Last edited: January 01, 2005

Book Review: Shedding Light on a 1950s Antigay ‘Panic’

Boston Globe, June 13, 2002
Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107
Fax: 617-929-2098

By Jonathan Shipley, Globe Correspondent

  • Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s, By Neil Miller; Alyson, 313 pp., paperback $14.95

The 1950s were a seemingly innocent time in America. Men were home from war, reconnecting with their families or creating new ones. Everyone was listening to Elvis Presley’s new hit, "That’s All Right." Studebaker Commanders and Chevy Belairs were parked in driveways. It was a time when many neighborhoods felt safe and people felt comfortable leaving their doors and windows unlocked.

By the mid-1950s, the Korean War was over, but other battles raged across the country. Even while fans were cheering for black athlete Ernie Banks on the baseball field, civil-rights issues were taking center stage, and Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka had to go all the way to the Supreme Court. While people flocked to the movie "Roman Holiday," based on a story by Dalton Trumbo, Senator Joseph McCarthy accelerated his anti-Communist witch hunt, and Trumbo was one man he targeted, getting him blacklisted from Hollywood. And in Sioux City, Iowa, following the brutal murders of two children, police, to quell public hysteria, arrested 20 homosexual men as "sexual deviates," even though the authorities never claimed they had anything to do with the crimes. Neil Miller’s book "Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s" is a disturbing and well-researched book of that time.

Miller, a journalist and author of "Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present" and "In Search of Gay America," focuses on the men’s ordeals and the murders that led to their arrests. In August 1954, 8-year-old Jimmy Bremmers of Sioux City disappeared. He was later found outside the city limits near an old rural road. Had he been kidnapped by a "sex fiend," as a local newspaper conjectured? Nearly a year later, 22-month-old Donna Sue Davis was abducted, raped, and murdered. Sioux City was in an uproar. The police force was under pressure to arrest someone, do something. So in September 1955, it rounded up 20 gay men from Sioux City and the surrounding area, window dressers and hairdressers, retailers and clerks, residents of their town, and placed them in a locked ward of a state mental hospital until February and March 1956, when they were pronounced "cured" and released. As a result of "sexual psychopath" laws that were passed and enacted in more than 20 states between 1947 and 1955, this sort of miscarriage of justice could, and did, happen.

Interviewing the men who were incarcerated, as well as law enforcement officials, lawyers, mental health staff, and relatives of the murder victims, Miller pieces together their disparate stories and paints a vivid and thorough portrait of Sioux City in the grip of antigay hysteria. As in such recent books as Beth Loffreda’s "Losing Matt Shepard," Dina Temple-Raston’s "A Death in Texas," and Stewart O’Nan’s "The Circus Fire," the author constructs a taut narrative that keeps the reader turning the pages of a story that involves the most unfortunate of circumstances: fear, sadness, misunderstanding, death.

When one puts a name to a victim, the story becomes that much more powerful and meaningful. Miller does just that, telling us about men such as Bernie McMorris, who was rounded up, a beauty-shop owner who had a wife and three children; police officer Richard Burke, who relished sting operations to catch local homosexuals; Ernest Triplett, whose conviction for Bremmers’s murder was overturned in 1972 when it was discovered that the police had given him large quantities of drugs to elicit his confession; and attorney Donald O’Brien, who petitioned the court to declare the men sexual psychopaths (a label that lumped together gays with child molesters and murderers).

It is a story that, hopefully, won’t be repeated, but as Miller writes, "Public fears and anxieties can lead to the enactment of bad laws, and laws enacted in an atmosphere of fear and anxiety can lead to even worse consequences. No one can say for sure that what happened in Sioux City in the 1950s couldn’t happen again, in a different form, perhaps to a different group of people." Miller sheds a bright light on those dark days in Iowa—not quite the placid time we like to think back on fondly.

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