Under the Influence

How J. Edgar Hoover accidentally invented the Ten Most Wanted poster

Over 490 Most Wanted fugitives have been apprehended by the FBI, one-third of which were captured thanks to tips from the public.
The logo of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington DC, USA. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS (Michael Reynolds/EPA)

One day, in 1949, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was being interviewed for a newspaper article.

The editor asked Hoover to name the ten most dangerous criminals the FBI was hunting. Hoover told him and an article was later published listing the FBI's "Top Ten Most Wanted List."

It attracted enormous attention and leads from the public began pouring in.

Hoover was surprised at how many successful leads the article generated. So on March 14, 1950, the FBI formally launched its Ten Most Wanted program. The bureau began by creating Most Wanted posters. These posters showed photographs of the fugitives along with information detailing all distinguishing marks, the crimes they were wanted for and where they were last seen. For decades, the posters were put up in post offices - chosen because they were the high-traffic areas of every town in the country.

In the 70 years since the Most Wanted posters were first issued, there have been over 520 fugitives listed.

The very first criminal to have his mugshot on a poster was Thomas James Holden. He began his career with robbery then graduated to murder. The FBI put out his Most Wanted poster and Holden was arrested thirteen months later after the bureau received a tip from the public.

The first woman on a Wanted poster was a kidnapper named Ruth Eisemann-Schier. She was arrested soon after her face appeared on the poster. To date, there have only been 10 women on the FBI's Most Wanted list.

James Earl Ray has the distinction of being on FBI posters two times. The first was when he was sought for the assassination of Martin Luther King. Ray was captured two months later when a Heathrow Airport customs agent recognized his face from the most wanted poster. The second time was when he escaped from the Tennessee Penitentiary in 1977. The ink on the poster was still wet when he was recaptured three days later.

Over 490 Most Wanted fugitives have been apprehended by the FBI. And one-third of them were captured thanks to tips from the public. The FBI still creates Most Wanted posters today, translates them into foreign languages and puts fugitive faces on billboards. You can view the current Top Ten Most Wanted list on the FBI's website. There's even an app. Because getting the public's attention is job one.

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Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio, a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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Terry O'Reilly leaning against his 1969 Airstream trailer turned mobile recording studio a listener dubbed the "Terstream." (Terry O'Reilly)