TODAY IN HISTORY:
Iowa’s Sexual Psychopath Law Goes Into Effect: 1955. The last time anyone saw eight-year-old Jimmy Bremmer alive was on the night of August 31, 1954, when the Sioux City youth went to a friend’s house two doors down to play after dinner. He left his friend’s house at around 8:00 to go home, but he didn’t make that short distance. On September 29, his decomposed body was found in a pasture north of town. His crushed skull was several feet away from his decapitated body, and both hands were missing. A man was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. He had confessed after being sent to a mental hospital and injected with Desoxyn and Seconal. (His conviction wouldn’t be overturned until 1972.)
The Red and Lavender Scares, which had dominated the evening news and newspapers for most of the decade, may have been winding down in Washington, but its effects continued to reverberate in cities and towns across the country. With Jimmy’s death, Iowans became convinced that the state was crawling with sexual psychopaths. On January 31, 1955 Iowa legislators introduced a bill in the Iowa House of Representatives “to provide for the confinement of persons who are dangerous criminal sexual psychopaths.” The bill extended to anyone, whether they had been convicted of a crime or not, and its procedures allowed “any reputable person” to charge anyone with such “propensities.” It empowered the court to appoint a psychiatrist for an examination, and allowed the court to commit the accused to indefinite confinement until “cured,” or until proven to court that release would not be “incompatible with welfare of society.”
The bill passed both houses unanimously with very little discussion and went into effect on April 14, 1955, making Iowa the twenty-fourth state to pass such a law. Michigan was the first, in 1937, and in one eleven year period confined 369 under its law. Twenty-four were confined under the District of Columbia’s law between October 1948 and March 1950 (see Jun 9), and in California, more than fourteen hundred had been confined over a fourteen year period.
On the evening of July 10, 1955, two year old Donna Sue Davis was kidnapped from her crib where she was sleeping. The kidnapper had come in through the open bedroom window, and left the house with Donna Sue through that same window. A neighbor saw the kidnapper flee and gave chase, but the kidnapper got away. The next morning her body was found in a cornfield outside of town. An autopsy revealed that the child had been raped and sodomized. Her left jaw was broken and there were several bruises and cigarette burns on her buttocks. She died of a massive brain hemorrhage from a severe blow to the head. One itinerant farm hand was arrested, but investigators quickly ruled out the possibility that he committed the crime.
Panic gripped Sioux Falls as hardware stores reported running out of padlocks. The Sioux City Journal on July 12 demanded that the city be made “the most feared town in American for the sex deviate.” With no other firm suspects to investigate, the police chief began a roundup of “known sex perverts.” On July 23, Gov. Leo Hoegh announced that a special ward at the state mental hospital in Mount Pleasant had been established to house them. He said, “The guy I want to treat [is the sex deviate] who is now roaming the street but never committed a crime.” Most of those “sex perverts,” it would turn out, were gay men, “diagnosed” with “sociopathic personality disturbance. Sexual deviation (Homosexuality).”
By the end of the year, thirty-three men had been committed, all without charge or trial. At least twenty of them from Sioux City. Many of them were arrested at the Warrior Hotel and its bar, the Tom Tom Club. Once they were nabbed, and fearing for their jobs and reputation, they named names which led to more arrests and detentions. A few with connections were set loose, and one man was able to successfully fight back in court. That was a risk; one juror commented, “He admitted in open court that he listened to Liberace on the radio, and a man who does that is liable to do anything.” But most of the men accepted plea bargains to avoid public trial and arrest. At least one confined man’s diagnosis was “Homosexuality, no overt acts” — he hadn’t even done anything except be a homosexual. Sioux City’s prosecutor boasted, “At least word is out that they’re not welcome in Sioux City any more.”
At Mt. Pleasant, the men underwent group therapy, individual counseling, and so-called “therapeutic” — unpaid — labor. They were spared aversion therapy, but otherwise, hospital staff were at a loss as to what to do. Mount Pleasant superintendent Dr. W.B. Brown said, “there is no specific treatment which brings about improvement or cures of such individuals. … Law requires me to report to the court once a year… What can I say? I can’t say they are cured.” He also complained that due to crowded conditions, the gay men were often put in the same bedrooms together, leading an Iowa State law professor to note that “the curative effect of this may be said to be doubtful. Staff psychologists, pressured by a state government that no longer wanted to foot the bills, eventually released the men despite doubts that they could be “cured.” Most of those confined never spoke of their confinement again.
Donna Sue’s killer was never found. The sexual psychopath law was finally repealed in 1977.
[Sources: "Dal McIntire" (pseudonym). "Tangents: News & Views." ONE 4, no. 2 (February 1956): 11-12.
Neil Miller. Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s (Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2002).]