The History of the FBI’s Most Wanted List

Josie Klakström
10 min readAug 23, 2020

A number of events happened in 1949 America; Los Angeles recorded its first snowfall, a 1,200-pound cow got stuck inside a silo in Oklahoma, and it was the first year no African-Americans were lynched in the USA. It was also when the idea of the FBI’s Most Wanted list was conceived.

Classic wanted posters already existed, and the FBI had been using these since the 1920s, to catch military deserters and mob affiliates. But it was now a time where information came from two main sources; television and newspapers.

Al Capone’s wanted poster

A conversation between J. Edgar Hoover and William Kinsey Hutchinson, the editor of the International News Service, brought about the idea of a list and need to promote the police capturing public enemies.

If the FBI could gather information from the public, it would make their investigations faster and put more criminals in prison, protecting communities.

An article detailing the FBI’s most wanted fugitives was published on the 7th February 1949, by The Washington Daily News. The article gained so much positive publicity, that the FBI published the first Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list on the 14th March 1950.

First Fugitive List in The Washington Daily News via CBN News

The list was very much of its time, including bank robbers, car thieves and burglars. Compare the list to modern day, which now comprises of terrorists, paedophiles and white-collar criminals, the priority of offences has changed over the years.

Since its inception, 523 fugitives have been put on the list, and 162 of them have been captured, to date.

How the list works

The list is decided by the Executive Management team at the FBI, and the candidates are pulled from the 56 field offices throughout the United States, all of which have their own ‘number one’ fugitives. Each candidate must have a record of committing serious crimes or is considered a danger to the public.

FBI Wanted List in the Denver office 1962 via Dave Mathias, Post Archive
Josie Klakström

Josie is a freelance journo who writes about writing, true crime, culture and marketing.