Most of Washington was still asleep on the morning of Memorial Day 1923 when a gunshot rang out from a sixth-floor apartment in the fashionable Wardman Park Inn.
The first law enforcement officer on the scene was none other than William J. “Billy” Burns, director of the Bureau of Investigation. Burns, who happened to live one floor down, was the nation’s most famous detective, the twentieth century’s Allan Pinkerton, instantly recognizable in his derby hat and bristled mustache. Before taking over the agency that would later be immortalized in three initials—FBI—he’d earned a reputation as a crafty sleuth for whom no secret was unobtainable. It wasn’t a sterling reputation. It was true that he sometimes bent the rules or broke the law on a client’s behalf. For the right price, his Burns International Detective Agency could fix a jury or frame the wrong man for a crime. Nevertheless, his career was marked by real triumph. As a US Secret Service agent, he tracked down the most accomplished counterfeiter in American history, a forger so good that even the Treasury thought his creations were genuine. As a private eye, he solved the infamous 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, which he proved to be an act of domestic terrorism by pro-union extremists against a stoutly anti-union institution. Now, Burns took command of what was, politically speaking, an even more explosive crime scene.
Inside the bedroom of suite 600-E, Burns found the body of a man named Jess Smith, fifty, crumpled at the foot of one of two beds. In his right hand was a .32-caliber revolver. A single bullet had plowed through Smith’s right temple and lodged itself high in a doorjamb. Blood soaked Smith’s purple silk pajamas, as well as the heavy carpets that must have deadened his fall. Most disturbingly, Smith’s head had apparently fallen so that it was now stuffed, improbably, inside a metal wastebasket, atop the ashes of burned papers.
This was clearly a matter for the local authorities, but Burns knew better than to summon the police immediately. The situation called for discretion, for few in Washington had known as much as the man who now lay before him in a bloody heap. If Jess Smith wasn’t the only man to wield influence from the shadows of Prohibition-era Washington, at least he was the best connected. Smith dined regularly at the White House. He served as secretary of Warren Harding’s inaugural committee. And he was most intimate friends with the attorney general of the United States—his roommate at the Wardman Park.
Daugherty was not home that fateful morning. The attorney general had been absent the past two nights and, at the moment, was still sound asleep in the Yellow Bedroom, the White House guest room named for its blond decor. Knowing that Smith couldn’t sleep when they weren’t sharing a room, Daugherty had dispatched his Justice Department assistant, Barney Martin, to stay in the adjacent bedroom. It was Martin who had fetched Burns after hearing a great crash in the other room.
Jesse Worley Smith and Harry Micajah Daugherty had grown up together in Washington Court House, Ohio, the county seat of rural Fayette County and a thriving business center on the road between Columbus and Cincinnati. Although Daugherty was eleven years Smith’s senior, they formed a close bond. Both their fathers died when they were young, and the two boys filled the holes in their hearts with each other’s company. Smith never strayed far from Daugherty’s side. Townsfolk took to calling him “Jess Daugherty.”
Brotherly, however, was too easy a label to affix to their relationship. Indeed, it only began to describe the intense bond. Though each man had married—Smith’s marriage at age thirty-six to nineteen-year-old Roxie Stinson had lasted two short years, while Daugherty’s invalid wife Lucie now rarely left her quarters at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore—they clearly treasured each other above all else.
“They were the most intimate friends,” Stinson, Smith’s ex-wife, later recalled, “and Jess adored him. He lived for him, he loved him.”
“A word of praise or an expression of appreciation from the attorney general would cause Jess to ‘purr’ happily,” an acquaintance once observed.
The affection was clearly mutual. When Smith once traveled back to Ohio without Daugherty, the attorney general sent a flurry of telegrams professing his loneliness and urging Smith’s prompt return. Smith wired back, signing his cables “your little friend, Jesse.”
That unusual intimacy inevitably spawned rumors of a sexual component to their relationship, and Smith only fanned the gossip with his sartorial choices. No matter what room he entered, Smith, tall and portly, with a close-cropped mustache, pink jowls, and round, owlish glasses, was always the best-dressed man. At one public appearance, he was described as a “symphony of gray and lavender,” and he made a habit of matching the color of his handkerchief to his tie—which just so happened to be how gay men of the day signaled their availability to each other, safely and covertly. If Smith and Daugherty actually were lovers, no evidence survives, but those closest to them—the Hardings, for instance—always treated them as “a duo.”
Whatever the exact nature of their relationship, Daugherty considered Smith indispensable, and not just because of their intimacy or because Smith carried his bags and opened his doors. What Smith lacked in intellectual refinement—his education stopped at high school, and he was a voracious reader of detective stories but little else—he made up for in jolly extroversion. He was never afraid to buttonhole a passerby on the courthouse square with a “whaddyaknow?” And despite his unfortunate habit of spraying listeners with saliva—“here comes Jess Smith,” people would say, “get out your umbrella”—he excelled at making friends. As the less socially adept Daugherty grew in political stature and began venturing outside his native Ohio, Smith helped him navigate black-tie affairs, as well as the bawdier gatherings where the real political dealmaking happened.
Likewise, what Smith lacked in political experience—before coming east he spent his entire career in retail as proprietor of Washington Court House’s department store—he made up for in unwavering loyalty. Basking in his friend’s reflected glory, Smith would never jeopardize Daugherty’s career by spilling their secrets, lest he jeopardize his own sense of self-worth. He was an airtight receptacle for confidential musings, and the attorney general entrusted him with his most sensitive errands.
