Friday, November 28, 2014

The Lawyer, the Rug Merchant, and the Sodomy Charge

With whom did Benny attempt this?
Articles about sodomy charges in early-twentieth century newspapers tend to be a bit on the opaque side, often not disclosing the name of the other individual involved. Since at the time, opposite-sex couples could be, and were, charged with sodomy, sometimes it’s not clear whether or not the report of transgressive sex is a matter of early (and somewhat hidden) gay history. In this case, I have the suspicion that there’s a bit of gay history underneath it all.

In 1910, Benjamin A. Younkers was a lawyer in Des Moines, Iowa. He was thirty-five years old, married, and though native born, the son of immigrant parents. Martin J. Loftus was a rug salesman in Des Moines, Iowa. He was thirty-five years old, married, and though native born, the son of immigrant parents. How did these two men differ? Younkers had been married for three years, and had no children. Loftus had been married for fifteen years, and had two. Younkers was Jewish, with parents from Russia and Germany. Loftus had parents from Ireland.

Nor does the article give any sort of clue as to how Loftus came to accuse Younkers of attempted sodomy, any more than it specifies with whom Younkers might have attempted it. There’s no evidence of a conviction, since a year later, he is still practicing law in the same place. If he had been convicted of attempted sodomy, it’s not likely he would have been taking in clients.

The Evening Times-Republican of November 28, 1910 had this to report:
Lawyer Under Grave Charge.
Des Moines, Nov. 28—Ben A. Younker, an attorney with offices at room 522 in the Good block, West Fifth and Walnut streets, was arrested last evening by Police Sergeant Joseph Newell and Officer Cross on a warrant charging attempted sodomy. The information on which the warrant was drawn was filed by M. J. Loftus, 1115 West Ninth street, manager of the rag and carpet department at the Grand Department store.
It seems unlikely that the Grand Department store would have “the rag and carpet department,” and this is probably a typographic mistake for a “rug and carpet department.”

We’ve got two thirty-five year old married men, and one has accused the other of attempted sodomy. Our only guess can be that Loftus was the partner intended by Younker for this act. How then, might the lawyer and rug merchant known each other? Not only were they the same age, they were born in the same place, Keokuk, Iowa. Did they know each other from boyhood? The records don’t answer this question.

The Younkers moved to Des Moines before Loftus did. The entire family, including Benjamin, where in Des Moines in 1910. At this point, Benjamin at twenty-five was already practicing law (no profession is listed for his father). A few years before, he had obtained a degree in law from Yale, where he preferred to be called “Bennie.” He did not marry until about 1907, so when he was charged with attempted sodomy, he had only been married three years, and was about thirty-two years old when he did so.

Martin Loftus, on the other hand, got married at the age of twenty-one, when he was still living in Keokuk. The Loftuses moved from Keokuk, then to Jackson, and finally to Des Moines. By the time they reached there, they had been married for fourteen years and had two children.

After the charge of attempted sodomy, neither seems to have stuck around Des Moines too long. Maybe although Younker was never found guilty, the scandal over the charge just lingered too long. By 1915, the Loftuses had moved first to Cedar Rapids, then Chicago, and finally to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was while living there in the 1930s that Grace Loftus died.

The life of Benjamin’s wife, Edith, was briefer. She was significantly younger than her husband, only twenty-four when she married. Like Martin Loftus (his one-time friend?), Benjamin Younker got out of Des Moines, but he did so without his wife. In 1916 (just a year after it’s clear that Martin Loftus is no longer in Des Moines), Benjamin Younker has relocated to New York. He is still practicing law, but his wife is not with him. What happened to her?

In 1917, on his draft registration, he lists his mother as his next-of-kin, yet in the 1920 census, though living alone, he’s listed as married. Was he permanently estranged from his wife? Did he explain that he had tried to rekindle a romantic or sexual relationship with a boyhood friend (who, in turn, made a complaint to the police)? What ever the case, he was in New York, alone. In the 1930 Census, he’s still in New York, but his marital status has changed to “widowed,” only then does it seem possible to return to Iowa. Perhaps I’m just missing the record, but Grace Younker drops from view. Perhaps she responded by resuming the use of her maiden name, whatever that was.

Benjamin Younker died in Des Moines in 1946 and was laid to rest in an imposing tomb of rough-carved stone with patinated bronze doors. His parents and siblings share a tomb with him, though it does not seem that his wife is there. His parents died (some years apart) while he was living in New York. The charge of attempted sodomy was more than thirty-five years in the past, and doubtless long forgotten. Except, probably not by Benjamin Younker.

Was Benjamin Younker a turn-of-the-century gay man? History is probably not going to be so forthcoming with the answers.
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