Guilty Until Proven Straight
After Two Children Were Brutally Murdered, Police Incarcerated 22
Innocent Men in a Mental Hospital. Their Crime? They Were Gay.
February 7-14, 2002
126 Brookline Ave., Boston, MA 02215
By Neil Miller
It was late in the afternoon on the last Thursday in September, 1955. The
sedan in which they were passengers turned off a two-lane highway outside a
small town in the hilly country of southeast Iowa, near Burlington. The
automobile continued down a drive lined with shade trees. For a moment it had
seemed as if it were the approach to an English country house, one like they
had seen in the movies—the gracious avenue, the well-tended lawns, the
benches dotting the grounds. But that was not the case. Instead the car halted
in front of a stark, four-story concrete structure whose institutional wings
twisted behind in either direction.
Doug Thorson and Duane Wheeler emerged from the rear of the automobile and
were led through an inconspicuous side entrance into the main building of the
Mount Pleasant State Mental Hospital.
The men had been traveling all day from Sioux City. They hadn’t eaten
throughout the entire 10-hour journey, permitted to stop only to go to the
bathroom. Doug and Duane carried no suitcases. They were dressed in the same
clothes they had been wearing the day they had been arrested three weeks
before, charged with conspiracy to commit a felony.
In Sioux City, Doug had been a management trainee at S.S. Kresge, the
five-and-10 cent store downtown on 4th Street, and Duane had been a student at
Marie Ellis’s School of Cosmetology. But that counted for little now. In the
admissions area, on the first floor of the hospital, a doctor was asking them
the standard series of questions that was asked of all incoming mental
"Do you know what your name is?"
"Do you know where you are?"
"Do you know what the date is?"
"Do you hear voices?"
He spoke in a Slavic-sounding accent so thick that the young men could
barely make out a word.
The doctor seemed satisfied with their answers and scribbled down the same
diagnosis for both of them: "Sociopathic personality disturbance. Sexual
Doug and Duane were outfitted with the state-issue clothing worn by all
male mental patients: blue jeans and blue work shirts. An attendant dressed in
white—except for black shoes, black belt, and a black bow tie—ordered them
to come with him. A large key ring jangled as he walked.
They went by elevator to the third floor. The attendant unlocked a heavy
wooden door. He led the two men down a long corridor, where they were
surrounded by patients in various stages of undress who looked as if they’d
been there forever. The walls were smeared with excrement. The smell was
ghastly—a combination of urine and feces and disinfectant. It was the
"untidy ward," where psychotic men who had regressed to a near
infantile state were housed.
At the end of the corridor, they halted at another door. The attendant
fumbled with the keys, unlocked it, and they found themselves in a second ward
that was similar in layout to the first. Again, men crowded around them. But
this time they were men whom Doug and Duane knew or had seen before. There was
a man who owned the House of Beauty in Kingsley, Iowa, and another who ran a
hair salon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. There was a dance teacher at Arthur
Murray’s in Sioux City and a salesman who worked at the Younker-Davidson
department store, next door to Kresge’s. For a moment it seemed as if all
the hairdressers and window dressers from northwest Iowa were there to welcome
them. Doug and Duane had reached their final destination—15 East, the sexual
They were there because they were homosexuals, "sexual deviates"
in the popular language of the time. They were among 20 men from Sioux City
and the surrounding towns who had been rounded up and declared to be criminal
sexual psychopaths and sentenced to the state mental hospital at Mount
Pleasant for an indefinite period of time—until they were "cured."
They were there because in Sioux City, a little boy named Jimmy Bremmers and a
little girl named Donna Sue Davis were dead: victims of two terrible sex
crimes. These men had nothing to do with those crimes; the authorities never
claimed they did. However, in Sioux City, indeed in the entire state of Iowa,
the public was clamoring for action. Something had to be done. So Doug and
Duane and the other men were arrested and put in a locked ward in a mental
hospital far from Sioux City. They were scapegoats in a "sex crime
Two and a half months before, in Washington, D.C., when FBI Director J.
