This story has its villains, its victims, its social relevance, some justice, and in retrospect, a somewhat painful ending. This story is more than a page out of history, and it needs to be preserved and never forgotten. Names have been changed or omitted to protect the innocent but the crimes that make this story worth telling were really committed against gay men in a not-too-distant past right here in the City of Champions.
The following article originally appeared in the July 1980 issue of Pittsburgh’s Out and is republished here for the first time in 40 years in its entirety as originally published. Some language is dated. Help us preserve Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ history, like this article, by contributing to our GoFundMe.
During a three-and-a-half-year period, a branch of the Pittsburgh Police Department known as the Morals Squad conducted nightly sweeps of areas of the city now long gone that were known for their late-night gay male cruisers. The time was one of extreme conservatism in the city—and in the nation as a whole—during which a Senator named McCarthy and a soon-to-be vice presidential candidate named Nixon were rocking the nation with scares of Communists and perverts.
Between 1948 and 1951 nearly 800 men were arrested, some by outright entrapment, by Pittsburgh Morals Squad officers—many for simply being in the “wrong place” at the wrong time. A few—liberal estimates range only as high as 20 percent—actually made overt sexual advances to another male. All 700-plus were arrested and charged as “deviates,” the charges ranging from misdemeanors to felony sodomy.
But the story doesn’t end there. It, and the ordeal that the 700-plus victims endured, only began with their arrests.
Though it was known in some quarters exactly what the Morals Squad was up to, the story might never have been made public had it not been for an ongoing State probe of wrongdoing by City officials in unrelated matters. It all began on April 26, 1949, when City Stonemason Salvatore Dilelsi was killed in a Butler County truck crash. His widow, Josephine, touched off a furor 364 days later by charging her husband had been on City time to do some “free work” for City officials.
This ultimately forced sensational City Council hearings and demands for a grand jury investigation. District Attorney William S. Rahauser, a political crony of Pittsburgh’s infamous Mayor David L. Lawrence, began a halfhearted investigation intended only to quiet City Council. It got out of hand, and at one point even the Mayor was recommended for indictment.
Uncovered during the early stages of the probe was evidence that at least 60 City employees had been doing work of a political nature on City time. Three top officials of Broadway Maintenance Co. were charged with bribery and conspiracy to cheat and defraud the City on its new street light system. Many top City payrollers were indicted for their parts in a variety of other schemes. The probe even grew beyond City boundaries—to McKees Rocks’ fire department and Homestead’s vice and rackets underworld.
When it appeared that Rahauser was attempting to stonewall the investigation, former State Attorney General Margiotti—a political foe of the Mayor—ousted Rahauser and ordered him to keep hands off any future inquiry into City corruption. He eventually tried several of the City contract cases for the State personally, though charges against Mayor Lawrence were never brought.
It was in this climate that word first leaked to the press about Pittsburgh Moral Squad “improprieties.” Almost daily, as reports on the various other investigations dragged on, new information was uncovered that would open up new areas of possible wrongdoing. Many of these cases never made it to court, but the list of people accused in print read like a “who’s who” of the Western Pennsylvania Democratic Party machine of the era.
View the full issue of Pittsburgh’s Out from July, 1980
On October 3, 1951—the day Russia exploded its second atomic bomb—the news broke. Special Prosecutor Charles D. Coll described it as “the greatest scandal to ever hit Pittsburgh”. Between 1948 and the summer of 1951, nearly 800 men had been arrested in ongoing sweeps by the City Morals Squad (three dozen officers served on the squad during this period) in areas of downtown Pittsburgh that functioned as gay male cruising areas. The specific streets are gone now—mostly in part of an area now housing Gateway Center and Point State Park that was once a rundown warehouse and terminal district.
