|Written by Antolin García Carbonell -- Special to the BT, Cover illustration by Brian Stauffer|
Not so long ago, Miami’s daily newspapers declared war on homosexual “perverts”
In the early morning hours of August 3, 1954, a North Miami couple visiting a lovers’ lane off Biscayne Boulevard near NE 135th Street discovered the body of young man lying in a pool of blood.
The North Miami Police Department found the victim’s 1950 cream-colored Chevrolet convertible several hundred yards away, with bloodstains on the front seat and a .22-caliber bullet casing on the floor. The victim had been shot in the torso and bled to death as he staggered from the car and then collapsed. His wallet was missing, and the footprints of a barefoot man led away from the crime scene toward Arch Creek.
Starting with the car’s registration and initials inside the victim’s University of Kentucky class ring, police confirmed his identity as that of an Eastern Air Lines steward, William Theodore Simpson. He was 27 years old, had worked for Eastern since joining its Miami-based flight-attendant training program in 1951, and had returned to Miami the previous night from Detroit. He had stopped off briefly at his rented apartment in the 2200 block of NE 4th Avenue and left around 10:00 p.m.
When questioned, the stewardess and steward who had worked the flight with Simpson told police detectives he’d been looking forward to a date that evening but hadn’t named the individual. The steward, a former roommate, added that Simpson had once been engaged and had a reputation as a ladies’ man.
The tragic story of his shooting, accompanied by photographs of Simpson’s well-dressed body and maps of the murder scene, made front-page news for the next two days in the Miami Herald and the Miami Daily News.
Analysis of the .22-caliber bullet showed that it had been fired from a Beretta, so police detectives questioned everyone known to own such a gun. They also questioned Simpson’s landlady, his neighbors, and patrons and bartenders at the nightspots he frequented, trying to retrace his steps that evening, find his date, and perhaps uncover a motive for the murder.
Three days after the slaying, North Miami Police Det. Wayne Thurman received a tip that Charles Lawrence, a 19-year-old stockroom employee at Bell Telephone, owned a Beretta. Lawrence was brought in for questioning and admitted that he’d been hitchhiking on Biscayne Boulevard the night of the shooting. Simpson had stopped and offered him a ride, but then had driven to an isolated spot and made improper advances, he said. While resisting those advances, Lawrence had pulled out a gun and fired in self-defense.
Simpson’s neighbors, however, told detectives something else. For several months, they had seen a young man hitchhiking on Biscayne Boulevard around 23rd Street. Whenever the young man was picked up, they reported, a green car that had been parked on a side street would pull out and follow. Lawrence was questioned again and admitted that a friend of his, 20-year-old Lewis Killen, was the driver of the green car. Using the hitchhiking ruse, the duo had been “rolling” gay men for many weeks.
“Simpson started to get nervous,” Lawrence told police this time, though he still maintained that an unwanted sexual advance had occurred. “I think he heard Lewis coming up in the other car. He started to get ready to step on the starter. I got out and drew the Beretta. I didn’t mean to shoot him. I meant to fire through the windshield and frighten him and keep him there. I must have hit him.”
Lawrence and Killen were arrested and charged with first-degree murder because of the additional circumstances of the robbery. But the tone of the coverage was about to shift and transform Simpson into something other than the handsome, clean-cut, well-employed, and personable victim the newspapers had initially described.
The day after the arrests were first reported, the Miami News published a front-page article under the headline “Pervert Colony Uncovered in Simpson Murder Probe.” The story revealed that, while investigating the steward’s shooting, police had uncovered a “colony of some 500 male homosexuals, congregated mostly in the near-downtown northeast section and ruled by a ‘queen.’” The colony, of which Simpson was said to be a member, lay “north of NE 20th Street and east of Biscayne Boulevard, running to Biscayne Bay, with ‘the boys’ living in many of the apartment houses and rooming houses of the neighborhood,” the great majority of whose residents “are not even aware of the proclivities of their neighbors.”
