Indecent Advances

A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall

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Edgar Award finalist, Best Fact Crime
American Masters (PBS), “1 of 5 Essential Culture Reads”
One of CrimeReads‘ “Best True Crime Books of the Year”

“A fast-paced, meticulously researched, thoroughly engaging (and often infuriating) look-see into the systematic criminalization of gay men and widespread condemnation of homosexuality post-World War I.” –Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle

Stories of murder have never been just about killers and victims. Instead, crime stories take the shape of their times and reflect cultural notions and prejudices. In this Edgar Award-finalist for Best Fact Crime, James Polchin recovers and recounts queer stories from the crime pages―often lurid and euphemistic―that reveal the hidden history of violence against gay men. But what was left unsaid in these crime pages provides insight into the figure of the queer man as both criminal and victim, offering readers tales of vice and violence that aligned gender and sexual deviance with tragic, gruesome endings. Victims were often reported as having made “indecent advances,” forcing the accused’s hands in self-defense and reducing murder charges to manslaughter.

As noted by Caleb Cain in The New Yorker review of Indecent Advances, “it’s impossible to understand gay life in twentieth-century America without reckoning with the dark stories. Gay men were unable to shake free of them until they figured out how to tell the stories themselves, in a new way.” Indecent Advances is the first book to fully investigate these stories of how queer men navigated a society that criminalized them and displayed little compassion for the violence they endured. Polchin shows, with masterful insight, how this discrimination was ultimately transformed by activists to help shape the burgeoning gay rights movement in the years leading up to Stonewall.



Criminalizing Queer Men

In January 1943, the thirty-one-year-old playwright Tennessee Williams wrote in his journal about the first time he was physically struck by another man:

Unhappily I can’t go into details. It was a case of guilt and shame in which I was relatively the innocent party, since I merely offered entertainment, which was accepted with apparent gratitude until the untimely entrance of other parties. Feel a little sorrowful about it. So unnecessary. The sort of behavior pattern imposed by the conventional falsehoods . . . Why do they strike us? What is our offense? We offer them a truth which they cannot bear to confess except in privacy and the dark—a truth which is inherently as bright as the morning sun. He struck me because he did what I did and his friends discovered it. Yes, it hurt—inside. I do not know if I will be able to sleep. But tomorrow I suppose the swollen face will be normal again and I will pick up the usual thread of life.1

Today we might describe his companion’s response as “homosexual panic,” that dubious psychological condition that had its origins among sailors and soldiers returning from World War I. If Williams’s attacker had been arrested for the assault, he might have claimed that Williams provoked the attack through a sexual solicitation; sodomy was then a felony punishable with prison sentences in every state in the country. In the press, editors would have reported that Williams’s bruised and swollen face was a result of his “indecent advance,” a euphemistic term that resonated with sexual deviancy and violence, and would have reminded readers of the specific kinds of criminal threats queer men posed to society. While the term was used to describe all manner of violent sexual assaults, editors were reticent to offer details given the journalistic standards of the day, which allowed for such references only through suggestion and innuendo.

Like many queer men of the era, Williams risked police arrests or attacks by would-be robbers while he went in search of sexual and social encounters on the margins of the city—along the docks, parks, and street corners where such encounters could be had. A few weeks after that initial violent incident, Williams would have another encounter that verged on the edge of violence. This time, it was not a case of homosexual panic, but rather one of intended intimidation and robbery. The man he brought back to his room began insulting and bullying Williams, threatening him with physical violence as he rummaged through his things. The experience “carried on for about an hour,” Williams wrote, and while he remained calm, he was fearful that his abuser would steal or destroy his manuscripts. Williams wrote: “He finally despaired of finding any portable property of value and left, with the threat that any time he saw me he would kill me. I felt sick and disgusted. I think that is the end of my traffic with such characters.” While this encounter lacked the physical violence of the earlier incident, it clearly had a stronger effect on Williams emotionally. The man’s threats of future violence, and even murder, stiffened him to the dangers of such encounters. Williams did not report either incident to the police, for to do so in 1943 would risk his own arrest for sodomy, disorderly conduct, or some other criminal offense. The next day in his journal, he described the night as “the most shocking experience I’ve ever had with another human being.”2

