Once upon a time, Portland was the Wild West.
In the early 1900s, the city teemed with bawdy saloons and street-fighting roughnecks who shared an uneasy coexistence with Gilded Age progressivism and Victorian pearl clutching. In response to rapid growth and urbanization, progressive reforms were coming to a swell; attempts to control venereal disease were on the rise, the Mann Act of 1910 had criminalized sexual “immorality,” and homosexuality had been added to the lexicon of psychiatric disorders. In those days, prostitution and other forms of vice (the fun, old-timey name for sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll) were rampant, but largely hidden from view—until a 14 year-old boy named Hazen Wright, brought downtown for questioning after being caught shoplifting, inadvertently exposed one of the biggest sex scandals of Portland’s early years.
The Gay Lothario
In 1912, the Louvre was one of downtown Portland’s finest dining establishments. It was owned by Theodore Kruse, a wealthy German hotelier who dabbled in restaurants and catering. Kruse had a flair for the dramatic; one day in August of 1911 he simply disappeared, worrying his wife enough that she placed an ad in the paper a week later inquiring to his whereabouts. When Mrs. Kruse was pressed with the notion that he may have run off with a mistress, she laughed, insisting that she’d always had to shoo her homebody hubby out the door with male friends. The next day, he was spotted in Seattle in the company of two men, and then disappeared again for several months. Having purportedly spent the time visiting family in Germany, Kruse returned to Portland the following spring, saying he had needed “to merely get away.” He and his wife divorced shortly after.
The Louvre had a wild reputation. Shortly before Kruse’s abrupt disappearance, the restaurant had been on Circuit Court Judge William Gatens’ short list for what he saw as an immoral atmosphere. For a few exciting years, it was a regular venue of the Hungarian violinist Jancsi “Gypsy” Rigo.
Rigo was pretty hot shit for Portland. The Oregonian reported on his comings and goings, calling him the “violin virtuoso, gipsy of romance, gay Lothario.” He wore rings on his fingers, smoked monogrammed cigarettes, and even had an Austrian dessert named after him. “He was always ogling women and seemed to think he was a lady killer,” wrote the Oregonian.
On November 16, 1912, ads promised a delightful Saturday evening of Rigo doing his thing in “his own eccentric way,” but patrons of the Louvre were disappointed to learn that Rigo wouldn’t show up for his gig that night.
He had been arrested.
A Bestial Story
1912 was an election year, and combatting vice had long been a popular political platform, so when “A Bestial Story from Portland” erupted in the Daily Capital Journal that November, the city became embroiled in scandal. It started when plucky volunteer vice investigator Benjamin Brick was tipped off by a YMCA elevator attendant that one man living there seemed a bit... odd. The man was 39-year-old Harry Rowe, and under questioning he folded like origami, admitting to “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” and outing a few other men while he was at it. Rowe was among the names dropped by 14-year-old Hazen Wright, who, after being arrested for shoplifting, told police that a bunch of older men (including Rowe) had “corrupted” him into a life of crime.
The arrests soon came pouring in: Rigo was brought in along with a total of 68 other men, collectively dubbed the “Vice Clique.” The men were charged with crimes ranging from indecent acts to sodomy.
Most of the men confessed right away, hoping that being cooperative would result in reduced charges. The confessions, wrote the Daily Capital Journal, were “unprintable, showing that the depraved ones made the practice as exquisite as such a practice may be made.” Dana Sleeth, the editor of the Portland News, however, could scarcely contain his jubilance at the scandal, printing every juicy detail and even making up a few of his own.
Rigo was one of only three men to not immediately confess, since he possessed a very convenient alibi: being embroiled in another scandal. A few years prior, Rigo’s name had been all over the news when he began a salacious affair with 22-year-old Clara Ward (AKA “Princesse de Caraman-Chimay”), an American millionaire heiress and stage actress who was still married at the time to the prince of Belgium. She and Rigo eloped, but soon divorced when it came out that her new husband could not, for the life of him, keep his dick in his pants. Rigo’s insatiable and well-publicized appetite for women helped clear him of all Vice Clique-related charges.
