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Heaven's sake catch me before I kill more.
I cannot control myself.
William Heirens, 1946
In 1934, a sixty-four-year-old man named Albert Fish was arrested in New York State for the murder, mutilation, and cannibalism of twelve-year-old Grace Budd, This gruesome crime was one episode in about three decades of violence and sexual molestation, a career that involved hundreds of assaults and perhaps fifteen murders of children. In addition to homicidal sadism, Fish had experimented with numerous perverse sexual activities, including self-mutilation and coprophagia, which he recorded in his terrifying diaries.
trial in the spring of 1935 increased public awareness of the further reaches of
sexual deviancy: his story remained in the headlines until his execution at Sing
Sing State Prison in January 1936 and his enduring notoriety was ensured by the
case history published by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. Albert Fish represented
the prototypical multiple killer in his day as definitively as Ted Bundy or
Jeffrey Dh1mer would in
years, and this case cemented the popular identification of the sex offender
with the child killer. [*1]
The Fish case suggested that dangerous perverts were wandering the country and threatening the nation's children and that they might operate for many years before their worst crimes were detected. But because their disorders did manifest symptoms that might be detected long before they actually killed, early intervention could save lives.
Fish was an excellent
advertisement for a
positivist approach to crime: the fact that his case had been allowed to
continue so long showed that authorities were neglecting defective-delinquent
laws and other legal provisions at their disposal, which needed to be revived
and brought into line with new psychiatric insights. His trial and execution
formed a prelude to an era when sex criminals were viewed as a lethal public
danger and even the most trivial sexual deviations were contextualized with
offenses like serial rape and multiple homicide. Although some experts called
for moderation, the popular consensus accepted the most extreme and
threatening interpretations of the sex offender, and the debate focused on how
best to combat this nightmarish danger: lives were at stake.
Fears of a criminal (though nonsexual) threat to children were aroused by the kidnapping wave that peaked with the Lindbergh case of 1932. Between 1934 and 1936, when Bruno Hauptmann was arrested, convicted, and executed for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby, the story often shared front pages with accounts of Fish: Hauptmann's execution followed Fish's by three months. The juxtaposition may have encouraged readers to see the generalized danger to children in explicitly sexual terms.
As in the
Progressive Era, well-publicized
multiple-murder cases contributed to shaping the public image of the sex
criminal as a violent predator. In 1935, Alonzo Robinson was arrested for a
series of murders in the Midwest, crimes that involved cannibalism, mutilation,
and decapitation, and serial rapist Gerald
Thompson was on trial in Chicago for the murder that was the culmination of his
long career of sex attacks. Around 1934 began the most spectacular murder
series of the period, the Cleveland Torso Killings, in which an individual
mutilated up to seventeen victims. Just as this case was at its height in terms
of media excitement, in the summer of 1938, the fourteen or so murders of Joe
Ball were discovered in Texas, while a series of "lovers' lane" murders
began in New Jersey. In 1941,
Catoe was arrested for nine rape-murders in Washington. D.C., and New York City.
Police and media agreed that these crimes were extreme forms of sexual violence:
Alonzo Robinson "admitted that he was a sex pervert, which is considered
to be the underlying cause for the crime," and like Fish, he had a penchant
for sending obscene letters to women. [*2]
In 1937, growing alarm found a focus in New York City, and as in 1915, the affair sprang from the sex murders of young children. Although the 1937 crimes were indeed horrible, the violent public reaction must be seen in the context of the Fish case and its extensive coverage in the metropolitan area, for the new cases were also committed by offenders with lengthy records of sexual misbehavior that should have been noted by authorities.
In March, Salvatore Ossido killed a girl while he was on bail for a rape attempt; on July 31, eight-year-old Paula Magagna was killed by Laurence Marks, who had spent twenty-seven of his forty-nine years in prison, mainly for sex crimes.
News coverage conditioned the public to expect that violent crimes would have perverted motives. When a four-year-old girl was murdered on August 12, this case was contextualized with the "wave" of sex murders, and the culprit was wrongly assumed to be a paroled sex criminal; his actual criminal record listed acts of drunkenness, physical assault, and wife beating. The final week of August brought reports of suspected molesters being threatened by mobs.
by "murderous-minded perverts" provoked a torrent of denunciation by the
press and political leaders, who advocated defensive measures like
fingerprinting those who worked with children or enlisting the aid of
deliverymen in reporting suspicious characters. A New York sheriff earned his
moment of celebrity by recommending that child
attackers be, not arrested, but shot on the spot. The fact that three little
girls in southern California had been gruesomely mutilated and murdered in June
ensured that the threat to children would be seen as not simply an East Coast
problem: these "Pied Piper" murders were immediately, and mistakenly,
blamed on a "degenerate" with a series of convictions for morals offenses against
of a crime wave were strengthened by the behavior of law enforcement agencies.
Under pressure to prove their competence in the face of this menace, police
cracked down on minor offenders whom they normally tended to ignore. This was
because in the cities, at least, mild sexual unorthodoxy was so common that
agencies were obliged to exercise discretion, leaving large sections of the
criminal code virtually un-enforced. There were few bureaucratic rewards in
relentlessly pursuing petty
whose prosecution would simply clog the court system. Offenses were difficult to
prove if the perpetrator made a determined effort to resist prosecution: it
was not easy to prove the sexual intent of a subway frotteur or to show
that a voyeur really intended to spy on neighbors. Official latitude extended
not only to homosexuals but also to known child molesters, like the Boston man
who was something of a local institution and was known by the telling nickname
Tom the Cat; he remained at liberty throughout the 1930s, despite repeated
protests to police by the local child-protection society and his young female
victims. In "normal" years, such activity led to arrest only if it was
blatant or if local citizens took the initiative and trapped a suspected
When a crackdown was needed, police had no dif6culty in tracking down local perverts. Now the usual suspects were arrested rather than let off with a warning, and more serious charges were pressed. Prosecutors and magistrates pursued cases through to conviction and refused to accept the plea bargains that had been standard practice in such cases.
In August 1931, a New York man who had assaulted two ten-year-old girls received what was then an exceptionally severe sentence: twenty-five years to life. The following day, police announced that they were compiling a list of known sex criminals and degenerates with a view to making periodic checks on their whereabouts and behavior.
