This excerpt from the Prologue opens the story of the modern-day LGBTQ community in Seattle — the 19th century beginning of their criminalization as sodomites. The criminalization occurs amid a fight about whether Seattle is to be a puritanical city upholding Midwestern values, a utopian city cleansed of the “unsavory,” or a sexually open boomtown like San Francisco.
John Collins arrived at the street corner in downtown Seattle on a Monday night, November 25, when the sun had already been settled for almost three hours even though it was only about 7 p.m. The electric lights in the red brick buildings were pinpoints in an otherwise dark, cold evening. It was 1895 and Collins was on shore leave from the naval ship Philadelphia, where he worked as a fireman, having joined the crew at Mare Island in San Francisco. Seattle at the time was less than 50 years old. Collins was a youthful 18, and every year, hundreds of men like him arrived aboard the ships that docked at what had once been just a short strip of tidal mud flat fronting steep hills, a spot native tribes called “the little crossing over place.” Thousands other young men found their way to the flat from the logging camps set up near town to clear the greenly upholstered Northwest. Still others arrived from railroad camps where they maintained new links between Seattle’s protected port and the grain fields of the Midwest.
For these young men, the mud flat offered relief from the drudgery of rain and the casualties of work. There were saloons and halls for poker, steam baths to wash away the grime. And there was sex: The first brothel had been built in 1861 just a few years after the city’s founding. By the 1890s, when Collins arrived, Madame Lou Graham had opened the Northwest’s most famous bordello. It was located on Washington Street, which had already become legendary as a center of action, a 19th century equivalent of the Strip in Las Vegas–or at least the best available along the thousands of miles of coastline and woodlands between San Francisco and Alaska.
Collins was just a block away from Madame Lou’s when he met two men slightly younger than himself selling crabs at the corner of Washington Street and Second Avenue. He stopped to banter with them. Whether Collins had aimed for that particular corner or was simply wandering, we do not know for certain. He might have heard of the People’s Theater, which was located in a basement on that corner and had developed a reputation as one of Seattle’s best bawdy theaters, offering women who danced and sang on stage and then strolled among the playing tables trolling for drinks. Couch-like box seats were deep enough for the men to draw the women inside and then pull curtains for whatever sexual pleasures could be had. But the People’s had temporarily closed. As Collins chatted on the corner near the stairway, a third young man joined the other two selling crabs. His name was Benjamin Layton. The night was about to take a distinctly sexual turn.
What, if anything, Collins might have been hunting for that night, we also do not know for certain. From county court records we do know what Collins found: an urban conflict over the future of Seattle that he probably knew nothing about.
Not everyone in the city liked what Washington Street and the mud flat symbolized, as Collins would soon discover. Different impulses had lured different kinds of settlers to the Northwest. There were those like the pragmatic Arthur Denny, who brought his family and wanted to recreate the kind of Midwestern town he had left behind, endowing it with commercial success. There were also those like David “Doc” Maynard, who escaped from a worn marriage by moving West and then acquired a reputation for drinking. The story of the city’s creation goes that when the two men surveyed the half-mile or so of mud flat, Denny set off north toward a small knoll, planting his stakes parallel to the beach while Maynard walked the opposite direction, following a compass heading rather than the beach line. When the two men rejoined at the end of the day, they had platted survey lines that did not match. The Northwest was a big country, and some arguments between its sparse neighbors were best passed over. Rather than redraw the lines to make the downtown grid consistent, they simply etched a diagonal line across their plats and connected the angled north-south lines, leaving later generations to cope with the sudden skew in the city’s streets. In keeping with the compromise, the connecting diagonal was eventually named after a third settler, Henry Yesler, who ran the local sawmill, but for many decades it was better known as the “Deadline” and then as Skid Road, and it came to symbolize the divide between two approaches to city life: Would Seattle, this frontier post, come to be “open” or “closed” to gambling, drinking and sex?
The Denny knoll would house the institutions of the respectable elites: the City Hall, the courts, the police station, and the first campus of a state university, which, in 1863 would instruct its students to stay out of the saloons and theaters and go to chapel instead. Below the Deadline on Maynard’s plat, saloons, cheap hotels, gambling halls and brothels prospered, refuges for thousands of working-class single men and hundreds of single women.
As the city’s sexual history began to unfold in this urban geography, the “respectables” of the knoll often locked in bitter combat with the riffraff below the Deadline, trying to control their behaviors. Sometimes, of course, the “respectables” also fought among themselves over the whether the city should actually be “closed,” since the prospect of making money from the mud flat’s gambling, drinking, and sex provided a more powerful incentive than their perceived morality. Two years before Collins arrived, the national Panic of 1893 had so wracked the local economy that the mud flat was now booming more with unemployment than profits, and, in that climate, the “respectables” in favor of a closed city had won two important battles. In 1894, they seized control of enough city council seats to ban women being present in places where liquor was sold, such as the combination saloon/theaters like the People’s at Washington and Second. If Collins had walked down the stairs into the underground theater, he would have found its manager had fled to Spokane to open another box theater out of the reach of the moralists and that men like himself had turned the box seats previously used for sex into sleeping quarters.
It was the other moralist victory, won early in 1893 just as the economic panic was starting, that was about to become more pertinent to the young sailor.
