U.S. Senate Rebukes Navy in Homosexuality Investigation Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Reports of gay sex at and near a U.S. naval base led to Navy investigations and then an inquiry by the U.S. Senate into the Navy’s investigatory tactics. These tactics, used “for the good of the service,” included sex to secure evidence. Even more controversial was the young age of those used in the investigation. The local community was shocked as well by the arrest of a respected civilian Christian minister for immoral conduct.

Summary of Event

In February, 1919, U.S. Navy chief machinist’s mate Ervin Arnold had been transferred to the newly expanded U.S. naval base at Newport, Rhode Island. Although planned to house about twenty thousand sailors, the base could only house about two thousand sailors; the overflow stayed in hastily erected quarters throughout town. Before the end of his first month in Rhode Island, Arnold had a plan to inform the Navy about homosexual men in the service in Newport, hoping the Navy would initiate an investigation. Navy lieutenant and doctor Erastus Hudson was a part of Arnold’s plan. It appears that Arnold had a deep fear of homosexuality, and he quickly found evidence of it in Newport. He found that young Navy men gathered at the local Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) to find male sex partners. [kw]Navy in Homosexuality Investigation, U.S. Senate Rebukes (July 19, 1921) [kw]Homosexuality Investigation, U.S. Senate Rebukes Navy in (July 19, 1921) Newport sex scandal Navy, U.S.;homosexuality investigation Congress, U.S.;and Navy[Navy] Homosexuality;U.S. Navy[US Navy] Arnold, Ervin Kent, Samuel Neal Newport sex scandal Navy, U.S.;homosexuality investigation Congress, U.S.;and Navy[Navy] Homosexuality;U.S. Navy[US Navy] Arnold, Ervin Kent, Samuel Neal [g]United States;July 19, 1921: U.S. Senate Rebukes Navy in Homosexuality Investigation[00240] [c]Sex;July 19, 1921: U.S. Senate Rebukes Navy in Homosexuality Investigation[00240] [c]Military;July 19, 1921: U.S. Senate Rebukes Navy in Homosexuality Investigation[00240] [c]Public morals;July 19, 1921: U.S. Senate Rebukes Navy in Homosexuality Investigation[00240] [c]Law and the courts;July 19, 1921: U.S. Senate Rebukes Navy in Homosexuality Investigation[00240] Roosevelt, Franklin D. Rathom, John R. Daniels, Josephus Hudson, Erastus

Among the men who Arnold accused of homosexuality were sailors Samuel Rogers, John Gianelloni, Jay “Beckie” Goldstein, and John “Ella” Temple. Two civilians, Arthur Green and Episcopal minister Samuel Neal Kent, also were impugned. In the end, the attacks against Kent would bring the scandal to national prominence.

Admiral Spencer S. Wood formally ordered an investigation, and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels told Arnold to proceed with an investigation. On March 19, Judge Murphy J. Foster convened an official court of inquiry, which determined the need for further investigation. Arnold and Hudson began recruiting a group of young men, many in their teens, for the investigation at the YMCA.

Because of similar reports of homosexual relations elsewhere in the Navy, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt was given the records in Daniels’s absence. Roosevelt, in turn, passed the information to Attorney General Mitchell Palmer because of the alleged involvement of civilians. At the same time, Palmer’s staff had been tied up in the massive hunt for suspected communists that would become the first Red Scare Red Scare. Palmer could assign only one agent to investigate in Newport, and that agent found insufficient evidence to pursue a civilian inquiry, returning full jurisdiction to the Navy.

Arnold selected volunteers to solicit homosexual sex. These volunteers included enlisted men Millard C. Haynes, Charles B. Zipf, Gregory A. Cunningham, and John E. McCormick. In addition to evidence of homosexual sex, investigators were told to gather evidence of alcohol and drug use as well as female prostitution. Investigators went to the YMCA to solicit sex, but they also participated in sex acts to confirm their suspicions. By March 28 the investigators were regularly meeting and having oral sex with those they were investigating.

Fred Hoage was the first enlisted person arrested, on April 4. Many more arrests followed; ultimately, twelve would face courts-martial. Now, however, the legitimacy of Arnold’s investigation was questioned. Foster had wanted the investigation stopped with the resumption of formal court in April, but Arnold had continued sending operatives for a couple of weeks after. Suspects were held for months before being formally charged. The final twelve who were convicted received sentences ranging from ten to thirty years, though a later presidential clemency reduced most sentences to under ten years.

