Remembering The Ariston Baths, New York’s First Anti-Gay Raid

I recently made my way to John Jay Criminal College’s Lloyd Sealy Library in New York City to take a look at the microfilmed court transcripts, most of which are from the early spring of 1903.  The documents are at times amusing in their detail. Here, for example, is an exchange between a prosecutor and one of the undercover police dispatched to the bath house, once located at 55th and Broadway, and one of the city’s man bathhouses at the time.

Q: What did you notice the defendant do?
A: He walked over to the couch that the man Walter Bennett was lying on… And he placed his penis in the anus of the man Walter Bennett, and kept it there for a short time.
Q: Now, did you notice the state of the defendant’s genital organ or penis, at the time that, as you say, he placed it in the anus of the man Walter Bennett?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: In what state was it?
A: It was in a state of erection.
Q: And what, if anything, did he do to Bennett other than that act?
A: Oh, he laid down, after he withdrew his penis from –
Q: Well, after he withdrew his penis, did you notice the penis of the defendant?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And in what condition was the penis of the defendant, after he had withdrawn it from the anus of Bennett?
A: In a state of collapse.

This exchange illustrates the neurotic specificity Americans had about sexuality, particularly homosexuality, at the dawn of the 20th century, only 107-years ago. Desire and sex had been systematically broken down, rationalized into “good” and “bad,” and picked apart from every angle. Oral sex becomes this: “[He] took the penis of he defendant in his mouth and made indecent motions.”

While cultural evolution allows us to laugh at the prosecutorial analysis, the court’s overall attitude is anything but funny. The judge had no problem voicing his distaste over the case, and wrote in his opinion:

We cannot disguise the fact that any reference to the testimony in the case must necessarily be very unpleasant and disagreeable. It affects the very self respect for ourselves and regard for humanity. It brings to the mind a species of horror to think that any person, any human being endowed with intelligence, with reason, would be guilty of such horrible practices…

Even one of the defense attorneys claimed the details were “revolting:” “The mere statement of the crime charged against the defendant is liable to carry with it a certain revulsion off feelings that may be reasonably entertained by every man who has a decent regard for the proprieties and manliness of his sex.”

The prosecutors were quite persuasive: of the twelve men put on trial, seven received multiple years in prison. There were no protests, no marches to oppose the decision. The men were simply ushered off to jail, victims of early America’s widespread homophobia, and forgotten by history.

Surely we’ve come a long way since the 1903 Ariston Trials. As the Stonewall attack and other homophobic incidents show, however, there’s still more work to be done before the Ariston judge’s 1903 opinion on homosexuality has been eradicated entirely.

Image Note: This is not the Ariston Bathhouse. Rather, it’s another bathhouse, located on Bowery, in the year 1884, less than two decades after the word “homosexual” was first used.


  1. says

    I love articles like these. We can look back in time and marvel at how different things were “in the olden days”. Then we look at the picture and see how similar things are. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  2. BobN says

    Pity the judge didn’t inquire as to the state of the cop’s penis while he observed all the anus penetrating. Nor did the judge’s robes allow anyone to observe whether he was erect or “collapsed” during and after the testimony.

  3. Disgusted American says

    hearing this crap just confirms what I’ve always said – when I hear someone say- Öh wouldn’t it be great to live back then”….I answer “NOoooo Thank you”…it’s like these nitwits look at as Jane Seymour, or Kate Wynslet in Titanic… know when Everyone had beautiful teeth, and nice clothes and smelled good…..yuk…geez I always said I was born too too early 1960…even to go back to 1950 would be a Horror.

  4. CoMo'mo says

    If these men had been following the proper diet–high fiber, few or no spices, no meat, and adding therapeutic enemas– as recommended by Graham Kellogg and other medical and nutritional specialist in the know about the relationship between diet and concupiscence, buggery and onanism–this wouldn’t have happened.

  5. okgo says

    Articles like this are very interesting. Although I’m not sure the quoted exchange “illustrates the neurotic specificity Americans had about sexuality” so much as it demonstrates the specificity required under the law for a criminal conviction. Prosecutor’s questioning of witnesses, especially cops, often comes across as awkward and tortured like this one does. That’s so the prosecutor can make sure they’ve hit all the elements of the crime. I’m not sure what these gentlemen were charged with, but I’d make a guess that it was something that required as an element some sort of “sexual arousal” best proven in men by…an erect penis. If the cop didn’t offer testimony of the erection, it’s the prosecutor’s job to elicit it. All in all, an interesting post.

  6. Joey says

    Thanks for this post. I didn’t know Homosexual was first coined in the 1860’s. What an interesting article, but the extent the prosecution went, and everyone’s overall “reaction” (IE: The fact that Homosexuality was a crime at all) is mostly, if not all in part due to the fact that there was a huge surge in “biblical rightiousness” so to speak. The Victorians, and shortly before them suddenly had this “light blub” effect that they were a civilized society and that they ALL lived such “godly moral” lives. This was MOSTLY due to the females of society, as they shaped society. Its fact, look it up.
    You could equate life in that time for Gays (Lesbianism was not as severe, as sodomy is not usually practiced) as something that life COULD be like today if our extreme, and some not even so extreme Right-Wing bretheren had their way. It’s interesting to think about: since being Gay is something you are born as, and since Gay people have been around forever, through many intellegent species, and probably in equal percentage through the ages… The horror that must have been going through the LGB (T probably not so much) minds that sat in that court room, maybe even jury, or read it in papers, or the like. What a scarry situation to put yourself in.
    That said.. Its sad to know how life might have been like for me in Victorian America, especially NYC. Sad because the conspicuous consumption, and over the top opulence was OH SO FABULOUS! XO

  7. wimsy says

    I don’t know that we’ve come a long way when fascist evangelicals call for government gay control, and a creepy bigot like Santorum actually has a chance to get some votes.

  8. ratbastard says

    Folks alive today DID NOT INVENT SEX. Neither did we invent ‘cruising’ and whatnot. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Gay,straight,bi guys and girls were probably flourishing 100 years ago to a degree most of us would be surprised to discover. And if you research, you’ll discover stuff like gay hustlers-prostitutes were openly mentioned in the media of the day, so obviously it was fairly common.