On Feb. 4, 1957, a Guilford County grand jury emerged from its closed session and issued a bundle of indictments of a scope unlike any before or since — against 32 men accused of being homosexual.
After witnesses named the men during police interrogations, the suspects were tried one by one in a Greensboro courtroom for crimes against nature, almost exclusively with consenting adults.
The now-obscure episode, which some longtime residents came to call “the purge,” was the largest attempted roundup of homosexuals in Greensboro history and marked one of the most intense gay scares of the 1950s.
Unlike sweeps of subsequent decades, involving raids on public parks and gay bars, Greensboro’s 1957 trials focused on private acts behind closed doors.
The purpose, in the words of the police chief, was to “remove these individuals from society who would prey upon our youth,” and to protect the town from what a presiding judge called “a menace.”
Some 32 trials in the winter and spring of 1957 would end in guilty verdicts, 24 of them resulting in prison terms of five to 20 years, with some defendants assigned to highway chain gangs.
Based on dozens of interviews over a four-week period with those who recall it, this is the story of what happened.
Beginnings of a panic
The first time Wallace “Wally” Pegelow laid eyes on his son was when his mother-in-law brought the baby, a few weeks old, to the Greensboro jail.
“My husband can never know that I brought this child here,” Pegelow, then 19, would remember her whispering before she hurried out, careful not to be seen leaving the basement of City Hall.
Months before, detectives had come to Fort Bragg to arrest him, and the Army had taken the young paratrooper’s stripes. By the time of his mother-in-law’s clandestine visit, Pegelow had been in jail long enough to sense that this was no mix-up.
But as he sat in his cell waiting for his court date, little did the New York native realize that what was about to unfold would cast a shadow over the rest of his life — and to an extent, over the city where he would go to trial.
It was the winter of 1957, and almost daily, newspapers carried stories of what Greensboro headline writers called the “morals trials.” Then-prosecutor Horace Kornegay, who later became a congressman and who is now retired, said recently that he thinks all the defendants are dead and he has only a vague recollection of the incident.
But at the time, say lawyers who were in practice in the 1950s, the cases had the effect of a bombshell. Pegelow and 31 other defendants were accused of a crime so deep and dark that even the stories below the headlines never came out and said what the men had allegedly done.
In 1950, homosexuality had for the first time become an explosive political topic in the course of the McCarthy loyalty hearings — and had been classified as a mental illness by the psychiatric community. But even seven years later, it was hardly talked about in places like Greensboro.
Publicly, officials hinted only of “unnatural relationships” between the men on a long list of names detectives gathered during a series of interrogations.
Before the months-long investigation was brought to an abrupt halt, that list came to include the manager of a country club, a judge, two lawyers and a policeman who was part of the investigation.
None of these high-profile suspects was ever convicted, according to the typewritten docket book that is the only record of the cases at a Greensboro courthouse. But between the names that were struck through with capital X’s, rendering them illegible, remain the entries of the less prominent. These men were put on trial that year at the Guilford Courthouse — some more than once before prosecutors won convictions — and after imprisonment were typically paroled on the condition that they not live within a 100-mile radius of Greensboro.
One was Wallace M. “Wally” Pegelow, whose widow today lives in South Carolina and shared his story and personal papers for this article.
Pegelow came from a small town near Niagara Falls, where he and his widow both grew up, and he joined the Army at 17, stationed with the 82nd Airborne. He played halfback on a semi-pro football team, the Mac Bulldogs, and friends remember his tough, ‘50s image. He rolled his cigarette pack up in his T-shirt sleeve and got into fights when he drank beer at the bowling alley.
In the fall of 1956, seemingly out of the blue, he would later recall, detectives from Greensboro showed up at Fort Bragg and placed him under arrest.
At first, they wanted to question him about a burglary that occurred in Greensboro, where he frequently visited his girlfriend, later his first wife. Before long, however, his case became part of something larger — what a police lieutenant more than a decade later would describe to a Greensboro Record reporter as “the biggest mess we ever got into.”
