The Famous Underground Restroom in Central Park

When people are new to this area they ask me various questions about our past, and there is a fairly predictable sequence to these questions according to how long they’ve been here and what they have heard.  Sooner or later everyone gets wind of the 1962 scandal in Mansfield, and they want to know about the famous underground restrooms in the Square.

It has been more than 50 years since it happened, but still people lower their voice when they mention it like it might be a wound still too tender to touch…even with a ten-foot pole.

The men who were there at the time—the ones who I interviewed 30 years ago—acted exactly the same way: they spoke of the event only in a hushed voice, or refused to speak of it at all.  If there was one common term they all used to describe August of 1962 it was “witch-hunt.”

The Life and Times

Sociologists and historians of social psychology will tell you that every historic witch-hunt follows the same pattern—whether it was in Medieval Europe or Colonial Salem or in Congress of the 1950s—the stew has the same ingredients:

Stage 1) A population of people is nervous, tense, unsettled and frightened;

Stage 2) Some event triggers a panic that brings all that fear to the surface; so

Stage 3) They look for scapegoats to criminalize.

That’s exactly how it happened in Mansfield.  The scapegoats in 1962 were gay men.

There were gay people living in this city forever—in every generation of the city’s history.  Mansfielders have always had gay neighbors who were more or less obvious, more or less known or wanting to be recognized as such.  Certain professions in the business of conducting a city have always been typically and sterotypically staffed by gay people, and it wasn’t ever really a problem.

Of course in every generation you have the haters and bigots and judgmental folks who insist that everyone be just like them, but as far as oppressing the gay community goes it was not as big a deal as, say, Italians and Poles in the 1910s, or African-Americans in the 1920s, or even Irish in the 1860s.  Gays were just another cultural minority that were part of the melting pot.

Stage 1)

But in 1962 America had just come through a decade of very nasty witch-hunting for Communists; scientists were dropping atomic bombs in the Pacific and talking about how many millions of Americans our enemies could kill with similar bombs.  People were building bomb shelters in Mansfield and teaching their kids how to duck and cover when the bomb went off, and the country was revving up for the Viet Nam war home and abroad. 

The America they knew was in the process of changing, and in any generation that always looks like the world is coming apart at the seams.

It was being called the Age of Anxiety.  All of that just set the stage.

Stage 2)

Then in Mansfield, a horrific bloody headline smacked the front page about an unbelievably brutal and senseless murder.  Two little girls were killed in very weird circumstances in a public place.  When a young man was captured for the crime, everyone had to wonder why he would be so deranged.

It seemed kind of reassuring to find out that the boy was mentally unstable—it seemed to account for the unaccountable.  But then as the Police questioned further, it turned out the boy’s unbalanced life centered around a certain particular spot in the community: a well-known and very public landmark downtown.  It was suddenly revealed that unspeakable things were going on in the heart of town.

This landmark was the underground Men’s restroom in Central Park, located across North Park Street from Reed’s.

Entrances to the restrooms were bricked with decorative walls, seen here from the Central Park side.

In 1962 the word “gay” meant happy and carefree, and at that time our current connotation for the word did not yet exist.  In 1962 those men who we call gay today were known in the headlines as “deviants.”

Stage 3)

The scandalous news broke on August 22, 1962 and that was the day it became very dangerous in Mansfield to be gay.  The Police had set up a secret camera in the underground restroom to film the carnal intimacies of gay men’s covert rendezvous.

Mansfield Police Department prepared the scene like a movie set: with specially repainted walls, and photo-conducive lighting.  They replaced the little mirror in the men’s towel dispenser with one that their candid camera could hide behind.  With an officer underground manning the camera; one up in a nearby department store window with binoculars; and one on the street to gather identification data; they conducted their sting operation quietly.  For nearly a month they were able to assemble data, images, names and addresses, with no one suspecting what they were doing until the day they pulled the plug on the underground activity, and started going out to make arrests.

The Shaming

Ohio operated at that time under what was called a Deviant Law from 1939 that made deviating from conventional marriage a felony crime with a mandatory sentence of one year in prison.  MPD had dozens of names, they made 79 arrests and asked folks to rat out their queer neighbors.  During the ensuing months there were 39 trials and—convicted by home movies—the gay felons were sent off to Lima State Institution for the Insane to be evaluated for their level of deviancy. 

All totaled, local men spent 68 years in prison for their crimes against humanity.

At least one of them committed suicide—a caterer to the high society families in town.  One man, a church organist at the biggest church in town, was away on vacation when the news broke so he simply never came back to Mansfield again.  His wife came back and sold the house, and they moved to the West Coast.

There was one man—well known in the community from a distinguished family—who simply bought his way out of the papers, but in the process lost his wife and his sobriety from the ordeal.

Of course they weren’t all prominent people—most of them were just hapless saps who happened to get their foot caught in the revolving door of popular anxiety.

For years afterward the famous restroom bust was a cause for blackmail in Mansfield—at least socially—and men I interviewed still turned pale at the thought of it 30 years later, or refused to talk at all.

It’s easy to understand their silence when reading the newspaper accounts of the Central Park Restroom incident.  True to the outsized fear that pervaded the nation in 1962—the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis—all the rhetoric surrounding the scandal was oversized and pretty alarmist and unrealistic.  The Chief of Police was quoted in the paper as saying, “This is to be a continuous investigation to assure that this type of subject is not permitted to run at large in the City of Mansfield.  These men are from all walks of life, not just one class of society.  Any sex deviate may be a potential killer.”

The Credits

Mansfield was not the only place this was going on—not by far.  These years of the early 60s were famous for “sex-crime panic” cases all over the country in mid-sized cities like ours.  We were just part of the greater societal wave.

Typical of Mansfield, however, was the fact that we were not only carried by the wave, we were surfing on top of it—leading the way.  Our city has stood out for generations as a place where industrial and business innovations have led the country, and in the matter of societal sex panic prosecution we were no different.  Not only did this city film the crimes, we published rules and guidelines and provided technical know-how assisting every other city in America to obtain convictions in the same way.

A Mansfield-based film company put out an award-winning documentary for law enforcement agencies detailing exactly how the Mansfield Underground Restroom Scandal could be duplicated in every other precinct in America.

Fifty Years Later

To recognize who we are today by looking at who we once were, it is appropriate to acknowledge that Mansfield has historically done its share of shaming gay people.  So what is the antidote, the opposite of shame?  The opposite of shame is Pride.

It is significant that Mansfield’s first Gay Pride celebration, held in 2015, was organized by a committee of young adults who were born long after the city buried the Central Park restrooms.  They don’t remember that shame.  They are free to focus on the pride they feel in Mansfield.

The Central Park underground restrooms were built in 1920, buried in 1963.

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