Williams’s two encounters, which left him with physical and emotional injuries, were fueled as much by the era’s social prejudices as by a long history of criminalizing queer men, making them vulnerable targets for violence and abuse. “The history of Western representation is littered with the corpses of gender and sexual deviants,” writes the critic Heather Love. Queer history has often focused on narratives of progress in which sexual minorities prosper despite the social injuries done to them. This progressive and affirmative narrative has made injury and violence historical realities we often write against, through an emphasis on community building, cultural expressions, and political activism. Sexual minorities survived and flourished, the story goes, despite all they had to endure. But there is another story of queer experience, one that tries to recover encounters much deadlier than the ones Williams recorded in his journal. “Modern homosexual identity is formed out of and in relation to the experience of social damage,” Love argues, adding, “paying attention to what was difficult in the past may tell us how far we have come, but that is not all it will tell us; it also makes visible the damage that we live with in the present.”3

This book offers one way into this record of such damage by recovering a lost history of queer true crime stories published in the press between World War I and the Stonewall protests of 1969. Most of these stories have never been read since their original publication; their documentation of injustices and discrimination has been buried for decades. In these stories, we encounter men found stabbed, shot, or strangled in hotel rooms, apartments, public parks, and subway bathrooms. We witness accounts of brutal violence between roommates, sailors and civilians, young men and older men, working-class men and wealthy companions. Many of the victims were married men, living their sexual lives in secret rendezvous, under false names to hide their identities. Others were clearly living as homosexual men, single or partnered, participating in the queer worlds that were emerging in many cities across the country with increasing visibility. Not surprisingly, such crime reports were mostly stories about encounters between white men. When men of color were present in the mainstream press, they were usually, if not always, the killers of the white men they met, reflecting how the crime pages embodied the broader racial segregation of the times.

In returning to these long-forgotten stories, we see how newspaper editors and writers shaped the human dramas with sensational appeal and cautionary concerns, furthering the era’s focus on the salacious and entertaining elements of crime. Not only did the press educate readers about the nature of crime and violence, giving insights into police investigations and the courtroom battles, it also reflected and shaped ideas of morality and immorality, particularly as homosexuality was increasingly a subject of public concern. In an era when queers were understood as despised criminals, the press did much to fan the fears about sexual deviancy with sensational headlines, suggestive details, and shocking accounts of crime scenes. Such fears were acutely evident in numerous sex crime panics, frenzied moments where violent crimes that simmered with a sexual undertone became front-page news, pointing readers to the problems of sexual deviants and often targeting homosexuals for increased arrests, vigilante violence, and new efforts to criminalize harmless sexual behaviors. While queer true crime stories reflected and amplified social prejudices and state-sanctioned discriminations, they also show us how queer men were forced to navigate such dangers in their search for sexual adventure and social life.

While readers encountered queer true crime stories in scandalous front-page headlines, they also found them in smaller, more mysterious accounts. Just a few months after Williams recorded his violent encounters in his journal, The New York Times published this account in its evening edition about the mysterious and fatal incident between two men in a rooming house on Manhattan’s west side:

A slightly built middle-aged man who registered yesterday afternoon at a rooming house on 608 Eighth Avenue with a sailor as a companion, was found dead in his room there an hour later, with his skull shattered. He had been stripped of his suit by the sailor who disappeared.

The civilian had registered at the rooming house as Harry Bowen of New York City, and his companion, about 19 years old, who was in the naval uniform, as C. E. Bowen. Shortly after they had gone to their room the sailor reappeared, carrying the older man’s suit, and left the house. Mrs. Rebecca Seligsohn, the housekeeper, decided to investigate and found the sailor’s roommate dead.

Buried on the bottom half of page thirty-eight, this was the entire article about the crime. The next day, the paper revealed “the elderly man found beaten to death Saturday afternoon” had used a false name. The murder victim was not Harry Bowen, but rather Charles Patterson, a sixty-nine-year-old postal worker who lived in the leafy suburban town of Summit, New Jersey, with his wife, Adelaide, in a large nineteenth-century Dutch colonial in the center of town.4

Patterson had taken the train into Manhattan to buy theater tickets to celebrate his upcoming forty-seventh wedding anniversary the following week.5 At some point he met a sailor—or a man dressed in a sailor uniform—and found his way to the rooming house just a few blocks from Bryant Park, an area known for its vagrants and queer cruising in the 1930s and 1940s. There the two men registered with oddly similar names, suggesting they might have pretended to be related to avoid problems with the manager. The mysterious details of the encounter were central to press reports as they circulated through the Associated Press wire service to newspapers in New Jersey and Delaware. Readers learned that Patterson was found “half-clothed,” and that police were searching for a “young, blond sailor.”6 But after the few initial stories, and, apparently no real leads in the case, the crime disappeared from the newspapers.

