Diversionary Tactics

J. Edgar Hoover and the 1940s war on sex crimes in Wisconsin.

J. Edgar Hoover with his rumored lover, Clyde Tolson.J. Edgar Hoover with his rumored lover, Clyde Tolson.

A recent biopic of J. Edgar Hoover, longtime director of the FBI, focused on his same-sex relationship with Clyde Tolson. The questions about Hoover’s sexuality, however, go back to the 1930s and 1940s. Much of the questioning was in coded language noting he “dresses fastidiously” or his “mincing step.” Charles E. Morris III, in an article in the Quarterly Journal of Speech 2009 entitled “Pink Herring & the Fourth Person: J. Edgar Hoover’s Sex Crime Panic,” argues that Hoover’s attack on sex crimes was to distract attention from his homosexuality. If Hoover staged an attack on sex deviants, then it would follow that he was not one himself.

Hoover’s first diverting attack occurred in 1937 in the New York Herald Tribune magazine section with a featured article that had the screaming headline “War On the Sex Criminal.” Describing the enemy of this war as “the sex fiend,” and as “the most loathsome member of the vast crime army,” Hoover also called for a study to determine “to what extent the recently widespread use of marijuana, or American hashish, has been responsible for the sex crime.” Hoover urged “a high state of public vigilance and indignation.”

Yet, Hoover avoided explicit suggestion that homosexuals were part of this vast army. The concern was expressed mainly in terms of “a sinister threat to the safety of American childhood and womanhood.” Americans dealing with the aftermath of the Depression and looming war clouds in Europe did not take up Hoover’s proposed war.

In July 1947, Hoover relaunched his war with an article in American Magazine—this time entitled “How safe is your daughter?” Clearly, this time he was focusing attention on the heterosexual sex criminal. Again inflammatory terms such as “sex maniacs,” “sex fiend,” “degenerates run wild,” and “depraved human beings, more savage than beasts” were sprinkled around. His opening line was, “The most rapidly increasing type of crime is that perpetrated by degenerate sex offenders.”

Hoover also started to use the language of the medical profession about sex criminals, noting some had “crystallized psychopathic traits.” He also discussed withholding parole from sex offenders “until the members of a board of competent medical authorities are willing to certify that the wrongdoer had been under successful medical observation and treatment.” He also indicated, “No judge should ever agree to letting them come to trial without first being subjected to medical and psychiatric examination.”

The national effort to engage in a war on sex crimes was greatly furthered by an article with a cover lead, “What Can We Do About Sex Crimes?” in The Saturday Evening Post of December 11, 1948 by author David G. Wittels. Again, a feature was the “psychopathic personality, sometimes known as constitutional psychopathic inferior.” An estimate of “these creatures” was that “tens of thousands of them” were loose in the country. Again the focus was on women and children being at risk.

Wittels was building an argument for “the scientific isolation of such people.” He quoted a psychiatrist for the Municipal Court of Philadelphia, “When they are detected—and this usually can be done early in life—we should put them away for their own good and the good of society.” Noting that some jurisdictions had laws dealing with “so called ‘sexual psychopaths,’” Wittels faulted these laws for not allowing the commitment before they “committed overt crimes.”

While Hoover might have focused on sex deviates as a deflecting strategy from homosexual speculation, once the ball was rolling there was no telling where it would go. David K. Johnson in The Lavender Scare: the Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, has noted, “‘Sexual psychopath’ was an ambiguous term, but one that frequently was conflated with ‘homosexual,’ since most observers assumed that homosexuals were sick, could not control themselves, and needed to recruit new members to their ranks.”

In Wisconsin, this would be the case. The Wisconsin press covered Hoover’s call for a war on sex crimes and joined in. The Wisconsin State Journal blared, “Hoover Asks Sex Crime War.” The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern had an editorial entitled, “Drive on Sex Crimes.” The Sheboygan Press would print a letter from State Senator Gus Buchen talking about, “The recent wave of so-called ‘sex crimes’ in Wisconsin and elsewhere …” The Milwaukee Journal that year editorialized that “sex crimes seem to be increasing in Wisconsin.”

An earlier incident in the state had stoked the fires of sex-crime panic. On September 23, 1946, the Milwaukee Sentinel headlined, “Amnesty for Sex Convict Stirs Wrath of Law Here.” The story was that the Milwaukee sheriff and the acting Milwaukee police chief were outspoken in their disapproval of an action by Acting Governor Walter Goodland. Goodland had reduced the sentence of a 50-year-old man from 25 years to 10 years. The man had been convicted in municipal court of two counts of taking indecent liberties with a minor and one count of sodomy. Contrary testimony threw doubt on one of the charges and was weighed by the governor. The sheriff noted the action would “give encouragement to other sex criminals.” Presumably this was because 10 years would be thought of as nothing. The acting police chief wanted to emphasize that “sex crimes frequently account for a third of the total crime listed in the department’s daily report.” The sheriff noted that the Metropolitan Commission on Crime Prevention was preparing a bill for the next legislature for segregating sex criminals.