That more people were being arrested, and for graver crimes, created
the impression that more offenses were being committed. In addition,
newspapers were more likely to report local incidents and to contextualize them
as part of a general problem. The role of New York City and Los Angeles as
media markets ensured that concerns reached the national stage, so that by the
fall of 1937 the sex offender crisis had become the subject of articles in the
Nation, Christian Century, Newsweek, and Literary Digest.
As Fredric Wertham remarked, "Public indignation has reached almost a
mass hysteria which has affected not only the public but also official
panic marked a precedent that would often
be repeated during the next two decades, with notable peaks in1947-50 and
1953-54. The sex crime menace was regularly covered in magazines like Time,
Newsweek, Parents, Coronet, and Collier's, reaching a crescendo
in late 1949 and early 1950, when the topic also became the focus of
radio documentaries. The atmosphere of the time is represented by a series of
articles published by
Collier's, which reported that sex crime by "the rapist, the sex psychopath, the defiler of children" had "virtually gone out of control":
"Rape has increased 200 percent in the past twenty years, the most phenomenal increase of any major category of crime. The hoodlum rapist lurks in the foliage of a dark street waiting for a woman to walk home from the bus-stop. ... And rape-murders: nearly every city has its recent victims."
There was also a vast dark figure of unreported
exposure, following, accosting, and minor molestation": the reporting
figure for forcible rapes might represent anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of the
actual total. According to journalist Howard Whitman, women across the country
were refusing to venture into the streets at night, and communities were
organizing neighborhood crime patrols and warning systems. Cities were
developing "no-woman's-lands" where females were afraid to go
unprotected. "The shadow of the sex criminal lies across the doorstep of
every home." [*6]
The menace to the young was grave, Whitman continued:
"Children in alarming numbers have been the victims of molesters, exhibitionists, perverts, and pedophiles. The sex hoodlum, hanging around schools with comic books and bubble gum to lure his victim, has imbued parents with a stark new fear."
The nation faced "the grotesque, baffling problem of pedophilia": pedophiles were "roaming about, abusing, molesting, luring and perhaps one day killing."
Indeed, certain conclusions seemed obvious:
"As long as there is rampant day to day molestation and abuse of children, some of them are going to be killed."
In every city, perverts were obsessed with the
corruption of the young, and each might have molested dozens or hundreds of
youngsters: even if the molester did not physically harm his victims, "he
would have virtually destroyed them psychologically," Persons in positions
of trust in churches or schools molested large numbers of their charges, raising
the possibility that covert pedophiles had infiltrated the institutions.
It all sounds strikingly familiar.
Crime waves are strictly relative in nature, for what constitutes a crime wave depends on popular expectations of what is proper in terms of public order and safety. Although Whitman might have been accurately reporting social attitudes, his account of national terror was written during one of the safest eras in American urban history, when rates for all forms of violent crime were enviably low by the standards of later decades.
In the late 1940s, for instance, both the media
and the authorities in Los Angeles believed that the city was experiencing an
unprecedented wave of sex
crimes, an image that owed much to the 1947 "Black Dahlia" mutilation murder. In 1949 the city's grand jury listed nine unsolved homicides committed since mid-decade, a "formidable roster of murdered women." In retrospect, it is remarkable that a metropolis of the size of Los Angeles would list so few unsolved cases for a four- or five-year period. [*8]
Perceptions that crime was out of control were stimulated by reports of a handful of spectacularly brutal acts that were then reported at a regional or national level, thus creating an image of a systematic problem. Such cases occurred sporadically from the mid-1940s onward, culminating in the "Horror Week" of November 1949, when three young girls were murdered within the space of a few days. In Fresno, California, a seventeen month-old toddler was raped and left to die, while in Burley, Idaho, a girl of seven was raped before being drowned in a drainage ditch. In Los Angeles, a six-year-old girl named Linda Joyce Glucoft was murdered by Fred Stroble, the elderly grandfather of her playmate.
The media depicted Stroble as a symbol of unalloyed evil, referring to him as a sex fiend, a "weeping werewolf." [*9]
Reported nationally, these cases added fuel to local concerns in cities like Cleveland, which during the previous few years had experienced a number of rape-murders and Sex murders of children as well as the notorious Cleveland Torso Killings mentioned earlier.
By late 1949,
"recurrent visitations of sex violence had given Cleveland a hair-trigger psychology. ... When the flare-up came, the city would be thrown into a flight syndrome of mammoth proportions." [*10]
precipitating incident came in December, when a woman was raped and stabbed. By
this point, "the hysteria syndrome [was] mounting like jungle fever,"
and the Cleveland News ran the headline "City in
Hysteria." Reports told of women arming themselves and taking judo
classes, of men firing their guns at imaginary prowlers. Claiming that street
attacks on women had reached "startling proportions," a grand jury demanded
immediate countermeasures. Community, religious, and parents' groups formed
ad hoc committees to press for intensified police action together with
new legislation against sex criminals.
Cleveland's experience was not untypical. St. Louis was similarly determined to remedy its own problem of
"scores upon scores of children led into alleys and molested on their way to school, the schoolyards turned into hunting grounds for pedophiles and perverts, ... the tots of five and six coaxed into cellar-ways and obscenely handled, the children forced or defiled -- in their ignorance -- into acts of perversion."
Led by the parents of
a child who had fallen victim to a sex killer some years before, parent-teacher associations formed what were unashamedly described as vigilante patrols, and a children's protective association was formed. Women acted as block mothers to escort children on the streets, while children were instructed in the dangers awaiting them.
California was equally agitated following the 1949 child murders. Mass meetings pushed the state legislature to form a special subcommittee on sex crimes, and by December Governor Earl Warren convened a conference, "Sex Crimes Against Children," for law-enforcement agencies.
Fifteen states established commissions to study the sex offender problem, including New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Official investigations kept the sex crime story firmly in the headlines at least through 1951, often through the active cultivation of the media by committee members and witnesses. [*11]
Some agencies played an especially prominent role in promoting the crisis, above all the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover. For Hoover, who popularized the image of sex offenders as predators, the enforcement of sexual morality had been a longtime concern: since the 1920s, a substantial share of the bureau's resources had been devoted to investigating Mann Act prostitution cases, which were termed "organized predatory crimes."
