The Newport Sex Scandal, 1919-21. (Essay).
The history of the entrapment and persecution of homosexuals in Newport by the United States government warrants a discussion about the larger forgotten history of what is known as the Newport Sex Scandal. Not only is this history important because of the injustices that were done, but also because these actions were the work of prominent leaders, among them Franklin D. Roosevelt. Fearing that sailors were being "corrupted" by local gay men, the Navy developed a program using sailors to entrap these men in sexual liaisons, whereupon they would be tried in a civil court of law.
Victims of the government's campaign against moral vice were humiliated by the largely circumstantial evidence that was educed against a number of suspects in courts of law. Those who were caught by the scandal gained notoriety, while many others watched their reputations plummet. According to Lawrence R. Murphy in Perverts by Official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy (1988), the duties of each man involved in the operation to uncover vices in Newport included gathering evidence about drug and alcohol abuse, obtaining information pertaining to "cocksuckers and rectum receivers and the ring leaders of this gang, arranging from time to time meetings whereas to catch them in the act," and searching for women who were pursuing the same risky business.
In the documents distributed by the lead investigators, Dr. Erastus M. Hudson and Ervin Arnold, a fourteen-year Navy veteran, was a paragraph giving advice that stated: "Men attached to and serving on this staff, must keep their eyes wide open, observing everything and ears open for all conversation and make himself free with this class of men, being jolly and good natured, being careful as he pumps these men for information, making him believe that he is what is termed in the Navy as a 'boy humper,' making dates with them and so forth. Be careful not to arouse suspicion." Moreover, men who might tell their families of their work would be convicted of perjury if others from outside the investigation learned of their secrecy and methods of investigation.
Furthermore, when publicity about the navy's anti-gay crusade threatened the careers of senior officials like Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, the government manipulated the military justice system to spare these individuals while undermining their critics, such as John R. Rathom, publisher of The Providence Journal. Many who were affected by this scandal were eventually lost track of. For instance, Jay Goldstein, who invited an operator by the name of William Crawford to his Golden Hill Street room, later expressed fears of men who were spying at the YMCA, but quickly disappears from the chronicles of this witch hunt. What became of him is anybody's guess.
The most prominent man to be snared by the Navy's net was a Newport cleric and Navy chaplain, Rev. Samuel Neal Kent, who was also the head of the Newport sailors' welfare organization. The entrapment of Kent is illustrative of how the investigation proceeded. Once Kent had come under suspicion-it seems people questioned his friendship with one Arthur Green-he was invited for a drink by an investigator named Charles Zipf. After a night out they reportedly returned to the chaplain's quarters at the Emmanuel Church parish house, and Kent took Zipf to his room. Wrote Zipf in his report: "Kent threw his arms around me, and kissed me about the face. Repeatedly he tried to put his tongue in my mouth. His hand strayed and he felt of my penis. ... Kent made me promise not to say anything to the gang down at the YMCA." And Zipf acquiesced. Charged with engaging in homosexual activities, Kent denied the allegation and accused the Navy of using immoral methods to obtain evidence. Kent was ultimately acquitted in two sepa rate trials.
Men who were accused of homosexual activities were often followed or watched, and were ultimately slandered by vice investigators. Writes Murphy: "Never was adequate punishment meted out to those who perpetrated the campaign. To this day the stain of court-martial, a prison record, and dishonorable discharges remains on the records of the victims of government persecution." For instance, a number of regular attendees at the YMCA, including Albert Veihi, had been found guilty of sodomy and lewd acts. Veihi's conviction, three counts of sodomy and one of oral coition, was reduced from twenty years to seven, and later a Christmas clemency reduced his sentence to five years, three months. Others, like Thomas R. Brunelle and Jeremiah Fowler, were never brought to trial.
While drag shows were commonplace in the coastal town of Newport, the issue of homosexuality and the Navy was unresolved at this time. By May 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer refused Roosevelt's request to have the Justice Department begin a thorough investigation of Newport's Naval Training Station and the YMCA. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was more concerned with his anti-Communist crusade than sexual perversion in Newport, Rhode Island. To overcome this resistance, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered a secret, undercover investigation to uproot the conditions of vice and depravity that he suspected in Newport. The secret investigations, their funding sources, and their personnel were concealed in an undercover Navy department entitled Section A, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
Directly after the inception of this commission, FDR met with Erastus Hudson and Ervin Arnold to define the mission and work out the logistics of this operation. After that, FDR's confidential orders were signed into effect. The modus operandi of the sting was simple enough, as described by the Committee on Naval Affairs in its Report, Alleged Immoral Conditions at Newport (R.I.) Naval Training Station, issued by Senators Lewis H. Ball and Henry W. Keyes, of the 67th Congress: "[P]articularly between the dates of May 5 and July 20, 1919, the enlisted men who acted as operators or detectives were instructed by both Hudson and Arnold to go forth into Newport and to allow immoral acts to be perfonned upon them, if in their judgment it was necessary for the purpose of running down and trapping or capturing certain specified alleged sexual perverts." Thus the Navy was dealing with issues of moral vice, including rampant drug use, prostitution, and bribery by the local police and mayor. Actually, the Department of the Navy had been receiving reports of rampant vice since World War I began. But two major inquiries-and the ones that came to the (rather overblown) attention of the media-occurred in 1919 and early in 1920.