Above the story, the newspaper ran a photograph of Charles Lawrence smiling as he showed a sheriff’s investigator where he had tossed the murder weapon, not far from the crime scene. Further inside, an essay under the headline “Good Guys -- Not Toughs” was written by a high school friend of the accused men, who, in trying to divine what lay behind the crime, explained that one of the two had been going through recent financial hardship while the other’s longstanding “hatred of homosexuals” was based on some vaguely referenced experiences dating from his hitchhiking days in high school.
The Herald joined in that day with a photo essay under the headline “Brazen Youths Re-Enact Murder of Airline Steward in North Miami,” depicting the two accomplices as they strode through the murder scene with police officers, practically boasting of shooting the “pervert.”
According Fred Fejes, a professor of multimedia studies at Florida Atlantic University, who has extensively researched the subject, the next day “the Herald quickly replaced Simpson as the object of sympathy.” The paper ran another story, this one centered on Killen’s distraught wife of four months, 18-year-old Donna. Under a series of photographs of her tear-streaked face, she told a reporter that her husband “read the Bible and didn’t drink.” They were active in their church. “Why did this happen to us?” she asked.
Casting herself and her husband as the real victims, Donna Killen blamed Miami for allowing “perverts” to ruin their lives even as she added that the two men had “got their idea [of targeting gay men in the area for money] from friends at high school. A lot of them do that.” In her view, which the Herald took up as a civic cause, places like Bayfront Park, where “such people” congregated freely, lay at the root of the incident.
The Herald also upped the estimate of the local gay population with the headline “5000 Here Perverts, Police Say,” over a story claiming that “at least 20 bars catered to them.” By August 11, the paper reported that the more accurate population number was 8000 and ran a front-page essay it had commissioned from Miami Police Lt. Chester Eldredge, chief of the city’s homicide division. The perverts ranged, he said, “from the relatively harmless homosexual to the fierce sadist who horribly mutilates and tortures his victim.”
Local media and politicians presumed that gays were responsible for sex crimes against children, suffered from psychological and moral failings, and by the very nature of their orientation presented the opportunity for crimes perpetrated against them. Distinctions between the terms “homosexual” and “pervert” or “child molester” were not understood by the general public. However, one thing was certain, according to Lieutenant Eldredge: They should be segregated for treatment and to “protect the normal individual from having to associate with the abnormal.”
FAU’s Fejes says he uses the campaign in his classroom to illustrate how media outlets, through the use of relentless and stigmatizing coverage, can effectively obstruct the acceptance of marginalized groups. His treatise, “Murder, Perversion, and Moral Panic: The 1954 Media Campaign Against Miami’s Homosexuals and the Discourse of Civic Betterment,” published in July 2000 in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, is the most comprehensive account of these events.
Although Simpson had been an Eastern employee for nearly four years, the airline declined to issue a public statement, and his death passed without mention in the obituary column of Eastern’s bimonthly Great Silver Fleet Magazine. An uncle arranged for the transport of his body and burial with the honors due a veteran U.S. Army sergeant at Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville.
The local papers also downplayed the victim’s association with his employer, and for good reason: At the time, Eastern accounted for about 3000 local jobs, a third of the total major airline jobs in Miami, according to a University of Florida study conducted in 1947. Eastern Air Lines had been moving its operations and administration from New York to Miami in stages, starting with aircraft maintenance in 1935. Flight-attendant training followed in 1947.
The News and the Herald published some 53 articles and editorials addressing Miami’s gay problem over the next six weeks, under headlines like “Clean This Place Up,” “Psychiatrist Looks at Deviates: A Disease Worse than Alcoholism,” and “Great Civilizations Plagued by Deviates.”
In Miami Beach, which held a significant gay population and gay nightlife, the police force had a reputation for antipathy toward and harassment of gays, as did the Dade County Sheriff’s Department. But the Miami Police Department under Chief Walter Headley had maintained a policy of relative tolerance, as had the Herald and the News.
Miami, however, was now acquiring a reputation as a “comfortable haven for homosexuals,” the Herald warned, taking aim at Headley. “No wonder they come here from all over the country to set up a residential concentration and meeting places with what amounts to police approval.”
What was behind the eruption of homophobia?