And it all began with a traffic stop one Sunday night in June 1956.
‘In trouble again’
They were a loose group of friends, in their late teens and early 20s, and they liked to go cruising at night — the seedy blocks around the old Greensboro bus station at Commerce Street, the High Point movie theater where one of the defendants worked, the General Greene Bar & Grill, near where the new baseball stadium sits today.
The General Greene, with a mix of female prostitutes in the booths and men at the bar, was the closest thing Greensboro had to a gay bar, though it wasn’t strictly gay. And hardly anyone used that word. This was an underground culture that survived on secrecy.
In one series of letters that police seized as evidence, a UNC-Chapel Hill student from High Point wrote to a male classmate in code. “Hilda Sara” stood for “homosexual.” He closed his letters with “B.B.B.” — “better be butch” — and assigned male friends female nicknames such as “Thelma” or “Mamie,” a nod to America’s first lady in the Eisenhower years.
As campy and facetious as the letters sound today, an anthropologist who years later taught North Carolina’s first state-approved course on gender and homosexuality notes that there was reason for such intrigue.
In larger cities, beginning with Washington, the FBI had recruited local vice squads to conduct surveillance on suspected gays and enlisted postmasters to monitor mail for telltale material such as men’s “physique magazines.”
Even in private conversation, people were discreet.
“If someone heard a man say, ‘I went on a date with Betsy,’ that wouldn’t raise any suspicion,” observed retired UNCG professor Thomas Fitzgerald. “People had to camouflage their lives. The ‘50s were abysmal.”
Mostly, the letters seized by police give a giddy, carefree look at the promiscuous sex lives of the young men. The one cloud on the horizon — and the event that would ultimately splash their private lives onto the front page — gets only a passing mention, in a letter dated June 30, 1956:
“Jesse and Ray are in trouble again,” the student wrote to a friend on vacation in Florida. “It seems that some of their paratrooper friends broke into one of Jesse’s neighbor’s houses, and stole $900. The police are trying to blame it on Jesse and Ray. Jesse was very upset when I talked with her (him) last night. …”
In fact, court records show, police had stopped their car and discovered burglary tools. But rather than charging the Greensboro pair, Jessie Taylor and Charles Ray Roberts, police charged two paratrooper hitchhikers, Pegelow and a fellow married soldier, with possession of burglary tools and conspiracy to break and enter.
It’s unclear how Pegelow and the others from Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune knew Roberts and Taylor, whom defense attorneys recall attracting attention with broadly effeminate manners — and parties that sometimes ended with police arriving.
What is clear is that Roberts and Taylor, who city arrest records show had earlier been picked up as a “female impersonator,” were about to become the key informers against a series of suspects. Under incoming Police Chief Paul Calhoun, who took office in the summer of 1956, the juvenile and vice squads were assigned full time to work a widening morals investigation.
Police charged suspects one after another, including an N.C. A&T graduate who was served with a warrant in the Rock Hill, S.C., classroom where he taught and was arrested in front of his students.
Each suspect was, in turn, questioned about a list of names detectives were developing, according to transcripts at the N.C. Supreme Court. Jessie Taylor, 19 when the indictments hit the newspaper, described in these documents how the accusations surfaced.
“Yes, I talked to officers about this when I was first apprehended,” he said under oath. “Yes, one of the officers did tell me that if I didn’t not only plead guilty, but implicate other people, that they had 20 different warrants they could throw at me.”
Taylor and Roberts both faced multiple charges of crimes against nature, and the possibility of lengthy prison terms. Likewise, a teenager who accused his employer of sodomizing him revealed in testimony that despite being the state’s witness, he was under indictment, as well.
The teen also described how police had read a list of names to him when he was taken in for questioning, without his parents present. At one point, Capt. F.E. Gibson said in the transcript, detectives brought the businessman in and had him face his teenage accuser in an interrogation room — this in the years before police were required to read Miranda rights.
