James Polchin is a New York University professor who has researched hundreds of true crime stories that took place over the past century to decode those involving murders of homosexual men in the years before the gay rights movement. His new book, Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall, is available now from Counterpoint Press.
By the 1940s, editors increasingly applied terms like “improper advance” or “indecent advance” to define the sexual provocation in queer crime stories. Such terms — used both in the press and by defendants in the courtroom — embodied a host of perceived threats of sexual deviants on the home front. Some of these claims were anchored to the dubious psychological theories of homosexual panic developed in the 1920s, while others simply drew on the growing prejudices of the time about the violent nature of homosexuals. The following exclusive excerpt details several such crimes where, as Polchin explains, “The more brutal the crime, the more frequently defendants claimed self-defense against the victims’ sexual advances.”
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In the fall of 1940, the badly beaten body of John Martin, a British citizen and steward on the Queen Elizabeth steamship, was found in the Hotel Belvedere in New York City. Martin was set to leave town the next day. Police would soon arrest two cowboys from Wyoming, who were in the city to perform a rodeo show at Madison Square Garden, for the crime. “Rodeo Performers Tell Police They Beat British Seaman for Improper Proposals,” the Brooklyn Eagle declared in its headline. The newspaper described how Martin’s body was found on the 14th-floor corridor of the hotel, where “a trail of blood led back to Room 1508.” Four cowboys had had a party in the room the night before, one of many such parties in the hotel, which was hosting the cowboy performers. The cowboys told police that during the party Martin had made an “improper proposal,” which sparked the attack, and police determined that Martin had been “dragged out to the corridor.” The article noted, “The room gave evidence of a violent battle.” Initially detectives confined all the rodeo performers to their rooms, placing police guards at the entrance of the hotel while they investigated the murder. This confinement was lifted to allow the cowboys to perform in that evening’s show.
The next day The New York Times described how two “cherubic cowboys” had confessed to the murder. The men had met Martin outside the hotel and invited him to their room where, after a “quarrel,” “the cowhands decided to ‘roll’ the Englishman.” The article described how one man held Martin while his “huskier companion punched the hapless steward until he slumped unconscious to the floor.”
Such stories often simmered with dubious details about assailants’ claims of sexual provocation. Consider the murder of Patrick Murphy, who was found beaten and tied up in his basement apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1945. Murphy had been beaten so badly, The Boston Globe reported, that part of his skull was crushed in from “heavy blows with a blunt weapon.” When he was found, his hands were tied behind him with wire and his body “doubled over at the foot of his bed.” Three young men were soon arrested for the crime. A front-page article in the Globe, which included a photo of the three assailants smiling and laughing at the camera, portrayed the boys as psychopathic delinquents. They ranged in age from 17 to 21, and the oldest was a decorated navy veteran. Once arrested, the young men “showed no concern when arraigned on the murder charges,” the article related, adding, “They were busy reading newspaper accounts of the crime, laughing and pointing out their photographs to each other.”
Reports of their confession claimed that Murphy, who knew some of the men, had served them “coffee and sandwiches, but declined to give his guests beer or lend them money.” The men alleged that Murphy made an “indecent proposal” to the navy veteran, which enraged him. But rather than leave Murphy’s apartment, he instead hit his host and then “chased him around the apartment” until “knocking him unconscious on the bed,” presumably while the other men watched. The article detailed how the sailor “pulled the cord out of the coffee percolator in the kitchen and tied it around Murphy’s wrists and neck.” The men talked “freely after their arrest, describing exactly how they had committed the murder and each claiming to have struck the first blow.” Newspapers reported that the men described Murphy as a “soft touch,” an indication that the killers exploited Murphy’s kindness and vulnerability. The image of the killers as psychopathic delinquents was a powerful disclaimer to their defense. But it also pointed to a renewed element in such crime stories in the postwar years: the links between psychopathic violence, criminality, and sexual perversion.
Just months after reports of Murphy’s murder, the shocking mutilation and murder of world-renowned ballroom dancer Burt Harger made headlines across the country. The New York Times noted that, with his dancing partner, Charlotte Maye, Harger performed at the Biltmore Hotel on Madison Avenue as “the dancing toast of the continent.” Other reports noted that he had “given command performances before the late King George V of England and the present King George VI” as well as the king of Sweden and the former King Alphonso of Spain, and was “well known in Paris night clubs, on the Riviera, in London’s more ritzy theaters and night spots.” The son of a postmaster, Harger was raised in California and studied dance at Stanford University, eventually settling in New York, where he worked as a dancer on Broadway before his ballroom act with Maye.
In late August 1945, Harger had gone missing. At about the same time, body parts started showing up on New York City shores. The Times reported, “The mysteries of the disappearance of Burt Harger . . . and the simultaneous discovery of a dismembered body in the Hudson River [and] in the Rockaway Inlet, Queens were cleared up yesterday when detectives arrested Harger’s roommate on a charge of homicide.” Walter Dahl, a tall, well-built freight solicitor for the Pennsylvania Railroad, had lived with Harger for over a year in their fourth-floor apartment on West 46th Street in Manhattan. He had purposely eluded police for weeks, but in October, he finally confessed to killing Harger with a hammer. According to the press, Dahl “dismembered the body with a razor and butcher knife, dropped the arms and legs off the Weehawken Ferry and the torso off the Staten Island ferry in packages.”