Edgar Hoover was informed of the sadistic nature of the murder of 18 month-old
Donna Sue Davis, he was said to have responded simply, "Get him!"
And "get him" was what the police and the FBI were determined to
do. The FBI regional office in Omaha joined the Sioux City police in directing
the investigation, practically taking over a floor of the federal building
downtown. Some 20 to 30 FBI officers came into town; agents were paired up
with Sioux City police officers. (The FBI became involved because the body had
been found across the state line in Nebraska.) "I never saw better police
work than in the Donna Sue Davis case, not even the Lindbergh
kidnapping," one Sioux City lawyer close to the case would say later....
Woodbury County Attorney (District Attorney) Don O’Brien had never seen
the FBI more involved than in the Davis case. "They were constantly
bringing people in," he said. "Richard Tedrow was the court reporter
and the FBI had him taking statements. They took statements from half the
people in town." Suspects who didn’t have a reasonable alibi were sent
to Des Moines, the state capital, for lie detector tests; later a polygraph
was set up in the federal building in Sioux City. Don Doyle, a state
legislator from Sioux City at the time, noted that the police and the FBI
"questioned every neighbor, anyone ever arrested for anything." Two
years after the Davis murder, Doyle received a phone call from a constituent
who told him that his son had been turned down for admission to Officer
Candidates School because he had been questioned in the Davis case. There had
been no evidence against the young man, and the police had only interrogated
him on one occasion; it was just that practically everyone was questioned....
As the week dragged on, despite the zeal of the FBI and the Sioux City
police and despite the large number of people brought in for questioning, the
case was going nowhere. An Indiana man wanted on a parole violation was held
for four days in Dubuque and then let go when it was confirmed that he hadn’t
even been in Sioux City on the weekend of the kidnapping. Two other men who
had been held in other cities were dismissed as suspects as well. In Sioux
City, the police arrested a 19-year-old Kansas man and charged him with
lascivious acts with a child. But since nothing was found to link him with
Donna Sue’s murder, he was released on bond.
With the murderer still at large, the citizens of Sioux City and
neighboring towns remained extremely tense. Parents refused to let their
children out of their sight. Numerous people called the police to report
neighborhood prowlers. When officers arrived to investigate, they were met by
irate citizens carrying loaded off-safety shotguns and other firearms. There
were several cases of Sioux Cityans firing guns into the air to "scare
off" possible marauders. When a South Sioux City man returned home from a
meeting that had kept him out until 11 p.m., he found his wife sitting
anxiously in the living room, a rifle at her side....
In Sunday sermons, some Sioux City ministers used the murder of Donna Sue
as a lesson in the evils of improper attire. One pastor asked women to avoid
appearing on the streets in scanty dress that was appropriate "possibly
only on the beach." Another urged parents to see that their children were
properly dressed; certain types of attire created by "pagan
designers" might arouse the passions and baser instincts of "sex
maniacs." Whether the minister believed that Donna Sue Davis’ pink
pajamas fit that category was unclear....
It wasn’t enough merely to find the killer of Donna Sue Davis. What was
needed was a means of stopping such men before they murdered and raped and
sodomized. And suddenly, talk of Iowa’s sexual psychopath law—a law few
people had paid any attention to when the governor had signed it a few months
before—was on everyone’s lips.
On January 31, 1955, five months to the day after the abduction of Jimmy
Bremmers and five months before the murder of Donna Sue Davis, a group of
legislators introduced a bill in the Iowa House of Representatives whose
purpose was "to provide for the confinement of persons who are dangerous
criminal sexual psychopaths." Two of the four sponsors—Representatives
Jacob Van Zwol and Wendell Pendleton—represented counties near Sioux City
and were obviously aware of the public outrage over the young boy’s death.
Under the legislation, anyone charged with a public offense and who possessed
"criminal propensities toward the commission of sex offenses" could
be declared by the local county attorney to be a criminal sexual psychopath.