The issue also promised a practical benefit: the decline of the bank robbery and kidnapping waves of the early 1930s had left the FBI without a high-profile cause, while a national drug scare in 1936-37 threatened to divert attention and resources to the rival Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anti-drug rhetoric painted terrifying images of uncontrollably violent drug fiends rampaging across the country, in a manner that uncannily foreshadowed the later images of violent sex fiends: the legendary films Cocaine Fiends and Reefer Madness both date from 1936.
The FBI recouped visibility by generating stories about the "parole scandal," the supposed rash of crimes committed by men unwisely released from prisons. Hoover warned that parole boards were all too often guilty of "in effect, releasing a predatory animal," and in 1937, he claimed that the "sex fiend" was "most loathsome of all the vast army of crime." [*12]
the FBN had the drug issue, then Hoover still had sex and
violence, and he made the most of both. The FBI continued to invest heavily in
its fight against sex fiends until it found a new justification for its
existence with the Nazi spy scares of 1938-40.
After the war, Hoover returned to the sex-maniac theme with a widely quoted article in the American Magazine. In "How Safe Is Your Daughter?" Hoover (or his ghostwriters) asserted,
"The most rapidly increasing type of
crime is that perpetrated by degenerate sex-offenders. ... [It] is taking its toll at the rate of a criminal assault every forty-three minutes, day and night in the United States. ... Depraved human beings, more savage than beasts, are permitted to rove America almost at will."
Failure to confront degeneracy created "a situation which leaves maimed and murdered women lying in isolated areas, which leaves violated children in a state of hysteria."
Throughout these years, newspapers repeatedly cited the FBI as a primary source for warnings that parents should protect their children by reporting suspicious characters. The agency distributed posters urging children to beware of "stranger danger":
"Boys and girls, ... for your protection, remember to turn down gifts from strangers, and refuse rides offered by strangers."
In 1960, the bureau urged a national drive against
molesters, and by 1962, Hoover was calling for teachers and other school
employees to be finger-printed so that accused molesters could be screened out.
The sense of threat was reinforced by the mass media, especially the cinema. Although censorship made it impossible to deal overtly with perverts, rapists, or child molesters, the subject of warped killers did not fall under the same restrictions, as violence could be depicted even when sex was taboo. Fictional explorations of sex crime thus concentrated on the most serious aspect of the problem, namely the "maniac killer," whose sexual motivation could be subtly implied. [*14]
The best known portrayal was Peter Lorre's performance in the German film M (1931), which appeared in an American remake in 1951. Also influential was Alfred Hitchcock's version of the Jack the Ripper story in The Lodger (1926), which was remade in both 1932 and 1944. The number of treatments accelerated from 1937, the year in which Night Must Fall portrayed a deranged sex killer who carried the heads of his women victims as trophies. Later years brought
Stranger on the Third Floor (i940),
Shadow of a Doubt (1943),
The Brighton Strangler (1945),
Spiral Staircase (1946),
The Sniper(1952), and
While the City Sleeps (1956).
There was even a humorous treatment in Arsenic and Old Lace (the play opened in 1938, and the film was released in 1944).
films depicted monstrous predators motivated
by a perverted and compulsive sexuality, and the stories often directly borrowed
from such real-life cases as those of Fish and William Heirens. Such works
raised public sensitivity about sex criminals and at the same time disseminated
the psychodynamic theories then in vogue in expert circles.
themes appeared in novels by thriller writers like Robert Bloch and Jim
Thompson, and Bloch's The Scarf (1947) was favorably reviewed
by Fredric Wertham in a psychiatric journal.
Charles Jackson's Outer Edges (1948) portrayed a convincing child killer, a mentally defective youth who rapes and mutilates two small girls who accept a ride in his car. These books showed an acute awareness of the media's role in manipulating public fears over sexual violence: In The Scarf, a sensationalistic journalist urges a colleague to write a book on the Cleveland Torso Killings:
"People like to read about it. Look at the way those true detective magazines sell. Sex crimes. Blood. Everybody wants to know. ... Ever hear about the ritual murders we had out here? The devil worshipers? They cut up a kid."
The Outer Edges is less concerned with the unimpressive murderer himself than the means by which the media transform him into a fiend, generating polychromatic images that different consumers can regard with horror or admiration according to taste. As one journalist remarks, the case is "a beaut," and he has few illusions about his own role.
"That's what he was here for: gore and bloodshed, rape, and if possible, mutilation, was what they wanted. It was his job to give it to them, even to stretching a point here and there if he thought of something good." [*15]
As the cliché still holds,
bleeds, it leads." In pulp fiction, maniac killers were a staple of the new
genre of extreme horror comics like Tales from the Crypt, founded in
1950 at the height of the panic.
Changed perceptions of the "menace" can usefully be traced by means of the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, a standard source for research in American history. Although during the middle years of the century the Reader's Guide usually listed at most one entry per year on sex crimes or sex offenses, there were eleven items in 1937, sixteen between 1948 and 1950, and ten in 1953-54.
A similar picture emerges from other indexes covering a comparably lengthy time span, especially the annual index to the New York Times. Also, index categories changed to reflect popular usage: if a newspaper reported a sexual act involving a child, the classification of this deed and the significance that it was accorded varied according to the era in which it occurred. From the early years of the century to 1936, sexual misdeeds were submerged under the general heading of "assaults" or "robberies and assaults," where they made up a tiny proportion of the hundreds of stories each year about physical violence, muggings, and gang fights. Indecent acts rarely appeared unless they involved some additional element which made them sensational or newsworthy.
"Sex crimes" appear as a separate index category in Reader's Guide and
York Times only during the 1937 panic. Once the Times began its
heading, this general term covered actions ranging from rape, child
molestation, and sex murder through voyeurism, homosexuality, abortion,
indecent exposure, and pornography, and throughout the 1940s, all were seen as
culpable, damaging, and presumably derived from a similar etiology. The act
of naming the menace was crucial to assimilating these diverse types of conduct
into a single problem and, moreover, as a threat directed at children.