Wisconsin State Senator Bernhard Gettelman, a Republican from Milwaukee, not even waiting for Hoover, plunged ahead and introduced to the 1947 legislature a Wisconsin Sexual Psychopath Law on April 3: Senate Bill 486, which was referred to the Committee on Education and Public Welfare. The Wisconsin Sheriff Magazine, in reporting on the law, noted the sponsorship of the legislation by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Crime Prevention Commission. The Senate, composed of 22 Republicans, six Democrats, and five Progressives, passed its version on May 13 with no “nay” votes recorded. The Assembly passed a revised version June 19. After some more tinkering, the bill was signed by Acting Governor Goodland on July 30 and published August 1. The bill defined a sexual psychopath not by acts but by mental state. Such a person was one “suffering from condition of emotional instability or impulsiveness of behavior … as to render a person irresponsible for his conduct with respect to sexual matters and thereby dangerous to himself and to other persons.”

Under the law, one did not have to commit any sexual crime—an actual overt act—to fall under its purview. When facts were presented to a district attorney about a possible sexual psychopath, the district attorney could petition a court for a hearing. The accused could have defense counsel, and two doctors were to examine the accused. The court could then determine if the accused was a sexual psychopath. If found to be so, he was committed to an institution designated by the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. The legislature had been told during the consideration of the law that a Milwaukee institution could deal with such persons.

Senator Gettelman’s purpose behind the law came to light in a story in the Madison Capital Times of February 7, 1945, with a similar bill he proposed in the previous session. The story was headlined, “Offer Bill Aimed at Homosexuals.” The story noted that although the bill only mentioned psychopathic personalities, “Gettelmann said it was aimed at homosexuals who he claimed were prevalent in Milwaukee and other cities.”

A hearing on the proposed 1945 bill before the Senate Committee on State and Local Government was reported by the Capital Times on February 22, 1945. The bill was noted as permitting confinement of “confirmed sodomists” for either treatment or permanent isolation. Speaking for the bill were Milwaukee Police Chief Kluchesky and Dane County District Attorney Maloney. The Milwaukee chief noted that in his jurisdiction “alone since 1938 a total of 871 men had been convicted of sodomy with the number increasing from 72 in 1938 to 198 in 1944.” The chief said in Milwaukee “the sodomists hang around the theaters and make advances to high school youths as well as finding people of their own kind.” Kluchesky said, “We want to take these confirmed sodomists out of circulation and either cure them or isolate them.” The Dane County District Attorney was reported saying, “We have the same problem in Madison only here they congregate in the capitol park and not the theaters.”

Maloney was noted as saying, “Progress had been made in treating such persons, especially by the army, and if the sodomist were institutionalized the state could follow through with the work started by the army.” Police Chief McCormick of Madison registered in favor of the bill on behalf of the Wisconsin Police Chiefs’ Association. Only one person opposed the bill at the hearing, citizen lobbyist Miss Glady Walsh of Madison.

Some would later claim that confinement as a sex criminal without having committed a sex crime but merely because one was determined a sexual psychopath raised constitutional issues. But constitutional issues were not a strong point for Senator Gettelman. An example is the provision in the Constitution against cruel and unusual punishments. The Milwaukee Journal of November 18, 1947 carried a headline “Ask Whipping for Sex Crime.” Sen. Gettelman was proposing the creation of state whipping posts for certain crimes. The Wisconsin State Journal story the next day characterized him as advocating “whipping-post justice.” If the good senator had thought about S/M devotees, he may not have viewed the proposed punishment in the same light.

One of the advocates for the sexual psychopath law of 1947 was The Milwaukee Journal. Over a period of several years, the paper carried dozens of editorials about the law and its implementation. The terms used included “slaves of lust” and “menace of sex perverts” which danced in its pages.

For The Milwaukee Journal, homosexuals were part of the problem as the paper proved in its editorial comments. In 1946, the Journal editorialized about “Sex Crimes in Milwaukee.” The paper cited Police Chief Polcyn on “the growing menace of the rapist and the sex pervert in the community.” The editorial praised the efforts of the Milwaukee crime commission for its proposal, “which would make it possible to commit the overt homosexual to a special institution, not for a term but until cured.” In March 1947, supporting the bill introduced by Sen. Gettelman, it editorialized, “It is the only hope for ending the vicious attacks on girls and young women and the corruption of boys and young men which are becoming an increasing problem.” In another March editorial, it supported institutionalizing the sexual psychopath even if “the commitment might mean for life.” In June, again pushing for the law, the paper illustrated the need by citing a mother whose son had been molested by a man still at large after having been reported.

Even after the law was passed, the Journal was hoping that homosexuals would be caught in its net of permanent isolation. The paper, in an editorial on “Wisconsin and ‘Big Bill’ Tilden” noted the unsatisfactory outcome of short sentences. Tilden, a famous tennis player of the 1920s, had been sentenced in 1949 to one year on a road gang for molesting a 16-year-old at a time when he was on parole for a similar moral offense from 1946.

Dick Wagner(rrdickwagner@gmail.com), openly gay former Dane County Board Chair and co-chair of Governor Earl’s Commission on Lesbian and Gay Issues, is now working on gay Wisconsin history and welcomes topics and sources.