The county attorney would submit a petition to that effect, a hearing would
take place, and a judge could then commit the accused person to a state mental
hospital. There, the person would be detained and treated indefinitely or
until he was certified as "cured." The bill essentially amounted to
In introducing such a bill, the legislators proposed that Iowa join 25
other states and the District of Columbia, which had all enacted such
legislation, usually in the aftermath of vicious sex crimes.
The term sexual psychopath was invented in the 1930s, according to Estelle
B. Freedman, a historian who has studied and written on the subject. During
this period, American criminologists became interested in the link between
sexual abnormality and sex crimes. Increasingly, the male "sexual
deviant" was a subject of social concern, particularly as a threat to
children. It was the Great Depression, and jobless men roamed the countryside,
hopping freights and wandering into unfamiliar towns in search of work or a
free meal. The traditional social structures that had kept such men in check
were crumbling. Enter the notion of the sexual psychopath. "From the
origin of the concept, the psychopath had been perceived as a drifter, an
unemployed man who lived beyond the boundaries of familial and social
controls," Freedman wrote in her essay, "‘Uncontrolled Desires’:
The Response to the Sexual Psychopath, 1920-1960." "Unemployed men
and vagabonds populated the Depression-era landscape, signaling actual family
dissolution and symbolizing potential social and political disruption."
The drifter had acquired a sexual dimension, and a new and sinister category
of criminal was born....
The atmosphere of fear and paranoia that characterized America in 1950s
gave the sex crime panics of that decade a particular flavor and intensity.
The Cold War was at its height, Sen. Joseph McCarthy was engaged in his
campaign against domestic subversion, and national attention was focused on
the "enemy within." At the same time, much of the anxiety of the
period centered around the most vulnerable of souls: children. The polio
epidemic was a major source of concern for parents, and the most commonplace
locales—public swimming pools, for instance—took on a menacing quality.
The 953 cases in Woodbury County (Sioux City) in 1952—out of 60,000 in the
entire nation that year—underscored how widespread the epidemic was,
particularly in the Midwest.
At the same time, to even the most casual reader of the Sioux City Journal,
America was a country characterized by almost daily incidents of missing
children, child kidnappings, and child murders....
Iowa Governor Leo Hoegh moved quickly to respond to the public clamor....
At [a] July 23 meeting, the governor announced that the state was establishing
a special ward for criminal sexual psychopaths. The ward would be set up at
the state mental hospital at Mount Pleasant, in the southeast corner of the
state. Mount Pleasant was selected because of its proximity to the University
of Iowa hospitals in Iowa City, where psychiatrists were available. Dr.
Charles C. Graves, director of mental health services for the Board of
Control, [the state agency that governed Iowa’s mental hospitals] suggested
the ward could also be used for a "personality research" project, in
cooperation with state colleges.
Some at the meeting expressed skepticism, which wasn’t entirely
surprising because the Board of Control had originally opposed the sexual
psychopath bill at the time it was introduced. When the board’s chairman
asked how many people he and his colleagues should prepare for in the new
ward, Hoegh randomly picked the number 25. "When we get 15, we’ll start
thinking of the next 25," the governor said.... "The guy I want to
treat," he said, is the sex deviate "who is now roaming the street
but never committed a crime." This statement would have enormous
By the end of September 1955, two and a half months after Donna Sue’s
murder, a total of 22 men had been arrested for morals offenses, almost all
from Sioux City and nearby towns. Seventeen pled guilty to "conspiracy to
commit a felony," the lesser version of a sodomy charge. Another four
pled guilty to "lascivious acts with a child." Still another pled
guilty to possession of obscene books and pictures. And if there remains some
question as to whether County Attorney O’Brien authorized the roundup, one
thing is clear: he did petition the court to certify the men as sexual
Within days of the arrests, Woodbury County District Court judges George W.
Prichard and L.B. Forsling acceded to the county attorney’s request,
sentencing the men to Mount Pleasant Hospital for an indefinite period. All
but two eventually went to the mental hospital....
