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

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.

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Elizabeth Bass, The G-Woman at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics – Part 1

Editor’s Note: In the first of two posts which offer new additions to former ‘Points’ feature ‘Hidden Figures of Drug HistoryBob Beach explores the colorful career of Elizabeth Bass prior to her role as a G-Man within the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

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Fish Stories: The Drug Wars’ Unreliable Narrator

Given the Saturday Evening Post’s homogenous readership in 1926, we can forgive novice journalist Harry J. Anslinger for embroidering this lead into his article, “Tiger of the Sea”: “A moving picture with a South Sea scene is hardly complete unless the native hero, with a long dagger held between his teeth, balances his weight on the edge of a canoe to prepare for a dive to kill the shark that is between him and the precious pearl which he risks his life for to offer to the daughter of the white missionary whose beauty has captivated him.”

The reference to film is unsurprising, given Anslinger’s later fascination with Hollywood and his obsession with celebrity drug use. Students of American drug prohibition might also recognize this sort of dangerous interracial romance as an ever-present theme in Anslinger’s writing. But I want to discuss something more basic about Anslinger and his work: truthfulness.

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The cover of the issue in which “Tiger of the Sea” appeared

The article goes on to describe how sharks have gained a mistaken reputation as killers of humans while actually, the vicious barracuda – a quick-moving fish with razors for teeth – is the real “tiger of the sea.” The shark, writes Anslinger, is actually “the scavenger of the sea … usually found hovering near slaughter-house drains. He invariably follows fishing craft homeward bound to gather the fish refuse cast overboard. … He is wary of live bait.” Barracudas are the real perpetrators, he writes, of many supposed attacks by “the innocent shark.”

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The Forgotten Drug War: Dorothy Sullivan, Informant (Chicago, 1941)

“There was not the least sign of social disorder in 1942”

—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, speaking at the 100 Years of Heroin Conference, Yale University, 1998

Screenshot 2015-08-27 09.27.33Dorothy Sullivan was an informant for the Chicago office of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. On Tuesday, January 22, 1942, she was scheduled to testify in federal court in support of the government’s case against two men charged with heroin sales. She never made it to court. Instead, she fell, screaming and on fire, from eighth floor of a South Dearborn office building. Passers-by described looking up when they heard screams, and seeing what looked like a “flaming bundle of rags” plunging to the street. Dorothy Sullivan was killed instantly when she hit the ground, just one of an uncounted number of narcotics informants to meet a violent end over the course of the war on drugs. Their stories are rarely told.

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