When in late 1919 fifty-nine-year-old Daugherty was named campaign manager for the long-shot presidential bid of Warren Harding, Smith made one of the first donations. By the time the long-shot candidate won the Republican nomination and then the White House, Smith had been admitted to Harding’s inner circle. He abandoned his department store, his life’s work, and relocated with Daugherty to the capital, where they took up temporary lodgings in a house at 1509 H Street owned by millionaire Ned McLean, publisher of the Washington Post. The president-elect considered appointing Smith commissioner of Indian Affairs or treasurer of the United States—two positions he was grossly unqualified for—but there was only one place he wanted to be. Shortly after Harry Daugherty was sworn in as the nation’s fifty-first attorney general on March 5, 1921, Jess Smith followed him to the sixth floor of the Justice Department building and ensconced himself in an anteroom just outside the attorney general’s private office.
Though he refused a place on the government payroll, he was a common sight inside Justice headquarters, dictating letters to department secretaries, flitting in and out of the Bureau of Investigation’s offices on the third floor, and riding down the elevator with a bundle of official files under his arm. He could also be seen shuttling back and forth to the green limestone house on K Street where Daugherty’s Ohio friends kept their political patronage files—a comprehensive record of who was owed what— and dispensed favors to friends of the administration.
That he enjoyed unparalleled access to the levers of power and political influence was widely known. Exactly what Jess Smith did with that access, however, remained a Washington mystery.
That May morning in the Wardman Park, Burns made a cursory search of the body. He removed the revolver from Smith’s hand and then went through his pajama pockets. Inside one he found a last will, scribbled in pencil on Wardman Park stationery and dated two days prior. Burns then summoned the hotel manager, Elmer Dwyer. If he was to maintain control of the scene, he would need Dwyer’s cooperation.
“Will you please come to Mr. Daugherty’s apartment immediately?”
Burns said over the phone. “Something terrible has happened.”
Dwyer soon appeared outside the apartment in his dressing gown and slippers. Before the manager had a chance to press the buzzer, Burns opened the door and motioned Dwyer inside. Burns didn’t need to explain anything—he simply led the manager to the crime scene.
The delicacy of the situation must not have immediately impressed itself upon Dwyer. “I’d better call Dr. Shoenfeld,” he said, referring to the Wardman Park’s house doctor.
“No,” Burns snapped. “That can wait.” Instead, Burns picked up the telephone and asked the operator for the White House. It was not yet seven in the morning, so there was some delay before the president finally came on the line.
“This is Burns of the Bureau of Investigation, Mr. President. I’m deeply sorry to bother you at such an hour, but there is dreadful news and I wanted you to be the first to hear it.”
Harding demanded that Burns spit it out.
“Jesse Smith has committed suicide.”
The line went silent. “That’s terrible, Mr. Burns,” Harding finally said.
As Dwyer listened on, the president urged secrecy until he had a chance to break the news to Daugherty personally. Harding also suggested that Lieutenant Commander Joel T. Boone, a navy physician seconded to the White House, be ordered to the scene.
And so it was that the president’s personal doctor, rather than the District of Columbia coroner, made the first medical examination of Jess Smith’s body. Boone immediately declared Smith dead (a self-evident conclusion) and just as quickly judged the cause to suicide (a less obvious one).
Only after Burns had searched the room and Boone had inspected the body were other investigators admitted to the crime scene. Dwyer summoned the Wardman Park’s house detective (named, in an incredible coincidence, Harry J. Dougherty), who in turn alerted police at the local Tennallytown subprecinct.
When officers finally arrived, followed by Coroner J. Ramsay Nevitt, no one dared to remark that the revolver had gone missing. Burns had apparently “misplaced” it—but he was not a man to trifle with, even if he was tampering with a crime scene.
One detail could not escape notice, however. “How,” Patrolman L. R. Keech asked, “could a man shoot himself and then get his head in the basket?”
The officer’s question was never answered. Lording over the crime scene, the director of the Bureau of Investigation discouraged a thorough search of the forensic evidence. Instead, Burns offered up a compelling narrative of suicide for the DC authorities. He and Smith had been socially acquainted, and Smith, he reported, had suffered from chronic diabetes. Boone, who had treated Smith himself on occasion and knew that a wound from his recent appendectomy had never quite healed, backed up Burns’s conclusion, ascribing the act to “brooding over his physical condition.” Coroner Nevitt knelt down next to the body, noted the powder burns around the entry wound, and dutifully signed a certificate of suicide.
Later, all these details and unanswered questions would arouse much suspicion within Washington. Lawmakers would wonder aloud why the coroner failed to order an autopsy. Journalists would ask how Daugherty, who as a cabinet officer earned $12,000 a year, and Smith, who drew no government salary, could afford their lavish lifestyle at the Wardman Park, with annual household expenses exceeding $50,000. They would question how Smith, a man deathly afraid of firearms, could have ever handled a revolver, let alone held it to his right temple and pulled the trigger. And they would puzzle over how the federal government’s top investigator, America’s most famous detective, could somehow misplace the key to the crime scene—the suicide weapon.
Washington would soon discover that these questions, intriguing as they were, only scratched the surface.
Excerpted from CROOKED: The Roaring ’20s Tale of a Corrupt Attorney General, a Crusading Senator, and the Birth of the American Political Scandal by Nathan Masters. Copyright © 2023. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.