The national threat was seen as one posed by sex fiends or sex psychopaths, terms that were used interchangeably. Most quantitative estimates drew no distinction between violent or predatory sex crimes and minor or consensual acts. If the latter were included, then the nation had many thousands or even millions of sex criminals, but these numbers were then presented as if they referred to individuals like Albert Fish. The Saturday Evening Post asserted:
"Most of the sex killers are psychopathic personalities. No one knows, or can even closely estimate, how many tens of thousands of them are loose in the country today." [*16]
The image of the compulsive sex fiend was reinforced by notorious cases of child killers like Fred StrobIe and Laurence Marks. ApparentIy a classic example of predictable dangerousness, Marks had several insane relatives and a lengthy record of sexual violence in his own background. Before he committed murder in 1937, he had twice been convicted of sexual acts against little girls and had served two lengthy prison terms. In the words of Bertram Pollens, who headed the sex clinic at the prison on New York City's Rikers Island,
"It is obvious that he was a mere marionette, propelled by blind forces and instinctive cravings which his intellect was powerless to stem."
In 1946 the case of William Heirens fostered the identification of sex offenders and sex psychopaths. Heirens had committed several hundred burglaries and three murders, including that of a six-year-old girl whom he dismembered, as well as hundreds of petty sex crimes like the theft of women 's underwear. He left at one murder scene a note that read, "For Heaven's sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself," which was apparently a model of the psychodynamic theory of crime [*17]
Heirens was only seventeen when he was
arrested; his case, like Jesse Pomeroy's, seemed to show that monsters were
formed at an early age and that, if they were not detected, their criminal
careers might last for a very long time.
before the outbreak of the sex crime panic, the psychodynamic origin of
criminality was a critical area of research for American psychiatrists, and
the sex psychopath issue became a major focus of concern in the professional
literature. Between 1937 and 1946, articles on sex crime appeared
in all the major scholarly psychiatric journals, and in 1938, Karl Bowman and
others contributed to a special symposium in Mental Hygiene. Concern
peaked once more between 1948 and 1952: this period brought coverage in Diseases
of the Nervous System and the American Journal of Psychiatry as well
as an important symposium in Federal probation. [*18]
The contemporary portrait of the psychopath resembIed nineteenth-century doctrines about moral insanity. In 1949, Philadelphia child murderer Seymour Levin was seen as a classic psychopath who recognized the difference between right and wrong but who was
"not willing or able to exert inhibitions against anti-social behavior as strong and effective as those which can be exerted by the average person,"
The doctrine was viewed as simplistic by many professionals in psychiatric practice, but it found distinguished supporters. Perhaps the best-known authority for some forty years was Benjamin Karpman, who wrote in 1951 that
"sexual psychopathy involves a type of sexual behavior characterized by socially prohibited aggressiveness, by lack of regard for the unwilling participant; by being compulsive and irresistible in character; and by being committed under the influence of an exceptionally strong overwhelming urge, the tension of which is released by the particular behavior,"
Accounts of "compulsive and irresistible" behaviors pervaded the reports that now guided official reaction to sex crime. New Rampshire's 1949 investigation declared:
"The sexual psychopath is interested only in the immediate satisfaction of his instinctive drive, irrespective of the manner of attainment or of consequences. His action is usually directed toward the innocent and the unsuspecting or helpless members of the opposite sex. The victim is attacked in a lonely location, the assault is accompanied by force, brutality or violence, even sufficient to cause death. Elaborate plans are usually made for a quick escape and against the possibility of recognition. This cunning is invariably present and marks the sexual psychopath." [*19]
Although experts did agree that psychopaths existed, they could not agree about exactly how these deviants might be recognized or even characterized. Karpman himself agreed that
"there is no consensus concerning the meaning of the word psychopath: it is a loosely-conceived entity
regarding which psychiatrists disagree. The broadness of definition allows its interpretation to include homosexuals, adolescents and young children."
As one institutional psychiatrist claimed, " I have lived with the
criminal for 24 years, and I know there is the psychopathic individual, but I
just cannot describe him." Another therapist summarized the criteria as
"anyone who is a queer guy, the fellow that does not fit, he is a
psychopath." Remarks of this kind made nonsense of the Saturday Evening
Post's assertion that the "psychopathic personality can easily be
detected early in life by any psychiatrist" and of the corollary that
preventive legislation could be drafted easily. [*20]
If identifying the psychopath was so difficult, then it was impossible to trace the developmental stages of the condition. The general public, however, saw no such obstacles: the sex offender and the sex psychopath differed only in the degree of the threat. Criminologist Edwin Sutherland argued that popular views of sex offenses were pervaded by outrageous myths,
"that most sex crimes are committed by sexual degenerates, sex fiends or sexual psychopaths, and that these persons persist in their sexual crimes throughout life; that they always give warning that they are dangerous by first committing minor offenses; that any psychiatrist can diagnose them with a high degree of precision at an early age." [*21]
was accurately summarizing the general opinion that offenses progressed from
minor misdeeds to severe violence. Although an exhibitionist caused no direct or
immediate harm, the pleasure that he obtained by exposing himself was
sadistic and might escalate: "This sadistic urge may no longer remain
satisfied merely from the look of horror on women's faces ... but may translate
itself into stronger and more potent sadistic drives such as rape, assault or
murder." Whitman agreed, "The exhibitionist may become a molester,
the molester may become a rapist, the rapist may become a killer." As
Pollens wrote in 1938, "The misdemeanants of today may be the rapists and
murderers of tomorrow." Hoover argued, "with few exceptions, long before
a sex criminal reaches his eventual crime of violence, there is ample evidence
of his tendencies." [*22]
The perception that all sex offenses were ultimately linked was crucial for policy and legislation. There were no minor sex offenses, and contemporary authors regularly place quotation marks around the word minor in this context.
In 1948, the psychiatrist brought in to train St. Louis police in
how to respond to child molestation offered instruction in supposedly related
behaviors like "transvestism, fetishism, exhibitionism, sadism,
pedophilia, and the whole gamut of sex psychopathy." [*23] The 1952 film The
Sniper shows police investigating a sex murder by holding a "showoff",
which an array of known offenders is put on parade, to the hilarity of a police
audience; the implication is that a serial killer would be drawn from the ranks
of these "rapists, defilers, peeping toms," and so on.
The escalation idea found equivocal support from Karpman, whose 1954 text The Sexual Offender and His Offenses went through nine printings over the next decade. Karpman himself occasionally sounds relativist in his approach, noting the opinion that "sex offenses are behavior that offends a particular society in a particular culture."
