Gay History

Gay History – January 7, 1949: 4 Men Plead Guilty To “Homosexual Offenses” After Gay Witch Hunt at University of Missouri

Via the Associated Press:

Columbia, Mo., Jan 7. (AP). Four men pleaded guilty yesterday to statutory charges and were placed on probation four years. They were Warren W. Heathman, itinerant agriculture instruction for the Veterans Administration at Rolla; Harry J. Sohn Jr., of Hannibal, former University of Missouri student; Willie D. Coots of Columbia, former clerk in a novelty shop, and Joe Byers, local grocer.

In the late 1940’s, Missouri law classified homosexual acts as felony crimes against nature. The University of Missouri in Columbia first began ousting homosexuals during this period, after it developed a reputation as a “safe haven” for gay men. 

Under orders from the state legislature, MU developed policies to halt the influx of homosexuals, and university officials set up a committee to investigate suspects. The university also identified homosexuals based on the testimonies of students and faculty who were offered immunity from discipline in return for testifying against one another.

To catch homosexuals in the act, the university installed a “one-way screen” in the men’s restroom in Ellis Library, where discipline officials could secretly watch men engage in homosexual acts before apprehending them. Although official records are nearly impossible to find, anecdotal evidence still survives after more than four decades.

The prior spring, newspapers reported on a “homosexual ring” with “mad homosexual parties” taking place near the University of Missouri campus. According to Boone County court documents and articles from The Kansas City Star  E.K. Johnston was arrested in May 1948 and charged with sodomy in connection with a “homosexual ring” in Salem, MO. On May 28, 1948.  Reports also indicate that “at least of score” of other students and residents were “implicated in the ring.” 

E.K. Johnston, former journalism professor at the university pleaded guilty Nov. 17 to a similar charge and was placed on four-year probation. Yesterday’s action closed the cases resulting from an investigation last spring of homosexual activities at the university and elsewhere.

MU issued a formal statement explaining Johnston’s dismissal “in view of the nature and gravity of the charges……” it read.

Johnston moved to Kansas City, where he lived until his death in 1990.

Others were not so lucky. 

The record does show clear evidence that that lives were ruined and several incidences of homicide and suicide were a direct result of the University of Missouri’s gay witch-hunt.

About Will Kohler

Will Kohler is one of America's best known LGBT historians, He is also a a accredited journalist and the owner of A longtime gay activist Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced on such notable media venues as BBC News, CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post, The Daily Wall Street Journal, Hollywood Reporter, and Raw Story. Back2Stonewall has been recently added to the Library of Congress' LGBTQ+ Studies Web Archive. Mr. Kohler is available for comment, interviews and lectures on LGBT History. Contact:

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