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Elizabeth Bass, The G-Woman at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics – Part 2

Updated: Jul 24

Editor’s Note: In the second of two posts which re-open the Points ‘Hidden Figures of Drug History‘ feature, Bob Beach explores Elizabeth Bass’s career as a G-Man at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.


Picking up where we left off, Elizabeth Bass was appointed as district nine supervisor of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in Chicago in 1933. Even if we consider what we know about the role of women during the Prohibition phase in the war on drugs, and the context of the Roosevelt Administration’s efforts to break political taboos in appointing women to prominent roles during his term, the appointment of a woman to this position seems rather remarkable.[1]

Her age, 71 when she took her position, was perhaps more remarkable. It was over the limit for federal employees in the Civil Service, but was waived by one of Roosevelt’s many executive orders, allowing her and other aged political allies to join his administration.[2] Her glaring disqualification as a lifelong political operative was her complete lack of law enforcement experience. This concern was exacerbated by deeply embedded assumptions about gender (not to mention age) in the world of law enforcement.

This brings us back to the G-Man. An image actively cultivated by Federal Law Enforcement men starting in the Prohibition era, and continued with enthusiasm by FBN Chief Harry Anslinger, the G-Man trope centered on a vigorous, hard-scrabbled, and authoritative character that could lead other men into battle against the powerful forces of organized crime. Despite her lack of experience Bass expertly used her political skills, working through the news media in her first years in the Bureau, to cultivate an image of herself as an authoritative officer of the law. Though largely successful, the burden of “proving herself” likely diminished her larger legacy as steward for shaping public opinion for the expansion of federal drug control in the United States.

E. Bass in Rocky Mountain News, 24th May 1938

To prove herself, Bass actively participated in local enforcement actions throughout Chicago and fortuitously, could be there to answer questions when the reporters assembled. She was regularly described in newspaper reports having led federal agents on drug raids and was lauded for her high arrest and clearance rate (important rhetorical markers of success in drug control efforts). One of her first raids, on the night of November 28, 1933, resulted in the arrest of seven men. In interviews reported across the country, Bass announced that the night’s action was, “just a beginning to a concerted drive against a narcotic ring…dominated by former Capone gangsters.”[3]

In reporting these raids, and specifically Bass’s participation in them, the familiar gendered language was deployed to emphasize Bass’s ability, not merely as a woman, but as an aged woman, to fulfil the [ostensibly masculine] responsibilities of her job. The dismissive physical descriptions of the “grey-haired,” “short,” “diminutive,” woman were used to contrast her effectiveness in putatively dangerous situations. The “boss of 22 hard-bitten Federal narcotic agents in one of the country’s toughest districts,” Bass was described as “dynamic.” Her drive to “smash” the drug rings in her district were, “aggressive.”[4]

But reports also promoted her effectiveness. Described as the “fightingest [sic] prosecutor,” Bass was credited with securing convictions for 432 of the 450 cases that she oversaw.[5] By the end of that year, Bass-led raids netted over 700 arrests, and this cemented Bass’s reputation as an authoritative law enforcement figure. Highlighting the power of women at the center of the anti-narcotics movement, the Indianapolis Times heaped praise on Bass and other women involved in cracking down on Chicago’s drug rings: “When Women are aroused they are fearless. Criminals, getting by when only men harass them, realize that the danger is doubled when women war on them.”[6] By the time she was transferred to a new post in Denver, the news had little to question about her fitness to serve the position.[7]

E. Bass in Denver Post, 23rd April 1938

But there is little evidence that arrests, clearance rates, or leading men into battle make for effective drug policy. Indeed, to understand Bass’s legacy in the history of U.S. Drug policy, we must look deeper. The evidence from the FBN files (housed at the National Archives), suggests a much different portrayal of her role in the Bureau. Quite a bit of the correspondence between Bass and FBN Chief Harry Anslinger regarded requests (often-times repeated requests) for reports on several relatively mundane issues from investigating a conspiracy involving drug smuggling in the early aviation industry, a request from Abbott Laboratories for information about cannabis, or a PR crisis involving a call for F.B.I assistance to fight peddlers operating in Denver.[8]

These sorts of “make work” reports demanded by Anslinger, along with the public relations requirements of proving her abilities in the field, must have been overwhelming to a middle-aged public servant. But it didn’t prevent, and on occasion took a back-seat, to Bass’s primary role in the FBN, using her career in women’s politics to wield influence in shaping policy. Like Anslinger, Bass was a strong proponent of the Uniform State Narcotic Law (and for including cannabis in its provisions), using her connections in Democratic party to speak out on the issue.[9]