The Foster Court of Inquiry held hearings under the leadership of Judge Advocate William H. Drury in April and May 1919. The Foster Court of Inquiry convened on March 19, 1919, and announced its findings into the examination of evidence dealing with the Newport Sex Scandal on May 1, 1919. The court's questions dealt with drug use and civilian immorality, and the court brought forth a number of recommendations geared at resolving these problems. The court looked into the YMCA and decided that "unmarried enlisted men should be prohibited from renting rooms in Newport, with enforcement responsibilities assigned to the Training Station morale officer." The court added: "A more thorough investigation should be instituted under broader authority than pertains to the Commander to minimize the use of drugs and immorality among Naval personnel and civilians and others in the First Naval District."
The Dunn Board of Inquiry convened in Newport in the third week of January 1920. The Court had been assigned "to investigate the government's pursuit of homosexuals and alleviate growing public concern about the Rhode Island Sex Scandal." Secretary of Navy Josephus Daniels called the court into existence after a letter of complaint was issued to the President of the U.S. by the Newport Minister's Union. According to Murphy, "the system of military justice was skillfully manipulated to protect military officers and enlisted men while placing civilians who questioned the government's conduct in awkward, defensive positions." Secretary Daniels endorsed the findings of the Dunn Court of Inquiry on March 3, 1921, the day before the Wilson Administration left office. Daniels wrote Roosevelt that "I have been sweating blood over the Newport case. It was not easy in all its phases. I believe the conclusion reached is just to all concerned."
The rediscovery of this history, including the accounts known as "The 'Ladies' of Newport" and "The Newport Sex Scandal, 1919-1921," calls for a new examination of FDR's efforts to permit unorthodox tactics to entrap persons engaged in activities defined as immoral. While his role remains unclear, he did sign the orders enabling a team of investigators to go to the limit in their efforts to clean up Newport. What we know is that Dr. Erastus M. Hudson and Ervin Arnold's team of sailors-turned-investigators were deployed to seduce and take out on dates the "Ladies" of Newport. It is interesting to note that Herbert O. Dunn "commended Hudson for conferring from time to time with Navy Department officials but criticized his extremely bad judgment in not making certain that senior officials were fully cogmzant of the details of the methods which were being employed by the organization under his command." Writes Lawrence R. Murphy (1984): "the use of immoral methods by his men was in direct contravention of the tra ditions of the Naval service. Arnold has used enlisted men ... to obtain evidence in the investigation of perversion which was contrary and repugnant to the traditions of the service." FDR had employed two civilians, created special naval offices for them, and allowed them to investigate vice in Newport without detailing the methods to be used.
For all the criticism of these methods, Secretary of Navy Josephus Daniels and FDR continued to attack the vice associated with military centers, especially the Newport Naval Station, which served the Atlantic Fleet. It was with the support of Congressional Republicans and Admiral William S. Sims--who was somewhat ambivalent in his dealings with Secretary Daniels and FDR--that the U.S. Senate Committee on Naval Affairs pursued the investigation that came to be known as the Newport Sex Scandal. FDR, who had previously appeared defiantly before the Dunn Board, was attacked for signing the order to create Section A.
THE NAVY'S self-styled crusade to protect young men from evil influences was based on its ostensibly lofty mission to "encourage enlistment in the Navy on the grounds that the average boy would leave the service better fitted in education, physical condition and have a very high personal morality and high standard of morality and honor." The Newport Sex Scandal represented the military's first foray into the persecution of homosexuals and homosexuality, and was quite possibly the first instance of homosexuals being singled out as a category for legal prosecution. The Navy's desire to protect enlisted servicemen from bodily "contamination" was present as early as 1917 in the writings of Secretary Daniels: "There lies upon us morally, to a degree far out reaching any technical responsibility, the duty of leaving nothing undone to protect these young men from the contamination of their bodies, which will not only impair their military efficiency, but blast their lives for the future and return them to their home s a source of danger to their families and to the community at large." It was this impulse to "purge" the body that led to the program of gay male persecution that followed a few years later.
In the end, few remembered Newport's gay community in the years from 1919 to 1921. But the scandal provides a glimpse into the first fledgling effort to identify and purge gay people from the U.S. military. The confused awkwardness of the attempt, the arbitrary way in which people were singled out, and the sleazy injustice with which these efforts were executed--through secrecy, entrapment, coerced confessions--provide an early instance of the vast witch hunt that the U.S. military would later undertake against its gay members. That policy would reach its full expression only after the Second World War, yet it is the policy that remains in force, in effect, down to the present day.
Bishop Perry Papers, University of Rhode Island Library's Special Collections, Subject Series, Group 29, Series VII, Box 9, Folders 331-336.
Cronon, E. David. The cabinet Diaries of Josephus Daniels: 1913-1921. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963.
Katz, Jonathan. Government Versus Homosexuals. Ayer Company Publishers, 1975.
Murphy, Lawrence R. Perverts by Official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy. Harrington Park Press, 1988.
Murphy, Lawrence R. "Cleaning up Newport: The U.S. Navy's Persecution of Homosexuals after World War I." Journal of American Culture, Fall, 1984 (v. 7, no. 3).
Benjamin Brenkert is a senior at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.