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The Newport sex scandal arose in 1919 from the United States Navy's investigation of illicit sexual behavior on the part of Navy personnel in Newport, Rhode Island. It targeted homosexual contacts between Navy personnel and the civilian population. Initially it attracted little public notice, but eventually the investigation – its methods and use of enlisted personnel – and the trial attracted national news coverage and provoked a Congressional investigation that ended with Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Assistant Secretary of the Navy – future President of the United States – Franklin D. Roosevelt being rebuked by a Congressional committee.

Background[edit | edit source]

In February 1919, Thomas Brunelle and Chief Machinist's Mate Ervin Arnold were both patients at the Naval Training Station Hospital in Newport. Brunelle told Arnold the details of the subculture to which he belonged in Newport, centered at the Army and Navy YMCA and the Newport Art Club, where local civilian homosexuals regularly made contact with one another and with naval personnel. Arnold undertook a personal investigation to verify Brunelle's account and documented his findings. He then presented his Navy superiors with detailed reports of effeminate behavior, cross-dressing, and parties involving sexual activity, liquor and cocaine.

Investigations[edit | edit source]

Eventually, Admiral Spencer S. Wood, Commander of the Second Naval District, ordered a thorough investigation and created a court of inquiry to review Arnold’s claims. On March 19, 1919, the court concluded that a thorough investigation was warranted. Thirty-seven-year-old Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt approved the court's recommendation and asked Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to undertake the investigation.

When Palmer declined to dedicate resources to such an investigation, Arnold, a former Connecticut state detective, was placed in charge of the work. With an infiltration approach in mind, he chose his investigators on the basis of their youth and looks. Over a period of several weeks, thirteen such agents submitted daily reports to Arnold that included candid descriptions of homosexual acts and their participation in them. They rarely reported any hesitancy or qualms about their direct participation.

Arrests and trial[edit | edit source]

Arrests began on April 4, and by April 22, fifteen sailors had been arrested. Each was brought before a military tribunal and heard men they recognized as former sexual partners provide graphic testimony of their encounters. Older naval officers were confounded by the terms used by the investigators. Once the operatives had presented their evidence before the court, the accused were encouraged to incriminate others and many did so in hopes of leniency. Brunelle did so, but withheld the names of his closest friends. The three-week military trial ended with the court-martial of 17 sailors charged with sodomy and "scandalous conduct." Most were sent to the naval prison at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine. Two more were dishonorably discharged and two others were found innocent with no further action.

Roosevelt's embarrassment[edit | edit source]

The Providence Journal, under publisher John R. Rathom, covered the trial proceedings daily, often with a critical eye toward the prosecution's case. On January 8, 1920, Rev. Samuel Neal Kent, an Episcopal clergyman, was found not guilty on all charges. In his charge to the jury in that case, the judge was at pains to discredit the witnesses who described their participation in illicit sexual acts. He reasoned that since no military or governmental authority could legitimately order them to participate in such acts against their will, they were either willing participants whose complaints were groundless or they were acting under the compulsion of unlawful commands on the part of their superiors. His analysis fueled opposition in Newport's religious community.

Within days, a committee of Newport clergymen drafted a lengthy letter to President Woodrow Wilson denouncing the Navy's activities in Newport, specifically the "deleterious and vicious methods" used, including keeping those charged confined for months without trial. Among the signatories were Rev. William Safford Jones of Channing Church, Rev. J. Howard Deming, Rev. Everett P. Smith of St. Mary's Church, Portsmouth, and Rev. Richard Arnold Greene of Newport. The Providence Journal published the letter. It put the Navy on the defensive and named Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Roosevelt. Assistant Secretary Roosevelt angrily charged that press coverage like Rathom's would damage the Navy's reputation to the point that parents would not allow their sons to enlist. Also at issue, however, were the methods employed in the investigation. Rathom and Roosevelt had a "tart exchange of telegrams" disputing whether anyone in the naval hierarchy in Washington had supervised the investigation closely or authorized the actual participation of investigators in illicit acts.[1][2]

While investigations dragged, Roosevelt resigned from his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in July 1920 when he accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for Vice President. He and the Presidential candidate James M. Cox were on the losing end of Warren G. Harding's landslide victory for the Republicans.

On July 19, 1921, a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs denounced both Daniels and Roosevelt for the methods used in the Newport investigations. The New York Times reported that most of the details of the affair were "of an unprintable nature", but explained that the committee believed that Daniels and Roosevelt knew that "enlisted men of the navy were used as participants in immoral practices for the purpose of obtaining evidence." The committee report declared that using enlisted men in this way "violated the code of the American citizen and ignored the rights of every American boy who enlisted in the navy to fight for his country." The committee report also made public the earlier determination of a naval court-martial. To that court's assessment that Roosevelt's behavior was "unfortunate and ill-advised", the committee added "reprehensible". Daniels' rejection of the court's judgment, the committee declared, "is to be severely condemned."[3][4]

Given how difficult all concerned found discussing the details of the crimes at issue, their language characterizes the questionable activities repeatedly without ever specifying the actions themselves. They refer to a "lack of moral perspective" and invoked the youth of the navy personnel: "Conduct of a character at which seasoned veterans of the service would have shuddered was practically forced upon boys." Their most explicit description said that the navy personnel allowed "to be performed upon them immoral acts." And the committee wrote that for Daniels and Roosevelt to allow personnel to be placed in a position where these acts were even liable to occur, was "a deplorable, disgraceful, and most unnatural proceeding." Finally, the committee acknowledged that naval officials were facing a serious problem in Newport and it denounced "immoral conditions" that were "a menace to both the health and the morale of the men in the naval training station."

Roosevelt rejected the report, noting that the subcommittee's two Republican members had condemned him while the one Democrat issued a minority report. He contested many details and interpretations in the committee's report, then went on the attack: "This business of using the navy as a football of politics has got to stop." He had nothing to say about the court-martial's assessment.

Any damage to Roosevelt's political prospects paled when he was stricken with a paralytic illness while vacationing in August 1921 at Campobello Island in Canada.

In fiction[edit | edit source]

  • In his 2014 book, Certainty, author Victor Bevine wrote a fictional account of this scandal from the courtroom perspective of a young lawyer, William Bartlett, who defends a local clergyman, Samuel Kent, accused of sexual impropriety with these Newport sailors.[5]

References[edit | edit source]

Sources[edit | edit source]

  • Garrett D. Byrnes and Charles H. Spilman, The Providence Journal 150 Years (Providence, RI: The Providence Journal Company, 1980)
  • Carroll Kilpatrick, ed., Roosevelt and Daniels: A Friendship in Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952) OCLC  466453
  • Lawrence R. Murphy, Perverts by Official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy (Haworth Press, 1988) ISBN 0866567089
  • David O'Toole, Sex, Spies, and Videotape: Outing the Senator (Worcester, MA: James Street Publishing, 2005) ISBN 097719700X
  • The Providence Journal: Mark Arsenault, "1919 Newport sting targeted gay sailors, ended in scandal" April 13, 2009, accessed Dec 6, 2009
  • Time: John R. Rathom, Dec. 24, 1923. accessed Dec 6, 2009
  • William Wright, Harvard's Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005) ISBN 0312322712

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