The Morals Squad apparently could do anything it wished for 3 1/2 years. 75 witnesses—many victims of the Squad— testified about the arrests of men for simply being in the wrong part of town. The Pittsburgh Press reported:
So alarming are the disclosures that grand jury investigators have seen strong men break down and sob openly at the testimony of victims of the Morals Squad. Special Prosecutor Coll said, “I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire legal career. This goes beyond corruption. It deals with the wrecking of lives and families.”Pittsburgh Press
The Press also wrote:
Conditions were such that decent, respectable men could not enter certain public places in downtown Pittsburgh without endangering their reputations, homes, and families.Pittsburgh Press
The Morals Squad had been organized in 1948 by Lt. Louis Morgan of the River Patrol to “round up” male sex “deviates.” The general attitude toward gays was much worse than at present, due in part to the constant linking by right-wing politicians of Communists and “perverts,” Still, the gay subculture had existed and even flourished under a corrupt City administration. Gay bars—while dark, dingy haunts—were numerous and several people interviewed during research for this feature boasted proudly about how much easier it was to make contact with another male for sexual encounters. “It’s so uptight today,” one said, “Everybody just plays games. Even the younger gays today…they just stare at each other all night and are afraid to make the first move. I guess we were so grateful to be in a place, or even on the street, where it was permissible for gays to talk that we jumped at the opportunity.”
So it would appear that it was okay to be a “pervert,” circa 1950, and it was okay to go to gay bars which ran all night under the ever-watchful eye of a City officialdom which lined its pockets with gay money in the form of payoffs. But it most definitely was not okay to get caught. Fear of discovery is still with many gays today; it was with all thirty years ago.
It was such an atmosphere that prompted the formation of the Morals Squad in the first place. Gays (the word was not in such wide usage then) came and went to their gay bars via dark streets, alleys, even back doors. Once inside, they were safe except for an occasional “raid” to make things look good. But other gays preferred the anonymity of the once safe downtown cruising area, the old Greyhound bus station which sat where the Federal Building now stands, and other less-than-savory hot spots.
The word went out: get the queers out of view.
This presented Lt. Morgan and his Squad with a unique opportunity. Since nobody cared about how gays were driven from the streets, nobody would care what happened to them once we got them off the streets, they reasoned. So from its inception, the Morals Squad had it all its own way.
During its reign of terror, one in every eight arrests made by the Morals Squad that went beyond the arrest stage was mysteriously dropped by indicting grand juries. Lt. Morgan fought against but eventually turned over, his personal records for the period in question. Most of his officers did likewise. Police Credit Union records were subpoenaed. 1949 and 1950 Morals Court records and stenographic notes were gone over by prosecutors. It took many months, but finally, all the pieces fell into place. The Morals Squad operated to serve only itself.
The scam worked like this: Morals Squad officers, usually working in teams of two or three, would pick out their targets at random on the street—any street or public place where gay males were known to frequent for purposes of making contact. One would usually move in and strike up a conversation. Within minutes, the others in his team would surround the victim. The first officer would claim that the victim made a proposition or groped him. Then the arrest would be made.
Seldom were two males arrested together, though it did happen. The logic here was that two victims with the same story, in contradiction to that of the arresting officer, might rock the boat. The Morals Squad didn’t want to have its boat rocked.
Simply being charged with a sex crime was the same as being convicted, for it branded the suspect a “sex-deviate” for life. The presumption of innocence until proven guilty carried little weight during the McCarthy era So it is easy to understand why so many victims submitted to blackmail as soon as they were apprehended.
It is virtually impossible to locate Morals Squad victims 30 years later. Many must be presumed dead or relocated. Others have simply covered their tracks. Some wound up serving jail terms because they would not or could not afford to submit to blackmail.
“They even offered to drive me home to get the money … or to the bank in the morning . . . they were going to walk right into the bank with me!”
Through a painstaking trace, I have been able to locate one victim; he was truly shocked when I called him and asked for an interview He finally agreed, so long as we protected his identity.
Hal (not his real name) worked as a clerk in the old Rosenbaum’s Department Store at 6th and Liberty. He told of getting off work at about 8pm one fall night in 1949 and walking a few blocks toward the Point. Knowing the area well from previous rendezvous with men, he thought he would try his luck on this particular evening.
“I walked around the block a couple times,” he recalled. “I saw this guy following me so I stopped in a doorway. Sure enough, he came up and asked me for a cigarette I told him I didn’t smoke, but he stood there and made small talk, about the World Series, the weather, you name it. Nothing was said about sex. I thought he was just feeling me out to see why I was there, so I asked him if he’d been around long. Nothing more was said. Nothing! These two guys came out of nowhere and frisked me, threw me on the ground, then handcuffed me.”
Hal’s nightmare, like hundreds of others, had been born.
“They took me over to Water Street (a former police facility used at times by the Morals Squad, not far from the cruising area). There was no such thing as rights. I was a pervert and that was that. I had visions of my family finding out, of getting fired. I wanted to die.”
