Frank J. Wilson

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Frank J. Wilson
Harold Albert Wilson.jpg
Wilson in 1939
Born Frank John Wilson
Buffalo, New York
Died June 22, 1970
Washington D.C.
Known for Al Capone Investigation
Spouse(s) Judith B. Douglas

Frank John Wilson (1887 – June 22, 1970) was best known as the Chief of the United States Secret Service and a former agent of the Treasury Department's Bureau of Internal Revenue, later known as the Internal Revenue Service. Wilson most notably contributed in the prosecution of Chicago mobster Al Capone in 1931, and as a federal representative in the Lindbergh kidnapping case.

Early life[edit]

Frank J. Wilson was born in Buffalo, New York, in the year 1887. During World War I Wilson served for the United States Army for a brief stint before being honorably discharged in 1919 due to poor eyesight. In the same year Wilson became the Chief New York State Investigator for the United States Food and Drug Administration. This was short lived as Wilson then worked for the Department of Justice Fair Price Commission in 1920. In the same year Wilson took the opportunity to work for the United States Department of the Treasury as part of the Internal Revenue Bureau's intelligence unit until 1936. During this time Wilson helped on the Al Capone investigation, the Lindbergh kidnapping, and the Huey Long assassination. Overall, not much is known about Wilson's early life other than his career due to lack of information.

Capone investigation[edit]

Upon joining the United States Treasury Department's Intelligence Unit in 1920, the former accountant Wilson would earn a reputation throughout Prohibition as a thorough, if not obsessive, investigator of tax returns and income.

"[Wilson] fears nothing that walks. He will sit quietly looking at books eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, forever, if he wants to find something in those books." - Elmer L. Irey[1]

"[Wilson] sweats ice water" - Suspect who was interrogated by Frank J. Wilson

In 1929 President Herbert Hoover and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon decided to do whatever it would take to put notorious gangster and bootlegger Al Capone behind bars. They had been trying to get Capone for quite some time but Eliot Ness, and his group called the Untouchables (law enforcement) were unable to succeed in this effort. The two men then decided to bring the Treasury Departments Special Intelligence Unit, headed by Elmer L. Irey to take point on the investigation. Ness and the "Untouchables", working under the Bureau of Prohibition, tried to use brute force to take down Capone. They did manage to take some of Capone's illegal establishments out of the picture, but Ness was not the best at law enforcement. Oftentimes Ness would sit at his desk all day calling the newspapers instead of trying to get a step closer to bringing in Capone. This is when President Hoover, Mellon, and Irey devised a new plan based on the 1927 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Sullivan. The case declared that any criminal activities that yield an income are subject to income taxes.[1]

Once the new plan had been established, someone needed to take point on the investigation. It was at this point that Irey appointed a then 42-year-old Frank J. Wilson to lead the investigation. At the time, Wilson was working as a special agent in Baltimore and had built a reputation for being a relentless analyst. Irey then told Wilson that he, and five other agents would go to Chicago to build a tax evasion case on Capone. From the time Wilson and his agents were put on the case, they examined over 2 million documents and evidence acquired in a number of raids on Capone's establishments over a six-year period. Their strategy was to show that Capone was spending a lot of money which would indicate to a jury that the money had to be coming from somewhere even though he did not have a formal job. Wilson and his men questioned merchants, real estate agents, proprietors, hotel clerks, bartenders, and accountants, many of whom were to afraid of what might happen to them if they gave information away about Capone. Wilson tried to extend some sort of protection to these individuals but they still refused to speak about their business with the gangster. The group of men continued to analyze phone records, investigating banks and credit card agencies. They found informers, seized books and searched for any weak point in Capone's operations.[1]

After a long period of work, Wilson and his men caught wind of a potential breakthrough in their case against Capone. They received a tip that a large amount of Capone's income came from his interest in a race track for dogs, called the Hawthorne Kennel Club. Wilson's crew then moved in and examine every one of Hawthorne's, books, ledgers, and records. They interviewed employees, and investigated the banks that the race track did business with. Unfortunately they came up with nothing but more questions as they could not find concrete evidence that showed money was going to Capone. On top of the lack of information seized, all of the key witnesses fled and were never found.[1]

One of the main issues that Wilson and his team faced was that not only did they have to find that Capone was making money, but they also had to find where the money was. Many leads turned up dead because of this, which caused the investigation to become frustrating. Capone himself was very smart about how he moved his money, and how he did business with his numerous establishments which made the investigation harder. However, Wilson was known for being exceptionally thorough and relentless in his search for information.[1]

Once again, at about one o'clock in the morning, Wilson himself found three ledgers that were bound together, that were financial records of a very large gambling operation. Every few pages there were calculations of net income that were to be divided to three individuals who were only referred to as A, R, and J in the ledgers. Wilson also found on some of the pages there were references to someone named "Al." One of the entries read:

"Frank $17,500 for Al."[1]

This was the best chance that Wilson had come across that linked Capone to income, but he still had to find where the money was being held in order to convince a jury that Capone was without a doubt guilty.[1]