According to court records, Benjamin Layton, the young man who had joined Collins and the two others on the corner, lived with his mother just a few blocks away, at Sixth and Main. His father was gone, working for the Great Northern Railroad, which had arrived in Seattle the same year as the great panic. Layton himself washed dishes at a nearby restaurant called the KP, where he usually took his meals. As the four men talked, Layton apparently told none of this to Collins. There is also no indication in the records that he mentioned his age, fifteen. Layton seems typical of the restless male teenagers who gathered at night on the mud flat. They were not really “boys” as we might call them in the late 20th century. Rather, these were more experienced and mature, the sons of fathers who had also gone to the camps. The young men foraged for meals where they could, took jobs to help the family income, and either cared for their mothers or else declared their separation in whatever ways they could find. On the mud flat, they presumably discovered initiation and independence, particularly after dark and particularly on Washington Street with its appeal to that free-floating male audience of whatever age, whatever marital status–and whatever sexual desire.
According to Collins’ later testimony, Layton quickly made it clear that he wanted the two other young men to leave him alone with the sailor. The two left. Collins then told Layton he needed to return to his room in one of the cheap hotels a short distance away. Layton supposedly asked, “Would you please give me enough money to eat on and get a bed?” Collins said he replied, “I got no money, but you can go up and sleep with me.” Layton agreed, even though he would later testify that he normally slept at his mother’s home.
It was an innocent enough pick-up. In the bed-starved West, it was not uncommon for two men or two women to sleep together–although the speed of the suggestion between two men who were strangers might have signaled something out of the ordinary.
At the Canal Saloon on Washington, Collins first checked with the manager to get a key. Although he told Layton that he had previously rented the room, it is not certain whether he actually had or whether he was just now renting it for the two of them–in a hotel apparently known for its upstairs brothel, according to the court records. Layton waited on a nearby staircase. He must have been an attractive young man, because in the few minutes he stood there he immediately ignited the attention of a woman named Fay Carlson, who had been chatting with several other women a short way down the hall. She later tried to convince an attorney she was just a houseworker who cleaned rooms, but under questioning, she would admit that by living above the Canal, she knew she was rooming in a brothel. The implication of the attorney’s questioning was clear, although Carlson denied she was a prostitute. When the two men headed down the hall to the sailor’s room, Carlson excused herself from the other women and drifted slowly after them.
The two men went into Collins’ room and closed the door, leaving the electric light burning. Outside in the hallway, Carlson listened. “I heard them pulling off their shoes,” she would later tell the court. “I said something wrong is going on there . . . . I heard the boy making a groaning noise and from that I took a stand and went around in the hallway, put the stand against the door, and got up on the stand and looked over the transom, and I saw the boy lying on his face.” Neither man had underwear on, she would testify, only their shirts, and Collins was on top of Layton.
A moment or two passed. Then Layton turned his head. To his shock, he saw Carlson peering through the window. From the look on Layton’s face, Collins must have known instantly that something had gone wrong.
“Who’s there?” the sailor called out. Carlson forced the transom window wider and shouted at the men, “Come out of there!”
Layton pulled on his pants, opened the door, and dashed from the room, with Carlson in pursuit. She caught him and, with help from another woman in the hotel, she summoned a police officer. Meanwhile, Collins made no attempt to leave or even to dress. By the time the policeman arrived, Collins had shut off his light and fallen asleep. He would later testify, “I didn’t know what I was arrested for ‘til we got up to the station house.”
The charge would not have anything to do with the two being teenagers, because in the 19th century adolescent sex was not as scandalous as today, and neither man was a “minor” in the 20th century legal sense. Instead, the charge was a new one for Seattle.
It was a moral transgression that churches had long condemned, but until just two years before Collins arrived, it had not been a crime in frontier Washington. Legislators had changed that in 1893, and now Collins faced a sentence of ten to fourteen years in the state penitentiary. A new legal weapon had suddenly publicly penetrated what had been two young men’s private search for companionship on the mud flat. Collins stood accused of being among Seattle’s earliest sodomites.
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The story of Seattle’s present gay and lesbian community can be said to start with Collins and Layton, and with others whose individual stories of same-sex affection began to be recorded at the turn of the century because of legal prosecutions arising from the 1893 law.
To be sure, there are a few earlier stories. Anthropologists have studied indicators of same-sex desire and cross-dressing among several of the Northwest’s native tribes. It also appears that Chinook, the sparse trade language used by the tribes, absorbed the word that French-speaking Catholic missionaries used to denounce the practice of men loving men–burdash, as dictionaries of Chinook spelled the French word for sodomite, berdache. Additionally, there are stories of sexual freedom among early pioneers in the Northwest. For example, Sarah Yesler, the wife of the same Henry Yesler for whom the Deadline was named, is said by some historians to have had a love affair with Eliza Hurd, who once ran a dressmaking shop and who wrote passionate letters about the two of them sleeping and bathing together.
However, it was with the passage of the Washington sodomy law in 1893 and with the almost simultaneous rise of a new psychiatric definition of “homosexuality” that certain of Seattle’s citizens began to singled out as a group of criminals and psychotics based on their same-sex desire.
Watch KCTS video reviewing gay Seattle history, beginning with the arrest of John Collins: “The History of Gay Rights in Seattle”
View Graph of Seattle Gay History at end of 19th century: Imagining a Home
Copyright 2003 University of Washington Press