Like most psychiatric experts, he acknowledges that sex offenses are committed by a wide variety of types: at least in some instances, proper intervention and treatment could ensure that a single act would not be repeated and need not be a stepping-stone to a lifetime career. On the other hand, there were true sex fiends like Heirens and Marks and the murderer whose case Karpman discusses, "a constitutional psychopathic inferior, doomed from birth to be a menace."
One might think that Karpman of all people would therefore deny that the sex offender is automatically a sex psychopath, and yet this is precisely what he does claim, accepting a sweeping definition of the problem:
"A sexual offense is sexual behavior that offends the particular society in which the offender lives. ... The majority of sexual crimes, but not all, are the result of sexual deviation. The sexually deviated person is commonly known as a sexual psychopath." [*24]
It is this last leap of logic that is most startling.
view that sexual deviation was closely related to aggressive sexual crime had
bleak implications for homosexuals, who faced the most immediate collateral
damage from the movement against psychopathy. [*25] Some observers saw homosexuals
as ipso facto dangerous, but even the most benevolent writers discussed
homosexuality alongside other pernicious behaviors and conditions, so that a
stigma was certain to be acquired.
ambiguous psychiatric attitude was represented by Karpman, whose views were
quite liberal for the mid-1950s. He was happy to imagine homosexuals becoming
"normal perverts," and he offered case studies of homosexuals in
"married" relationships, for "to the extent that the pervert ...
is moral, he is also normal." Yet Karpman had no hesitation in including
homosexuality in his list of sexual offenses: the mere fact of having
homosexual desires constitutes a deviation in its own right, while fulfilling
those desires through intercourse invokes the offense of "sodomy
pederasty." In his text, homosexuality stands alongside grievous acts like
rape, necrophilia, fetishism, exhibitionism, and bestiality, and the condition
was in close psychic proximity to sadomasochism, pedophilia, and incest. In a
telling juxtaposition, Karpman noted that "of 270 cases of sexual
psychopathy studied in an army hospital, the great majority were cases of
homosexuality." Walter Bromberg's discussion of this topic began with the
phrase, "homosexuality, a variant of sexual psychopathy." [*26]
Prevailing therapeutic orthodoxy viewed homosexuality as a form of arrested psycho-sexual development, one likely to be associated with an unnatural attraction toward children. As Freud had pronounced, "Perverted sexuality is nothing but infantile sexuality magnified and separated into its component parts."
In 1951, an editorial in Psychiatric Quarterly asserted,
"The adult homosexual ... is in a stage of arrested psycho-sexual development; he is not far above the child level. ... If most homosexual adults are attracted chiefly to other adults -- which is debatable -- many are still attracted to children; and more still are attracted to adolescents. The impulse to seduce is, like homosexuality itself, characteristic of arrested development."
Bromberg remarked of homosexuality that,
"in this group, the criminal action varies from relations between adults who openly avow their incIination, to homosexual activity with young boys or adolescents under threat or though the use of trickery." [*27]
Mid-century dictionaries and
medical texts defined pederast
in terms of both "boy-love" and anal sex and gave sodomite as a
synonym, so that English usage thoroughly supported the identification of
homosexuals and pedophiles.
Tolerance for homosexual lifestyles was inversely proportionate to the degree of popular concern over sex crimes and threats to children. When public fears were at their height, homosexuals were most vulnerable to vice purges and mob vigilantism, to incarceration and medical intervention.
southern California, the rumored molestation of a young boy in the fevered
atmosphere of 1936 led to an attack on local homosexuals by the vigilante White
Legion. In 1955, the city of Boise, Idaho, began a purge of its gay underworld, a
phenomenon that gained celebrity when it was depicted as
a twentieth-century witch-hunt in the book The Boys of Boise. Originating
in a power struggle between rival factions in the state's business and
political establishment, the vice campaign was explicitly justified on chiId-protection grounds. As Time reported, "A widespread
homosexual underworld that involved some of Boise's most prominent men ... had
preyed on hundreds of teenage boys for the past decade." [*28]
Predatory themes permeate Whitman's Terror in the Streets (1951), which describes men who commit sexual acts against small girls as "pedophiles" but men who molest boys as "homosexuals," suggesting an equivalence between the two terms. One Pittsburgh sex offender "murdered an eleven year old boy during the forceful commission of a homosexual act," after having earlier been "brought to court for molesting little girls": the contrast is evident, in that crimes against little girls did not involve a "heterosexual act."
Even homosexual activities between adults are couched in the language of criminality:
"Detroit, like most big cities, is plagued by the homosexual prowIer. ... He makes a flagrant display of himself in the public lavatories; he infests the most beautiful public parks, making them repugnant and fearsome to decent citizens. Police know that such men are dangerous -- that when trapped, they may kill."
The term prowler connotes predatory criminal activity, but here it is employed for men engaged in urban cruising, seeking consensual sex partners. Lesbians are also so characterized:
"actual female prowlers who accost women and try to proselyte [sic] girls quite as vilely as men prowl after other men, and with quite the same possibilities of violence and murder." [*29]
The word proselyte creates an image of homosexuality as an evangelistic cult as well as a communicable condition, a foretaste of the modem speculation that pedophile rings are literally cult like or ritualistic. The metaphor dated hack to the turn of the century, and in 1925, raids on a pioneering gay rights organization in Chicago led to newspaper headlines on the theme of "Strange Sex Cult Exposed."
that homosexuals, male or female,
convert the victims they molest and thereby create a new generation of
perverts. The language of evangelism recurs throughout the literature: in 1943,
Lewis Dosbay's cohort of "boy sex offenders" included an Italian teenager
who "became involved with a vicious group of adults who conditioned him to
all the practices and ceremonials of homosexualism." Cult imagery appears
in Whitman's case study of Detroit murderer Theodore Hilles, who in 1949
killed a six-year-old boy. Hilles's career of perversion and homicide is blamed
on his having been exploited by a series of older homosexual men during his
several years as a male prostitute; be himself became drawn to younger boys,
whom be abused in turn, "and the vicious circle of proselytism was
Homosexuals were therefore seen as a serious social danger. In 1949, former Los Angeles prosecutor Eugene O. Williams warned:
"The sex pervert, in his more innocuous form, is too frequently regarded as merely a
queer individual who never hurts anyone but himself. All too often we lose sight of the fact that the homosexual is an inveterate seducer of the young of both sexes, and is ever seeking for younger victims."
