Friday, July 20, 2012

Iowa Noir

I grew up in Sioux City Iowa during the '50's. There are few books about Sioux City, so I ordered this one with great curiosity and without question. I lived less than a mile from Jimmy Bremmers who was kidnapped and killed in 1954 and from Donna Sue Davis who was kidnapped and killed in 1955.  But I didn't know half of what is in this book, Sex Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950's, by Neil Miller (Alyson Books, 2002).  I read it in May and was in a kind of shock for weeks.

I was ten and eleven when these crimes occurred, but I knew the names of the cops and politicians who were involved. I didn’t know how they sought to make names for themselves and how they lived out their narrow understandings of the good society and what it is to be human. Now I understand better some of my Mother's fears and anxieties. Now I know why the Warrior Hotel was not spoken of in polite company. Now I see what a cloistered life I led and what a repressive society Sioux City embodied. Reading this book I could see the streets and homes and downtown buildings. My visual, aural, and olfactory memories went into overdrive. My questions about the milieu of my childhood multiplied. My preconceptions about society were shattered, as if they weren’t fragmented enough.

There were few clues leading to the child killers. After Jimmy disappeared the police found Ernest Triplett, a divorced ex-pimp who sold accordions door to door for a local music store, who was in the neighborhood the day the boy was taken. Triplett was tried and convicted. When the girl’s body was found there was no easy suspect. The police and the DA came up with an idea. They went after the queers.

There weren’t any “gays” yet. These were very different times from our own. I am told that it would be wrong to judge people’s attitudes and actions then by today’s standards, but we do anyway. The bar (the stylish Tom Tom Room) and adjacent men’s room at the Warrior Hotel (a wonderful art deco building across the street from First Presbyterian Church, where Carol and I were married in ‘66) were the center of the secretive gay community during the ‘50's. These sexual “perverts” must have been at the root of these kidnappings and other crimes. As the city became a bit unglued, the homosexuals were rounded up. One of the cops arrested a friend of his from high school. A high school teacher and a great many hair dressers and department store window dressers were among the suspect/victims. Rumors ruined the reputation of a pediatrician, whom it seems was totally innocent. He was able to keep out of jail and his patient families remained loyal to him. I am ashamed that we used his name as a joke and assumed his guilt when I was in junior high school.

Gov. Hoegh and some state legislators had ideas about all of this. They launched a moral crusade and a plan and a place for the perverts. Two really corrupt psychiatrists at the state mental hospital at Cherokee had been prominent in putting away Triplett. Now the governor asked the state hospital at Mt. Pleasant, in the southeast corner of the state, to set up a wing for sexual deviants. Twenty homosexual men from the Sioux City area were taken there.

I am relieved to know that the mental hospital in Mt. Pleasant did not do such great unpleasantness as they might have to the gay men who were sent there as "sexual psychopaths." The staff at Mt. Pleasant understood that these guys were harmless and could not be changed into “normal” heterosexuals. The great thing about political solutions to big problems is that they tend to evaporate when the political need for them goes away. Within a year the wing was closed down, and the men signed off to relatives and other “respectable” persons. Sadly or not, these men later repressed their experiences of Sioux City and Mt. Pleasant. Even they accepted the mores of the times in which they lived.

An Iowa law professor took on the Triplett case which was overturned in 1972.  Whether he was guilty or not remained disputed by those who knew him. In 1976 the state sexual psychopath law was overturned. A side note: How society defines sexual behaviors and defines some as crimes has an astounding history of its own. In the early ‘90's I remember a dispute in our church in Chicago. A majority wanted all the children fingerprinted and given bracelets to wear for identification. Carol and I and a few others protested, but were thought uncaring by the fearful.

Look how we identify and track what we now call “sexual offenders.” The laws passed in 1994 are more enlightened than the persecution of gays in the ‘50's. But a study of Megan’s Law in NJ “concluded that it had no effect on time to first re-arrest, showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses, had no effect on the type of sexual re-offense or first time sexual offense (still largely child molestation), and had no effect on reducing the number of victims of sexual offenses. The authors felt that given the lack of demonstrated effect of the law on sexual offenses, its growing costs may not be justifiable.” [Wikipedia] Questions about the law in New York state are detailed at  Every 20-30 years there has been a change in our definitions, descriptions, and prescriptions for sexual offenses. Every 20-30 years there is a new “sex crime panic.”

A side note: Megan Kanka for whom Megan’s Law is named was kidnapped and killed only a few miles from where I lived in New Jersey, but eight years before her death. I seem to be following these events. Perhaps life imitates Stephen King or Dennis LeHane novels.

I suspect that Sioux City hasn't changed a great deal. There was always a lot of sleaze in Sioux City. A lot of stuff that used to be hidden is now in the open. I don’t know how good or bad that is, although I like daylight. The descriptions in this book of Sioux City in the '50's and the '90's are very accurate. If we as a nation are to understand and transcend our past, we need more of this kind of social journalism.

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