Q & A with INDECENT ADVANCES author James Polchin

June 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Have we forgotten that the image of a queer man in the U.S. in the decades leading up to Stonewall was the image of a dangerous sex deviant and criminal? Why is a book like INDECENT ADVANCES necessary now?

I don’t think we have forgotten, but we certainly have lost a sense of how acute the idea of queer criminality was in the decades before Stonewall. We have not escaped ideas of queer people as dangerous or threatening to society, even after achieving certain political and legal gains in the last fifty years. Queer people continue to experience the effects of this history, such as in housing and workplace discrimination, as victims of violent attacks, and in the forcing of adults and children into the harsh practices of conversion therapy. I would hope INDECENT ADVANCES reminds us of how pervasive and impactful the criminalizing of queers was across the medical and legal professions and the media when there was little political organizing against such ideas.

What inspired you to write INDECENT ADVANCES?

Several years ago, I came across a set of scrapbooks by Carl Van Vechten, a writer and photographer in the early and midcentury who was committed to the aesthetics of modernism and a vital advocate for African American writers and artists. He was also an avid collector of cultural ephemera. The scrapbooks, which Van Vechten had sealed from the public until thirty years after his death in 1964, were a queer collage of magazine and newspaper images and headlines, erotic photographs of naked men, and advertisements for drag balls in the 1920s and 1930s. They tell a story of queer life in the era. But within these scrapbooks were also true crime stories clipped from the newspapers. Often they were just small stories where the queer subtext was coded or hidden between the lines. While I knew of the drag balls and other cultural experiences that the scrapbooks collected, I wasn’t aware of the crime stories. These stories provoked me to think about how newspaper crime pages fit into the history of queer experience.

How were you able to uncover so many queer true crime stories in newspapers across the country when many never printed the word “homosexual”?

One of the many challenges—and fascinations—of the research for this book was all the historical sleuthing it required. In the decades before Stonewall, the press didn’t use words like “gay” or “queer.” To find stories of queer victims, I had to use a number of search terms and read between the lines to find the queer subtext. In the search, which included more than seventy-five different publications, I would use such terms as “man found slain in hotel” or “man found beaten in park” or “sailor found murdered.” I would sift through pages and pages of articles searching for a crime that showed clues of a queer subtext—the relationship between killer and victim, location of the murder, how the two met, what—if anything—was revealed in the confession of the assailant. From these leads, I would then do a search for the name of the victim or killer, and this usually brought up a host of articles about the initial crime and arrests, articles about the trial months or years after the crime. I would search across different newspapers and print publications—national magazines, bigcity dailies, tabloids, regional newspapers—to gather as much about the crime in the press as possible. I would also search articles in the victims’ hometown newspapers, trying to piece together as much as I could about the victims themselves. This whole process required the eye of a detective and a constant curiosity about some really awful and brutal crimes.

What was the most shocking queer true crime you uncovered? Why?

There were so many shocking ones—both in the nature of the violence but also in how the crime was dealt with by the prosecution and the courts. One example was the trial of Kenneth Neu for two brutal murders in 1933—Lawrence Shead, a young theater manager in New Jersey, and Sheffield Clark, a well-respected, sixty-seven-year-old married businessman from Tennessee who was visiting New Orleans when he met Neu and invited him to his hotel room for a drink. An attractive singer—the press called him the “killer crooner”— Neu was the image of a matinee idol and a real-life criminal psychopath. He clearly charmed his two victims, hoping to extort money from each. When he was arrested in New Jersey, he was wearing clothes from both his victims, something he would do at his trial, as well. Neu confessed to Shead’s killing, claiming self-defense against Shead’s “indecent advances.” Because of this defense, which made a conviction harder in New Jersey, he was tried in New Orleans. He pleaded insanity for the murder of Clark, a defense the prosecution countered by referencing his earlier crime, arguing that Neu was clearly sane given his violent response to Shead’s sexual solicitations. It was . a disturbing moment in a disturbing case in which the killing of a man because of his flirtation with another man was evidence of the killer’s sanity. While Neu was found guilty of murder and executed in New Orleans in 1936, it was just one highly sensationalized crime that equated brutal violence and insanity with homosexual encounters in the public imagination.

Talk about the Kinsey study of sexuality, published in 1948. Did it ultimately help or hurt public perception of homosexuals?