Investigation ‘just escalated’
Initially, police said parents’ complaints prompted the investigation. However, only one of the 32 defendants was charged with having sex with an underage teen, and the rest involved consenting adults. And with the charging of ostensible victims in the cases — making everyone involved subject to prosecution — the naming of names accelerated. The investigation began “to skyrocket,” in the words of former Sheriff Sticky Burch, who in 1957 was a major in charge of operations for the city police.
“It might have started with the (suspects) on the street, but it began to involve people who were upstanding in the community, people in the Jaycees, people who did paper drives,” Burch said recently. “It just escalated to the point where the investigation was called off.”
The reason the police investigation began and ended is uncertain. Those directly involved — Lt. Maurice Geiger, Capts. Gibson (* SEE CORRECTION *) and Bill Jackson, Chief Calhoun — are dead.
In a 1971 Greensboro Record story headlined “Gay Subculture Losing Social Inhibitions,” an anonymous vice lieutenant who had worked the morals cases was quoted as saying that the “names of innocent people” had been brought in, and that police suspected a “star witness” had been paid to leave town before others could be implicated.
But at the time of the grand jury session in 1957, ending the police phase of the case, Calhoun said only that the detectives’ work was done.
“Developments have now reached the stage,” Calhoun told the Daily News, “where it is deemed advisable to return the specially assigned investigators to their regular units.”
What had driven the police investigation this far — a period of months, producing 60 warrants and 32 defendants about to face trial — was the need, Calhoun said, to remove those who prey upon youth.
Lawrence Egerton, one of the few attorneys involved in the cases who is still in practice, said members of the defense bar viewed it differently.
“There had always been homosexuals, but the police never pursued them with such intensity, never before and never since,” he said. “The truth? It was a long, hot summer, and the police had nothing to do.”
‘You just repressed it’
In 1957, Greensboro was, as now, the third-largest city in North Carolina. The difference was, instead of 238,000 residents, it had less than a third of that population.
It was just a town, a town poised, like the rest of the country, on the brink of a social sea change — civil rights, women’s rights, sexual revolution. And as if braced for the floodwaters, the 1950s were the most rigidly conformist decade of the century.
In the society pages, women continued to be identified by their husbands’ names — “Mrs. John Smith” — and any story mentioning a black person took care to specify race — “a Negro.”
At a time when newspapers had only recently ventured to publish the word “rape,” and when the discovery of a moonshine operation could still lead the local news, the word “homosexual” never appeared. It wasn’t merely taboo. It was practically unheard of.
“People talked about ‘sissies’ and ‘queers.’ But we had no idea what they did,” recalled Eleanor Dare Kennedy, who in the mid-1950s was a college student and a police reporter for the Greensboro Daily News.
On her morning rounds to gather items for the police blotter in the years before the ’57 trials, Kennedy one day happened upon a report of a “crime against nature” and asked the shift commander what that meant.
“I honestly thought someone had done something to a tree,” Kennedy said, recalling the commander snatching the report out of her hands. “He said, ‘You can’t write a story about that. Send a man over here.’ ”
Not that homosexuality was unknown on the national scene. The massive mobilization of World War II created what many historians conclude was the first awareness by gays that they were part of a group.
The postwar medical view of homosexuality as a mental illness lasted until 1973, with early treatments including lobotomies and aversion therapy — administering an electric shock each time a patient was shown a picture of an unclothed person of the same sex. But Dr. Arthur Guy Matthews — author of the 1957 book “Is Homosexuality a Menace?” — used less radical means, claiming to have cured a lesbian through cosmetics and a hair styling.
“If a person had homosexual tendencies, you just repressed it,” recalled Greensboro lawyer Dick Douglas, 94, who was a special agent in the FBI’s Washington office during the J. Edgar Hoover years, working in surveillance. “You got married, you had a family, and you didn’t engage in it.”