But her biggest legacy, least recognized perhaps, was her work in shaping public opinion around drug control policy in a period following the apparent failure of the eighteenth amendment. There was an entire constituency, as well versed in the language of temperance, as they were of framing psychoactive drugs as existential threats. And according to Bass, they were “universally, and entirely ignorant” on the new dangers, especially of cannabis. In correspondence with Anslinger on March 12, 1937, Bass emphasized her education efforts during her term in Chicago, explaining that she, “[had] taken every [sic] pains to inform myself on the entire subject, and to pass on such information as would seem to be practical…and I have accepted every invitation to speak on the matter that I could.” She emphasized the need for “the education of sheriffs, deputy sheriffs, chiefs of police, etc. in the regions outside the large cities.[10]

Elizabeth Bass’s political experience and connections developed through her work in the Democratic Party for the first generation of women voters (laid out in part one of this post) highlights the role of public relations (and political economy) in the federal strategy for drug control. In Kathleen Frydl’s dynamic work on U.S. drug policy, she emphasizes the importance of administrative and bureaucratic maneuvering in the development of the U.S. Drug War. Contrasted with the ineffectiveness of the largely corrupt Federal Bureau of Narcotics agents in enforcing federal drug regulations, Frydl’s analysis emphasizes the effectiveness of bureaucrats and administrators in lobbying for vast new powers in the pursuit of drug enforcement.

There is more to research on Bass’s influence during her time at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. My contribution here merely scratches the surface. What is clear is that she was a much more capable administrator than she needed to be the hardboiled G-Man. The bitter irony here, as most women in leadership positions experience daily, but presumably, if Bass was a man with questionable law enforcement experience (like…well…Harry Anslinger), there would be no need to drag a seventy-plus year-old person on drug raids to prove his credentials.


Featured Image: 1935 Warner Bros film ‘G Men’ starring James Cagney, Ann Dvorak, Margaret Lindsay and Lloyd Nolan

[1] Singrid Arne, “High Honors Won in Political Field Feature Women’s Work During 1933,” Daily Illini, 28 December 1933; Sigrid Arne, “High Honors Won in Political Field Feature Women’s Work During 1933.” Santa Cruz Sentinel, 2 January 1934.

[2] See hyperlink: It’s unclear which of these orders applies here, potentially 6074 or 6083, but it was one of the first orders signed by President Roosevelt. There are also several listed orders exempting political appointees from the age requirements as well.

[3] Feminine Narcotics Chief Conducts Raid, San Bernardino Sun, 29 November 1933.

[4] “’Snow Birds’ and ‘Hop Heads’ Whiff Less in Hard Times,” Rockland County Journal-News, 17 January 1934; “Aggressive Drive Against Traffic in Drugs Starts,” Daily Illini, 8 December 1934; “Woman Heads Narcotic War,” San Bernardino Sun, 8 December 1934; “U.S. Arrests 500 in Dope Raids,” San Bernardino Sun, 9 December 1934; “Fourteen Seized in Chicago,” New York Times, 10 December 1934; “Narcotic Drive Ends,” Daily Banner, 10 December 1934; “Wars on Dope Evil,” The Indianapolis Times, 14 December 1934; “Woman Raider Flays Europe’s Narcotic Stand,” Indianapolis Times, 5 February 1935; Corrinne Hardesty, “Woman Makes Great Record in Dope Cases,” San Bernardino Sun, 2 January 1936. “Wars on Dope Evil,” The Indianapolis Times, 14 December 1934; “Aggressive Drive Against Traffic in Drugs Starts,” Daily Illini, 8 December 1934

[5] “Women Help in Smashing Dope Trade,“ The Indianapolis Times, 14 December 1934.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kay Hall, “Mrs. Bass Is a Valiant Leader in a Notable Fight on Narcotics,” New York Times, December 26, 1937; “Narcotics Foe Takes Up Her Work in Denver,” Denver Post, April 23, 1938; Alberta Pike, “Woman to Direct War Against Dope in Denver,” Rocky Mountain News, May 24, 1938.

[8] Harry J Anslinger to Elizabeth Bass, March 12, 1934, A1 9 Subject Files 1916-1970, Box 110, Drugs – Marihuana – By District, RG 0170 – Drug Enforcement Administration – Department of Justice Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. NARA II (hereafter, RG 0170 NARA II); Harry Anslinger to Elizabeth Bass, August 29, 1935, A1 9 Subject Files 1916-1970, Box 108, Folder Drugs – Marihuana – General – 1935, RG 0170 NARA II; Elizabeth Bass to Harry J Anslinger, September 25, 1942, A1 9 Subject Files 1916-1970, Box 110, Drugs – Marihuana – By District, RG 0170 NARA II.

[9] “Urges Uniform Law to Fight Narcotics,” Indianapolis Times, 17 February 1934; “Woman Raider Flays Europe’s Narcotic Stand,” Indianapolis Times, 5 February 1935; Federal Drive Launched Against Marijuana Plant,” San Bernardino Sun, 25 July 1937.

[10] Elizabeth Bass to Harry Anslinger, March 12, 1937, A1 9 Subject Files 1916-1970, Box 108, Folder Drugs – Marihuana – General – 1937A, RG 0170 NARA II.

#Drugs #ElizabethBass #FederalBureauofNarcotics #Women

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