Picture This

Author's Blog, July 22, 2021

Writing Cruising for Conspirators took a really long time. The scope of the archival materials related to the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination is one reason. Another is that, along the way, I had to learn about and sometimes reconstruct the history of gay men in the French Quarter in the two decades leading up to the events I cover in detail in the book.

What that meant in practical terms is that I plowed through an enormous amount of material and wrote two chapter drafts about the 1950s that didn’t make it into the book. In the course of that over-writing, I came across plenty of fascinating (and disturbing) episodes. One thing I discovered is the important role photographs played, not just in Jim Garrison’s investigation into the assassination, but also in how law enforcement officials policed the gay community at large.

Mug shots are, of course, part of that story, and I’ll get to those, but one of the things I was struck by is how often the personal photographs of gay men were seized in the course of their arrests.

Sometimes photographs were the point of the arrest. Take for instance the 1960 raid on an apartment at 920 St. Louis St., in the heart of the French Quarter, in which “thousands of pornographic pictures were seized.” Apparently, Charles W. Gormley was running a sizable business, called Gentry of New Orleans, which specialized in what the police called “sexually indecent photographs” of “nude male models, many in women’s garments.” Of course it’s hard to understand how the models could have been simultaneously nude AND wearing women’s garments, but, leaving aside the amusing imprecisions that appear in many newspaper articles, it’s pretty clear that Gormley and a handful of others were running a thriving business making racy photos which they shipped to subscribers both nationally and internationally. On the day the apartment was raided, police, accompanied by the local postal inspector, carried off three large containers of photographs which they intended “to study” (I bet!) and then present to the U.S. Attorney. Later that year federal charges were filed against Gormley and his partner, though I’ve been unable to determine the final disposition of the case.

Photographs were also seized from arrestees and then used at trial by prosecutors against the accused. In the summer of 1958 cross-dressing bartenders Amos McFarlane (aka Candy Lee) and Louis/Louise Robichaux, who anchored the bars and entertained patrons at Tony Bacino’s, also in the French Quarter, were arrested multiple times over the course of two weeks. They, along with the bar’s manager sued the city for harassment. While they ultimately lost their case, the transcript from the civil district court trial makes clear that photographs had been seized from both men and were presented to the jury as evidence of their sexual depravity, including evidence of the plaintiffs cross dressing. The prosecution also emphasized that McFarlane and Robichaux were socializing with African-Americans in some of the photos. Despite losing the case, I think their willingness to sue the city at all provides evidence that, by the late 1950s, gay men in New Orleans were starting to push back against the rising tide of arrests and harassment that were becoming the preferred method for keeping LGBT and gender nonconforming people deep in the closet.

Another case I came across involved a local professor and former navy pilot named Leo B. Selden who, in 1962, met and took two younger men home at the end of an evening spent in “a French Quarter bar.” Whatever his intentions, once they got to Selden's house, the two younger men attacked, beat, and robbed him. In the midst of the fracas, Selden retrieved a gun and shot one of his assailants; the other fled the scene. Selden called the police and, though he was clearly the victim, after a search of his house turned up some pornography, police opted to also arrest and charge him “under a state obscenity statute for possession of pornographic pictures.” Selden’s employer (then LSUNO; now UNO) suspended him when the news hit the papers. After a couple of days, Selden and the assailants, both Tulane students, asked that all charges be dropped. They were obliged, though I doubt Selden got his photos back either.

One thing that’s very clear in NOPD annual reports is that, as the 1960s got underway, arrests of men who were gay or were cruising for sex with other men rose precipitously. One result is that many had their names and addresses printed in the newspaper. And, while charges were often dropped (an issue I explore in the book) many were processed and had mug shots taken and rap sheets created. Even if they were quickly released, police and investigators in the local District Attorney’s office had a very rich trove of photographs of gay men on which to draw.

The image above was taken in early 1967 by a photographer for Life magazine, which had an inside track to the Garrison investigation. Richard Billings led the team of Life photographers and reporters on the ground in New Orleans covering events as they happened. Billings’ papers are at Georgetown University and contain important textual and photographic evidence related to the investigation in its early days. The three men pictured in the photo above are (from left) Lester Otillio, a policeman assigned to the D.A.’s office as an investigator, James Alcock, the ADA who would argue most of the state's case against Clay Shaw at his 1969 trial, and John Volz, also an ADA who eventually became a prominent federal prosecutor.

In this photo, taken very near the time of Shaw’s arrest, they are clearly sorting through what look like dozens of mug shots. While there’s no way to be sure they were all of men arrested on suspicion of homosexual activity, evidence from a variety of sources demonstrates that these kinds of photographs were used throughout the investigation to locate potential witnesses and question suspects, including Shaw, who is being shown photographs in the image below. This photo, by the way, was taken from behind a mirror without Shaw’s knowledge or consent.

Here are two more mugshots, these from Jim Garrison’s investigative files, housed at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland as part of the sprawling (and very rich) Kennedy Assassination Records Collection.

If you look at the mugshot, what you see written above the image of this man who was arrested for attempted crime against nature, is “Friend of C/S” which almost certainly references Clay Shaw. This man's arrest took place about a month after Shaw’s and at a time when Garrison’s investigators were seeking witnesses – especially in the city’s gay community - to provide testimony against Shaw.

The image and rap sheet below is of an oft-arrested individual named Darryl Gibson, who sometimes performed under the drag name Tempest, reportedly at the legendary Club My Oh My. (If anybody has a picture of Tempest I would sure love to see it!)

I don’t know the reasons that Garrison kept some of these mugshots, like the one of Gibson, in his investigative files, but I do know that Gibson, like gay and cross-dressing men more generally, was vulnerable both to arrest and violence (he was abducted, robbed, and beaten on at least one occasion; in that instance a policeman came to his rescue).

While it’s unclear if the photos of nude males (in the picture below to the left) on Shaw’s desk were actually seized in the March 1, 1967 search of his home, it is clear that Life photographers accompanied Garrison’s investigators and recorded the search in a series of photographs, also located in the Billings Papers.

Photos constituted an important source of evidence as I researched and wrote Cruising for Conspirators. These kinds of photos also provide evidence of the very callous ways that gay men were treated by law enforcement in New Orleans in the decades leading up to Shaw's 1967 arrest and 1969 trial.

I hope you’ll read the book. You can learn more about it and pre-order at this link:


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