“This one cop who was on duty at Water Street kept groping himself in front of me. I guess they thought I would make a move for him right in the police room. No way was I interested,” Hal added.
According to Hal, he was told that he could “get out of trouble” (have the charges dropped) that night and that his record would be clean if he cooperated That is, as long as he didn’t have a prior record (which he didn’t). He could still get out of trouble “but it would be harder on him”.
“They laid it all out in front of me it would cost me $200 right there, or I’d be booked. I didn’t have $200 so I got booked.”
“They even offered to drive me home to get the money, or hold me all night so I could go to the bank in the morning. They were going to walk right into the bank with me!”
Hal was indeed arrested and was arraigned before a magistrate for making that alleged proposition. It was a few weeks before he would have to appear in court again, this time to be indicted by a grand jury.
“Three or four times I got these phone calls—at work—which scared the shit out of me. The person on the other end never identified himself, but each time he said I could still get out of trouble if I cooperated. Whoever it was knew where I worked and I figured if he could get me on the phone, why not my boss?”
“So I took some time off. Then I got a phone call at home, instructing me to bring $250 to work with me and just show up in court like I was supposed to and nothing more would come of it. I didn’t go back to work until the grand jury hearing was over, but I did scrounge around and raised about $160. I took it to court with me just in case I needed it to get out of jail or something.”
“So I’m walking down the hall to join up with an attorney I had talked to the week before and who puts his hand on my shoulder but the cop who started that original conversation with me about wanting a cigarette. I remember he grabbed me real hard I’ll never forget it. I think he was afraid I’d deny making a proposition in court, and I was afraid for my reputation,” Hal said.
Hal gave the plainclothesman the $160 he had for bail money right there in the halls of justice. When it was the officer’s turn to testify, he said under oath that Hal “sort of” talked about the perverts in the area, which the officer took to mean he was interested in sex. The magistrate, almost on cue, nonchalantly dismissed the case for lack of evidence.
“I went back to work much relieved and didn’t hear anything more about it for a few weeks,” Hal recalled. “Then I got a phone call from a man I assume a policeman, who said I still owed $90. He said if I didn’t pay he’d tell my boss why I owed $90. I agreed to pay the $90, and some man I’d never seen before came right to Rosenbaum’s a few days later and picked it up. I told him that’s all I had and if he came back again or caused me any more trouble I’d take my chances and call the boss myself and tell him what’s going on He never came back.”
Today, Hal is a moderately successful self-employed businessman in Western Pennsylvania, about 55, still rather closeted, still actively gay, and with vivid memories of his encounters over thirty years ago with the City Morals Squad. There was no gay liberation group in Pittsburgh while all of this was going on. The American Civil Liberties Union didn’t offer to help In fact, in the entire nation there were only two rather conservative “homophile” organizations—Mattachine, Inc. of New York and a group called “One.” Mattachine’s few Pittsburgh members asked for help from the national organization but received none. Activities of this sort apparently went on in many American cities, so the national office (a two-room affair with three desks) advised that it was something that had to be dealt with by gays in each city. Those few — collectively perhaps Pittsburgh’s first attempt at organizing gays to fight oppression—were not out of the closet enough to speak up publicly, but reportedly they tried to comfort the victims privately.
The Morals Squad scandal could have been brought to a halt at least one year before it actually was. While all of the other City corruption scandals were being uncovered. Assistant Police Superintendent Andrew Charles was informed privately that the Morals Squad “was misusing its enormous power over reputations of its suspects,” according to later testimony. He shrugged off the reports, which it was also later learned was common knowledge throughout much of the department. In fact, the escapades of the Morals Squad was often the focal point for jokes among individual officers.
The activities of the Morals Squad were also the subject of considerable interest and idle conversation among gays who conceded they were powerless to do anything about it.
“It was everybody for themselves,” one man in his 60s who still frequents gay bars occasionally said. “We had heard the horrible stories about the lies, the beatings, even one guy who committed suicide after being arrested, about the people who skipped town, about the shakedowns, about the people who lost their jobs, about the men who were disowned by family. But to come to their (the victims’) aid was to expose yourself to the same thing. No one I knew of would do it. I wouldn’t do it.”
He continued, “It wasn’t a matter of loyalty to your friends. It was just an acceptance that this is the way things were, and if you got caught by the Squad you were on your own. Sure, I lent two people money who needed it to make (blackmail) payments, but appearing in court as a witness that the charge was unfounded or even as a character witness was out of the question.”
