The case reads like a classic whodunit mystery.
On May 2, 1972, police discovered the body of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in his Northwest Washington home on 30th Street N.W. On the night stand next to his body lay a biography: Citizen Hoover, a scathing criticism of Hoover’s career. According to a 1973 Harvard Crimson article, Hoover’s home was broken into and a vial of poison was planted among his personal articles. Rumors of drug use, depression and physical torment abounded.
Hoover was 77 when he died, but he was in good health, according to his medical record. He retired from the Bureau with 2,626 unused hours of sick leave.
These facts led some to point to the possibility of suicide or foul play. But the official cause of death, according to Hoover’s death certificate, was hypertensive cardiovascular disease. Hoover died of a heart attack. Within hours, his remains were embalmed and no autopsy was performed.
Twenty-five years later, the Hoover controversy has found its way to GW’s campus. At the center is forensic scientist and GW Law Professor James Starrs: adventurer, iconoclast and gravedigger.
On Oct. 3, 1997, Starrs sued the D.C. Medical Examiner’s Office to gain access to Hoover’s records, which he hopes will shed light on the true nature of the former FBI director’s demise.
“It’s been bugging me since 1972,” Starrs said. “The fact that there was no autopsy conducted peaked my curiosity. I’ve always been interested in solving mysteries that have eluded the grasp of the masses.”
Starrs’ findings will be presented in San Francisco this February at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The program, entitled “The Death of J. Edgar Hoover: A Mystery in Search of a Solution,” will be discussed by 11 panelists hoping to end more than two decades of speculation.
After a four-month waiting game, Starrs was granted complete access to Hoover’s records by the D.C. Supreme Court Jan. 16.
“Right now, every hypothesis is open to investigation,” Starrs said, “but I think suicide is the least likely possibility.”
Starrs’ inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Hoover’s death has been met with opposition – even derision – from some members of the scientific community who see the investigation as just another conspiracy theory.
D.C.’s Chief Medical Examiner Humphrey D. Germaniuk explained his rationale for denying an earlier request for the records in a letter to Starrs.
“Just as in life people are entitled to their privacy,” Germaniuk wrote, “so it’s my belief that in death people are still entitled to their privacy.”
By D.C. Code law, records held by the medical examiner can be released to anyone with a “legitimate interest.”
According to Starrs, the public has a right to a complete historical record. He said he questions the medical examiner’s reticence in turning over the information.
“Has he got something to hide?” Starrs queried. “This is an opportunity to see if the examiners are doing their work properly.”
Throughout his prolific career, Starrs, 67, has kept academia on its toes with his inquiries into the unusual and often grisly events of American history. Among some of his more celebrated cases, the self-described “quixotic” sleuth and Sherlock Holmes aficionado has exhumed the bodies of Jesse James, alleged assassin Carl Austin Weiss, Lizzy Borden, and the remains of the five victims of famed “Colorado Cannibal” Alfred Packer.
Starrs recalled his first investigation, that of the “Colorado Cannibal,” as one of the most challenging and rewarding. Starrs quipped, “The case was meat for my plate.”
Starrs’ current investigation into Hoover’s death will begin Jan. 27. At that time, all the evidence will be laid on the table.
“Hoover had enemies from all walks of life,” said Starrs in an Associated Press interview. “The man’s life was marked for death by all kinds of people.”
If evidence surfaces indicating Hoover’s death resulted from unnatural causes, Starrs said he hopes the case will be presented to the U.S. Attorney in D.C. and brought before a grand jury. Hoover’s body could be exhumed.
Although he has his own idea about whodunit, Starrs is letting the past speak for itself. “I’m waiting for the facts to sing,” he said.
This article appeared in the January 29, 1998 issue of the Hatchet.