a chicken, a drag and 96

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Sep 11 16:08:15 UTC 2003

While hunting for Ben Henderson yesterday I found that I had wandered into a den of "social vagrants" -- it was quite inadvertent, I assure you -- really -- seemed like a respectable place -- I had no idea.

This was a series of stories in the LATimes from November 14, 1914 and after.  The headline to the original story was:
LONG BEACH UNCOVERS "SOCIAL VAGRANT" CLAN.  Thirty Men Heavily Fined or Given County-jail Sentences -- Church and Business men Included in List of Guilty Ones who, Police Say They Have Evidence to Show, were Organized for Immoral Purposes.  [from the story:] Officers Warren and Brown say that Lowe unfolded to them before his arrest a story of the existence of a society of "social vagrants," called the "606," whose members were all men and who met weekly.  ***  At the functions of this peculiar society all the members, on arriving, changed street clothes for kimonos, silk underware and hosiery, and some wore women's wigs.  The members made up with powder and paint as for the stage, according to the recital by the officers, and the orgies were attented by at least fifty at each meeting.
Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1914, section II, p. 8  I do not find "social vagrant" in the on-line OED.

[A police officer testifies:]  [Lowe] came [into the room] again, while I was lying on the bed.  He asked me if I had ever heard of the Six-O-Six Club and the Ninety-six Club.  I said I had not.  He said that the Ninety-six Club was the best; that it was composed of the 'queer' people, that got together every week.  I asked Lowe why they called it the Ninety-six Club, and he said someting about turning the letters around, before and behind.  He said that the members sometimes spent hundreds of dollars on silk gowns, hosiery, etc., in which they dressed at sessions of this club.  He said that at these 'drags' the 'queer' people have a good time, but no one could get in without being introduced by a member in good standing.
Los Angeles Times, November 19, 1914, p. 10 (continued from p. 1)  HDAS has "drag", noun, 4b, "Homosex., a party held for transvestites and male homosexuals", with quotations from 1927 (2), 1930, 1933, &c.  It has "ninety-six", "Homosex., homosexual anal intercourse", with quotations from 1925, 1949, and "1947-51".  The 1949 passage reads "California term for reciprocal anal intercourse".

The Times reprinted an editorial from the Sacramento Bee, which quoted at length from a letter from an outraged citizen: "There is the pitiable, the most outrageous, part of all -- the jaded appetites of these loathsome degenerates, after a time, are not satisfied with each other; they demand young boys -- "chickens," they call them -- and they will stoop to almost anything to satisfy their desire in this regard."
Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1914, section II, p. 8.  HDAS has "chicken", noun, 9a, "Pris. & Homosex., a catamite; a boy who is or may be willing to engage in homosexual copulation", with the earliest quotation dated 1942.  It also has, under 3b, "Navy and USMC, a boyish and naive recruit; a raw recruit", with quotations from 1888, 1918 1942, &c.

Thanks to the doings of the infamous Random House company and the unspeakable Bertlesmann, we do not have the volume of HDAS that might contain "606".   I suppose the word "queer" must have been found in this sense well before 1914.

It appears that the Times came under a deal of criticism for reporting on this story, in part from the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce and other city boosters, and in part from moralists who felt that the the subject matter put it outside the realm of "the news that's fit to print".  Its defense with regard the latter objection, in part, was: "In printing such news it is not necessary to give filthy details or to print anything that may not be read in the family circle.  When it is said that the accused was charged with the same crime as that for which Sodom was destroyed and Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, or that he was accused of contributing to the delinquency of a minor female, or of misconduct with a child, the mature reader understands without the aid of a dictionary exactly what is meant and no law of decency is offended."
Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1914, section II, p. 4

The town fathers of Long Beach were also outraged by heterosexual "spooning" on the beach; one city council member proposed planting the beach with thorny cactuses to prevent its misuse after dark -- presumably a rhetorical flourish rather than a serious proposal, but one never knows.

The whole story is very interesting.  I intend to send a packet of more or less legible printouts to my friend Jonathan Ned Katz, the historian of gay America, and will also send one to anyone among us who wants it.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

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