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Guilty until proven straight
After two children were brutally murdered, police incarcerated 22 innocent men in a mental hospital. Their crime? They were gay.

IT WAS LATE in the afternoon on the last Thursday in September, 1955. The sedan in which they were passengers turned off a two-lane highway outside a small town in the hilly country of southeast Iowa, near Burlington. The automobile continued down a drive lined with shade trees. For a moment it had seemed as if it were the approach to an English country house, one like they had seen in the movies — the gracious avenue, the well-tended lawns, the benches dotting the grounds. But that was not the case. Instead the car halted in front of a stark, four-story concrete structure whose institutional wings twisted behind in either direction.

Doug Thorson and Duane Wheeler emerged from the rear of the automobile and were led through an inconspicuous side entrance into the main building of the Mount Pleasant State Mental Hospital.

The men had been traveling all day from Sioux City. They hadn’t eaten throughout the entire 10-hour journey, permitted to stop only to go to the bathroom. Doug and Duane carried no suitcases. They were dressed in the same clothes they had been wearing the day they had been arrested three weeks before, charged with conspiracy to commit a felony.

In Sioux City, Doug had been a management trainee at S.S. Kresge, the five-and-10 cent store downtown on 4th Street, and Duane had been a student at Marie Ellis’s School of Cosmetology. But that counted for little now. In the admissions area, on the first floor of the hospital, a doctor was asking them the standard series of questions that was asked of all incoming mental patients:

"Do you know what your name is?"

"Do you know where you are?"

"Do you know what the date is?"

"Do you hear voices?"

He spoke in a Slavic-sounding accent so thick that the young men could barely make out a word.

The doctor seemed satisfied with their answers and scribbled down the same diagnosis for both of them: "Sociopathic personality disturbance. Sexual deviation (Homosexuality)."

Doug and Duane were outfitted with the state-issue clothing worn by all male mental patients: blue jeans and blue work shirts. An attendant dressed in white — except for black shoes, black belt, and a black bow tie — ordered them to come with him. A large key ring jangled as he walked.

They went by elevator to the third floor. The attendant unlocked a heavy wooden door. He led the two men down a long corridor, where they were surrounded by patients in various stages of undress who looked as if they’d been there forever. The walls were smeared with excrement. The smell was ghastly — a combination of urine and feces and disinfectant. It was the "untidy ward," where psychotic men who had regressed to a near infantile state were housed.

At the end of the corridor, they halted at another door. The attendant fumbled with the keys, unlocked it, and they found themselves in a second ward that was similar in layout to the first. Again, men crowded around them. But this time they were men whom Doug and Duane knew or had seen before. There was a man who owned the House of Beauty in Kingsley, Iowa, and another who ran a hair salon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. There was a dance teacher at Arthur Murray’s in Sioux City and a salesman who worked at the Younker-Davidson department store, next door to Kresge’s. For a moment it seemed as if all the hairdressers and window dressers from northwest Iowa were there to welcome them. Doug and Duane had reached their final destination — 15 East, the sexual psychopath ward.

They were there because they were homosexuals, "sexual deviates" in the popular language of the time. They were among 20 men from Sioux City and the surrounding towns who had been rounded up and declared to be criminal sexual psychopaths and sentenced to the state mental hospital at Mount Pleasant for an indefinite period of time — until they were "cured." They were there because in Sioux City, a little boy named Jimmy Bremmers and a little girl named Donna Sue Davis were dead: victims of two terrible sex crimes. These men had nothing to do with those crimes; the authorities never claimed they did. However, in Sioux City, indeed in the entire state of Iowa, the public was clamoring for action. Something had to be done. So Doug and Duane and the other men were arrested and put in a locked ward in a mental hospital far from Sioux City. They were scapegoats in a "sex crime panic." ...

©2002, Neil Miller.


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Issue Date: February 7 - 14, 2002
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