Popular tolerance continues until "the mangled form of some child or woman directs the attention of the world to the fact that sex perverts do exist."
A Los Angeles police psychiatrist wrote, "The homosexual will murder his victim during an act of sexual frenzy and afterwards rob him." Coronet magazine cautioned that homosexuals "descend through perversion to other forms of depravity, such as drug addictjon, burglary, sadism and even murder." [*31]
Desultory enforcement of laws against homosexual activity permitted law enforcement to exercise wide discretion, often in exchange for bribes, but laxity ended suddenly during a sex crime panic. Sodomy arrests in New York City recalled an all-time high in the late 1930s, with more than 180 cases in both 1936 and 1938, each more than double the figure for 1932. [*32]
Arrests for homosexual activity in New York's subway lavatories ran at 707 in 1940 and 1,072 in 1944, but 3,289 in the "crime wave" year of 1948. Waves of anti-gay panic followed in other cities in the late 1940s, when writers on sex crime urged police vice squads to work "tirelessly tracking down every instance of perversion, however slight."
In Pjttshurg, "the prowling of sex deviates around movie houses, public lavatories and a downtown shopping arcade became so blatant in 1948 that the citizens rose up in arms. They told the Bureau of Police that their town virtually was being taken over." [*33]
In response, the morals squad began a campaign against "the blatant prowlers, the ones who made quagmires out of public parks, the proselytizers of youth," making almost five hundred "homosexual arrests" during a twenty-month period.
The "queer threat" was now taken up by other activists. In February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy warned of the hordes of Communists who had infiltrated the State Department, and the twin dangers from Reds and perverts were soon assimilated. According to contemporary mythology, the danger of Communist blackmail was severe: Hitler is alleged to have had a list of homosexuals in high posts allover the world. This list is supposed to have fallen into the hands of the Russians."
In 1951, the FBI launched what became a vast program against sex deviates, set up to purge highly placed homosexuals, and the ensuing inquisition forced hundreds to resign from their official positions. Karpman denounced the attack on homosexuals as "hysteria, ... an orgy of intolerant and sadistic hatred, a means of releasing free-floating hostility"; but the psychiatric profession as a whole
the concept of homosexuality as a severe pathology, and this was the view
enshrined in the 1952 formulation of mental diseases in DSM-1, the diagnostic
and statistical manual of the American Psychiatric Association. [*34]
of sex psychopaths led many states and cities to establish investigative
commissions, some of which confirmed public fears, but a remarkable number did
not. To the contrary, this research fundamentally challenged the orthodox view
of sex offenders. The most sophisticated studies argued that the number of sex
crimes was nowhere near as great as had been alleged, that the raw statistics
were misleading and had been used to exaggerate the amount of predatory or
violent sex crime, and that offenders were far less persistent and compulsive
than was commonly believed. These critiques provided devastating evidence to
counter the escalation theory -- that all sex offenses represented evolutionary
stages in a progression that culminated in sex murder.
The most influential investigation was that of the New York City Mayor's Committee for the Study of Sex Offenses, whose 1940 report was still a decade later "the only statistically exhaustive official study on the subject." The investigation grew out of the 1937 murders, when an independent citizens' committee on crime examined the sex offender menace. In response, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed his own blue-ribbon commission, with Morris Ploscowe as consultant.
In its report, the committee devoted a great deal of
space to challenging myths about sex fiends, observing that, since many sex
offenses were mala prohibita acts penalized in some societies but not in
others, they were unlikely to reflect a deep-rooted human pathology. Further,
"there was no wave of sex crimes in New York City during the 1930s":
offenses were rare and did not represent the immense increase of the sort
portrayed by the news media. Several child murders committed by sex perverts
had indeed occurred, but "no more were they a crime wave than five, ten,
even fifteen cases of smallpox among seven-odd million people means an
epidemic." Given the city's vast population, the two or three thousand
people who were arrested each year for sex offenses should be considered a
"phenomenally low" figure. [*35]
majority of so-called sex offenders earned the label for acts that on closer
analysis did not seem particularly threatening, still less psychopathic. In
New York City, 3,295 individuals indicted for sex felonies during the decade
1930-39 were subsequently convicted, although in about two-thirds of the cases,
the convictions were ultimately for lesser offenses
Percentage Convicted of Felony
|impairing morals of a minor||1,463|
Report and Analysis of Sex Crimes in the City of New York for the Ten-Year
Period 1930 -1939
(New York: Mayor's Committee for the study of Sex Offenses. 1940). p. 42.
of the total, of 414 cases, were for sodomy, a vague term for acts
that were generally consensual. No fewer than 1,948 offenders, or 59 percent,
were charged with statutory rape, or having sex with a female under the age of
eighteen, regardless of the relative ages of the parties. Only in 1950 did New
York designate consensual sex between a man under twenty-one and a girl under
eighteen as a misdemeanor rather than a felony, and even then it was designated
as rape in the third degree. [*36]
Repeated claims that sex crimes were increasing customarily referred to rape, without differentiating between forcible rape (completed or attempted) and statutory rape. When J. Edgar Hoover warned that a sex crime was committed every forty-three minutes, he based this on combined statistics for both forcible and statutory rapes nationwide; although the confusion may have been innocent, the FBI had a powerful interest in making sex crime statistics look as ominous as possible.
Not until1958 did the agency's
Uniform Crime Reports begin
differentiating between types of rape, and as many contemporaries pointed out,
no clear trend could really be discerned in such figures. Karpman himself
acknowledged that the alleged explosion of sex crimes could mainly be
explained by non-pathological instances of statutory rape. [*37]
An increase in reported sex crimes did not necessarily mean that more sex crimes were being committed, because changes in reported offenses reflected fluctuations in police activity rather than trends in actual behavior. Between 1930 and 1936, the number of arrests for indecent exposure in New York City ran at about 280 each year, a figure that surged to more than 500 in the panic year of 1937, and it remained at this higher plateau into the mid-1940s. [*38] The years 1936-37 also marked sharp increases in arrests for impairing the morals of a minor as well as for sodomy: in each case, arrests at the end of the decade were roughly 50 percent higher than in the early 1930s.
the acts that did occur were usually not the work of obsessive recidivists.