The New York Daily News reported that the “blond, wavy-haired” Dahl was “jittery almost to the point of hysteria” as he confessed to the killing of Harger. Quoting neighbors of the two men, the article described the killer as “good-looking but overly polite — he would bow from the waist and kiss your hand,” but, the paper added, “his friendship for Harger they never questioned.” Dahl confessed that Harger “made improper advances to him as both were ready for bed.” When Dahl resisted Harger, according to reports, the dancer came at him with an ice pick. “Dahl said he hit him with a hammer several times. He saw the dancer was dead so he took the body in the bathroom and, with a kitchen knife, laboriously dismembered it.”
Named the “New York Torso Killing” by the press, the crime gained attention well beyond New York newspapers. “Broadway Beau Held in Murder,” declared The Star Tribune in Dahl’s native Minneapolis. The article described him as a “nattily dressed hanger-on in Broadway circles,” adding that he killed Harger with a hammer after a heated “quarrel over their strange intimacy.” The St. Louis Star and Times included photographs of both Harger and Dahl, the dancer portrayed in profile in a publicity photograph wearing a tuxedo, while Dahl was captured in a casual moment in the police station, looking downward and wearing a dark fedora — his handsome face made lurid by the shadows. Dahl’s self-defense alibi held little traction as “police discounted his story because the two had lived as roommates for 14 months.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer offered the most titillating tale of murder and romance in their long article on the crime published in November. Rendered with the drama of crime fiction, the article begins with an episode of Dahl on a ferry in New York harbor, “between midnight and dawn of late summer.” Setting the scene of a “ferry chugging over to Staten Island” engulfed in late-night darkness, the article noted that a man can feel very safe at such a moment, for “he can rest a carefully-packaged bundle upon the railing and permit the bundle to slip from his fingers over the side.” The image of Dahl standing on the ferry deck, dropping “packages” into the harbor sets a compelling tone of luridness throughout the article. While it details Harger’s career and his professional life with Charlotte Maye — Dahl had known Harger and his dancing partner for five years and together “they made a gay party” — the article focused on the seemingly inexplicable motivations that could drive a man to such a violent crime. We learn that Dahl had sought treatment for a nervous condition weeks after he killed Harger, that he sent fake telegrams to the apartment to alert police that Harger had been traveling on the West Coast, and that police had asked Dahl to tie a package in the interrogation room to see if they matched the knots found on packaged body parts that were washing up on the banks of the Hudson River and Rockaway beaches. “Tall, blond Walter Dahl,” the article concluded, “made his confession finally after he had told several stories, each more fantastic than the other.”
In May 1946, a small article on page 13 of The New York Times noted that Dahl was sentenced to 10 to 20 years for manslaughter — a light sentence for such a gruesome crime. In urging clemency, Dahl’s attorney, “although admitting the crime was a shocking one, declared the slain man ‘dominated’ his client.” The article did not give details for this claim, leaving more mystery about Dahl’s motivations for the brutal crime. Dahl, who suffered from diabetes, would die in prison in 1949 from complications of the disease.
In the murders of Murphy and Harger, claims of improper advances defined the salacious context of the crime and the motive for the violence as the story circulated in the press, even as such claims were dubious in explaining the murder. While much was left uncertain about what propelled the violent attacks in the apartment of each victim, the framing of the crime as an indecent or improper advance confirmed to readers the horrific and gruesome violence that marked such encounters. The more brutal the crime, the more frequently defendants claimed self-defense against the victims’ sexual advances.
In March 1947, William Albrecht met Fiske Dellinger in a bar in Queens that one newspaper described as “a favorite hangout for musicians, stage folk, and other entertainers.” Dellinger invited Albrecht to his apartment after the bar closed. While walking across an open lot, Albrecht claimed Dellinger made “two improper advances to him and struck him,” according to The New York Times. In response, Albrecht hit his companion with a large rock and walked home, leaving Dellinger lying unconscious and bleeding on the ground where he eventually died. A passerby found his body early the next morning. The son of a prominent Boston family, Dellinger was a World War II veteran who worked for Scandinavian Airlines at LaGuardia Field. The Boston Globe featured a photograph of Dellinger in his military uniform and noted that the right side of his face was “crushed in,” suggesting the attack was not a simple rebuke but a much more aggressive assault. The article added, “[T]here had never been any trouble between them before.” The erratic and unexplainable violence that erupted between the two men, the news accounts suggested, was prompted by Dellinger’s persistent sexual provocation.
One of the more remarkable cases of a violent defense against a “homosexual advance” appeared in accounts of the beheading of prison inmate Clarence William Redwine in Angleton, Texas, in December 1948. The story circulated through the Associated Press to a number of regional newspapers in the Midwest and the South. The Chicago Tribune announced on its front page, “Convict Decapitated Leaving Mess Hall of Texas Prison Farm.” In Oklahoma, the Miami Daily News Record was even more explicit in its headline: “Texas Convict Decapitated; Sexual Attacks Are Blamed,” as was the Hope Star of Arkansas, where the editors declared, “Murdered Convict Was Homosexual.”
From these articles, filled with ghoulish details, readers learned that amid a crowd of about two hundred inmates in the Retrieve Prison mess hall, “one prisoner slapped a hand over Redwine’s mouth, while another cut off his head with a small knife.” The head was then left on one of the dining tables, without, reports claimed, any of the guards noticing: “The decapitation last night of one of Texas’ toughest prisoners today was blamed on homosexual attacks he had made on other prisoners.” Reports related that Redwine had been “accused previously of two homosexual attacks.” Little else is explained about the attack, nor were there follow-up articles in the next few days. Beyond raising legitimate concerns about the management of the Texas state prison system, the story of Redwine’s beheading, based on the claim that he had sexually accosted a fellow prisoner, would have little relevance aside from the sensational headlines of brutal violence and sexual deviancy.
Excerpted from INDECENT ADVANCES: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall by James Polchin. Published with permission from Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2019 by James Polchin.