Charles P. Hall, the Newport Red Cross field director, helped advance the case against the civilians. Believing that the naval court could proceed only against enlisted men—and wanting to put pressure on the rival YMCA and, in particular, the accused homosexual Reverend Kent—Hall involved Rhode Island governor R. Livingston Beeckman in the case. Beeckman, in turn, brought Roosevelt back to the case. Roosevelt gave increased responsibility to Arnold and Hudson in May to begin civilian investigations, even though the director of the Office of Naval Intelligence was concerned about Navy surveillance of civilians. The director hired a private investigator, whose report questioned Hudson’s objectivity and experience as an investigator. Regardless, Hudson’s work proceeded directly under Roosevelt. Hudson and his new squad resumed investigations, this time focusing on civilians such as Kent.

The mass arrests stemming from the continued investigations included Kent, who was acquitted in local court. Hugh Baker, the trial judge, faced questions about his impartiality and competence. Episcopal clergy attacked the Navy for prosecuting Kent, demanding amends to him. Further investigation began to reveal the extent to which operatives were involved in homosexual activities with those they were investigating. Kent was prosecuted again under federal guidance, with Arthur L. Brown as the judge. At this trial, the defense again poked holes in Arnold’s operators’ tactics and motives, and in January, 1920, Kent was once more acquitted.

The day after the acquittal, questions about the Navy’s investigative tactics began to surface. A group of Rhode Island ministers complained to the president of Kent’s persecution, and journalist John R. Rathom used his newspaper, the Providence Journal, to attack Navy secretary Daniels for a dirty investigation. The paper then focused on how Navy investigators were ordered to engage in homosexual acts to obtain their evidence and that Navy officials sanctioned these activities. Rathom and Roosevelt sparred back and forth in the national press, with Rathom attacking Roosevelt’s accuracy and Roosevelt attacking Rathom’s journalism.

A new court of naval inquiry was appointed in 1921 to examine the Navy’s investigation of homosexual conduct. However, the Navy men implicated in the initial court-of-inquiry case had powerful friends operating on that court, and they were generally shielded throughout testimony, further increasing the public’s perception of corruption. Furthermore, Newport ministers provided testimony to support Kent, and the Reverend Stanley C. Hughes took the stand for more than two days and used his testimony to question the court. The Navy, unsurprisingly, found itself innocent.

Finally, the U.S. Senate conducted its own investigation around the time of the Navy’s court of inquiry, on January 25. By March of that year, a formal Senate inquiry was launched, and the still-incarcerated sailors were interviewed. On July 19, 1921, the Senate’s Naval Affairs Committee issued a strong rebuke against the Navy for requiring operatives to participate in homosexual acts. They also questioned the Navy’s self-exoneration. The Senate accused the Navy of targeting men based on Arnold’s and Hudson’s claims that they could identify gays on sight. Finally, the Senate expressed concern that the convicted had been detained for months without trial.


The Newport sex scandal remains one of the most significant gay-related scandals in American history because of its far-reaching impact. The investigation and its consequences led to a change in Navy legal practice: The Navy promised to never again use enlisted personnel to investigate other enlisted personnel. Furthermore, neither Roosevelt nor Daniels apologized to the Reverend Kent, who was barred from practicing by the Episcopal Church in 1921 because of the scandal. He continued his career outside the church, however. Newport sex scandal Navy, U.S.;homosexuality investigation Congress, U.S.;and Navy[Navy] Homosexuality;U.S. Navy[US Navy] Arnold, Ervin Kent, Samuel Neal

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bérubé, Allan. Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II. New York: Free Press, 2000. Although focused on the World War II era, explores the extent to which military service people were persecuted, offering modern readers a sense of social attitudes after the Newport sex scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chauncey, George, Jr. “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era.” In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, edited by Martin B. Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr. New York: New American Library, 1989. A detailed history of the Newport sex scandal, discussing the main players. Includes the Senate investigative committee’s 1921 report on the case.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Lay Navy Scandal to F. D. Roosevelt.” The New York Times, July 21, 1921. A contemporary news article reporting on the Senate’s findings at the end of the case examining the Navy’s investigation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loughery, John. The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities—A Twentieth Century History. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. A history of gays in the United States since World War I. Reveals overlooked and unknown histories, starting with the Newport sex scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy, Lawrence R. Perverts by Official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy. New York: Haworth Press, 1988. Places the 1919 scandal in its historical context, examining as well the Navy’s position on homosexuality. Follows with the evolution of the Navy’s efforts to keep gays and lesbians out of the military.

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Categories: History