Monday, November 10, 2014

Sexual Perversion in Washington

There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight.
When I look into the backgrounds for these old stories, I feel like a combination of a private detective and the town busybody. It does take some sleuthing; checking other newspaper accounts to see if I can find out more about the people involved in the story, looking at public records that might shed some light on the matter (for the record, the dead have no privacy rights). Sure, when I look into an early-twentieth century sodomy accusation there’s prurient interest involved. Look: people from a century ago having sex. Forbidden sex.

That’s an important part too. I only have to read the comment on articles about same-sex marriage. I would like to think that referring to gay men as “sodomites” was some queer linguistic habit of a century ago, but the comment still gets made in 2014.[1] It would probably be both difficult and expensive to get the court transcripts of whatever transpired on Friday, November 8, 1901, but the Sunday Morning Globe of Washington, D.C. makes it seem worthwhile, since the testimony “revealed the most indescribable details of sexual perversion,” which the Globe assured its readers were “too filthy and demoralizing to even write about.“

But didn’t they write about it? For that matter, didn’t the testimony actually describe the “details of sexual perversion” that the Globe said were indescribable? They said there were details! I shouldn’t be too snarky though, because these are the lives (and deaths) of real people we’re talking about here.[2]
A Treasury Clerk Dismissed and His Fellow Sodomite Sentenced in Police Court.
Joseph Caspar, the son of respectable parents, was sentenced Friday in Police Court to six months in the workhouse, or $500 bond for his future reformation. His father was present and heard the shocking story. Capar was taken from the bed and room of Frank L. Mitchell, 717 Ninth street, who was until yesterday, a $1,600 Treasury clerk. Judge Kimball heard the testimony in open court and it revealed the most indescribably details of sexual perversion. Caspar was infatuated with Mitchell and the latter was unable to terminate the unnatural lust of himself or his fellow pervert. Mitchell was justly dismissed from his position as a $1600 clerk and Caspar’s father furnished security for his son’s future good behavior.
I think we clearly have here two gay men. Not so much "unnatural lust," but abiding love. They were probably getting together for a while before they were discovered. Not "Caspar was infatuated," but "Joseph Caspar loved Frank Mitchell." I hope his loved was returned.

There’s some lack of clarity about the individuals involved. In 1901, the Washington, D.C. area had multiple men with the names of Joseph Caspar and Frank L. Mitchell. Around that time, we find a Joseph A. Caspar, a Joseph F. Caspar, and a Joseph L. Caspar, all of whom the city directory says are clerks. However, the most likely one is Joseph A. Caspar, who lived with his father, a baker, on 809 D Street NE. Mr. Caspar (the sodomite) was a clerk, the sort that works in a shop. In 1901, he was about 20 years old.

Mr. Mitchell presents somewhat more of a problem, even though the article gave his address. A comparison with the Washington city directories from 1899–1902 (and a bit beyond as well) don’t show any Frank L. Mitchell living on 9th Street. There weren’t any Mitchells listing 9th as an address (which rules out it being L. Frank Mitchell). The directories do have one Frank Mitchell who matches the job noted for other individual, but he has a different address. Franklin L. Mitchell, a clerk at the Treasury, lived at 629 8th Street NE. We can probably discount the Frank Mitchells who lived on 12th NW, 16th NE, as well as Frank J, P, and T.[3]

The Treasury Department offers some help here. The records for federal employees for 1901 show a Franklin L. Mitchell employed by the Treasury. Guess how much he made? That’s right. $1,600, just like in the article. It also notes that Mr. Mitchell was from Alabama. Although I have not found the Census listing for Mr. Mitchell (probably a mis-transcribed record), I know that the Frank L. Mitchell at 629 8th Street NE was from Alabama. I think Mr. Mitchell was some years older than Mr. Caspar, as he was living at that address as early as 1897 (and continued to live there after 1901).

The Evening Star reported on August 19, 1897 that
Last evening Mr. Frank L. Mitchell entertained some friends at his residence 639 8th street northeast, with his descriptive and illustrative lecture, “A Week Around the National Capital,” with which he recently toured the state of Alabama, meeting with much success. Mr. Mitchell’s talents as a descriptive lecturer are said by his many friends to be extremely good, and they predict for him a brilliant future in that field.
Franklin L. Mitchell is still listed as residing at 629 8th Street NE in the 1902 directory, and as being a clerk at the Treasury, but by 1903, he has vanished from Washington. (I’m assuming the Star made a minor error in the address.)

As I said, the most likely Joseph Caspar was Joseph A. Caspar, who was a clerk in a store. He leaves the records in 1906, just four years later, but I know exactly what happened to him. The Washington Times and Evening Star both report his death on May 24, 1906. A summary of Washington deaths in the January 1, 1907 Evening Star give the grim details.
A dose of cyanide of potash ended the life of Joseph Caspar, twenty-four years of age.
The Washington Post reported on his death.
Miss Devine Unable to Sing, as Requested by Friend in Last Moments

The dying request of Joseph Caspar, 809 D street northeast, that Miss Mamie Devine, a friend, should sing at his funeral, was not complied with, Miss Devine being unable to be present. The funeral was conducted in St. Mary’s Catholic Church by Father Winnenberger, who said a low mass. 
Mr. Caspar was twenty-five years of age and was a stock clerk in a department store. He committed suicide at an early hour Wednesday morning by taking poison, leaving a request for Miss Devine to sing at the funeral. The pallbearers were William Wright, Joseph Huck, Martin Curtin, Charles Dornoff, John Nesline, and E. H. Handy.
I don’t know if Frank Mitchell ever found out. I’m sure I’ll never know. I can only assume that the two incidents were connected and that if Joseph Caspar hadn’t been caught in bed with Frank Mitchell, he might not have committed suicide in 1906. The question remains what happened to Mr. Mitchell.

Update: The more I think of this, the more I think that Mamie Devine's family told her that she most certainly would not be singing at Joseph Caspar's funeral.

  1. Despite that every woman who has engaged in oral sex upon a man is a sodomite. And every man who has engaged in oral sex on a women. I haven’t even got to gay people yet. Let’s face it, though, calling other people “sodomites” means you need to get some therapy.  ↩
  2. This is a sad story. Get out the hanky.  ↩
  3. I can see in the circumstances giving a false address to the Globe.  ↩

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