The Fear of the ‘Morals’ Charge Back in the 50s, gay men were targets of police crackdowns in Carmel

Illustration | Adobe Stock and Julie Reynolds Martinez

By Joe Livernois

On a misty evening in June 1956, a 30-year-old Episcopalian minister from El Cerrito met up with a middle-aged man from Fort Ord. They were at Carmel Beach, under a thick stand of acacias on the bluff above the shoreline. Elsewhere in Monterey County that Tuesday, voters were casting ballots in a statewide primary election that would secure the Democratic presidential nomination for Adlai Stevenson. Outside the acacias, an off-duty police officer listened carefully for signs of activity. He stepped through a gap in the shrubbery and found the minister and the other man. He arrested both of them on “morals” charges.

A couple of weeks later, two 20-somethings were arrested in a car parked at the Monterey beach parking lot. They too were arrested on morals charges.

Brief accounts of those arrests were recorded in the Monterey Peninsula Herald. During that period in 1956, at least a dozen similar stories were finding their way into the Herald, tucked away among police-beat stories about missing wallets, two-bit robberies and minor car accidents. The names of the men were always included in those stories.

For the Herald, the term “morals charges” was obvious code for “homosexuality” when two men were arrested at the same time. In such cases, the men were in alleged violation of a statute, enacted in the territory of California in 1850, that banned sodomy and set penalties at five years to life. Carmel police waged a campaign against gay men in 1956, and the brass at the Monterey Peninsula Herald eagerly chronicled the effort. 

Sixty-three years later, residents on the Monterey Peninsula are considerably more tolerant. On Saturday, city council members from both Monterey and Carmel are hosting a fundraiser following a Pride Parade down Alvarado Street, through the center of Monterey. Carmel Councilman Jeff Baron and Monterey Councilman Tyller Williamson are the first openly gay men to serve as elected city officials on the Peninsula. Both were elected last year.

Still, the distrust of police officers lingers in the LGBT community. Earlier this year, the Pride board of directors voted to discourage police officers who would like to join the march from wearing their uniforms. “Things are different from where we were 50, 60 years ago,” said Williamson, who is on the Pride committee. “But it’s the same in different ways.” Referring to lingering attitudes in some quarters, including the military, he said “the problems are in the microculture.” 

He said he would personally like to see better cooperation between police and the LGBT community, but he respects that some people are still triggered by police. 

And there is still reason for the LGBT community to feel uncomfortable generally in the broader community. Last year, when Williamson and the Pride committee were trying to get a permit to march from the Seaside City Council, citizens testified against the group, and Williamson said one person referred to Pride as “trash.”

That attitude is not why the committee opted to move the March to Monterey this year, Williamson said. “It was our intention from the get-go to move it around the Peninsula,” he said. But the experience at the Seaside council meeting was a reminder that the LGBT community is still not always welcome, he said.

'He caught offenders as fast as he could book them'

Back in the summer of 1956, police in Carmel started cracking down on gay men who were meeting under the stand of acacia trees. The mayor wanted something done. The place was so busy that one police officer arrested four men there in four hours, according to a news account in the Herald. “He caught offenders as fast as he could book them and return to the beach,” according to the story.

Then, in September of 1956, the Herald carried a four-part series written by a very concerned middle-aged crime reporter named Fred Sorri who described the growing menace of homosexuality on the Monterey Peninsula. For his series, he talked to police chiefs, all of whom agreed about the “growing menace” thing. He interviewed several psychiatrists. He conducted a jailhouse interview with one of the homosexuals, an anonymous man who told Sorri he wanted to get help and who provided the reporter with the inside scoop about the underground homosexual experience. There may be as many as 200 of them on the Monterey Peninsula alone, the man confided. 

The 1956 series Sorri wrote was called “A Peninsula Problem,” and the stories included thousands of words of cautionary prose. In the prologue editor’s note, the Herald explained that the series is prompted by “an increasing number of local arrests for a crime so offensive that details in news stories are ordinarily veiled in generalities.” The series was presented “in the public interest to afford each reader an opportunity of appraising the seriousness of the problem.”

And then Sorri opened the series by setting the mood:

“Across the table sat a man with a 5,000-year-old problem. A diminutive individual with sensitive features, his nervous eyes darted about as if he was seeking escape from a cell. At first his comments were carefully screened. Finally relaxing, his wrist bent coquettishly as he poured out a shockingly frank story. Here was an admitted homosexual. He was one of 20 persons arrested in Carmel during June and July of this year for homosexual behavior.”

Subsequent stories in the series included the following headlines:

  • “Federal Government Considers Sex Deviates Security Risk”
  • “Four Police Chiefs Relate Facing of Morals Situation in Own Cities”
  • “Officer Threatened by Thugs After Carmel Morals Arrest.”

That final story, about the threatened officer, described how “Los Angeles thugs employed by Monterey homosexuals” cornered the officer on the beach. Dressed in motorcycle boots, the men hoped to stop the beach arrests but they fled the scene when two other police officers showed up out of nowhere to protect their colleague. 

Sorri’s interview with the man at the prison farm is especially cringe-worthy, by today’s standards. Sorri only identified him as a 43-year-old who apparently hoped to seek “treatment,” or at least that’s what he told the police. The man blamed his “affliction” on an “overbearing mother.” He said he had been married once, had ruined his wife’s life with their marriage, had lost jobs and had spent a lot of time talking to psychiatrists. None of the therapy does any good unless “you want to be cured,” he told Sorri. “The trouble is that most of us don’t want to be any other way.”

'Treatment of the homosexual is difficult and the prognosis is guarded'

During the course of the four days, it is evident that the Herald’s management grew reticent about the series. Sorri’s stories started getting pushed back into the newspaper, behind the classified advertisements, behind the society pages. On the fourth day, when Sorri tells readers that “treatment of the homosexual is difficult and the prognosis is guarded,” the story appears on the very last page. The Herald at the time was published by Allen Griffin, a former Army colonel who served in both WWI and WWII. The Herald has since undergone at least six different ownership changes.

Meanwhile, in Salinas, the county parole board didn’t seem anxious to jail the men arrested by Carmel police. Two representatives on the parole board, the Salinas police chief and the county sheriff, created a stir and infuriated a judge in July 1956 when they ordered the release of two men. 

The judge, Ray Baugh, had sentenced a 20-year-old from Little Rock, Ark., to 150 days in the county jail after the man was arrested at Carmel Beach. At the time, Baugh said he wanted to set an example with the harsh sentence in an effort to clean up “that beach situation.”

But the Salinas police chief at the time, Charles McIntyre, argued that no jail sentence would help anyone convicted on morals charges. “Our jail is not going to cure all ills,” he told a reporter. “I’ve never seen anyone cured by it yet. It has been our understanding with the county psychiatrist that none of these people should be confined with our other prisoners.”

Meanwhile, the Episcopalian minister caught by the zealous off-duty police officer on Carmel Beach retired as a vicar in a Southern California parish in 1989. He died in 2001, leaving two sons as survivors. 

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

2 thoughts on “The Fear of the ‘Morals’ Charge Back in the 50s, gay men were targets of police crackdowns in Carmel

  1. The LGBT Pride Committee, in my opinion, are way off base asking police officers not to wear their uniforms. Very narrow minded on the part of the committee….very disappointed in my gay/bi/lesbian colleagues on that board. Where is your all inclusiveness?

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