Secret Agent Man: The Papers of Frank Wilson

Frank J. Wilson's Secret Service badge

Frank J. Wilson’s Secret Service badge

Another Depression-era collection has been processed and made available online thanks to an NHPRC grant! Two important news events during the Great Depression were the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping case and the conviction of Al Capone. Frank Wilson, Chief of the U.S. Secret Service from 1937-1946, played an instrumental role in both of these investigations.

Wilson, born in 1887, worked for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Justice Fair Price Commission before becoming an agent with the U.S. Treasury Department Internal Revenue Bureau Intelligence Unit in 1920. It was here that Wilson played an instrumental role in the arrest of both Al Capone and Bruno Hauptmann, the Lindbergh baby kidnapper.

Trial report for Al Capone

Trial report for Al Capone

As a Treasury Department agent, Wilson was put in charge of the Al Capone investigation. While it was known that Al Capone was bringing in unreported revenue from criminal activities, no proof could be found.  Wilson went undercover in Chicago to investigate the case. At one point, Capone ordered a $25,000 hit on Wilson.  Wilson finally discovered an envelope shoved in the back of an evidence filing cabinet that had been confiscated in a raid 6 years prior. The envelope had been mislabeled, but inside was a ledger with the proof needed to arrest Capone on tax evasion charges.

Wilson was also one of the lead agents in the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping case. It was Wilson’s idea to record the serial numbers on the ransom money which later led to Bruno Hauptmann who was ultimately charged with the kidnapping. This method of recording serial numbers would become common practice in kidnapping cases.

While he was Chief of the U.S. Secret Service, Wilson was devoted to curbing counterfeiting. The amount of counterfeit currency rose to an all-time high during the Great Depression. To curb counterfeiting, Wilson launched a “Know Your Money” campaign. As part of this campaign, a booklet and video was produced and distributed to students, bankers, and storekeepers that demonstrated how to identify counterfeit currency. By 1943, annual losses from counterfeits had dropped 97% from the 1936 level. Wilson also changed many of the protocols for Presidential Protection, many of which are still in place today.

A large portion of the collection consists of articles, radio scripts, and other manuscripts written by Wilson relating to his career as a Secret Service agent, and based on many of his and his colleagues’ cases. The collection also contains files relating directly to his civil service career (both as an agent with the U.S. Treasury Department and the Secret Service), including case files, correspondence, reports, and photographs. Much of the correspondence and case files pertain to his anti-counterfeiting campaign and his protection of the President and other dignitaries. There are also files on the Lindbergh kidnapping case and Al Capone.

View the Inventory of the Frank Wilson Papers to learn more.

–Emily Christopherson, Project Archivist

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