Actually, pressure had been brewing for nearly a year, according to Fejes. Tensions began in November 1953, in response to an incident in which an adult male was accused of “sadistically torturing” a young boy in Fort Lauderdale. The subsequent Greater Miami Crime Commission’s investigation concluded that Dade County was “open to maniacs” and child molesters. With the newspapers hyperventilating, all the law enforcement agencies took part in raids on beaches and gay bars throughout Miami and Miami Beach, the latter of which passed laws outlawing female impersonators.
Word of the police raids and allegations of harassment reached ONE magazine in Los Angeles, the first nationwide pro-gay publication, which was sold on South Florida newsstands. ONE’s editors wrote letters of protest to police chiefs and sheriffs in Miami, Miami Beach, and Dade County, and to the Herald, arguing that homosexuals were not by their sexual orientation perverts or child molesters, and that respect and tolerance might result in better cooperation with law enforcement. The magazine praised Miami Police Chief Headley for “refusing to wholeheartedly support the current hysteria.”
By January 1954, a semblance of calm seemed to return. The First Unitarian Church of Miami hosted a forum, among the first of its kind, featuring psychologists, members of the gay community, supportive clergy, and Miami Mayor Abe Aronovitz in a panel discussion titled “Homosexuality: Cause, Society and Crime.” The house was packed, according to Fejes, and ONE, which covered the event, “pointed to the evening as a model for future discussions.”
But Miami’s newspaper editors were unmoved, and continued to argue that tolerance would invite “perverts and deviants” to settle here, changing Miami from a family tourist paradise into a “Powder Puff Lane.”
The hunt for “perverts” was back on, and over five nights, seven known gay bars were raided, three of them within a one-block area of NE 1st Street in downtown Miami, another one on Le Jeune Road, and three more in the south part of Miami Beach. When circumstantial evidence began pointing to the possibility that the murderer was a family member, the papers dropped the story. But three weeks later, when it was confirmed that the murdered William Simpson had been part of a “pervert colony,” the campaign of vilification heated up again.
The barrage of media coverage included examination of the problem of homosexuality and its causes, and -- from a criminologist’s view -- the best way to drive gays out of Miami. Both the Herald and the News saw homosexuals’ presence as an “offense against the moral character of the city,” according to Fejes. It is interesting to note, as Fejes does, that the relentless newspaper campaign was not the result of pressure from community or religious leaders; in fact, he writes, during the summer of 1954, “there was no mention in the media of any role played, or even a public statement by, local church leaders” to support the campaign against gays. It was of the newspapers’ own making.
By mid-August, editors were calling for the firing of Miami Police Chief Headley and city manager Arthur E. Evans, who supported his policy of not harassing gay establishments. It did not help his cause that Headley had said, “If I ran all the homosexuals out of town, members of some of the best families would lead the parade.” Tolerance, declared the Herald, was akin to “opening the gates to these people” and risked labeling the city as a haven for them.
Police ran more bar raids for the first two weeks of September, as well as a sweep of Bayfront Park. By mid-September, according to Fejes, the City of Miami was itself reacting to the media’s influence. Mayor Aronovitz introduced an ordinance before the city commission that would make it illegal for establishments holding liquor licenses to employ homosexuals or to permit homosexuals to congregate on their premises.
Satisfied with the city’s new vigilance, and concerned that continuing coverage could further damage the Miami’s tourist mecca image, the Herald and the News wound down their campaign. (The wording of the ordinance was later watered down to ban service to homosexuals, and was approved in mid-October, though several commissioners noted their reservations, writes Fejes, and one voted in opposition to it.)
Charles Lawrence and Lewis Killen’s trial for first-degree murder lasted three days and was turned over to the jury for deliberations on Saturday, November 6, at 10:30 p.m. Just four hours later the jury returned with a reduced verdict of manslaughter for both defendants. The principal reasons for the lesser conviction, according to one of the jurors, were Simpson’s homosexuality and the state’s failure to prove premeditation. Later that week the presiding judge, Grady Crawford, sentenced Lawrence and Killen to the maximum penalty, 20 years.
