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In the Navy: The Newport Scandal

A Comprehensive Synopsis of "Perverts by Official Order" by Lawrence Murphy

June 24th, 2007, 10:16 pm

The Newport Naval Scandal erupted after the most extensive--and lurid--campaign ever conducted by a branch of the U.S. military against enlisted homosexual men. Despite the fact that it made national headlines when it broke in 1920, requiring Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt to testify before a special governmental inquiry, it has all but been forgotten by historians. A compelling example of this is the Wikipedia entry on the scandal, which as of this writing consists of a single sentence: "The Newport Sex Scandal involved allegations in 1919 of 'immoral conduct' (specifically, homosexuality) at the United States Navy base in Newport, Rhode Island, USA."

QUICK NOTE: Thanks to Patricia Welch (see "Read Comments" below) and some others, this formerly scant Wikipedia entry was developed in late 2009.

In fact, the scandal was exhaustively researched and documented by Lawrence R. Murphy in Perverts by Official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy (New York: Haworth Press, 1988. 340pp.) Although Murphy died shortly after the book was published, his study lives on as an alarming account of just how far the Navy went to, um, snag these gay sailors.

These young recruits--most of whom actually volunteered for the "sting operation"--had been instructed by their superiors to engage in sex with targeted gay Naval personnel, which they did "with interest and zeal"; as a matter of association, they also had sex with civilian men who were friends of the gay Navy guys. They were told to carefully document each encounter so that the full extent of military law could later be imposed on the guilty, who had become known in some late-night circles as "the Ladies of Newport."

Who gave these orders? Technically, the future President of the United States, Roosevelt himself, who had become alarmed after being told that the Navy had been infiltrated by perverts. As soon as he signed the papers authorizing that action be taken toward "cleaning the whole matter up," the sting began. Meticulously recorded reports of the sexual trysts the straight "operators" had with the unsuspecting sailors and their gay friends exist to this day in Naval archives and are central to Murphy's documentary of what has been called "the first national gay sex scandal." This blog provides a comprehensive and--beware--uncensored synopsis of the events his book has brought into the public domain.

How the Campaign Began
It started in February 1919 when Chief Machinist's Mate Ervin Arnold, a rabid homophobe with a curious obsession with gay sex, was a patient in Ward B of the Naval Training Station Hospital. There he befriended fellow patient Thomas Brunelle, a seemingly straight guy who eventually confided in Arnold that he had enjoyed sex with "queers" and "cocksuckers." Unknown by Brunelle, Arnold secretly took notes about these conversations and was the first to document the seamy gay underground of Newport, Rhode Island. According to Brunelle, the Naval YMCA and the Newport Art Club was a hang-out spot for a "gang of perverts." These "pogues," Brunelle told Arnold, hooked up regularly with naval personnel and, worse, several of them were naval personnel (11).

Arnold personally investigated the gay scene and found Brunelle's story to be true. He carefully documented the society of "queers" that he had infiltrated. According to his reports, this legion of gay men, including sailors, acted effeminately, went by women's names ("Theda Barra," "Ruth," "Beckie," "Salome," "Ella"), wore women's undergarments, and attended "69 Parties" with their "boys" (young straight guys, often marines and sailors).

Appalled, he informed his superiors. Eventually, Admiral Spencer S. Wood, Commander of the Second Naval District, ordered "a thorough investigation" and created a court of inquiry to review Arnold's claims. On March 19, 1919, the court concluded that the government must devote "any expense and time necessary" to conduct a "most thorough and searching investigation . . . made by a corps of highly experienced investigators" (15). The court's recommendation was approved by Roosevelt, who asked Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to put his "most skilled investigators at work with a view of ultimately cleaning the whole matter up" (16).

The Legal Evidence: Having Gay Sex "to the Limit"
The secret operation was put into the hands of Arnold, whose "highly skilled investigators" were men chosen on the basis of their youth and looks: "[A] good looking man from the average of 19 to 24 are the best people," Arnold wrote, "in handling this class of work, with reference to perverts" (22). He helped personally select his "detectives."