What ultimately put a national gay scare on the front pages, more than any psychiatric curiosity, was when homosexuals in federal jobs became a target of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s campaign to expose Communist sympathizers in government.
Known as the Red Scare’s accompanying “lavender scare,” the story first broke in 1950 with a State Department undersecretary’s revelation: Ninety-one people made to resign from the agency as “security” risks were not Communists, per se, but rather “deviants” — a 1950s synonym for homosexuals.
As the hunt went on, the stated threat posed by homosexuals and Communists became increasingly intertwined in speeches by McCarthy and supporters in the House, including Rep. Arthur Miller of Nebraska.
“I sometimes wonder how many of these homosexuals have had a part in shaping our foreign policy,” Miller told the House, arguing that “the Russians are strong believers in homosexuality.”
But far from being a peril confined to Washington, no community was considered safe from the twin threats, and the fear lingered well after McCarthy’s censure in 1954.
By Feb. 9, 1957 — the same week the Greensboro morals indictments came down — a report to the House Un-American Activities Committee cited North Carolina as a hotbed for Communists.
Specifically, the report said, party members had used a farmhouse in Walnut Cove while training to “colonize” the nation by infiltrating key industries.
Such was the backdrop for the trials about to be played out in the big, stately second-floor courtroom that is today the meeting room of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners.
At the center of the scene was a white-haired, 6-foot-1 judge who taught Sunday school at the Baptist church in Lexington and ran his courtroom with an iron hand: the Honorable Hubert E. Olive.
‘A lot of maudlin testimony’
Even a quarter-century before local attorney Bob Cahoon gained fame as the orator who helped get the Nazi-Klansmen acquitted of killing five Communist protesters, he was known as a lawyer who didn’t shrink from unpopular causes.
The morals trials, however, were a different animal. One winter morning in 1957, as Cahoon climbed the marble steps to the ornate courtroom, a prospective client breathlessly approached.
“They’ve got me charged with a crime against nature,” he said. “What should I do?”
Cahoon, who died earlier this year, replied without hesitation, former law partner Egerton remembers, with one word: “RUN.”
It wasn’t a charge of murder, rape or highway robbery. It was, as the statute read, “the abominable and detestable crime against nature.”
“It would be hard to imagine a blacker mark against a man,” recalled Percy Wall, the veteran trial lawyer. “You could be accused of murder and be acquitted and people would forget. But this was considered dirty, sinful. The climate was not good in Greensboro. It would have been hard to find a juror who didn’t have an opinion.”
Rather than try to argue against the fairness of the state’s sodomy law — which at the time carried a maximum sentence of 60 years — defense attorneys’ strategy was to plead for mercy. A few defendants, including one whose tearful mother testified on his behalf, persuaded judges to set suspended sentences, on the condition that they remained under the care of psychiatrists.
But those were not the cases that went before Olive. An unsuccessful candidate for governor in 1952, Olive twice came out of retirement to be a sitting judge and was known for his booming voice and “no-nonsense” style of conducting court, in the words of a 1972 obituary.
Olive made clear that prison — and not what he termed “second chances” — was the only remedy for those convicted in the morals trials. And after the brother of an accused Greensboro businessman testified as a character witness and criticized the statute as too strict, Olive took issue and gave the maximum sentence — the longest handed out in any of the cases.
“I’ve heard a lot of maudlin testimony here today,” Olive said as he set the sentence. “But I’m not convinced the law is wrong.”
Court records show that what lawyers began to dub “the gay docket” was almost exclusively called when Olive was visiting on the bench. At the height of the trials in March 1957, Olive said he had heard so many cases that he didn’t know “if this court could stand to hear another.” Even so, when the next session convened, Olive at the last moment took over for a more lenient judge who had been scheduled to hold criminal court.
And so it was that Wally Pegelow and a third fellow paratrooper were tried before Olive, who was quoted in the Daily News as finding homosexuality “as disturbing as anything in our nation.”
