The Long Beach Purity Raids of 1914 and Remembering LGBTQ+ History

by Gennie Truelock

In remembrance of the Stonewall Riots that took place on this date 50 years ago, we are sharing the story of a series of police raids on gay men in Long Beach in the summer of 1914, its impact on the community, and the one man who fought back against the system.

In August 1914, the Long Beach Police Department hired two “purity raid specialists,” W.H. Warren and B.C. Brown. Though the men had no law enforcement training, they were hired to find and arrest men engaged in homosexual activity in the city. Warren and Brown were not provided with a salary, but were paid $10 for every arrest they made. Their tactics included frequenting local bathhouses, public parks and restrooms, and soliciting men “whom they thought to be given to this sort of thing.”

Police Raid in Long Beach Headline San Pedro newspaper
Headline from the San Pedro Daily News,
November 12, 1914.

During the final weeks of September, 31 men, all supposed members of private clubs known as the “606” and “96,” where officers stated men cross-dressed and engaged in orgies, were arrested on the grounds of “social vagrancy” and for being “lewd” and “dissolute.” Their names and professions were printed in the local papers, including the Los Angeles Times. In the ensuing days, many paid fines ranging from $100 to $500. Those unable to pay were sentenced to 180 days in jail. Only one, Herbert Lowe, decided to fight the charges.

On November 12, Lowe’s trial began. Two days later, John Lamb, a prominent banker and Episcopal Church officer committed suicide at Point Fermin by drinking cyanide. Leaving a note addressed to his sister, he stated that he was a “…victim of a situation. I could not endure this publicity…” The sale of poison was temporarily restricted in Long Beach out of fear that others would follow suit.

Lowe the Florist Ad
Advertisement for Herbert Lowe’s
flower shop from the San Pedro Daily
News, May 6, 1914.

As Lowe’s trial continued, the methods used by Warren and Brown were called into question by Lowe’s attorney, Roland Swaffield. Lowe, a florist, had met Brown at his flower shop when Brown stopped in to inquire about a back house at Lowe’s residence that was available for rent. After living there for a few days, Brown stated that he asked to borrow a swimsuit from Lowe and that he watched him change into it through the screen door. Brown testified that Lowe had offered to take him to a meeting of the 96 club. He also stated that Warren and other officers watched his room from a pee­p­h­ole in the ceiling and through a window into his bedroom to see Lowe flirting and kissing him. One evening, while Lowe was in Brown’s room attempting to become intimate with him, one of the men outside slipped on gravel near Brown’s window, startling Lowe. Officers then rushed in to arrest him and claimed that Lowe offered to pay the men $1,000 for his release. Lowe denied any wrong doing.

LA Herald headline and story on Lowe acquital Dec-1
Article on the acquittal of Herbert Lowe from
from the Los Angeles Herald, December 12, 1914.

Criticizing Warren and Brown, Swaffield accused the two men of entrapment, claiming that it was all a “frame-up job.” In his closing argument, Swaffield stated, “You don’t know these stool pigeons who came here to ‘get’ our citizens; you do know Lowe who has been here for ten years. We don’t need strangers to come here to ferret out crime.” Swaffield continued, “the hands of Special Officers Brown and Warren dripped with the blood of John Lamb.” Lowe was acquitted on December 12. The jury took just 30 minutes to decide the case.

Although it has largely been forgotten, the Lowe trial is an important event in LGBTQ+ history in California because of the plaintiff’s fight against unequal treatment. Over a century later, the Long Beach Lesbian & Gay Pride Festival & Parade is the third largest gathering for LGBTQ+ communities in the United States.

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