President

Today’s post (part one in a two-part series) is by National Archives Volunteer Bill Nigh.

When I was assigned my first volunteer project, one associated with the U.S. Secret Service (Record Group 87), I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Like many my age, I picture the Secret Service agent climbing on the rear deck of the black limousine in Dallas in 1963.  I recall the Clint Eastwood movie, “In the Line of Fire”, with the ever present sunglasses and the white coiled-wire ear buds.  But what I discovered after several months on the project was far different than the presidential protection scenes.  The material was so fascinating that I had to dig deeper into the history of this organization.  I was hooked.

Project Purpose.  The records of this project, spanning 1918-1937, comprise 510 boxes containing primarily operative reports regarding investigations of counterfeiters, suspicious financial activities, those threatening the President, and other correspondence.  Our small group of volunteers is developing a finding aid.  We log the following data into a spreadsheet for each folder of Secret Service reports:

  • Reference Box Number
  • Folder Designation (alphabetically  arranged)
  • Coverage Start Date
  • Coverage End Date
  • General Record Types (Textual Records, Artifacts, Photographs, Maps and Charts, etc.).

Since volunteers are part of Education and Public Programs in Museum Services, we were asked to identify cases that might be of interest to the general public.

Initial Findings.  After months of work, I found most of the cases involved illegal use of currency, for example, cases of forgeries of checks, bonds, and notes — particularly government issues, and counterfeit money.  I estimate that currency cases number more than 95% of the reports; I also found a few terrorism cases.  But where were the presidential security reports?  Though the numbers of terrorism cases encountered are few up to this point in time, they are astonishing to read.  Here is one such case.

Black Legion.  My first report on one particular day immediately got my attention.  It was correspondence between Secret Service Chief Moran and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover (shown below).  Hoover’s letter informed the Chief that the FBI had learned of a possible threat against President Franklin Roosevelt (this was May 1936) by a radical group named the Black Legion.  It was known that the Black Legion believed the government was occupied by the country’s enemies: Catholics, Jews, and foreigners.  The Legion vowed “to defeat Roosevelt in 1936, by ballot if possible, by force of arms if necessary”1.  It was thought that a march on Washington was imminent.  The FBI had acquired this information from the City Editor of a Flint, MI, newspaper who had spoken with three informants/former members of the Black Legion.  After interviewing the informants and the local police, the Secret Service operatives determined that the Black Legion was a dangerous organization but there was no immediate credible threat.

Black Legion Report in “Black” folder, National Archives Identifier 1661969

The Black Legion, operating in the 1930’s, was a hate-based quasi-paramilitary organization with a mission to enforce its version of Americanism.  Operating in Ohio and Michigan, it numbered between 20,000 and 30,000 strong; some contend it splintered from the Ku Klux Klan.  As an example of how it ruled its members, the resignation of a member triggered a reprisal of violence or even death to that member.  Its reign of terror ended when eleven members were convicted of murder in 19362.

Delving further into the history of the U.S. Secret Service, I discovered that this organization was founded just after a presidential assassination, but its initial mission had nothing to do with presidential security.  It was about money.  The presidential protection mission came 42 years later.

This post will be continued next week.


1 William Carlson, SS Operative Report, May 26, 1936.

2 Detroit News, “Michigan History (August 5, 1997) /apps/history/ index.php?id=151.