Throughout the trials, a number of witnesses took the stand to recant their testimony. Pegelow had signed a statement that he had witnessed a sex act between two co-defendants, but he testified that he saw no such thing and only signed the statement because police promised to help him in exchange.
Pegelow received no help, and like his fellow paratroopers, was convicted on the testimony of Jessie Taylor and Ray Roberts, though both were discredited: Taylor had by then admitted to giving false affidavits against several defendants, and Roberts testified that a paratrooper could have been “unconscious” when the alleged offense took place.
In setting the sentence in that trial, Olive said the country’s large Korean War-era military buildup helped spread homosexuality.
“Boys in Army camps don’t have the inhibitions they might have otherwise,” the Daily News quoted Olive, a World War I artillery officer, as saying. “History shows that where large armies are maintained, those nations begin to weaken. I am not so sure the dangers from within are not more than those from without.”
Though most of the juries returned guilty verdicts, one case before Olive resulted in a mistrial — and a harsh rebuke from the judge to the deadlocked jury. Before banging his gavel and telling the jurors, “You are excused,” Olive said that the case “was not even close,” and that the police testimony should have been enough to convict.
“The police,” he told the jurors, “told the truth.”
That defendant, who was retried before Olive and found guilty, received five to 10 years — one of at least 24 morals defendants to receive prison sentences ranging from five to 60 years.
Pegelow, who would spend three years behind bars and working on highway chain gangs, appealed his conviction, partly on the grounds that Jessie Taylor, the accused “female impersonator,” had told a lawyer that he gave false affidavits about performing oral sex on a number of defendants. Taylor and Roberts, who could not be located for this article, both had multiple counts consolidated, and each received a five- to 10-year sentence.
In late 1957, the state Supreme Court denied Pegelow’s appeal in a terse opinion.
“The evidence offered by the state — the defendant offered none — is amply sufficient to carry the case to the jury,” the justices wrote. “There is no need to soil the pages of our Reports with a recital of its sordid details.”
The opinion, recorded in a small volume amid the crowded stacks of the state Supreme Court law library, was the last word on a musty, buried chapter of the city’s past — but one that cast a pall for years to come.
A potent sense of shame
With the defendants driven out of the city, and any remaining gay community driven further underground, the legacy of the trials was denial and fear.
“People talked about ‘the purge ’ and what an unreal thing this has been,” remembered public defender Wally Harrelson, who began practicing law after the trials. “It was really quite unbelievable.”
Though the pendulum of social acceptance would eventually swing in Greensboro, there were decades in between. So potent was the prevailing shame that in 1986 — a full 30 years after the morals investigation began — a married state legislator who was a key bank executive in town would drop completely out of public life and move away after being arrested on a charge of male solicitation. Meanwhile, the family of the first known man to contract HIV in Greensboro released a statement that he caught the virus through a blood transfusion — not gay sex.
As for Wally Pegelow, who denied any involvement with his 1957 accusers, the felony conviction haunted him for the rest of his life.
He was forbidden to see his wife, according to his family, and told that his father-in-law had the marriage annulled.
The Army discharged him for bad conduct, a ruling he sought to have reversed in 1965 so that he could serve in Vietnam. As late as 1990, Pegelow appealed to the Army — to no avail — to let him serve with the National Guard in Operation Desert Storm.
“I am now 54 years old. Over the years since my discharge, I have always tried to be the best person that I could be,” wrote Pegelow, who had twice remarried and had three daughters. “All I am asking is, would you please let me hold my head up a little higher?”
Pegelow died of lung cancer in 2002, according to his third wife, who now lives in Darlington, S.C.
In the 45 years following his imprisonment for a crime against nature, widow Rita Pegelow said her husband never registered to vote, for fear of being told that he was ineligible, and never applied for a job where he had to list his felony conviction, for fear of being turned down.
And after the one brief, furtive jailhouse visit arranged by his former mother-in-law, he never saw his son again.
Contact Lorraine Ahearn at 373-7334 or firstname.lastname@example.org