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1919 Newport sting targeted gay sailors, ended in scandal

05:18 PM EST on Sunday, January 20, 2008

By Mark Arsenault
Journal Staff Writer

The first national gay sex scandal was instigated in Newport in early 1919, by a sailor with an ear for gossip and a hatred for homosexuals.

Before it ended, the scandal had blazed in headlines across America, embarrassed future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and led to FDR suing The Providence Journal.

Court trials and a U.S. Senate investigation into the Newport episode exposed that the Navy had sent sailors to entrap homosexuals by having sex with them.

The Newport scandal, largely forgotten, also provides “the first detailed documentary evidence in America of a distinctive homosexual community,” writes author Lawrence R. Murphy, in a 1987 book about the scandal, Perverts by Official Order. “Almost nothing is known about gay life in America before Newport.”

The episode begins with Chief Machinist’s Mate Ervin Arnold, a sailor from San Francisco stationed at the Newport Naval Training Station. World War I had just ended, and Newport was a base for some 25,000 servicemen.

At the time, sex acts between men were crimes, and the perpetrators considered criminal perverts. The term “homosexual” was not in general use.

Arnold collected gossip about cocaine use and sexual intimacy between male sailors, according to Murphy’s book. Arnold reported the rumors to superiors, which resulted — at the urging of U.S. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels — in the convening of a Court of Inquiry. But the court wouldn’t act on hearsay evidence. While Daniels was in Europe, his assistant, Franklin D. Roosevelt, wrote the Justice Department to request an investigation into “conditions of vice and depravity” in Newport.

The Justice Department was preoccupied with cracking down on lefty “red” groups and couldn’t spare the resources.

That left the matter to the Navy. Members of the local Board of Inquiry, the commander of the Newport station and Arnold cooperated on their own investigation.

They recruited handsome young sailors to be undercover “operators” to collect evidence against men who engaged in sodomy.

The operators were told to “catch them in the act.”

That was precisely where they caught them.

The operators seduced sailors in Newport and participated in numerous sex acts with them — mostly by accepting oral sex to completion. They recorded their encounters in daily reports.

Seventeen sailors caught in the sting were arrested, held in solitary confinement on a prison ship and then court-martialed. Several went to jail.

The operators who accepted oral sex received notations in their records “in recognition of their interest and zeal” in pursuing the evidence.

With Roosevelt’s backing, the Newport investigation expanded to the civilian population. That’s when the sting went from a private military matter to a public relations disaster.

Evidence from the operators was used to charge an Episcopal minister, the Rev. Samuel Neal Kent. Though the evidence was strong that Neal had sex with the sailors, he was acquitted in two trials that publicized the Navy’s investigative techniques.

The scandal might have died there, if not for Providence Journal editor John Rathom.

The showboating editor had published numerous scoops during World War I about German spies. Much of this information was leaked to the newspaper by British agents and a Czech national group that had run a counterspy operation against German agents in America. Rathom covered his sources with phony stories about Journal reporters acting as spies. His lies made him a national figure on the dinner-speech circuit. But in 1918, under pressure from the Justice Department, Rathom signed a secret “confession” in which he admitted inventing or exaggerating his spy stories. That document, kept hidden from the public, would later damage Rathom’s reputation in the aftermath of the Newport scandal.

In January 1920, The Journal reported Rev. Kent’s acquittal on federal charges of immoral conduct. An editorial praised the verdict and accused Navy Secretary Daniels of deploying “every bestial and degrading scheme” to gather evidence.

Rathom demanded the U.S. Senate Committee on Naval Affairs investigate. He traded public charges with FDR over the assistant secretary’s knowledge of the gay sex sting. He sent telegrams with the story to papers around the country, fanning the flames into a national scandal.

In 1920, the Democratic Party nominated Roosevelt for vice president, on a ticket with James M. Cox. Throughout the presidential campaign, Rathom continued to accuse Roosevelt of mishandling allegations of sex crimes in the Navy. On the eve of the election, Roosevelt struck back, filing a $500,000 libel suit against Rathom. He also persuaded the Justice Department to make public Rathom’s 1918 confession about spinning spy fables.

Stung by the release of his dark secret, Rathom blasted Roosevelt in an editorial as “the possessor of an immature mind, a shallow thinker on subjects too deep for him, an amateur statesman....”

In November, Cox and Roosevelt were buried at the ballot box by Republicans Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

Senate hearings into the Newport scandal continued after the election. In July 1921, the Senate released its findings, which excoriated the Navy: “That Secretary Daniels or Assistant Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt should have allowed enlisted men to be placed in a position where such acts were even liable to occur is, in the opinion of the committee, a most deplorable, disgraceful and unnatural proceeding,” the committee reported.

Roosevelt asserted he had not known of the tactics used in Newport. The committee’s majority report, penned by Republicans, countered that Roosevelt “had knowledge that enlisted personnel had been and were to be used to investigate perversion, and must have realized that … [Navy] men had allowed lewd and immoral acts to be performed upon them.”

In screaming headlines in The Journal, Rathom claimed vindication. FDR’s libel suit never went to trial.

Roosevelt won in the long run: he captured the presidency in 1932, served until his death in 1945, and is remembered among the most influential Americans.

Rathom fell ill in 1922. He died the next year.