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A Byte Out of History - FBI Wanted Poster

A Byte Out of History
Fugitive Alert: Our First Identification Order


Fugitive William Bishop appeared 87 years ago on the FBI's first Identification Order, precursor to today's Wanted poster.
Fugitive William Bishop appeared
87 years ago on the FBI’s first
Identification Order, precursor
to today’s Wanted poster.

On December 2, 1919, a 23-year-old soldier named William N. Bishop slipped out of the stockade at Camp A. A. Humphreys—today’s Fort Belvoir—in northern Virginia.

Little did anyone know at the time, but that escape set in motion a chain of events that would forever change how the FBI and its partners fight crime.

Shortly after Bishop’s getaway, the Military Intelligence Division—established during World War I by the Army—requested our help in finding him. One of our early assistant directors, Frank Burke, responded by sending a letter to “All Special Agents, Special Employees and Local Officers” asking them to “make every effort” to capture Bishop.

In the letter, Burke included every scrap of information that would help law enforcement of the day locate and identify Bishop: a complete physical description, down to the pigmented mole near his right armpit; possible addresses he might visit, including his sister’s home in New York; and a “photostat” of a recent portrait taken at “Howard’s studio” on seventh street in Washington, D.C. (see the photo above).

Burke labeled that document—dated December 15, 1919, 87 years ago this Friday—“Identification Order No. 1.” In essence, it was our first wanted poster…and it put us squarely in the fugitive-catching business just eleven years into our history. We’ve been at it ever since, working hand-in-hand with our law enforcement partners and the general public to take wanted fugitives off the streets.

Within a few years, the identification order—or what soon became known throughout law enforcement as an “IO”—had become a staple of crime-fighting. By the late 1920s, these wanted flyers were circulating not only throughout the U.S. but also Canada and Europe (and later worldwide). The IO evolved into a standard 8x8 size, and we soon added to them fingerprints (thanks to our growing national repository), criminal records, and other background information. By the 1930s, IOs were displayed in post offices around the nation, enlisting the eyes of the public in the search for fugitives.

Since 1919, we’ve issued more than 5,400 IOs—including quite a few memorable ones: Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, number 1194; George “Machine Gun” Kelly, number 1203; John Dillinger, number 1217; Lester Gillis, aka “Baby Face” Nelson, number 1223; and Bonnie and Clyde, number 1227.

Building on the “wanted posters” concept, we created the FBI “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” list in 1950. Today, our Wanted by the FBI website lists not only fugitives—terrorist and criminal alike—but also missing and kidnapped persons.

And what of Mr. Bishop? With the help of the identification order, he was captured less than five months later, on April 6, 1920. The rest, as they say, is history.

Resources: FBI History | More history stories