For Harold McBride, perhaps more than any of the rest of the 20 men,
incarceration was extremely difficult. A hairdresser from the town of Kingsley
who had admitted to Sioux City police that he had sex with other men, Harold
worried about his wife Glenda and their three children. He had lost his
license to cut hair, a consequence of pleading guilty to a felony. He watched
despairingly as his wife was forced to sell his business, put their furniture
in storage, and moved herself and the children out of their Kingsley apartment
to stay with his family in Woodward, near Des Moines. And, in his darkest
moments he was convinced he would never get out of Mount Pleasant. "My
life was shattered," Harold said 40 years later. "It was gone. I was
devastated and scared to death. I didn’t know what was going to
As time passed, even Harold McBride began to adapt to Mount Pleasant. Once
the doors locked behind the men and the immediate shock of being there passed,
more than anything, life at the hospital was boring. Like the regular mental
patients, they would march through the tunnels to breakfast every morning.
They’d clean their ward and do some assigned work. On some days, there would
be group therapy. They’d go to lunch. In the afternoon, there would be more
work to do or, for some, a couple of hours of occupational therapy—leathercraft
or woodworking. Evenings were mostly given over to writing letters or playing
cards or reading two-year-old magazines.
Harold and his friend Gene Bergstrom passed the hours discussing what they
would do once they got out, conversations that cemented a friendship that
would endure until Gene’s death many years later. Gene talked about moving
to California. Harold indulged him in this idea but really wasn’t sure about
it for himself. Glenda and the kids had just moved to Woodward, and he was
reluctant to uproot them yet again. And the question remained, hovering over
every conversation: would they ever get out of Mount Pleasant at all? Unlike
most of the prisoners at the state penitentiary at Fort Madison, just down the
road, they didn’t have a release date to look forward to. And, for the
moment, Harold and Gene didn’t even have their driver’s licenses, since
those had been revoked when they were sentenced.
In the day room, Doug Thorson and Duane Wheeler played bridge. For Doug,
bridge playing was partly a matter of pride; he thought that it "threw
the attendants clear off" that men labeled as sexual psychopaths had the
intelligence to play such a cerebral and complicated game. It was a small
consolation, but then all the consolations at Mount Pleasant were small ones.
At mealtimes, the men from 15 East ate with the regular mental patients at
large round oak tables in the first-floor dining room. Everyone stood in line
waiting for their portions, cafeteria style. Some of the patients threw food
or had fits or convulsions; sometimes fights broke out. One day, while waiting
in line for his lunch, one of the mental patients unzipped his trousers and
began to masturbate; the attendants took him away. Except for the occasional
argument, there was little conversation in the dining room.
One morning after breakfast, the men in 15 East were marched to a ward on
another floor, where the hospital had a special work assignment for them. They
were given buckets and paint brushes. Their job, they were told, was to paint
the wards on the men’s side of the hospital. So began their major task at
Mount Pleasant. Each day they would paint a different ward until they had
completed them all. They’d start at one end and proceed down the ward, room
by room, leaving the corridor for last. The color was an institutional beige
or gray. In the "untidy" ward, prep work consisted of scraping feces
off the walls. While each ward was being painted, the patients who lived there
were removed for the day. The painting was very much in line with Mount
Pleasant’s policy of using patients to perform menial tasks; it also
reflected the hospital’s uncertainty about what to do with the men from the
special ward. There was another motive too: it kept the men in 15 East
isolated and away from the other patients.
Some of the men were happy for the occupation. In Harold’s case, the
painting helped take his mind off his worries and it made time pass. Others
felt exploited. "Therapy, they called it," sneered Doug. "It
was cheap labor."
The attendants watched them closely. The men were never alone; they couldn’t
go anywhere in the hospital without an attendant to accompany them. The head
of the painting crew never left two of them alone in a room. In later years,
Doug was surprised to see a photograph of [psychologist] Roy Yamahiro’s
therapy group outdoors on the grounds; Doug and the others who weren’t in
Roy’s group never had the opportunity to go out of the main building....