Some of the men accused of sex crimes were prominent members of Portland society. Edward Stonewall Jackson McAllister—a progressive activist, Democratic Party leader, and buddy of well-known lawyer C.E.S. Wood—was charged with having untoward relations in his office with a “boy victim,” 30-year-old Roy Kadel. In the eyes of the law, there was no such thing as consensual sex between two males; there were only predators and “boy victims.” These “boy victims” could themselves become the perpetrators if their sexual partner was younger.
McAllister was convicted of sodomy along with a few other men, and depending on the gentlemen’s social standing, they each received different sentences. Some of those tried were allowed to leave town, but McAllister and three others were sentenced to the state penitentiary (only one of them actually served time). A couple others went to the county jail. The eccentric Rigo was released for lack of evidence, and quickly left town, never to return.
Of the 68 men implicated on sodomy charges, most never faced a jury. Local businessman W. H. Allen was in such a state of disgrace that he attempted suicide via chloroform in his bed at the YMCA. Several other indicted men were also residents of the Y—enough that the establishment itself was investigated for being a hotbed of sodomy. “Rotten Scandal Reaches into the Y.M.C.A,” announced the sensationalist headline of the Portland News. While YMCA officials were cleared of accusations that they were gay sex ringleaders, the organization itself retained its reputation for being a great place for guys to hook up (as evidenced by the popular Village People song 65 years later).
Besides discovering new and interesting ways people could have sex, Portlanders were shocked to learn just how many cruising sites there were around town, including Lownsdale Square in the Park Blocks (which at the time was designated “men only”). The Louvre restaurant came under particularly critical focus after being revealed as a prominent meeting place for Portland’s homosexual underground. It had been cited several times prior to the scandal for violating liquor laws, and in 1908, one paper referred to the fashionable eatery as a “breeding-place for immorality.”
In 1913, owner Theo Kruse closed the Louvre and, to much celebration and fanfare, opened the glamorous Rainbow Grill in the Morgan building on Southwest 7th and Washington. Perhaps having learned nothing from the gay sex scandal (or in spite of it), the Rainbow featured a “Special Men’s Grill” where a gentleman could select his own cut of meat, have it cooked to order, and eat it in the company of other gentlemen. Lagging profits (very likely due to what was, after the Vice Clique scandal, an even more deeply closeted gay population) led the Rainbow to close less than two years after opening. Another year passed, and it reopened again as a new restaurant and candy store. The Sunday Oregonian reported it thusly: “Grill Site to Grow Gay.”
A Crime Against Nature
In the end, the scandal cemented Governor Oswald West’s decision to enact sterilization laws in 1913 (designed to stop the “feeble-minded” and “moral degenerates” from procreating) after more than five years of the bill being in the works. The definition of “sodomy” was greatly broadened to include a ridiculous array of non-missionary sexual acts, most which had been completely foreign to society before being explicitly described by gay witnesses on the stand. As of 1913, “sexual perversity”—including giving or receiving oral sex, even to a member of the opposite sex—was now considered sodomy. Fellatio was a “crime against nature” according to the Oregon Supreme Court, and the penalty for such “unnatural acts” was tripled from five to 15 years in prison. Several other states across the West responded by outlawing blowjobs, and one could sue for libel if called a “cocksucker” in the state of Missouri.
Oregon eventually became the fourth state in the union to decriminalize consensual sex between men, and less than a century after the Vice Clique Scandal, Portland elected its first openly gay mayor. But during a time when the Northwest was experiencing rapid social change, one teenager’s confession rocked Portland’s moral majority to its core.
For more information, read George Painter’s book The Vice Clique: Portland’s Great Sex Scandal (2013) and Peter Boag’s Oregon Historical Quarterly article “Sex & Politics in Progressive-Era Portland and Eugene: The Local Response to the 1912 Same-Sex Vice Scandal” (1999).