Monday, August 12, 2013

Lenore Houston, International Woman of Mystery (In All the Wrong Ways)

Every so often, the FBI will do a "Celebrating Women's History" post where they talk about the three first female special agents. Two of them were hired in the early 1920s and promptly "resigned" when a new FBI Director took office. But in 1924, at the repeated urging of Congressman Graham of Pennsylvania, 45-year-old Lenore Hoover was promoted from "special employee" (aka investigative assistant) to "special agent".

This is the FBI's standard blurb about her:

In November 1924, Lenore Houston, an employee in Philadelphia, became the first and only female special agent hired by Director Hoover. While serving in the Philadelphia office, Miss Houston received excellent performance ratings and was earning $3,100 a year by April 1927. She resigned in 1928, shortly after being transferred to the Washington Field Office.
And then... nothing.

It's almost impossible to find any information about any one of the three early female FBI hires online. Where did they come from? What happened after they "retired"? Nobody seems to know, or care.

Lenore intrigued me because she was hired at a time that the few women in the organization were being culled, and FBI Director Hoover only hired her under extreme duress. I wanted to know who this woman was... and what happened to her after only four years at the job (which was still the longest duration of any of the early female agents).

I had to really pull out the google-fu to find anything at all about Lenore Houston past the standard tagline up there. And I'm not nearly satisfied with what I did find; it's not enough by half. But here's what I know.

In 1890, Lenore Houston was in the sophomore class of Swarthmore College. The records list her as one out of seven "unclassified" students, which I suspect means that she wasn't intending to graduate. Her major is listed as "Irregular", which probably falls along the same lines - almost every other student with the "Irregular" major was a woman. In ye oldeny days of crap a lot of women who had the money and inclination would take a few years of college as a sort of finishing school.

However, I suspect Lenore wasn't there with the intent of becoming a more genteel lady.

At some point she joined the first female secret society, Pi Beta Phi - Lenore is listed in the Pi Beta Phi Arrow as a fraternity member for the year of 1898. This indicates that she got to college and immediately signed up, since that's the only way the timeline makes sense. That would make Lenore 19 when she got to school and immediately joined a secret society.

Pi Beta Phi's history is pretty cool - twelve friends decided that they wanted to create a society where they'd enjoy all the benefits that the male fraternities got. Clearly the idea was popular, because branches almost immediately spread to neighboring schools.

I know very little about fraternities and secret societies in general (my college wasn't big on them, so my knowledge is all secondhand through friends), but I know that right now in order to join a secret society you have to be "tapped" for it - basically, they choose you rather than you choosing them. If it was true back then too, that paints a picture of Lenore as someone striking enough to immediately be desired for induction into an exclusive society.

Between school and the FBI, there's a big blank of twenty years. She completed three years of college and some sort of separate business course, but other than that, it's a void. What happened in those years? I can't imagine she was content to sit at home.

Perhaps her later recommendations hold a clue - Governor Sproul was elected in Lancaster, but Congressman Graham had no particular connection to Lancaster, and the latter was the more ardent advocate for Lenore later in her career. Lenore certainly came from a degree of privilege, but her eldest brother didn't inherit enough land to merit him staying in Pennsylvania, and the middle brother did nothing of note at all. It's justifiable that Lenore's family might have known Governor Sproul well enough to earn her a letter of recommendation, even under the strange circumstances (a single woman in her 40s who wanted to be an FBI special agent), but Congressman Graham? I suspect there's another story there that's lost somewhere in the sands of time.

In June 1922, Lenore applied for the position of special agent of the FBI. Governor Sproul and Congressman Graham of Pennsylvania both recommended her to FBI Director Hoover - multiple times. They recommended her until she finally got hired on January 16th, 1924, as a special employee. She went off to New York for training. The Special Agent in Charge (apparently that was a title back then) said that she was "very anxious to learn and do everything that could be asked of a woman special agent".

And then he recommended her to be tasked with white slave law violations, aka the same assignment they gave both other female agents. There wasn't much going on in white slave law violations, if you catch my drift. They assigned Lenore Houston to Office Tumbleweed.

Congressman Graham recommended Lenore to Director Hoover some more until finally on November 6 1924, Hoover changed Lenore's designation to special agent.

By 1927, Lenore's salary had doubled to over $13/day, so she must have been doing good work. On August 29 1927 she was transferred to the Washington Field Office with Hoover himself. That's when things started going wrong.

Her performance ratings went down, although only to 76.7%, which seems remarkable given that the vast majority of her colleagues thought she didn't belong there. The last performance review she received stated that, "This agent has performed satisfactory investigative work, but her attitude in connection with her position impairs her efficiency."

It's impossible not to wonder what that means, and not to be hugely impressed that she did such good work they couldn't deny it even when they disliked her. Her attitude in connection with her position? What attitude? Was she a wealthy society woman (albeit an educated one) used to getting her way, who couldn't adapt to a change in location? Or did Lenore make it too clear that she resented being treated as less than an equal?

On October 20 1928, Lenore submitted her resignation. Bear in mind, however, that both the previous female agents "resigned"... after Director Hoover specifically requested that they resign.

For two years there's nothing, and then a record from December 30 1930 states that Lenore Houston was confined to a hospital. She was apparently suffering from hallucinations, and threatened to shoot Hoover as soon as she was released.

Hey, know who was a contemporary of Lenore Houston? 
Nellie Bly: "I left the insane ward with pleasure and regret–pleasure that I was once more able to enjoy the free breath of heaven; regret that I could not have brought with me some of the unfortunate women who lived and suffered with me, and who, I am convinced, are just as sane as I was and am now myself."
There's no proof that Lenore wasn't insane, but there's no proof that she was, and a woman alone in the world at that time would have a hell of a time fighting back if The Powers That Be wanted her gone. Her education would be a mark of eccentricity; her lack of husband would be proof that something wasn't quite right. Her recorded "insanity" sounds lucid: Lenore knew that she was confined, and she knew it was Hoover's fault.
Nellie Bly: "Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician."
It's impossible to know what really happened, but it was 44 years before another female agent was hired by the FBI.

Lenore Houston died on November 30th, 1933. The gravestone is large but plain; all it says is her name, dates, and parents. There are no loving messages, no testament to a woman who seems like she must have been larger than life. In fact, there's no testament to her anywhere, except a blurb on the FBI website that obscures half the story.

For the meantime, this will have to stand as tribute to a woman who was exceptional in life and mysterious in death.


  1. Interesting. I love reading about people like this. :)

    My dad was telling me today that even when out in the field picking cotton back in his day, the women had to wear a dress over their pants so people could tell the men from the women. ?? It's like, who cares. They're all doing the same job!

    1. Really?! That's so interesting. Like you say, they're all doing the same job, if anything you'd think they'd want to conserve cloth. I'll have to look that up!

  2. Great write up. I wish we could get the full story on Lenore.

  3. Maybe she had Post Traumatic Syndrome from being a BAD-ASS!
    I imagine that she had some knock down, drag out gun fights at that time in history. To live out the last of her career at the main office could have been her prop's. Suffering from memories of people being slaughtered would explain her journey into obscurity.