Despite initial misgivings, most of the ward attendants treated them
decently. There was one exception, however: Jim Blackwell, a former prison
guard whom patients remembered as a man with steel-gray hair, wire-rimmed
spectacles, beady eyes, and a rough manner; he was particularly nasty, even
sadistic. Years later Doug would shudder at the thought of him. "He was a
real SOB," Doug said. "He would try and catch you on any small
detail to get you in trouble. You would be playing cards and you would put a
card down and your hand might fall on someone else’s—purely innocent—and
he’d report it. ‘I’ll make you men even if you aren’t men,’ he’d
The only break in the monotony came with the movies every Tuesday night and
the dances every Friday. These took place at the gym, on the second floor. A
balcony overlooked the gym; the staff could sit there and watch the
entertainment, as well. The movies were generally of high quality and
relatively current. There was Frank Sinatra and Doris Day in Young at Heart,
the 1954 musical remake of a Fannie Hurst novel about the romantic
entanglements of four small-town sisters. Another was Hondo, a Western
starring John Wayne, James Arness, and Ward Bond. The men in 15 East found
that there was nothing quite like watching a movie in a mental hospital.
Toward the middle of Young at Heart, a perky Doris Day tells a morose and
self-pitying musician, played by Frank Sinatra, "All I know is that there
is a straitjacket waiting with your number on it!" And the patients at
Mount Pleasant just roared with laughter.
But the Friday night dances were the true highlight of the week. The
dances, bringing together patients and staff, also attracted townspeople from
Mount Pleasant who watched from the balcony. Everyone looked forward to them.
For these occasions, patients were permitted to wear their own clothes, not
state issue, and this was a big deal: it gave the impression of normal life.
On Friday afternoon, the men in 15 East were handed their street clothes; they
wrapped them around the steam pipes to make sure they were neatly pressed by
the time the dance started. Female patients put on makeup. Then the much
awaited moment arrived. The male patients stood on one side of the gym, and
the women on the other; attendants and their wives sat on the stage. It was
easy to pick out the men from 15 East—they dressed more stylishly than
everyone else. Everybody mixed in; doctors’ wives danced with male patients
and male ward attendants with female patients.
That year they danced to songs like "Blue Moon," "Lullaby of
Birdland," "Shine on, Harvest Moon," and the "Hesitation
Waltz," Harold remembers. The music was mostly waltzes and two-steps.
There were a few jitterbugs but not many. It was believed that faster music,
more frenetic rhythms, might get the patients too riled up.
Harold, a good dancer, had a regular dance partner—the wife of a ward
attendant who was on duty when the dances took place. The expectation was that
the men from the sexual psychopath ward would ask some of the female mental
patients to dance; in fact, they were told to do so. Doug was never sure
whether a dance partner was going to fall down in the middle of "Blue
Moon" or throw up all over him or kick him in the stomach. The Sioux City
group gave the female patients special names, usually after show-biz
personalities. There was one they called Greta Garbo; she looked and behaved
just like her—remote, mysterious, somehow alluring. It was said she had
killed her mother. Another was dubbed Betty Hutton—foul-mouthed but
otherwise pleasant. Then there was Tillie, a middle-aged, heavy-set woman
whose hair was chopped off and who always showed up at the dances in a house
dress. She was charmed by Billy Ivers, the youngest of the patients in 15
East. As soon as the music started, she would make a beeline for Billy, who
did his best to be gracious....
During this period, the dances at Mount Pleasant began to be much talked
about, both at the hospital and in the town, particularly because of the
musical abilities of the men from 15 East who made up the patient dance band.
"They were our orchestra," a woman who worked as a transcriptionist
at the time said of the men in the special ward. "They were as good an
orchestra as you could find today." The band was led by Lloyd Madsen, who
had played the organ professionally before being sent to Mount Pleasant. There
was a violin, a trumpet, an accordion, a piano, and always, Lloyd on the
The story went that Lloyd had been arrested in the middle of a performance
at the Cobblestone Ballroom, at Lake Okoboji, a popular resort in northern
Iowa. It was just like a movie: The police entered the ballroom, the music
stopped, and he was taken away to jail in Fort Dodge and sentenced to Mount
Pleasant as a sexual psychopath. Lloyd had been involved with a young doctor
in Fort Dodge, who subsequently left town. (A Fort Dodge dentist recalled that
the doctor had a "gorgeous convertible" and that he let Lloyd borrow
it. That’s when the dentist said he knew "something was up.")
