As a native of Rhode Island, I do especially like to cover my state’s LGBTQ+ history, even when it isn’t always pleasant. This is an often forgotten piece of LGBTQ+ history: the Newport sex scandal of 1919.
It all began in February, with two patients at the Naval Training Station in Newport: Thomas Brunelle and Ervin Arnold. Brunelle told Arnold of a subculture to which he belonged, which centered on the Army and Navy YMCA and the Newport Art Club in which civilian homosexuals from the area would meet up with Navy personnel. This was a serious lapse in judgment on Brunelle’s part that I sincerely hope we can blame on heavy medication, but frankly I have no idea.
Now, other naval bases had reports of “moral depravity” including cross-dressing, homosexuality, drug use, etc. But there had yet to be any real sincere effort to investigate and stamp out this “depravity” at the source. That’s what Ervin Arnold decided was needed. He began a personal investigation into Brunelle’s claims, and was able to compile evidence of drug-fueled sex parties that included cross-dressing and “effeminate behavior”. He submitted his report to his superiors. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels was incensed, and immediately wrote to the Governor of Rhode Island, R. Livingston Beeckman, and implored him to clean up the city.
Meanwhile, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delanor Roosevelt pushed for the Department of Justice to launch a full-scale investigation into these allegations. The Department of Justice refused but Roosevelt would not take no for an answer. Roosevelt, planning out his route to the White House, believed that waging a war against “immorality” would skyrocket his political career — and since this was just before Prohibition would begin, that wasn’t a bad call. Roosevelt ordered an undercover investigation without DOJ approval. All the details for this secret operation including its funding and personnel were hidden in a document labeled “Section A, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy”.
Ervin Arnold, having been a private detective prior to his naval days, was placed in charge of the operation. He selected operatives based on their good looks, and instructed them to keep their eyes “and ears open for all conversation and make himself free with this class of men, being jolly and good natured, being careful to pump these men for information, making them believe that he is what is termed in the Navy as a ‘boy humper,’ making dates with them and so forth.”
In short, Ervin Arnold hired a bunch of good looking sailors to seduce other sailors. And the sailors he hired reported on their activities in great detail and seldom, if ever, mentioned hesitating at all in the sexual acts that their investigation “required” them to partake in. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer protected the operatives from facing any criminal charges for their own sexual conduct by stating that their actions lacked criminal intent. He called this the “feigned accomplice” principle.
The investigation led several Naval officers, including Thomas Brunelle, to desert. Several others were dishonorably discharged. 15 sailors were arrested for criminal acts of sodomy. Each one of these fifteen men was brought before a military tribunal where one of their former sexual partners testified in graphic detail of exactly what sexual acts they partook in. These testimonies led directly to their convictions. Some, such as a man named Frank Dye, were sentenced to as much as 20 years in prison. (Dye received presidential clemency, however, and only served five years and three months of that sentence.)
The trials received national attention — effectively ruining the lives of every single one of the accused, even those who had not been arrested. This attention only piqued more when Reverend Samuel N. Kent — the Episcopalian Navy Chaplain — was tried for “perversion”. Kent’s trial brought the attention of the American public. This turned out not to be a good thing for Roosevelt, as most of the population found the tactics to be abhorrent. When Kent was found not guilty, public opinion turned against the investigation even more.
The judge in Kent’s case did not buy into the “feigned accomplice” principal and insisted that either the operatives had engaged in unlawful conduct willingly, or had been given unlawful orders by their superiors. A group of clergymen from Newport wrote a lengthy and scathing letter to President Woodrow Wilson, which was published in the Providence Journal, condemning the Newport investigation. An investigation into the conduct and oversight of the Newport investigation was launched — over the course of that investigation, Roosevelt resigned his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in order to be a Vice Presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, on the ticket with James M. Cox. They lost — and this ongoing scandal was likely a large part of that.
On July 21, 1921, the US Senate Committee on Naval Affairs renounced the tactics employed by Roosevelt and Daniels, calling the entire affair “reprehensible”. It was not, of course, because they were concerned about the homosexual men who’s lives had been ruined. The Committee further stated that using enlisted servicemen as they had “violated the code of the American citizen and ignored the rights of every American boy who enlisted in the navy to fight for his country.” It was not, however, a pure condemnation of all that had happened. The Committee stated that “immoral conditions” of Newport were “a menace to both the health and the morale of the men in the naval training station.”
Roosevelt, for his part, felt as though he was the victim of a mud-slinging campaign. He lamented that the Navy should not be used as a football in the game of politics, and even wrote to Josephus Daniels saying: “what is the use of fooling any longer with a bunch who have made up their minds that they do not care for the truth and are willing to say anything which they think will help them politically.” Ironic considering he was literally doing all of this to end up in the White House. Any long-lasting effect this might have had on his political career were negated when he contracted a paralytic illness in August of 1921. (Which may or may not have been polio, depending on who you ask.)
Although the public has by-and-large forgotten about this incident, it’s effects have been far-reaching. After all, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell — as oppressive as that policy was — was largely an effort to protect us from another one of these types of situations. (I just simplified our country’s military history with homosexuality a *lot*. But, even then, you couldn’t just let gay people be in the military. Sodomy was still against Federal law until 2003.) This was certainly one early and very recognizable case of the United States government formally treating gay men as second class citizens with less rights — even enlisted gay men.
I’ve also read that this was the first nationally recognized gay sex scandal — which may or may not be true. I certainly haven’t found any older ones but I’m also not a real historian, I just play one on the Internet.
(Adapted from this Facebook post.)