Life

“What Is Our Offense?”

How decades of queer true crime stories fueled the Stonewall uprising.

An old newspaper displaying police brutality, with the photograph of the attack accentuated.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Spenseratlas/Wikipedia.

This essay is adapted from Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall, out now from Counterpoint Press.

In January of 1943, 31-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.

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’ 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 long prison sentences in every state in the country. In the press, editors would have reported that Williams’ bruised and swollen face was a result of his “indecent advance,” a euphemistic term that evoked 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 that only allowed for such references through suggestion and innuendo.

Like many queer men of the era, Williams risked police arrests or attacks by would-be robbers in search of sexual and social encounters on the margins of the city—along the docks, parks, and street corners where sexual adventures and social 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 disorderly conduct or worse. The next day in his journal, he described the night as “the most shocking experience I’ve ever had with another human being.”

Williams’ two encounters, which left him with physical and emotional injuries, are examples of how queer people had always been vulnerable targets for violence and abuse under a system that criminalized queer citizens, rather than their attackers, for their behavior. Now, 50 years after the Stonewall riots and the rise of the modern gay rights movement, it can be easy to forget or minimize this historical reality. The general story you hear most often is that sexual minorities have survived and flourished despite all they had to endure. But it’s important to remember just how deadly the history of queer experience has been, filled with encounters much more severe than the ones Williams suffered.

In my research into newspaper crime pages, I discovered a shocking public record of queer true crime stories published between World War I and Stonewall. Most of these stories had never been read since their original publication, their documentation of injustices and discrimination buried for decades. In these stories, I encountered stories of men found stabbed, shot, or strangled in hotel rooms, apartments, public parks, and subway bathrooms. I witnessed 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. While stories of queer people of color murdered and assaulted did make headlines in the black American press, the mainstream crime pages in these decades embodied the broader racial segregation of the times.

The more of these long-forgotten stories I uncovered, the more I began to see how newspaper editors shaped the queer true crimes with sensational appeal and cautionary concerns, drawing on the salacious and entertaining elements of crime and furthering ideas of morality and immorality, normalcy and deviancy. In this sense, 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. Reading these queer true crime stories today gives us much more than compelling headlines of dramatic and horrifying tales of victims and criminals. 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.

Just a few months after Williams recorded his violent encounters in his journal, the New York Times published this mysterious and fatal encounter 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 38, 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 69-year-old postal worker who lived in the leafy suburban town of Summit, New Jersey, with his wife, Adelaide, in a large 19th-century Dutch colonial perched on a hill in the center of town.

Patterson had taken the train into Manhattan to buy theater tickets to celebrate his upcoming 47th wedding anniversary the following week. At some point Patterson 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. 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.” But after the few initial stories, and, apparently, no real leads in the case, the crime disappeared from the news.

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. While 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.

Through the numerous newspaper archives I combed through, and the dozens of queer true crime cases I researched, I found an evolution of queer criminality in the decades before Stonewall. The Depression-era 1930s gave us the sex criminal, a vague character that included a big net of suspects, from child molesters to rapists to queer men. The FBI was active in promoting the problem of sex crimes, both in the 1930s and in the post–World War II era. Under its long-serving director J. Edgar Hoover, the agency expanded its private files of political subversives to include a new category called “sexual degenerates,” which included all manner of sex offenses and made homosexuality a national policing concern.

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. Homosexual panic also reflected the post–World War II psychologizing of homosexuality, in which sexual desire was not, as the 19th-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.

But 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.

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 of 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.

Adapted from Indecent Advances: The Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall by James Polchin. Published with permission from Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2019 by James Polchin. 

Indecent Advances book cover
Counterpoint Press