Lloyd, 23, was tall and stocky and very talented musically. He had a number of
privileges that the other men on the sexual psychopath ward didn’t have. He
was frequently allowed out of the ward to practice and often permitted to
dress in street clothes. Although Lloyd successfully avoided most of the
painting details, the other men in 15 East didn’t resent him, since his
success reflected well on everyone in the ward. Lloyd was the favorite of
Harold Craig, the music therapist, and, above all, of Dr. Monroe Fairchild,
the recently arrived chief psychologist....
Fairchild and Craig concocted a scheme to have Lloyd play the organ at
lunch and dinner. They had a speaker system installed in the patient dining
room. The idea was therapeutic—to soothe the patients, especially at a time
of day when some tended to act out and get into trouble. But it may also have
been a way to make Lloyd’s life easier, to get him out of the ward so he
could practice and perform every day. It was also a way they could spend more
time with him.
Whatever their motives, Mount Pleasant must have been among the few state
mental institutions in the country where the patients enjoyed live, piped-in
music at mealtimes. Later, after Lloyd left and the sexual psychopath ward was
shut down, not only did the music at lunch and dinner come to an end, but the
dances stopped too. The orchestra had made the dances so good that once the
men in 15 East were gone, no one was interested anymore.
By late October the ward was becoming overcrowded. There were 35 people in
a space intended for 20. And there was only one bathtub. The Sioux City
contingent made up the majority, but there were others too: homosexual men
from other parts of the state, a couple of pedophiles, a cross-dresser, and a
prisoner sent over from nearby Fort Madison.
Social worker Jackie Yamahiro, who saw the Sioux City men when they were
first admitted and took their medical and family histories, began to see
changes in them. Initially they were depressed, scared, anxious. They didn’t
know what was going to happen to them or how long they would have to remain at
the hospital. Once they settled down and realized what life was going to be
like at Mount Pleasant, they began to express varying degrees of anger and
resentment. But overall, Jackie never saw as much anger as she had expected.
There was a certain passivity about the men, a passivity that may have had to
do in part with being gay in the 1950s. By and large, they seemed to accept
their fates, and, somewhere in the back of their minds, perhaps they thought
they deserved them.
Personal Note from Fenceberry:
We got to know Neil Miller when he came to Sioux City, where we were living
at the time, to do research for his book. We saw one of the articles Neil
unearthed that listed some of the men who had been picked up as "sexual
deviates" and sent to Mount Pleasant. It turned out that two of them were
men that we knew. One was currently working in the county jail as a Sheriff’s
Deputy. He had always been friendly to us when we saw him at the local gay
bar. Not yet knowing that he was one of the ones who had been picked up, we
called him on Neil’s behalf, just asking if he knew anything about this
aspect of Sioux City history. He was very short with us and got off the phone
as quickly as he could. After that he wouldn’t look us in the eye in public,
and he changed his phone number. Without realizing it, we must have frightened
him a great deal by reopening this episode that he thought was long over. The
other man that we knew from the list of detainees did agree to talk to Neil.
Another interesting thing happened when Neil came to our house for dinner
one evening. He was showing us some of the news articles from the 1950s that
he had gathered in his research. We were looking at the ones about the
abduction and murder of Donna Sue Davis when we realized that the address
mentioned was very close to our house. In fact, the house from which Donna Sue
Davis was kidnapped was right next door to ours. One of the news articles had
a photo of the window of Donna Sue’s bedroom which the kidnapper had
entered, and we could look out our kitchen window and see the exact same view
of Donna Sue’s bedroom window as shown in the photograph. We could see the
children of the current occupants of the house playing in the yard, and it was
a very creepy feeling to visualize what must have once happened in that house.
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