His first three recruits--Charles B. Zipf, Gregory Cunningham, and John E. McCormick,--after being told of their assignment on March 17, dove headfirst into their new job, even before their formal induction that was not scheduled until the following evening. Within the hour they were at the YMCA allowing themselves to be solicited by gay men. As it turned out, two of the three were invited to a "party" in an upstairs room. Here, one of the solicitors, George Richard, followed McCormick into the bathroom. The young investigator recorded the incident later that evening: "He [Richard] turned out the light and had me sit on the toilet while he felt my privates, even opening my trousers and . . .". The gay man was "very much put out," McCormick stated, because he had trouble getting up to his end of the bargain. After ten minutes the novice detective suggested that they "give it up and try some other time." (23)

The reports the investigators submitted to Arnold the next morning touched on some important questions, most pressingly: just how far should the detectives go in getting their "evidence"? Apparently, no clear answer was ever recorded. Detailed records of the investigation, however, reveal that at least thirteen investigators went "to the limit" (climax) in order to prove that the men with whom they had sex were, indeed, gay.

After a Formal Induction, the Sordid Sting Begins
On March 18, thirteen young men from the naval ranks who had volunteered to help expose "immoral practices and conditions believed to exist" in and around the Newport base were formally inducted into the sting operation. The ceremony took place in the X-Ray room in the basement of the Naval Hospital. After being told of the physical requirements of their task, the volunteers were given the opportunity to withdraw. None did. They then stood and took an oath of secrecy: "I will not converse upon or in any manner communicate any information concerning the business, files, policy or routine of the Office of Naval Intelligence," they promised, "with any persons outside of said office, or to any person whatsoever, without authority from the Director of Naval Intelligence." (24) The young men were given personal code numbers (to help maintain secrecy), money, motorcycles, and a 14-page document detailing the names, ages, and activities of some of the gay naval personnel it was their duty to entrap.

No sooner had this group of "operators" (there would be more than one group) taken their oath when several headed directly to the YMCA to begin work. Over the next several weeks they submitted daily reports to Arnold that are astonishing for their candid description of gay sex. Only one, William Crawford, attempted objective distance from the sexual acts he participated in by writing in third-person and using his initials, WC. The gay man he ended up alone with, Jay Goldstein, asked how he, WC, "wanted it":

WC told him to suit himself. Goldstein asked if he wanted it French style, WC said any old way if good." (28)

The other operators more typically reported their escapades in first-person. For example, Preston Paul, a new recruit who had no trouble adjusting to the demands of this assignment, hooked up with fellow enlisted man Seaman Second Class Samuel Rogers after renting a room at 118 Spring Street, they undressed and got into bed. In a report that I dare not quote from for fear of violating decency codes everywhere, Paul graphically described having sex with the sailor. "He kissed me," he wrote, closing his report, "when I left." (35)

Some evidence exists that one or two of these straight young recruits were not particularly enthralled about certain aspects of their work. "He had awful smelling breath," complained John Feiselman of Harold Trubshaw, the gay enlisted man he got it on with. So appalled was Feiselman that he avoided sex with Trubshaw all night long. At 6:00 the next morning (Friday, March 29, 1919), Feiselman had a change of heart. By 6:45, both men were on their way to the station to report for duty. (31)

The Lurid Evidence Presented in Military Court
On April 4 the first of the gay sailors, Frank Hoag, was arrested. Within the next week five more men were rounded up. By April 22, fifteen gay sailors were in the brig. The convictions followed the same pattern. Each sailor was brought before a military tribunal as a "person of interest." At that point, as the accused looked on in horror, the "operators" with whom they had sex were called to the stand to testify.

The testimonies were just as graphic as the reports they had submitted to Arnold. Operator Charles Zipf testified how Frank Dye had peformed oral sex on him a number of times (40). Dye was so shaken by the testimony of someone he had trusted that, when called upon to defend himself, he could not speak and was immediately taken to jail. As another accused sailor brought before the tribunal, Maurice Kreisberg, hung his head in shame, operator Floyd Brittain told the court: "I know that Kreisberg is guilty of immoral practice," and he listed those practices, then, in detail (40).

Older naval officers in charge of the procedings were confounded by some sexual terms used by the investigators. "What do you mean 'he went down on you'?" asked one officer of Zipf, perhaps the most engaged and vociferous member of the sting operation. Zipf at first explained the term with a candor that was clearly not in keeping with the formal proceedings. Realizing he'd gone over the line--something he was accustomed to doing anyway--he rephrased his answer in more respectful language (42).

