How J Edgar Hoover got Larkin deported from US
Future FBI chief fabricated evidence to oust 'Big Jim' the agitator, writes Emmet O'Connor
When we think of James Larkin, what probably comes to mind is the 1913 Lockout or the iconic statue on Dublin's O'Connell Street of 'Big Jim' with arms aloft in the middle of one of his famous orations. We are unlikely to consider - or perhaps we are even unaware of - the considerable time he spent in the United States.
That Larkin's experience should intersect with the infamous figure of J Edgar Hoover, who would later head the FBI, is something one would never expect - but it did happen in 1923 when Hoover colluded in the fabrication of evidence to achieve Larkin's deportation.
Crushed by the Lockout, Larkin had gone to the US in October 1914, hoping to develop a new career as a globe-trotting agitator. In 1918 his James Connolly club in New York's Greenwich Village became the hub of a campaign to turn the Socialist Party of America into a communist party. Among his confederates was Jack Reed, just back from Russia and soon to be the author of a celebrated account of the Bolshevik revolution, Ten Days That Shook The World. When the red scare of 1919 led to arrests, Larkin was seen as one of the biggest fish in the net.
Hoover took a keen interest in his case. All this radicalism, he thought, was due to foreign malcontents and the answer was deportation. Even after Larkin was gaoled in 1920, Hoover complained to the New York State Attorney that he was carrying out propaganda work from prison.
Worse followed for Hoover. Imprisonment won Larkin worldwide sympathy as a man punished for his beliefs rather than anything he said or did. One of his many famous prison visitors was Charlie Chaplin. Jim's brother, Pete, was invited to Hollywood to speak to stars like Charles Ray and Milton Stills. Chaplin sent presents to Jim's wife, Elizabeth, and her children in Dublin.
In January 1923, Al Smith, New York's first Irish-American governor, was persuaded that Larkin was a political prisoner and had him released from Sing Sing with a free pardon. Hoover immediately set about preparing a case for deportation in collaboration with William J Burns, Director of the Bureau of Investigation, later the FBI. The problem was there was no evidence Larkin had advocated violence. Burns collated reports from field offices and found that "certain statements are quoted and attributed to Larkin but copies of the reports in which the statements appear cannot be located".
On January 23, 1923, he wrote to his New York 'Special Agent in Charge' asking if quotes attributed to Larkin at a meeting in the Odd Fellows Hall, New York, in 1919 could be proven. Despite a negative reply, Hoover offered to draft a deportation case for the Department of Labor. To seal the case, Burns supplied the missing evidence, alleging that at the Odd Fellows Hall, New York City, on February 16, 1919, Larkin appealed for money, using such slogans as 'Every Dollar Kills the Capitalist'. This was hardly the required smoking gun, but Burns told the Department of Labor: "... it is very evident that James Larkin is a person who fully comes within the provisions of the immigration law providing for deportation of an alien who advocates the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force or violence. It would be very desirable to effect his deportation at an early date…"
A deportation warrant was issued on April 18.
Larkin was arrested on April 19, taken to Ellis Island and deported.
On Monday, April 30, he landed at Dun Laoghaire where his sister and 40 supporters greeted him. A few hours later, a crowd of 4,000 followed him to Liberty Hall. Home was the hero.
Emmet O'Connor is an historian at the University of Ulster and author of 'Big Jim Larkin - Hero Or Wrecker?', published by UCD Press.