ONE magazine had chronicled with dismay the renewed outbreak of anti-gay hysteria and devoted an entire edition to the lurid stories published in Miami’s newspapers. The magazine’s editors also published an open letter to Mayor Aronovitz, asking him to stop the homophobic campaign or face a boycott from gay visitors. Aronovitz replied that he was delighted ONE would discourage unwelcome visitors.
A few months later, another murder occurred. On the morning of January 5, 1955, the nude body of a 29-year-old hairdresser, William B. Bishop, was found by his roommates, tied up on a divan in the Florida room of their Miami Beach apartment. He had been beaten, “sexually abused,” and strangled. Bishop’s gold watch, along with some clothes and five dollars in cash, were missing.
Using a generic hotel room key found at the murder scene and the eyewitness testimony of a barmaid employed at a bar on Collins Avenue and 74th Street, the trail quickly led to a 21-year-old Korean War veteran from New Jersey, Thomas Francis McDonald. It was a near replay of the Simpson murder, including both McDonald’s claim that he had acted in response to Bishop’s unwelcome sexual advances, and a plea from McDonald’s wife for her troubled husband.
This time, however, the News and Herald ran short articles on inside pages. The Herald downplayed the stories under generic headlines: “Murder Suspect Hunted” and “Murder Charged to Vet in Beach Slaying.”
The News also pushed its stories back to less prominent inside pages, but continued to exploit the salacious elements of the story with headlines such as “Bound, Gagged Beautician Is Found Dead” over a story that included details like the (beautician’s) nude body “trussed with handkerchiefs,” a desk “littered with books about homosexuals,” the “dressing gown sash” that bound the victim’s hands, and information that the dead man’s roommates were a florist and a hairdresser.
Within days, McDonald was indicted for first-degree murder and the papers seemed to lose interest in the story. In May, Grady Crawford, the same judge who presided over the Simpson murder trial, dismissed McDonald’s insanity defense. He was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Absent a child molestation and homophobic agenda, justice seemed to run its course quietly.
Even before Simpson’s murder, Eastern’s executives were considering phasing out male flight attendants. Airline rivals Delta and National had been cutting into Eastern’s market share with advertising campaigns that featured beautiful stewardesses. With slower turnover and the resulting pay increases owing to seniority, stewards were no longer as cost-effective as they had been when introduced in the 1930s, according to Tiemeyer.
In the spring of 1955, Eastern unveiled an overhaul of its entire flight-training program. Newspaper advertisements invited single women to apply for five weeks of training to become an Eastern stewardess. Classes, with all expenses paid, were to be held at the luxurious Miami Springs Villas resort. In July 1955, the first Miami Springs Villas class of 24 graduated. It included seven men already working for Eastern, whose heterosexuality had been confirmed by their supervisors.
Eastern continued training stewards until 1958, but when the airline revamped its flight-attendant academy at Miami Springs Villas in 1963, the building did not include a men’s restroom. After prospective male flight attendants successfully sued several major carriers, claiming sex discrimination, all airlines, including Eastern, resumed hiring stewards by the early 1970s.
As for the local media, both the Herald and News slowly became more circumspect in their coverage of the gay community, but they continued intermittent efforts to drive away the homosexuals through the mid-1960s.
Typical of these recurring offensives was an attack the News unleashed on its front page on February 27, 1956. A three-part series titled “Profits in Perversion” focused on exposing the bar operators who were prospering thanks to their gay clientele. Under the headline “Homosexuals Return, Find Heat’s Off Again,” the first article noted that “homosexuals are appearing openly again in Greater Miami and making money for the operators of clubs which cater to them. … Several hundred -- possibly more than 1000 -- are here this winter and have found that the heat is off from a public protest campaign less than two years ago.” A separate story told about gay men being rounded up and paying fines.
In addition, News reporters wrote, during their three-week investigation, they had visited seven bars in Miami and Miami Beach that had been raided during the 1954 purge. In every bar they were approached by men making “suggestive remarks.”
The bars in question were the same ones that had been raided in 1954. The Samba Bar (220 NE 1st St.), Carnival Bar (137 NE 3rd Ave.), and Vick’s Bar (39 NE 2nd Ave.) were within the same one-block area of downtown Miami that the YMCA and the Greyhound bus station were located. These bars were also a short distance from Bayfront Park.
