After immigrating from Switzerland through Ellis Island in 1881, Anslinger’s parents settled in Pennsylvania. Harry’s father, Robert, worked first as a barber and then on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Harry was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in 1892.
Harry was the eighth of nine children born to Robert and Christiana Anslinger. While attending college he played the piano for silent movies in a State College, Pennsylvania, theater and worked as a utility employee for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
When he completed his eighth-grade education, Anslinger took a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad. He enrolled at the Altoona Business College in 1909 and received an associate’s degree from Pennsylvania State College in 1915.
Anslinger’s job with the Pennsylvania Railroad progressed and he became a detective, then captain, in the Railroad Police, working on various investigations in their intelligence department. It was during his work on the Pennsy in 1915 that he first encountered Mano Nero (The Black Hand) among Italian immigrants, later known as the mafia.
In 1916 Anslinger moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to help the new superintendent of the Pennsylvania State Police reorganize the force. One year later he became the deputy fire commissioner.