Now the goal was to track down the bookkeepers to get them to testify that "A" and "Al" were references to Capone in the ledgers. For over three weeks Wilson evaluated handwriting from every single one of Capone's associates. He checked voter registers, bank deposits, bail bonds certificates, and other documents. Finally, Wilson matched the handwriting with a deposit slip from a bank in Cicero. Wilson then tracked the bookkeeper himself, a man known as Shumway. He found him at a dog track in Miami, and it was then that Wilson persuaded him to testify against Capone. Shumway was to testify that the money was designated to go to Capone between the years of 1924 to 1926, first in front of a grand jury, then again at trial.[1]

Up to this point everything had worked out for Wilson and he began to build a formidable case against Capone. The next step was to prove that the money was reaching Capone's pocket. Wilson found that at a bank in Cicero, someone going by the name of J.C. Dunbar was depositing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash into the bank in gunny sacks. Dunbar also purchased $300,000 worth of cashier's checks. With help from his informants, Wilson was able to find out that Dunbar's real name was Reis. They also discovered that he was on the run and was hiding in St. Louis. Wilson rushed to get to St. Louis and was able to find Reis with Help from the postal inspectors. Wilson then arrested Reis and brought him back to Chicago. In Chicago, Wilson got Reis to testify that the cashiers checks represented profits made off of various casinos and the cash made its way directly into Capone's pocket.[1]

Around the same time as Wilson pursued the trail that was made from analyzing the ledgers, his team found another piece of crucial evidence that would strengthen the case. The team found that between 1927 and 1928 there were monthly wire transfers from Capone to his family in Chicago. It was also found that Capone himself was receiving wire transfers in Miami under an assumed name. This was not just a coincidence as Shumway was tracked down at a dog track in Miami which also happened to be a big time interest of Capone.[1]

At this point Capone was beginning to sweat as he caught wind that there was a case that was being made against him. Shumway and Reis both disappeared, which meant that Capone was now in real trouble for the first time ever. In response Capone put a contract out on Wilson. Mafia killers from Brooklyn made their way to Chicago to find Wilson and assassinate him. Capone then found out that the State Attorneys office was looking for the killers which prompted him to pay the contract and send the killers back to where they came in hopes of not incriminating himself. Wilson and his wife had a close call as they had to change hotels in Chicago despite being undercover as tourist.[1]

After the Treasury Department finally got all the evidence they needed to put an end to Capone, in March and June 1931 a grand jury met in court to decide his fate. The result was that Capone was indicted on 23 counts of tax evasion of over $250,000 of income from 1924 to 1929. Capone was proven guilty and was given an 11-year prison sentence and fined $300,000 in court costs. This was considered an astronomical price to pay for a tax evader at the time. Capone after serving his 11-year sentence at Alcatraz, was released and suffered from syphilis in the brain which led to his death in 1947 at age 48. Without the efforts of Wilson and his team Capone may never have been stopped, or his reign of terror could have gone on much longer.[1]

Later career[edit]

Wilson was part of the team investigating the Lindbergh kidnapping. Some sources indicate that Wilson had insisted on tracking the serial numbers on the gold certificates used as ransom money (which ultimately led to the arrest and conviction of Bruno Richard Hauptmann).[2] Other sources credit Elmer Irey.[3]

In 1936, Wilson was named chief of the Secret Service and, resisting attempts by J. Edgar Hoover to transfer the Secret Service to the Justice Department under the jurisdiction of the FBI during the early 1940s, he had nearly eliminated the production and distribution of counterfeit money through a nationwide education program called "Know Your Money" by the end of his retirement in 1947. During his administration, he also initiated practices in presidential security which have since become standard procedure.

An article he wrote, Undercover Man: He Trapped Capone, was the basis for the 1949 film The Undercover Man. In the Brian De Palma 1987 film The Untouchables, the character Oscar Wallace (played by Charles Martin Smith) is loosely based upon Wilson.

On top of writing Undercover Man: He Trapped Capone in 1949, Wilson also wrote other books. In 1940 his first book was The Archives, and in 1945 he wrote Doubtful Dollars both of which have to do with his illustrious career.

Wilson died at the Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC on June 22, 1970, at the age of 83.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "America's First (and Most Fearless) High-profile Forensic Accountant.: Discover @ SE Library". Retrieved 2017-04-02. 
  2. ^ Eig, Jonathan (2010). Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster. Simon and Schuster. p. 372. ISBN 9781439199893. 
  3. ^ Waller, George (1961). Kidnap: The Story of the Lindbergh Case. Dial Press. p. 71. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Melanson, Philip H. and Peter F. Stevens. The Secret Service: The Hidden History of an Enigmatic Agency. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003. ISBN 0-7867-1251-1
  • Roth, Mitchel P. Historical Dictionary of Law Enforcement. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000. ISBN 0-313-30560-9
  • Spiering, Frank. The Man Who Got Capone. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976.
  • Wilson, Frank J. and Beth Day. Special Agent: A Quarter-Century with the Treasury Department and the Secret Service. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965.
  • Kelly, Robert J. Encyclopedia of Organized Crime in the United States. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000. ISBN 0-313-30653-2
  • Phillips, Charles and Alan Axelrod. Cops, Crooks, and Criminologists: An International Biographical Dictionary of Law Enforcement Updated Edition. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000. ISBN 0-8160-3016-2
  • Sifakis, Carl. The Mafia Encyclopedia. New York: Da Capo Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8160-5694-3

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
William H. Moran
Chief, United States Secret Service
Succeeded by
James J. Maloney