Many readers in the 1940s would have understood the sexual undertones of the crime that seem so apparent to us today. While a married man meeting a younger man in public and renting a hotel room together under assumed names may not easily fit into the history of queer experience, it is undeniably a part of that history. The press found in Patterson’s murder a familiar tragedy of urban crime, with a thinly veiled subtext of sexual deviance that coupled homosexuality with criminality. Although Patterson’s murder is horrific to us today, not only for its brutality but also for how the queer victim was targeted for robbery by the younger assailant, in 1943 Patterson’s harmless search for a sexual encounter with another man would have been considered a felony, punishable with harsh sentencing. While his murder was shocking, what led him into that hotel room with the younger man would have been equally appalling and criminal.

Even when they suffered such violence, queer men in the courts and the press were not always understood as victims. How the press defined these queer true crime stories—who were the victims and who were the criminals—was set within a constellation of cultural values, journalistic ethics, and political trends. In this sense, queer true crime stories give us much more than compelling headlines of dramatic and horrifying tales of murder and assaults. They also show us how violence and prejudice can take hold when you criminalize a group of people, harness the expertise of the medical and legal professions, and circulate these ideas through the press.

The true crime story was an invention of the nineteenth century, when the press increasingly offered frightful tales to eager audiences. Weaving intricate accounts of violent murders that were populated by unscrupulous men and defenseless women, the true crime genre in Victorian America offered both the pleasure of a murder mystery and the shock of a morality tale. Circulated through a growing tabloid press such as the National Police Gazette, a publication that appealed to its male readers with crime stories and burlesque images, or later the scandal-hungry newspapers of the Hearst empire, these stories of real-life violence were increasingly popular in the era, sitting alongside the new genre of horror stories and the other recently invented literary form: murder mysteries. From their origins, true crime stories in the press have never simply been about the crimes themselves. Rather, they take the shape of their era, embodying and educating readers on the nature of justice, the meaning of morality, the lines between rationality and insanity, and, most acutely, normality and abnormality.7 “By dismantling various narratives of murder,” historian Sara Knox reminds us, it becomes possible “to expose the cultural meanings given to murder, that irreplaceable taken-for-granted quality of a murder that, when narrated, says so much about what a culture knows and what it will not let itself know.”8

While the nineteenth century gave us true crime and murder mysteries, it also gave us scientific theories about the nature of deviant human behaviors. Central to these new theories was the notion that deviancy was a somatic condition, an inherited trait that could, if you looked closely enough, be easily read on one’s body. The French doctor Jean-Martin Charcot, known as the father of neurology, famously photographed most of his female patients who were suffering from the newly defined condition of female hysteria in the 1880s. Such visual evidence was meant not only to confirm the dire nature of the illness as evidenced on the body, but also to form part of the treatment itself.

It was in the field of criminology that such theories were actively explored. Cesare Lombroso, a well-respected Italian criminologist, pioneered an approach to crime that shifted older notions of punishment from a focus on the nature of the crime to a concern with the nature of the criminal. In his book Criminal Man, published in 1876, Lombroso proposed the radical idea that criminals were born, not made, arguing that some people were more prone to criminality than others. You could predict such criminal propensities, his theory went, by examining certain bodily features. As Lombroso was theorizing the nature of the criminal man, French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon used the relatively new technology of the camera to photograph Parisians arrested on all manner of crimes, and recorded specific physical details of each on standardized forms, creating the first mug shots that could be easily shared with police across the city or the nation. At the same time, the English sociologist and eugenicist Francis Galton was also interested in the camera’s power to capture the criminal type, but he went even further, convinced that fingerprints could not only uniquely identify individuals, but might also reveal racial markings and criminal propensities, adding to his systematic categorization of racial types.9 While such approaches to crime had their detractors, their impact on modern criminology would be felt for decades to come.10

The nature of the criminal led also to the nature of the sexual deviant. Lombroso claimed that homosexuals were a class of moral criminals who should be committed to insane asylums, their sexual proclivities an inherent part of their being. As criminology developed new theories about the nature of the criminal, a newly formed field of sexology in Europe and the United States was investigating and theorizing about the nature of abnormal sexual desires. Like crime, sexual desire was increasingly understood as an inherent, biological propensity, offering a radical shift in the centuries-long understanding of homosexuality as a behavior.

