True-crime storytelling began in Victorian America. Newspapers eager to captivate their audiences relied on the same tools TV shows and podcasts still use today: sex, suggestion, and fright. By the 1920s, true-crime narratives had begun to incorporate gay panic as well. James Polchin’s new book Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall (Counterpoint Press) explores some of these early writings and the paranoia they inspired—which continues today.
Polchin begins with the 1920 murder of a man named Leeds Vaughn Waters, who was found in his Manhattan hotel room. The case played out on the front pages of the New York Daily News for nearly six months. After another man was seen fleeing the crime scene, the press initially speculated about Waters’s character. What business would two men have together in a hotel room?
The Daily News reported every detail of Waters’s life, drawing salacious conclusions from details about his family, college, hobbies, and haunts. A hotel clerk noted that the dead man was “expensively dressed,” while the killer “wore shabby clothes.” After reporting that there were valuables left at the scene of the crime, the paper concluded, “riches and idleness are shown as powerful influences toward his tragic end.” A similar murder just three weeks later barely made the papers, as neither the murderer nor the victim was wealthy. Interclass crime drew an audience.
The Waters case was still selling papers when a witness came forward to report that the victim was seen getting into a cab with a “swarthy,” “dark-skinned man.” Suddenly, a twist. If the valuables were left behind, the paper and police speculated, then perhaps robbery was not the intent. Perhaps the murder was the act of a crazed immigrant. This was the year of Warren G. Harding’s presidential campaign on a platform promising a “Return to Normalcy” after World War I. Harding’s promise of an America that barred immigrants and denied aid to foreign countries pandered to the nostalgia of voters who longed for a leader who, as the Daily News reported, put “America first and Europe afterward.”
Describing the suspect’s social class and race incited the same brazen xenophobia as Harding’s unexpectedly successful presidential campaign that had included rhetoric against working-class immigrants, criminality, and sexual vice. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, “This was clearly the work of a person with an abnormal mind.” When a white sailor from Milwaukee finally came forward as Waters’s killer, the media concluded the tale with a final twist: he’d only killed Waters after the wealthy man insulted him. The insult, too ghastly for the paper to print, left their audience to speculate what one man might’ve said to another in the privacy of a hotel room. The sailor was found not guilty.
Polchin’s exploration of 20th-century cases cites detective work based on criminologist Cesare Lombroso’s 1876 book Criminal Man, which proposed that criminals were born, not made. Polchin argues that sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld’s findings in the late 19th century that homosexuals and transgender people were born queer and not made caused investigators to conflate criminals and queers. As Harding crusaded for social purity, the mainstream press reported what conveniently seemed to be both true and easy to sell. Both the tabloids and the mainstream press sold many papers by featuring stories based on the terrifying suspicion that anyone could be homosexual, and that involvement in this vice would surely get you killed.
Polchin recounts the cases as a series of short thrillers organized by decade through the 20th century. These true stories remain suspenseful episodes of surprising brutality and sensationalized press. Polchin pays scholarly attention to the politics of each era, and tales that were once grisly exploitation of murder victims become tense examinations of journalism and detective work.
Many of the cases Polchin describes have a common thread: defendants justifying their attacks because of “indecent advances.” This, like the details omitted from the newspapers, implied that some queer behavior was too disgusting to define and so vile that some journalists called violent reactions to them “honor slaying.” These reports were how most people learned about homosexuals. The press described certain men as “refined” and “slender,” casting doubts on their masculinity—and implying homosexuality. Journalists noted one man’s “young face,” in order to draw contrast between his innocence and the sexual deviance of the man who made those indecent advances. Who is the real victim, they asked: The preyed-upon twentysomething or the dead homosexual? The press, the new Federal Bureau of Investigation, and juries all declared “indecent advances” acceptable justification for murder.
Polchin’s book ends with the Stonewall riots and a new era of gay politics in which activists campaigned against flawed journalism and police work, but the “gay panic” defense, as it has come to be called, still exists, used as recently as 2018, in a case in Texas. While fewer gay men are killed in hate crimes today, approximately 28 trans women were murdered in 2018—and all but one were women of color. Under the current presidential administration, which promised its own “return to normalcy,” there are still victims of rhetoric that is less of a dog whistle and more of a call to action against the “indecent.” Polchin’s book reminds us that this piece of history, like so many others, repeats itself. v