The Morals Squad effectively ceased to exist in August of 1951, though while attempting to stonewall the investigation Lt. Morgan insisted it was still active. But it made no arrests after the third week of August, and the investigation did not begin in earnest until September 17. Over 75 witnesses, many described in the press as “mystery” witnesses, appeared before investigators during the period before and after the news broke on October 3.
Many of the witnesses were victims of the Squad who met varying fates. Some were like Hal (who did not testify); they had paid the money and got off. Others took their chances and were either found guilty or innocent. Some of those who bought their way out were in fact sex “offenders” while others who went to jail were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For instance, one witness described as the mother of a man arrested by the Morals Squad on May 15, 1949, told how her son bought his way out of trouble and the grand jury ignored his case. The Pittsburgh Press, on October 17, 1951, made a point of emphasizing that this same man was caught in the act with a minor in 1950 and was sentenced to five to ten years in prison. There were several similar cases in which men—who under criminal standards of the time were considered to be a threat to society—bought their way out of trouble.
Likewise, there was testimony which brought to light the plights of men like Hal. In fact, there were more than a dozen clergymen caught in the shakedown schemes, but even the Morals Squad had a heart in their cases. They were not booked on police records but taken to the superintendent’s office. “Then,” Lt. Morgan said, “we would notify their church higher-ups and let them clean their own house.” He said one such suspect was a second offender.
Ironically, it was two policemen who finally broke the Morals Squad scandal wide open. After receiving testimony from most of the Squad’s 36 officers, two angered patrolmen who confided to friends that they “didn’t intend to become fall guys,” retestified, correcting earlier versions of their stories. They provided the missing links, providing names and dates of actual shakedown incidents, which were then checked with the subpoenaed records and other testimony.
The Morals Squad, it became apparent, was willing to blackmail victims and fix cases at just about any stage in the legal system. Cases could be fixed, through changes in testimony by arresting officers (and court officials looking the other way) at:
- The time of arrest.
- The period between the magistrate’s hearing and the grand jury.
- The period between a grand jury indictment and trial.
Most Squad officers were ordered to appear in court again, along with several lawyers, magistrates, bail bondsmen, and victims who were named by the two officers (Robert Leiner and Thomas Mudd), and solid cases were built against 12 officers, including Lt Morgan.
With less-than-speedy justice, many of the offending officers were finally brought to trial, remaining on the police force until being convicted. But justice prevailed in at least six cases.
The Pittsburgh Press of January 28, 1954 described it this way in a lead story:
“The old Police Morals Squad disbanded four (sic) years ago, was bundled up today and sent to prison. Its members must pay for giving false testimony in court — testimony which freed guilty male sex offenders and punished other men who were innocent.“
Not all of the 12 men indicted were found guilty. In addition to Lt. Morgan, who drew 3 1/2 to 7 years for one of ten counts of subornation to perjury and 1 to 2 years for forgery, patrolmen Alan Tanser, Guy Russo, Martin J. Scanlon, Bernard McArdle, and Jack Soloff were sentenced from between four and twelve months each on various counts of perjury, obstructing justice, and Thomas Mudd was given a suspended sentence. Robert Leiner turned State’s evidence and was never prosecuted. The officers served their sentences in the old County Workhouse.
The Press reported:
Morgan stood erect before Visiting Judge W. Walter Braham of New Castle to hear his penalty. The ex-officer was told: “I want you to think it is not the judge speaking to you here. But the law which you betrayed and the courts you dishonored.”
“This is hard on you. But it will be years before another Pittsburgh police officer listens to anyone who urges him to change his testimony.”
Tanser was the first policeman to be sentenced after Judge Braham had finished with Morgan.
The defendants all sat together in a little cluster on the right side of the courtroom and were called individually to hear their fate.
Though Morgan showed little emotion as he stood beside his attorney, Maurice H. Goldstein, to hear his own sentence, his legs trembled as he sat down to hear the others be put away.
Lt Morgan served his sentence immediately, but the other officers took advantage of appeals procedures which delayed their imprisonment until 1957.
Thus was ended a dark page in the journal of Pittsburgh’s history — one it is hoped Pittsburgh’s gay community, and the individuals who comprise it, will never allow to repeat itself.