Once the operators had presented their evidence before the court, the accused were encouraged to incriminate their friends, which many of them did apparently in an attempt to secure leniency. Thomas Brunelle, the "straight" guy who months earlier had unwittingly confided in Ervin Arnold his exploits with gay men, did so in explicit detail. Fred Hoag, he told the court, "was a very brilliant woman, ... a good French Artist." Frank Dye had performed equally well in his servicing techniques, as did Goldstein. Brunelle apparently spared the gay man with whom he was closest, and had shared a room with, William Hughes: "We were known as man and wife, but nothing was pulled off between us" (49).

When it came time for the accused to address the court, they adopted homophobic language and attitudes in an attempt to convince it that they were not gay. Defendant Harrison Rideout told the court everything he knew about gay life in Newport. The Art Association "reeks with it. . . . The women and these perverts get together and they talk" (45). Only one, Frank Hoag, under cross examination, came close to admitting he was homosexual: "I am not saying that I am straight," he stated. "A straight person must be straight and not reciprocate in any way" -- something Hoag himself could not lay claim to. What was he then? "As they say in sets I have know," Hoag replied, "it is a dash of lavender." While admitting that he "might have what they call, yanked someone off," Hoag denied that he had engaged in other sexual acts. (54)

The three-week military trial ended with the court-martial of seventeen sailors charged with sodomy and scandalous conduct, most of whom were sent to the naval prison at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire. Two more were dishonorably discharged, and two others found innocent "with no further action." The vicarious pleasure the undercover operators took in conducting their investigations did not go unnoticed by the court, which ordered that "a notation be entered in the service records" of each operator "in recognition of their interest and zeal" (61) for collecting evidence of their peers' homosexuality.

The Navy Fares Poorly in Civilian Court
Had the prosecution stopped there, no word of this weird sting might ever have reached the public. But many of the undercover operators had recorded sexual encounters with civilian gay men, and prosecutors wanted to try them as well. Charges were issued and the accused -- many of whom hired lawyers -- were tried in civilian court. This time, instead of focusing on the "immoral acts" themselves, lawyers for the accused cast a critical eye on the morality of the investigation itself.

Things really unraveled for the Navy when prosecutors sought to convict a well-liked and respected Chaplain at the Newport YMCA, Samuel Neal Kent. From the day the trial began to the day it ended (Kent was found innocent), the Providence Journal, under publisher John Rathom, one of the great practitioners of "yellow journalism," covered the proceedings, often with a critical eye toward the prosecution's case. To the vexation of defense attorneys, the young operators who were called to testify were far less candid in their verbal accounts of their sexual trysts before the civilian jury, asserting that they couldn't remember certain things -- including acts they had vividly described in their reports -- and refusing to expound on their trysts on the basis of self-incrimination.

The defense sought to exploit the irony of the case -- that the young men indulged in, on numerous occasions and with no protest, the "immoral acts" that the defendants were being prosecuted for. "You were quite willing to go into that sort of work?" defense attorney Abbott Phillips asked operator Charles McKinney:

McKinney: I was willing to do it, yes sir.

Phillips: And so willing that you volunteered for it, is that right?

McKinney: Yes, sir, I volunteered for it, yes, sir. [. . .]

Phillips: Your requirement--

[Here McKinney asks of specific acts carried out between the recruit and the men he hooked up with.]

Phillips: How many [men were there]?

McKinney: One, no there were two times . . . Yes, sir.

Phillips then referred to the records of the military court proceedings in which McKinney testified that at least four gay men had been with him. McKinney played dumb: "There may have been two, three, four. I don't recollect how many there were" (127-30).

The cross-examination of Henry Dostalik, another "volunteer," produced similar responses. He, too, had forgotten how many men he had "gone through the same sort of performance with," but thought it was three or four. When asked by Defense Attorney Rathbone Gardner why he joined the operation in the first place, and why he was willing to "go the limit" with the gay men he slept with, Dostalik said: "For the good of the cause. I saw the good of the cause in it" (133-4).

The Scandal Breaks
On January 8, 1920, Samuel Neal Kent was found innocent on all counts and freed. That's when the so-called "Newport Scandal" broke. Within days a committee of Newport clergymen drafted a lengthy denunciation of the Navy's activities in Newport in the form of a letter to President Woodrow Wilson. The letter, which was published in the Providence Journal, railed against "certain deleterious and vicious methods employed by the Navy Department." The letter put the Navy on the moral defense:

It must be evident to every thoughtful mind that the use of such vile methods cannot fail to undermine the character and ruin the morals of the unfortunate youths detailed for this duty, render no citizen of the community safe from suspicion and calumny, bring the city into unwarranted reproach, and shake the faith of the people in the wisdom and integrity of the naval administration. (157)

The national publicity of the scandal infuriated Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt, who blamed Providence Journal publisher John Rathom of muckraking. "Any mother reading the headlines would very probably hesitate before allowing her son to enlist in the Naval Service." Any average person reading the papers would think "the Navy as a whole is a pretty rotten institution, and that it is not a proper place, either on its ships or in its training camps, for young Americans to be" (165). As part of a damage-control campaign, Roosevelt appointed his close friend and naval officer Admiral Herbert O. Dunn to investigate the Newport investigation. The Dunn Inquiry opened court on January 17, 1920.

