Gay History: January 21, 1903: Ariston Hotel Baths Become First Bathhouse to Be Raided By Police

Gay History: January 21, 1903: Ariston Hotel Baths Become First Bathhouse to Be Raided By Police

The Ariston Bathhouse raid in 1903 was the first anti-gay police raid on an establishment located in New York City. It resulted in thirty-four arrests and twelve trials.

On February 21, 1903, at nine o’clock at night, two undercover officers entered the building of the Ariston Turkish Bathhouse in NYC thus beginning the first raid on a bathhouse in New York for “deviant” behavior.

For member of the gay community, these baths were seen as a safe refuge from societal scrutiny, even if their actions could still land them in jail. 

At 1:45 a.m., a group of police officers entered the establishment and blocked the exits so that none of the seventy-eight men inside could escape. They went through the men and arrested thirty-four men. The rest were let go with a warning. The proprietor of the bathhouse, John Begley, was accused of keeping a disorderly house and was held in $2,000 bail ( $67,993 in todays dollars). Of the men arrested, some were charged with liquor law violations and disorderly conduct, and at least sixteen were charged with sodomy. Twelve of those sixteen were sent to trial, and five trials have transcripts that survived and are viewable today. Of these five trials, three returned verdicts of guilty, one verdict of guilty with a recommendation to mercy, and a mistrial. However, two of the guilty verdicts were later appealed.

One of the men, who gave his name as George Galbert or Calbert, was initially sentenced to 11 years in Sing Sing Prison. In People v. Galbert, the defense attorney cited the “physical impossibility” of the crime, highlighted his client’s manliness while resisting arrest, and called numerous character witnesses to the stand, including the man’s employer, noted Beaux Arts architect John Carrere. The man, whose real name was George Alfred Caldwell, was able to use his politically powerful Kentucky family, and network of connections, to receive preferential treatment and a reduced sentence. It was not uncommon, especially for men in positions of power, to provide false names during arrest in fear of being outed and ostracized. 

This was just the first in many more raids on gay establishments of all kinds to come.

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