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Q: And in what condition was the penis of the defendant, after he had withdrawn it from the anus of Bennett?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.