Since the Middle Ages, much of Western history held to religious and legal dictates against the practice of sodomy. Enacted through church inquisitors, royal tribunals, or, later, parliamentary decrees, proscriptions against sodomy defined sexual and social impurities. While charges of sodomy were directed at sexual immoralities, they were also used as a vital weapon against anyone deemed a threat to social order or religious doctrines, such as foreigners, heretics, or political foes. By the Renaissance, the act of sodomy gave birth to the sodomite, and with it increasingly harsher penalties and tortures were imagined and enacted to control him. In the English colonies of North America, sodomy was punishable by death, a reality that did not change until after the Revolution. But charges of sodomy, like other notions of sin, had their own social order. Lower-class men were more likely to be charged with sodomy than their upper-class neighbors.11

The idea that same-sex desires were a biological fact of the person was most acutely defined in the radical new figure of the “homosexual.” Whereas the sodomite was a victim of sinful behaviors including such activities as masturbation or lustful desires, the figure of the homosexual was born with his sexual desires. First coined in the 1860s in a German-language pamphlet decrying a Prussian antisodomy law, the term “homosexual” was from its birth a defense against the criminalization of same-sex desires.12 In 1886, the German doctor Richard von Krafft-Ebing published Psychopathia Sexualis, a large collection of first-person accounts of sexual deviances from a wide variety of men from different social classes. The accounts ranged from same-sex eroticism to transvestism and bestiality. These accounts made evident how sexual desires were inherent from an early age, however outside the social norms they may have been. Among the many terms he offered to categorize the various accounts of sexual activities were two recently coined words that for the first time entered Western medicine: “homosexual” and “heterosexual.” A decade later Havelock Ellis, an English physician, would draw on Krafft-Ebing’s work but define same-sex desire as a kind of “inversion” from normal heterosexuality, thus coining the term “sexual invert.” It was this idea that would buttress a number of English writers and artists of the era, who found in sexual inversion an empowering term against the social stigma and legal offense of sodomy. For Ellis, inversion was also aligned with another new term—“sexual perversion.” The two increasingly would be used interchangeably.

The idea that homosexuals were born and not made fostered all kinds of theories and opinions about who exactly was more prone to such sexual deviancy. One American doctor in the 1890s described how homosexuality was mostly practiced among “the lower classes and particularly Negroes,” while another expert pointed to foreigners and especially those “among the low and degraded” classes as the likely culprits of such vice. Few embodied these ideas more acutely than the infamous Anthony Comstock, who as a postal inspector and president of the Society for the Suppression of Vice wielded great power and influence in New York City at the turn of the century as he pushed his brand of Victorian moralism. Along with his crusades against books and magazines he found unseemly, Comstock also targeted sexual deviancy. “These inverts,” he intoned, “are not fit to live with the rest of mankind. They ought to have branded on their foreheads the word ‘Unclean,’” adding, “Their lives ought to be so intolerable as to drive them to abandon their vices.”13

The word “unclean” was a choice one, for it underscored how Comstock and other moral reformers of the era pushed a social purity in an antivice crusade that targeted sexual deviancy, prostitution, pornography, and other practices it deemed impure. These campaigns were happening amid a rapidly growing urban population in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hastened by a huge influx of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, who some believed threatened the racial purity of the country. At the same time, industrialization transplanted large numbers of single men and women to diverse cities and well beyond the social and sexual conventions of their small towns, allowing for anonymous experimentation with older codes of sexual and gender norms. Antivice committees were a common response to these social changes, as police and social reformers attempted to control the social and sexual deviancies that many viewed as a pervasive problem, especially among the working class. The Chicago Vice Commission, for example, reported in 1911 that homosexuality was among the worst problems the city faced.14

Within these social changes, a paradox about sexuality in the years leading up to World War I became clear: at the very moment that science and medicine were offering new theories of same-sex desire and new categories that proscribed sexual identities, sexual deviancy was increasingly viewed as a dire social and criminal threat.