Three Miami Beach bars -- Club Benni (1610 Alton Rd.), the Circus Bar (401 Ocean Dr.) and Club Echo (1446 Ocean Dr.) -- featured live entertainment and had been the target of the municipal ordinance outlawing female impersonators. The seventh bar, El Carol (930 Le Jeune Rd.), was located on the western edge of Miami. (Missing from the list was the Cactus Lounge at Biscayne Boulevard and NE 20th Terrace, within the “pervert colony” area. Curiously, it was never mentioned in conjunction with the raids, despite it being widely known as Miami’s oldest gay bar.)
The News described one encounter: “A thin, balding man who had seen the reporter at several other places moved into a booth at the Carnival Bar asking, ‘Haven’t I seen you some place before?’ He became annoyed when a suspected deviate tried to sit down, and said, ‘I saw him first.’”
Part two of the series included the names and addresses of the gay-bar operators in Miami and Miami Beach The article also quoted denials from top law enforcement officials that the situation was worsening. Miami Police Chief Headley said that although “we have more than our share,” it was in proportion with the overall tourist influx. Dade County Sheriff Tom Kelly told reporters that “there is no increase in ‘homos’ … downtown Miami is all cleaned up.” The News countered with lower-ranking officers complaining that more gays were in fact coming to the city.
Faced with denials from law enforcement officers, the News got the message and moved its stories farther back in the paper. Part three of “Profits in Perversion” included photographs of the homes of gay-bar owners. But the text rehashed all the “pervert menace” stories from 1954, and included quotes from Lt. Earl Owens, chief juvenile officer with the Miami Police Department, regarding a pending case involving a 15-year-old with gonorrhea who admitted to having sexual relations with six males who were free on bond and further spreading venereal disease.
The article maintained that the much-touted ordinance passed in 1954 was not being enforced and cited a bill approved by the state legislature in 1955 aimed at removing sex offenders (homosexuals) from general society but then failed to fund a facility to treat them. The series concluded by proposing a new state treatment and research facility affiliated with the departments of psychiatry at the University of Florida, University of Miami, and Florida State University.
The final installment of the News series also offered a hint of balance with the headline “Police Policies on Deviates Hit by Psychiatrist.” An unnamed psychiatrist said that a strong law enforcement stand was ineffective: “You can’t beat it out of him, or legislate it out.” Nor would stiffer prison sentences change the situation. He also argued that the law was enforced far more harshly against gay men than against lesbians.
But only ten days later the News was again reporting that 30 men had been arrested in police sweeps over the three preceding weekends and charged with lewd and lascivious conduct at Bayfront Park and the downtown Miami bus station. Similar coverage continued through the mid-1960s, again reaching frenzied levels during investigations of the murders of three gay men between November 1959 and November 1960. One of the murder victims, 56-year-old Charles Joseph Mourey, was the former butler of silent film star Hope Hampton. His murder had many parallels with Simpson’s, including the date, almost six years to the day. He was shot with two .22-caliber bullets and his body was also found on a dirt road leading to a lovers’ lane, this one off NW 7th Avenue and 157th Street. His murderer, who was finally identified in 1984, turned out to have been a 17-year-old student at North Miami High School at the time of the assault.
After singer Anita Bryant launched a campaign to overturn the ordinance, the News backed her position in a March 1977 editorial. The Herald also reversed itself in an editorial titled “An Unneeded Ordinance,” published just before the referendum.
By June 1977, Bryant’s campaign had won, and the discrimination ban was repealed by a margin of 69 to 31 percent, making Miami-Dade the first municipality in the nation to repeal civil rights protection for gays and lesbians. On the upside, the repeal resulted in a surge of gay-rights activism on both the local and national levels.
In December 1998, when Miami-Dade County Commissioner Katy Sorenson reintroduced the gay-rights ordinance, the News was no longer in business, but the Herald supported the effort in an editorial headlined “The Politics of Inclusion.”
Volume 14, Issue 2, April 2016
For 21 years, Miami Light Project’s Here & Now festival has cultivated great work