Yet again, the young operators were called upon to explain themselves. This time, however, less focus was put on the sexual acts and more on the reasons why the young men so willingly participated in them. Thirty year-old Dudley J. Marriott had described having sex with a gay Newport artist. "Why did you permit the artist to do what he did?" he was asked. "Just to save boys as that [sic] from having their morals destroyed, and also to uphold the morale of the Navy, and to eliminate men lower than beasts from a rendezvous where young boys 17 years of age are stationed," he answered. (217-18) Twenty-six year old Preston Paul told the court that the work had "materially strengthened" his morals and that, in the future, he would "be able to take these things a whole lot easier and keep away from them" (220). Charles B. Zipf affirmed that, although he didn't like the work, he "liked the principle involved too much" to leave it. (222)

Roosevelt Testifies, and the Navy is Rebuked
Roosevelt himself was called before the Inquiry on April 25. His testimony attempted to relocate blame for the scandal on the judge in the civilian trial, Hugh Baker, whom FDR called "incompetent," and on the muckraking of the Providence Journal's publisher. When asked if he would "sanction the method of having enlisted men in the Navy submit their bodies to unnatural vices to obtain evidence," FDR said, "As a matter of information, of course no." (234)

The Dunn Inquiry condemned the methods used to obtain information on Newport homosexuals. The Navy's official interpretation of its ruling was that, with a few minor exceptions, the Department was not to be held responsible for the scandal. Although FDR did not desire it, Naval Secretary Josephus Daniels ordered that letters of censure be written of the men who oversaw the undercover operation, including the one who started it all, Ervin Arnold. (249)

The investigation of the investigation didn't stop there. The Senate then formally took up the scandal. Senators Lewis H. Ball (R-Delaware), Henry W. Keyes (R-Vermont), and William H. King (D-Utah) comprised a subcommittee to deal with the scandal. Thirteen operators were called to testify, but this time around--and to the Senators' relief--they refused to detail their sexual trysts. The Senators were astounded by the scope of the operation in which young sailors had been "compelled under specific orders . . . to commit vile and shameless acts" on other sailors or had "suggested these acts be practiced upon themselves." In all, 41 sailors had been involved; ten were between the ages of 16 and 19 and the rest between 21 and 32 (264). While the subcommittee did offer a modicum of compassion for the gay enlisted men who were entrapped and sent to prison, it heaped sympathy on the "na´ve schoolboys" who were forced into this duty "because of their ignorance regarding the obedience of any order given to them by their superior" (267). The subcommittee laid full blame for the scandal on Ervin Arnold and the men who oversaw the operation.

By 1922 the anti-gay scandal had subsided and in its place were headlines of a declining economy and political corruption. The new Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby, appointed by Republican president-elect Warren Harding, in both an attempt to rectify wrongs that might have been done and put the scandal behind the Navy once and for all, ordered five gay enlisted men found guilty by the original military court on evidence of having "gone the limit" released: Frank Dye, David Goldstein, Samuel Rogers, Harold Trubshaw, and Albert Viehl. All were dishonorably discharged from the Navy a few days later.

A "Vital Chapter" in Gay American History
Newport, Murphy asserts, was the city "where the United States government conducted the most extensive systematic persecution of gays in American history" (299).

He argues that it is also a vital chapter of gay American history, one "without antecedent." The gay men's similar dress, distinctive vocabulary, and shared social activities recorded in the operators' reports suggest a society of gay life that few knew existed in turn-of-the-century America. The scandal, hence, "provides the first detailed documentary evidence in American of a distinctive homosexual community; from these small beginnings one the most important social rights movements of the twentieth century--the gay rights struggle--may trace its origins" (284).

This exhaustively researched and objectively narrated study may be hard to read for some, but it is still a valiant effort on the part of its late author to reveal a chapter in American military history many in uniform would prefer not to be read.

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