The mayor's committee concluded that first-time offenders committed the
majority of sex crimes, and when sex offenders had previous records, they
were usually for non-sexual misdeeds. Of the 3,295 sex offenders convicted
for sex felonies during the decade, only 298 (9 percent) had previous records of
sex offenses. "The habitual sex offender, who specializes in
the commission of sex crime, is the least conspicuous figure among the offenders
with criminal records." Of 555 individuals convicted of sexual acts during
1930, only 40 were again charged with a like offense
the next decade, and 9 of these were acquitted or discharged. "Sporadic
with some, sex crime is a single episode in the lives of many." [*39] The observation may be flawed, for perhaps the police simply did not catch the
habitual offender again or bother to arrest him when they did; even so, the
committee's perception would have repercussions throughout the 1950s.
That the acts making someone a sex offenderwere often
trivial is illustrated by Dosha'.s study of 256 sex offenders, boys ages seven
to sixteen, who were being treated at the New York City Children's Court clinics
between 1928 and 1933. Doshay's conclusion, enlightened for the time, was that
early apprehension for a sex offense need not lead to a subsequent career of
sexual deviancy: "Given the benefit of proper court and clinic treatment,
juvenile sex delinquency tends to become automatically self-curing." [*40]
number of offenses were remarkably trivial. Doshay's account of offenses
begins with the "excessive masturbation" found in one-fifth of the
experiences" simply meant relations with a girl of a similar age.
The proportion of offenders who went on to commit further offenses was also trivial, including only ten sex violations for the whole cohort (mainly sexual interference with younger girls.
is ill this tiny subgroup that we find the rare case
histories of authentic sex criminals like "Harold," a Bronx boy who was
repeatedly arrested for various acts, including exhibitionism, molestation, and
harming a girl with a lighted match. His later career involved convictions
for burglary, and in 1939, when he was twenty-one, a group of men found him
molesting a young girl. He was killed while allegedly jumping from the roof to
|[Page 69] Table 3.2|
Sex Offences Among 256 Boys in New York City, `928-1933
|speaking or writing obscenity||47|
|sodomy with father or older siblings||14|
|sodomy with another adult||50|
|sodomy with same age boy||26|
|sodomy with younger boy||7|
|sodomy with girl||7|
|sodomy with younger siblings||4|
|"all types of perversion"||23|
|group affairs with girls||3|
|sex attempts with gierls||25|
|touching little girls' parts||26|
|touching sister's parts||5|
|touching woman's parts||18|
|incest with sisters||13|
|attempted incest with mother||1|
|violent sex assault on woman||1|
Based on lewis J. Doshay, The Boy Sex Offender and His Later Career (1943:
reprint, Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1969), p. 72.
By the late 1940s, a great deal of quantitative evidence was available to challenge the outrageous charges made by the media about the scale of the sex crime problem. Various state-level inquiries denied that sex crimes were surging, as the FBI claimed, and showed that rates might even be dropping. [*43]
This material provided the basis for two well-known criminologists' attacks on the construction of the psychopath problem.
The first was Edwin Sutherland, a sociologist who played
a critical role in the development of criminological thought; he was a pioneer in
the study of what he dubbed "white-collar crime." In two important
articles published in 1950, Sutherland analyzed 324 reported murders of women
and children, found that only 5 percent involved rape or suspicion of rape, and
by sex fiends were far rarer than popular opinion might suggest. This estimate was
compatible with modem homicide statistics, which indicate that between 1 and 2
percent of all homicides are committed in the course of sexual attacks, while the
vast majority of murders are the work of
or family members. If indeed sex fiends by the thousands were roving
across the country, most of them were causing extraordinarily little damage. Those who
believed that sex crime was a serious problem criticized
Sutherland for taking his accounts of murders from the sober New York Times rather
than other papers with amore avid interest in sensational crime, but even if he
was understating the issue, he was not doing so to any significant degree. [*44]
Another critic was Sutherland's long-standing rival Paul Tappan, who in 1950 was the technical consultant for a report by New Jersey's Commission on the Habitual Sex Offender, which largely replicated the findings of the mayor's committee. This gave Tappan a platform from which to attack the sex psychopath problem, allowing him to list "myths about the sex of fender":
"That tens of thousands of homicidal sex fiends stalk the land, ... that the victims of sex attack are 'ruined for life,' ... that sex offenders are usually recidivists,' ... that sex psychopathy or sex deviation is a clinical entity."
Current concern was wildly distorted, he claimed:
"The vast majority of the sex deviates are minor offenders. ... Most of the persons adjudicated are minor deviates, rarely if ever sex fiends,"
At most 5 percent of convicted sex offenders were dangerous in the sense of using force or inflicting injury. Most offenders were "immature and underdeveloped emotionally and sexually," with sex drives well below rather than above the normal range. [*45]
being persistent and unstoppable, "sex offenders have one of the lowest rates as repeaters of
all types of crime," and only homicide offenders were less likely to repeat
their crimes: the New Jersey study found that only 7 percent of sex offenders
had previously been arrested for similar offenses in the past. Moreover, many of
the offenses were harmless or consensual acts like homosexuality and
Tappan drew ammunition from the recently published research by Alfred Kinsey into human sexual behavior. However questionable their methodologies, the Kinsey reports showed convincingly that "deviant," "perverted," or "unnatural" acts were remarkably common: far more people said that they had engaged in homosexual acts than any previous study had indicated, and many heterosexuals regularly engaged in behavior that technically qualified as felony sodomy, As Tappan noted,
"A very large number of the male population of New Jersey has engaged in practices coming within the enumerations of our present abnormal sex offender law, on the basis of which they might he committed to one of our state mental hospitals. ... The number of cases that could he held under the statute in the future is virtually unlimited. "
As Ploscowe noted in 1951, if Kinsey was right, then each year there might be 6 million acts of sodomy and deviant sex for every twenty convictions. A Pennsylvania legislative commission cited Kinsey's estimate that two-thirds of the total male population had engaged in perverse sexual behavior. If true, Pennsylvania had some 2.3 million male sexual deviates, with only two hundred psychiatrists to deal with them an. Karpman noted,
" According to Kinsey, 85 percent of the younger male population could be convicted as sex offenders if laws were strictly enforced": "sex offenders are a very large portion of the population."
