New Book Exposes J. Edgar Hoover's 'Obscene File'

Jul 11, 2012 8:00 AM PST

NEW YORK — A new book documenting former FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover’s war on porn and the agency’s “Obscene File” has been released.

Titled “The FBI’s Obscene File: J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau’s Crusade against Smut,” (University of Kansas Press, 2012), the book’s author Douglas M. Charles supplies historical background to the forerunner of today’s FBI (the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation) and how Hoover rose to power with porn squarely in his cross hairs.

According to the author, during the prohibition era Hoover targeted illegal alcohol but also wanted to stamp out a growing acceptance of sexuality and proliferation of what he called “obscene” materials.

Hoover created an informal system that author Charles calls the FBI's “obscene materials filing and mailing procedure.” In 1942, this system became known as the “Obscene File,” that contained actual filing cabinets full of what G-men considered obscene materials.

The special files remained active until the 1990’s when the FBI began concentrating on child porn.

According to the author, a New York Times report said the FBI began its crusade against porn by targeting “Tijuana bibles” — cartoon booklets “showing crude imitations of various comic book characters in lewd poses.”

FBI agents also used the files to track down producers of alleged obscene materials to determine if interstate regulations had been violated and to gather evidence for criminal prosecutions, especially in New York, that was identified as porn central for organized crime.

The book also spotlights how the FBI used the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to enforce porn laws and how Hoover made himself into a moral hero in the eyes of the media.

The author meticulously researched the book offering historical insight into the FBI’s war on porn that also includes its investigations of gays during World War II and Hoover’s “Sex Deviates” file.

Hoover also interpreted existing law to fit the agency's anti-porn efforts. Reviewer David Rosen of the The Brooklyn Rail said, “Hoover cleverly revised FBI obscenity policies to meet the latest Supreme Court standards. For example, the landmark 1972 Miller v. California changed the standard by which pornography was to be defined. In place of the old Comstock standard, one based on absolutist Christian notions of moral decency, the Court established the notion of 'community standards' to determine what was obscene. Hoover thus sought the most conservative 'communities' to continue his anti-porn campaign.”

Charles also talks about public figures who had sex-related FBI files including Martin Luther King, Jr., Alfred Kinsey and Andy Warhol. But suspiciously absent is John F. Kennedy. However, comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were outed by the FBI as porn collectors. Abbott allegedly had 1,500 reels of “obscene motion pictures,” and Costello reportedly paid two hookers $50 each to perform for him.

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