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Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s Paperback – January 1, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

It started in 1955 with a missing eight-year-old boy, Jimmy Bremmers, later found murdered, and the arrest and conviction of Ernest Triplett, a simpleminded Sioux City, Iowa, salesman, for the crime. But within months public hysteria caused the police to arrest 20 middle-class gay men who were charged with being "sexual psychopaths," although none had anything to do with the murder, and who were incarcerated for prolonged periods of time in a state mental hospital. Miller (Out in the Worlds: Gay and Lesbian Life from Buenos Aires to Bankok) has produced a cross between a fast-paced true-crime shocker and a biting expos‚ of 1950s sexual hysteria. While there are still plenty of missing details (many of those involved who are still living were reluctant to talk or had only vague memories), Miller's story has enough chilling facts to pack a wallop: while under arrest, Triplett was given huge amounts of "experimental" drugs (LSD and amphetamine) to help him remember the murder, and his enjoyment of Liberace was used against him in court. Although he supplies a cohesive social context how McCarthyism linked communism and homosexuality as twin "enemies within" along with a similar, but far larger, homosexual scandal that occurred simultaneously in Boise, Idaho the stories of Triplett and of the 20 others arrested never quite come together. Still, Miller, a Tufts University professor and Lambda award winner, paints a disturbing picture of what it meant to be gay in mid-century America. (Jan.)Forecast: Miller's careful archival and interview work here makes the book suitable for courses in history and sociology, an angle Alyson intends to take up with course adoption mailings. The title should find the gay history readership, and the faux lurid title, heightened by a tabloid-like cover, may draw in browsers.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Residents of Sioux City, IA, were stunned and shaken by two brutal child molestations and murders in 1954 and 1955. The shock and outrage that followed led to the roundup of 20 gay men, who were then committed to a psychiatric hospital as criminal sexual psychopaths. Journalist Miller (In Search of Gay America) has written a taut and engrossing account of this sad chapter in Sioux City's history. Miller covers the brutal crimes, the politics set against the backdrop of McCarthy-era paranoia, the difficulties of being gay in Sioux City, life in the sexual psychopath ward, and the long-term effects this sex-crime hysteria had on all involved. Miller then comes full circle, discussing the adoption of some form of "Megan's Law" in all 50 states in the 1990s. ("Megan's Law" requires convicted sex offenders to register with their local police departments.) Today, as in the 1950s, criminal sexual acts set off panic and hysteria. The challenge is how to protect citizens without trampling civil rights. Highly recommended for history collections and especially for those specializing in gay and legal history. Karen Sandlin Silverman, Ctr. for Applied Research, Philadelphia
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Alyson Books; 1 edition (January 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555836593
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555836597
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.7 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,089,742 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Neil Miller teaches journalism at Tufts University and is the award-winning author of five nonfiction books. His most recent work, Kartchner Caverns, won the 2009 Arizona Book Award.

Photo by Paul Brouillette

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By James Hiller VINE VOICE on March 30, 2003
Format: Paperback
Despite its rather sensational title, "Sex-Crime Panic" tells a cautionary story about paranoia gone wrong during the 1950's, surprisingly relevant today.
Neil Miller has discovered an amazing story of the deaths of two Sioux City children, and the mania that overtook the town to find their killers. Well written, documented, and told from multiple perspectives, you are placed right in the middle of the hysteria for duration of the book.Two children are brutally killed, and in response to the public outcry, Iowa state and local officials attempt to round up "the sexual deviants", which the majority of those being homosexuals.
Caught by sting operations and rattted out by friends, tried and convicted under false pretenses, these men were shipped across state to a "mental ward" to live as "prisoners". The lives of these men were forever altered by the experience, and many lived to shame themselves into forgetting everything.
Because of this secrecy, Neil Miller was forced to rely on whatever information he could muster from some of the men who were still living, and the people associated with the cases. Therefore, information related to the killing of the children, and the subsequent manhunt is extensive. Information relating to what happened to the men inside the mental ward was somewhat lacking. Understandly so, Miller goes on towards the end of the book stating that several men, still living, absolutely refused to talk about what occured. Their shame is something they've carried around with them for their lives; a shame, unjustly given to them.
For anyone today who believes our government is incapable of getting out of control, or anyone who wants to read about an event in gay history few people know about, I heartily recommend this book.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Terrance H. Heath on July 14, 2002
Format: Paperback
A Journey into the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s, by Neil Miller - This book is a historical account of two sex-related child murders that took place in Sioux City, Iowa, resulting in the passage of a "sexual psychopath law" which lumped homosexuals in with child molesters and murders, and resulted in 20 men (who had nothing to do with the crimes) being arrested and sentenced to a mental hospital deemed "cured." The men were all homosexuals. It's a rather chilling story when you consider the kind of power the state authorities had over these men. What's more curious is the seeming passivity of the men, who accepted their fate and perhaps on some level thought it was what they deserved. The author writes it off to just part of being gay in the 50s. It's a relevant story today, because it shows that when legislation is passed in an atmosphere of fear and hysteria, bad laws get put on the books, and the consequences are visited upon people who become scapegoats for that fear and paranoia.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Allen Smalling TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 10, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In 1954 and 1955, two brutal child murders near Sioux City, Iowa, resulted in the arrest of a rootless drifter who nonetheless had an alibi, then morphed into a media campaign that resulted in two sweeps of over two dozen gay male Sioux Citians and the incarceration of about half of them in a decrepit mental hospital on the other side of the state.

It took a political and social climate that equated merely being homosexual with being a security threat and a pedophile to let this happen. How these atrocities came to be, where the motives lay, the climate of fear exploited by local newspapers and politicians who had something to prove, the political prosecution (or is it persecution?) made possible by broadly worded "scare" laws, and the experience of the men (many quite young) forced to live in an insane asylum, are well and entertainingly researched and recounted by author Neil Miller in his 2009 book, SEX-CRIME SCANDAL.

My only gripes are that the book, despite its healthy three-act structure, might have resonated better had it been a little more detailed. (To be fair, though, Miller seems to have dug about all that could be dug.) Also, an index or at least a names index would have been a big help. While I am grateful to Alyson publishers for making this book available to us, is it possible that the "screamer" pseudo-newspaper cover is driving away more thoughtful historians and GLBT advocates?

At the same time, a region and a half away, the city of Boise, Idaho, was roiled by an even deeper sex scandal centered on an atmosphere of paranoia and a "naming-names" frenzy involving the same scapegoats, the town's gay men and teens. People who enjoyed and appreciated SEX-CRIME PANIC may well enjoy THE BOYS OF BOISE, a 1966 book about the 1955 scandal by John Gerassi, a writer for TIME magazine.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Adrian T. Delmont on September 19, 2012
Format: Paperback
A friend who likewise grew up in "Siouxland" -- the area near Sioux City, IA -- gave me a copy of this book. As a caveat that might be helpful to a prospective purchaser, she (the gifter) is a flaming liberal, and I (the giftee) am not flaming, but I am gay. Both of us, born in the late '70s, appreciated this book as insight to our parents' upbringing, in the mid '50s, and further as a window on how gay men were perceived, occasionally tolerated, and often tormented at the time. The book is balanced, reads as well-researched and authentic, and paints a picture of the area and attitudes of the times that I often found infuriating, but occasionally found hopeful. I recommend this book to anyone interested in an historical snapshot of how mid-century midwestern morals affected the lives of gay men; or, to those who are interested in the crazy contortions a society will endure to calm its insecurities and fears when faced with shocking events, like the murders described in the book, and the way in which gay men indirectly and unjustly bore some of the blame.
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