Without a doubt, Kinsey’s study of male homosexuality had a huge impact on ideas about queer criminality. For the first time, you had this very public and very visible conversation and debate about the nature of homosexuality in American society. Kinsey’s findings that homosexual practices occurred across all classes, races, and ages, and from cities to farms, raised doubts about earlier theories that argued homosexuality was an aberrant behavior among a minority of men. In showing Americans how pervasive homosexual practices were, the study also made uncertain the idea that homosexuality was easily identified. Like the threat of communists hiding in plain sight, Kinsey’s study showed how anyone could have engaged in homosexual practices, casting doubt on the solid boundaries between normal and abnormal men. For some, this reality only confirmed the prevalence of same-sex behavior in post–World War II America, while for others it provoked even more concern that homosexuality was a threatening uncertainty in society that needed more direct effort to contain it. Beyond these dichotomies, Kinsey’s study established a fairly new and radical idea about the private life of homosexuality. For decades, queer men were criminalized for the threat they posed to social order and public life. But Kinsey argued that homosexual practices among consenting adults in private caused little public harm. It was this idea that would fuel the gay rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Is it true that Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were involved in a notorious queer crime story in the ’40s?

In September 1944, Kerouac was arrested as an accessory to the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr in New York’s Riverside Park. It was the first time Kerouac’s name appeared in the newspaper. Carr was only nineteen when he took a knife to the thirty-one-year-old Kammerer in the early morning hours, dragging his body into the Hudson River and pushing it downstream. It would surface a few days later after Carr had already confessed to the crime. Kerouac was a friend of Carr’s—he helped him dispose of the Boy Scout knife used in the murder and convinced him to go to the police, claiming the murder was in self-defense. The story was front-page news in New York and Carr’s native St. Louis. It also circulated via the Associated Press wire, making headlines in small-town papers around the country. Kammerer had been obsessed with Carr since the two had met many years earlier in St. Louis. It was Kammerer who introduced fellow St. Louis native William S. Burroughs not only to Carr, but also to Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, forming the group that would become known as the Beat writers. The murder had a profound effect on all of the men. Carr was sentenced to eighteen months in a youth reformatory, and never spoke of the crime again. Kerouac and Burroughs wrote a novel based on the crime, though the book was never published in their lifetimes. Kerouac later recounted in his fictionalized memoir, Vanity of Duluoz, how the detectives questioned him, bringing in good-looking male inmates to flirt with him. The whole case of Kammerer’s murder depended on whether Carr and his friends were homosexual or if Carr was a victim of Kammerer’s perverse sexual advances. The crime underscored the simmering anxieties around masculinity, art, and homosexuality that would continue through so much of the Beats’ writings. As one historian has noted, Kammerer’s murder gave birth to the Beats.

The story of men who kill a homosexual in a violent struggle and then cite in their defense that the homosexual made “indecent advances” toward them recurs throughout the book. Do we still see this defense today?

The killers of queer men had for much of the twentieth century used this defense to gain acquittal or a lesser sentence. Such a defense relied on what the law defines as the “reasonable man” standard—what would a reasonable man have done if another man made a sexual solicitation? The idea that a reasonable man would react with such murderous violence toward another man betrays the bias of the law. Whatever happened between the killer and victim was only known through the defendant’s testimony. When it came to the killing of queer men, claims of “improper” or “indecent advances” were powerful ones to tap into the biases of the jury about homosexuality—even if the motive was robbery or something else. Though some states today have banned this defense, it’s still possible in most states to claim a man’s flirtation was the cause of the defendant’s violent and deadly rage.

Many of these crimes involve married men — how do they fit into the queer experience of crime since they lived more outwardly conventional heterosexual lives?

This was a constant reality in the research. So many of the victims lived as heterosexual men, making their murders even more shocking for their friends and family. This fact speaks to a particular thread of queer history that is often ignored. We might call them closeted gay men today, but I think that would limit the complexities of these stories and the lives of the victims, for it denies a range of sexual expressions. In many ways, these crime stories show us how the criminalization of homosexuality affected all kinds of men, not just those who lived their lives as gay men. They also remind us that, however much we might try, the categories between gay and straight are never that firmly fixed.

Do you feel by writing INDECENT ADVANCES that you are shining a light on the fact that many of these murdered queer men were guilty of nothing more than being themselves, being homosexual, and yet they were treated as the real perpetrators in the crimes against them?

Yes, absolutely! The more I researched, the more the stories of the victims became important. The men in these crime stories came from diverse backgrounds: married men, some with children, some clearly living as gay men. The press was rarely concerned with the backgrounds of these men. They were, in the eyes of the law and the press, equally culpable for the crime since homosexual acts were a felony in every state, punishable by prison terms. One story that haunted me was of a man who was tortured and murdered by two men he brought home in 1936. The victim had moved to New York City from the South years earlier and worked as a set designer. When his killers were caught, the victim’s parents accepted a plea deal to avoid the publicity of trial. The two killers pleaded to a much lesser charge of manslaughter. Such instances were not uncommon in the press reports, and I suspect were even more common beyond the reported cases, as families wished to protect the victims from the scandal that a trial may provoke in the press. It’s a sad reality that threads through these crime stories.

What is the one thing you hope readers of INDECENT ADVANCES learn?

The legacy of criminalizing queer citizens is one we continue to live in, and one we continue to fight against. 

Interview via Counterpoint Press