Ellis asked, skeptically, if every man who had ever had a same-sex contact
should be labeled a sex psychopath. [*46] If nearly everyone was a deviant, then
there was no norm from which one could be said to deviate.
In the first phase of the sex crime panic, between 1937 and 1940, special legislation against sex offenders emerged as an ad hoc response to the menace portrayed by the media and law enforcement, but the prescriptions were without any detailed theoretical foundation.
After 1945, steadily accumulating technical and social scientific evidence should have suggested a need for caution about the sex psychopath problem and about the connection between such individuals and lesser offenders. [*47]
Moreover, the pitfalls in any proposed
statutes were obvious to most experts, as predictable as the stages of a
mathematical proof: confining petty sex offenders for preventive purposes
would impose a disproportionate burden on minor deviants while diverting
attention from the truly threatening cases, and there would be massive
over-diagnosis of sex psychopaths. But the faster the criticisms accumulated in
the late 1940s, the more enthusiastically legislatures passed new sex offender
legislation. By 1960, a majority of American states had acquired sex psychopath
statutes founded on exactly the principles that the medico-legal experts
simplest explanation for this paradox was that social and demographic trends
created constituencies with a powerful interest in demanding official
protection from the perceived menace. One aspect of this was the sense of risk
among women whose husbands were in the armed services. The war years of
1941-45 and 1950-53 disrupted traditional family structures, removing millions of
adult men and bringing large numbers of women into the workforce to replace
them. Between 1940 and 1944, the proportion of women in the workforce grew from
27 to an unprecedented
35 percent, and 3 million women were employed in war production. Many women felt themselves to be without the protection of their husbands, and the need for day care left children separated from nuclear family units. [*48]
The ascendancy of the
sex criminal as a media villain reinforced the sense of a threat to women alone
during wartime. A spate of thrillers like Gaslight and Experiment
Perilous depicted isolated women threatened by sex fiends and psychopaths or
other homicidal menfolk, and The Seventh Victim pioneered the image of
women pursued by a homicidal satanic cult. When American men returned from the
forces in vast numbers after 1945, the process of their wives resuming their "proper" roles in the
home was greatly facilitated by the
comforting knowledge that the renunciation of paid work contributed to
protecting children from the legion of sex fiends. This message was reiterated
over the next decade by women's magazines and religious and family
Although the end of war in 1953 restored a normal gender balance to American society, it was also around this time that the baby boom was peaking, and the emphasis of sexual fears decisively focused on the danger to children. Precisely then, the phrase "child molesting" became nearly synonynous with sex crime in media usage: whereas J. Edgar Hoover in 1947 had rhetorically asked the American public "How Safe Is Your Daughter?" the title of his 1955 article was "How Safe Is Your Youngster?
Reader's Guide the
phrase child molesting first appeared in 1953, in an article in Better
Homes and Gardens, and family-oriented magazines began serving as the
chief vehicles for coverage of the molestation issue, from Parents, Ladies'
Home Journal, and National Parent Teacher magazine to Redbook and
Good Housekeeping, with their regular stories on the lines of "How
to Protect Your Children Against Perverts." Self-help and community
child-protection schemes became a flourishing sub-genre within the family
magazines, peaking in 1957. [*49] Thereafter, molestation stories fell to one or two
a year, remaining at that level till the new explosion in the late 1970s.
Lawmakers and police faced overwhelming pressure to do something about sex crime, and special legislation directed against sex psychopaths was the natural quick fix. In the desperate public mood of 1937 or 1949, it would have taken suicidal courage to oppose or even question a bill ostensibly intended to protect the innocent from sex fiends, even if a legislator knew perfectly well that the measure would be worse than useless.
(In the late 1940s, a third of Americans surveyed believed that "prison is too good
for sex criminals. They should be publicly whipped or worse."). [*50]
Legal action to
defend women and children was politically profitable or even essential, and
the possibility of injustice against minor offenders was scarcely worth
Also, although psychiatric opinion about the psychopath problem was by no means united, this period was marked by sharp growth in the therapeutic profession (in both numbers and prestige) and in their influence in policy making. Stimulated by major grants from private concerns like the Rockefeller Foundation, medical schools and universities devoted far greater attention to psychiatric research from the 1930s, especially in the area of crime and violence, and research centers developed in several cities.
The raw numbers are impressive:
the American Psychological Association grew from 2,739 members in 1940 to 30,839 by 1970;
the American Psychiatric Association expanded from 2,423 members to 18,407 in the same period.
As George Chauncey notes, psychiatrists gained status during wartime through
"the crucial role they had played in screening and managing the millions of people mobilized for military service." [*51]
After 1945, psychiatrists and psychologists dominated the
investigative commissions charged with formulating responses to the sex crime
problem, and their language and assumptions heavily influenced representatives
from other professional groups, including lawyers, judges, police, and clergy.
The ability to define the sex psychopath menace as lying within the purview of
psychiatry conveyed a prestige that carried over into many areas of life and
behavior. Psychiatrists would thereafter occupy a key role in the educational
system as the source of advice for parents and teachers seeking to protect the
children in their care and to prevent the nurture of new psychopaths and
Accepting the popular notion of psychopathy also meant a great expansion in the use of medical concepts and terminology in the criminal-justice system. During the late 1940s, police agencies imported psychiatric experts and academics to provide orientation on the whole world of sexual perversion and crime, and there were calls to institutionalize this contact. As Whitman warned picturesquely in 1951, "A police academy without a psychiatrist is like a gun without sights."
The increased role for psychiatrists and psychologists sometimes led to the creation of a whole range of therapeutic institutions midway between prisons and mental hospitals. Chauncey remarks that
"jn the name of protecting women and children from sex deviates, the [Michigan] Commission's psychiatrists urged the
public to support the expansion of existing psychiatric institutions and the development of new ones, even if they were only peripherally related to the problem of sex crime." [*52]
State investigative commissions
of these years
advocated a thorough revamping of criminal justice to transfer powers from
lawyers and correctional administrators to psychiatrists and therapists. All
this was not solely a question of professional self-interest, as many
psychiatrists sincerely wished to promote therapeutic intervention as a
benevolent altemative to the punitive assumptions of the prevailing system.
With whatever qualms, enough psychiatrists supported the new legislative
arrangements to permit the establishment of the new regime for defining and
restraining sex psychopaths.