Drawing on his experiences in Europe during the Great War and his studies of the work by German sexologists, Henry Gerber established the Society for Human Rights in Chicago in the early 1920s, a group that promoted the idea of homosexual rights. Gerber dared to imagine a world where homosexuals were not targeted by police arrests or harassment by vice wardens. While his organization was quickly suppressed by the police, Gerber continued to promote his radical ideas. In the early 1930s he wrote, “Homosexuals live in happy, blissful unions, especially in Europe, where homosexuals are unmolested as long as they mind their own business, and are not, as in England and in the United States, driven to the underworld of perversions and crime for satisfaction of their very real craving for love.”15

While Gerber’s words point to the prejudices directed toward homosexuals, they also underscore the central tension between public control and private freedom that defined homosexuality in the decades before Stonewall—and after. Nowhere did these tensions play out more acutely than in the crime pages of the press. This book argues, in part, that these long-forgotten crime stories were a vital way that the competing and contradictory theories of homosexuality circulated to the broad reading public in the years between World War I and Stonewall—making homosexuality a dire public concern. World War I marked a watershed for interest in sexual deviancy within the growing fields of criminology and psychology in the United States. At the same time, an expanding tabloid press and popular magazine industry offered true stories of sex and crime with unprecedented salacious and shocking details, giving shape to a compelling genre of the modern era. The image of the queer criminal came to define homosexuality in these decades, harnessing all manner of state and medical responses. By the 1950s, queer true crime stories illustrated for early gay activists how homosexuals suffered amid the injustices of random violence, courtroom arguments, and press biases.

We see in the crime pages an evolution of queer criminality. The Depression-era 1930s gave us the sex criminal, a vague character that included a big net of suspects, from child molesters and rapists to queer men. The FBI was active in promoting the problem of sex crimes, both in the 1930s and in the postwar years. Under its long-serving director J. Edgar Hoover, the agency expanded its private files of political subversives to include a new category called “sex deviants,” which included all manner of sex offenses and made homosexuality a national policing concern. The sex criminal would play a central role in the constant ebb and flow of sex panics in the press from the 1930s to the 1950s. In such fevered moments, queer men were often the targets of police surveillance and vigilante violence.

Another way that queer men were made targets of abuse was in the homosexual panic defense, which was increasingly used by defendants in the 1930s and would be a compelling argument for attacks and murders of queer men for decades. Crime stories of men killing their queer companions because of their “indecent advances” embodied the perceived threats that queer men posed to the sexual and social order. But homosexual panic was also part of the post–World War II psychologizing of homosexuality, in which sexual desire was not, as the nineteenth-century sexologists had deemed, an inherent biological imperative, but rather a factor of one’s environment and childhood sexual development. If homosexuality was not biological but developmental, so these ideas proposed, it could in fact be changed, giving rise to all manner of forced treatments and therapies to cure the condition.

The Cold War also gave us Alfred Kinsey’s famous study Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, published in 1948. The study was groundbreaking in what it revealed—occurrences of sexual experiences between men were much more common across different ages of men’s lives than had been previously acknowledged. The sexual practices that Kinsey and his researchers recorded confirmed the pervasiveness of private same-sex experiences. But the importance of the study also lay in what it made uncertain: that homosexuality was not an easily identifiable or a marginal characteristic that marked abnormal men.

Kinsey’s ideas went beyond the descriptive, as he also advocated against the imprisonment and institutionalization of homosexuals—seeing homosexual practices as causing little harm to society. One impact of Kinsey’s study was the idea that homosexuality should be viewed as a private concern rather than a social problem. That sexual experiences between two consenting adults should be a private right was a concept that was growing in the postwar years among the early homosexual rights advocates, who increasingly argued the radical concept that homosexuals constituted a distinct social minority. Critiques of the crime pages offered civil rights groups such as the Mattachine Society explicit examples of the prejudice and injuries homosexuals endured. These critiques fostered a growing collective awareness of how homosexuals were criminalized in the press, in the courtroom, and on the streets. This awareness would grow with ever-increasing urgency and confrontation in the sexual liberation movements in the late 1960s, exploding with determined force on a warm summer night in June 1969 when patrons resisted the violence forced on them by police raids at the Stonewall bar in New York.

Queer true crime stories show us this movement from criminalization to social protest in the history of modern homosexuality. In the process, these forgotten stories demonstrate how queer men navigated the prejudices around them when there was no recognition of the dangers they faced, nor much compassion for the violence they endured.


When the Men Came Home

Sailors, Scandals, and Mysteries in the 1920s


On November 4, 1920, the front page of the New York Daily News

On Sale
May 26, 2020
Page Count
256 pages