Research. There’s nothing like holding an original document in your hands, seeing the ink of a signature on the page with your eyes, or the stamp of a typewritten letter as if the ribbon had just been pressed to the paper. Research is like a wormhole – instantly I am transported back into the past.
This week I have the great opportunity to research several FBI case files for my book. The National Archives facility in Maryland houses many of the FBI’s 1930s-era cases. It is a long process to find out where the records are. It begins with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA, or “foy-a”) request to the FBI. With most of these 80 year old files, the FBI typically advises that the records have been “accessioned” to the National Archives, a process which basically sends them off to a safe retirement. Many of my requests have taken months, up to a year, just to receive a response back.
The National Archives building is impressive, as it should be for the repository of our country’s government records. The textual research room is an open multi-story room filled with tables and enclosed with glass. I requested one case file and stared in awe as an archivist wheeled out 18 boxes of material. Each box contained 8-10 folders, and there was probably 100 pages in each folder. The FBI (taking direction from Hoover himself) loved to document everything. Memos, telegrams, teletypes. Phone calls were documented, newspaper articles were clipped and preserved. It’s impressive, but daunting as hell to try and research in a day.
I did my best. Opening the first box, I breathed in the musty smell of old documents, felt the thin tissue paper quality of the teletype paper in my hands. Here were the actual signatures of the agents handling the cases. For my particular interests, of E.J. Connelley. An inveterate cigar smoker, I pictured him dictating one of his lengthy reports to a stenographer in Louisville (the office of origin in this case), then reading it over and signing it. There’s no more instant connection to a subject than that.
As a writer, part of my goal is to recreate the people and places vividly for the reader. In non-fiction history, that can sometimes be challenging. Since all of these agents are deceased (and few left memoirs or interviews behind) it can be difficult to know what exactly they were thinking or feeling during each phase of the case. But reading through the memos and telegrams, the world these documents were created in slowly comes back to life. Agents trailing suspects as ransom drops are made, jumping on and off trains as they tail the intermediaries. The sights of the era come easily to mind – the fedoras, long trenchcoats, the V8 Fords, the nascent city skylines and roads of the country. The clack-clack of the teletype machine thrums in the background of an office, the brassy sound of a Benny Goodman jazz piece wafts from somewhere down the street.
Research. Sitting at a desk all day is not really as boring as it could seem.