Last edited: January 01, 2005

‘Sex-Crime Panic’ Examines the Panic Surrounding Sioux City Crimes of 1954

Sioux City Journal, March 15, 2002
515 Pavonia Street, Sioux City, IA 51102
Fax: 712-279-5059

By John Quinlan

Hindsight is 20/20.

A sermon last Sunday by a perceptive priest at my church accurately dismissed this notion as a pile of dog doodoo, though his words were a bit gentler.

People, for example, like to talk about the 1950s, the Eisenhower Era, as a time of peace and prosperity, somehow forgetting the day-to-day horrors of the Cold War and the Red Scare and the way people routinely treated "Negroes" and "homosexuals"—those being the kinder terms applied to those minorities back then. Nasty names starting with "N" and "Q" were in everyday use along with other variations that would cause even Archie Bunker to blush. Yet these were the "good old days."

A fellow named Neil Miller, a freelance journalist who specializes in gay and lesbian issues, takes a look at those good old days, the 1950s, in Sioux City specifically, and the result is a disquieting little book garishly titled "Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s." (Alyson Books, $14.95)

Following the brutal 1954 murders of two children in Sioux City—Jimmy Bremmers, 8, and Donna Sue Davis, 22 months—the cry went up to rid Siouxland of its sex maniacs and "sexual deviates."

The police, in an attempt to quell public hysteria, arrested 20 men whom the authorities never claimed had anything to do with the crimes. Their crime was simply ... being homosexuals. Labeled as sexual psychopaths under an Iowa law that lumped homosexuals together with child molesters and murderers, the men were sentenced to the state mental hospital at Mount Pleasant for an indefinite time, until they were "cured"—electric shock being part of the treatment prescribed in 1954.

The fellows in need of a cure included a management trainee at Kresge’s downtown, a cosmetology student, the owner of a beauty salon in Kingsley, a man who ran a hair salon in Sioux Falls, a dance teacher at Arthur Murray’s in Sioux City and a salesman at the Younker-Davidson department store.

"For a moment it seemed as if all the hairdressers and window dressers from northwest Iowa were there to welcome them," Miller wrote of the introduction to Mount Pleasant of its two latest patients. It sounds funny but for the fact that it’s basically true. What happened to these 20 men is a tragic travesty.

Miller obviously put a lot of research into the book, interviewing the formerly incarcerated men, the police officials, lawyers, Mount Pleasant staffers and even relatives of the murder victims; and it’s safe to say that many of them don’t come off in the best light here, particularly one of the police officers who reveled in his entrapment of the day’s gay men. Woodbury County Attorney Donald O’Brien, who later went on to become a prominent judge, also comes off as a less than admirable character. On the plus side, a couple of the people who worked at Mount Pleasant seemed remarkably enlightened for that time.

It’s safe to say the narrow thinking (more from ignorance than anything) that dominated Sioux City in those days was no different than the fear and prejudice found elsewhere in the country.

Miller provides enough information on the infamous murders to clearly demonstrate that the 20 men incarcerated at Mount Pleasant had absolutely nothing to do with their deaths. The story of prime murder suspect Ernest Triplett, whose apparent deviant behavior fired the fuels that targeted the homosexual community, is clearly presented, owing much to Robert Bartels’ incisive book on that case, "Benefit of Law."

The attitudes found in Sioux City in 1954 won’t come as a shock to anyone under 50 years of age, but it could prove a real eye-opener for everyone else. What happened to these men, as thoughtfully detailed in "Sex-Crime Panic," should never happen again.

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