The Newport Sex Scandal of 1919 is the first noteworthy American gay sex scandal. The military's investigation of illicit sexual behavior on the part of U.S. Navy personnel in Newport, Rhode Island provides detailed documentary evidence of a distinctive homosexual community. The investigation and 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 Delano Roosevelt being rebuked by a Congressional committee.
In February 1919, Thomas Brunelle and Chief Machinist’s Mate Ervin Arnold were both patients at the Naval Training Station Hospital in Newport. Brunelle shared with Arnold the details of the gay subculture he belonged to 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 as well as liquor and cocaine.
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 infiltration and entrapment 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 gay sex and their participation in it. They rarely reported any hesitancy or qualms about their direct participation.
Arrests began on April 4 and by April 22 there were fifteen sailors in the brig. 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 operators 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 closet 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 New Hampshire. Two more were dishonorably discharged and two others were found innocent with no further action.
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 innocent on all charges. In his charge to the jury in that case, the judge was a 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. That 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 signers 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 letler. 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.
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 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."
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." 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." (emphasis added) Finally, the committee acknowledge that naval officials were facing a serious problem in Newport at the time with a denunciation of the "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.