Last edited: December 18, 2004

Guilty Until Proven Straight

After Two Children Were Brutally Murdered, Police Incarcerated 22 Innocent Men in a Mental Hospital. Their Crime? They Were Gay.

Boston Phoenix, February 7-14, 2002
126 Brookline Ave., Boston, MA 02215
Fax: 617-536-1463

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 patients:

"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 deviation (Homosexuality)."

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 psychopath ward.

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 panic." ...

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 preventive detention.

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 consequences....

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 psychopaths.

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 happen." ...

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 say."

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 organ.

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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