The Killer Crooner And The Death Of A Thrill-Killer: LGBT True Crime Of The Past
Forgotten cases of true crime involving LGBT victims and perps can still shock today. Author James Polchin shares some of the most grisly — as well as lessons we can take this Pride Month.
In September 1933, two men were murdered, 1,300 miles apart: Lawrence Shead, 35, a movie theatre manager, was found in his New Jersey apartment with his head beaten in by an electric iron; in New Orleans, days later, businessman Sheffield Clark, 67, was found in a hotel room, propped up in his underwear, beaten and strangled to death.
The perpetrator in both cases? Kenneth Neu. As explained in James Polchin’s new book, “Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall,” Neu, 26, was described by witnesses as dark-complexioned, with “movie-star good looks.” He was a singer, with Broadway-sized dreams, adrift on the East Coast.
His victims were both likely closeted homosexuals. When Neu was picked up by police near the Holland Tunnel, roughly a week after the discovery of Clark’s body, he had blood on his clothes. According to a contemporaneous New York Times article, when an officer asked about the blood, Neu smiling, promised him “a sensation,” if he were allowed to wash up.
He made good, and confessed to both slayings without blinking an eye or breaking his smile.
And, according to Polchin, Neu had good reason to maintain his calm demeanor, given his planned defense — and the times he was living in.
Neu was indicted in New Jersey for killing Shead, but police there, according to Polchin, “admitted a strong case of self-defense could be offered,” because of Shead’s sexuality. Neu claimed that the man 10 years his senior had tried to ply him with strong drinks, with “ulterior motives” — Shead “threw his arms around [Neu’s] waist,” and a fight ensued, which ended with Shead’s head stove in with the iron.
The killer crooner claimed to have been “terribly frightened,” and left the apartment in a daze, with Shead’s belongings; Neu would later wear one of Shead’s suits when he arrived under extradition in New Orleans to face trial for Clark’s murder.
According to Polchin, at his Dec. 13, 1933, trial, Neu wore Shead’s suit again, along with shoes that belonged to Clark. Onlookers flooded the Orleans Parish courthouse. Neu’s eerily calm — even cheerful — confession to both murders left only one question for the jury to decide: Was Neu sane at the time he killed both older, gay men?
The question was salient at a time when authorities and the press were conflating homosexuals with sex criminals.
“The idea was really taking hold,” Polchin told Oxygen.com. “Local municipalities were creating their own sex-crime laws and the FBI was taking an interest in creating files on homosexual men. All homosexual men got wrapped up into this panic.”
Homosexuality itself was considered a menace close-to-par with someone like Neu, the killer crooner.
Ironically, Neu’s defense that he was resisting his victims’ advances — his defense attorney also argued that he had been “mentally abnormal all his life” — may have been the thing that sent him to the gallows. But not for the reason you might think.
“Killing another man who comes on to you, proved, [in the prosecutor's words], ‘beyond doubt that Neu was a normal person,'” Polchin said.
After the guilty verdict was read, Neu asked that photographers shoot him smiling and, on his way out of the courtroom, sang a popular waltz ballad, according to Polchin.
“It was a disturbing moment in a disturbing case, in which the killing of a man because of his flirtation with another man was evidence of the killer’s sanity,” Polchin told Oxygen.com.
Death of a Thrill-Killer
One of the early 20th century’s most notorious murders, the killing of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in 1924, returned to the headlines more than 10 years later, when Loeb was slashed to death in the prison shower.
He, as well as Leopold, was serving a life-plus-99-years sentence for kidnapping and murdering Franks in what was apparently a “thrill kill.” The highly intelligent, aristocratic young men had a fascination with true crime, and decided to create “the perfect crime,” which would never be solved.
Alfred Hitchcock based his popular 1948 thriller “Rope” on a contemporaneous play about the murder. Hitchcock’s film was coy, dealing only in hints at the fact that Leopold and Loeb were lovers; the press similarly skirted around the sordid edges of the story in 1924.
However, when James Day went to trial in 1936 for killing Loeb, the victim’s sexuality was front-and-center in the courtroom and in press reports. Reporters breathlessly painted pictures of “nude combatants engaged in a razor battle,” in detailing the 56 slashes that took Loeb’s life.
Day insisted that Loeb had the razor first, and came onto him in the shower — “He brought it on himself,” he told the court. Meanwhile, a newspaper declared that Loeb’s death came about because of Loeb’s “persistence in pursuing [him] over a long period with improper advances.” Another paper called them “indecent advances.”
“They were much more direct about describing him as a sexual pervert, to try to situate that crime within changing ideas about homosexuality as a criminal threat in the 1930s,” Polchin said. “The murder really gave the press the opportunity to recall the sensational crime and reinforce Loeb as a traumatizing force in society.”
A prison doctor bolstered Day’s defense, according to Polchin, when he concluded that Day was suffering from a “panic reaction,” and reassured the court that Day was “sexually normal.”
Day was found not guilty and, according to Polchin, the courtroom erupted in applause when the verdict was read.
“I’m tickled to death,” Day was reported to have said. “I’ve known all along that I did what any other normal man might have done under the same conditions.”
'Gay Panic' Today
The “gay panic” defense did not die off in U.S. courts after Stonewall, or even into the 2010s, as the full spectrum of sexualities and gender identities became widely accepted in mainstream society, however, according to Polchin.
“Straight panic is still a legal defense in most states,” he said.
According to a 2016 analysis by the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, such defenses have been documented in court opinions in about half of the states, although the defenses are not enshrined in penal codes.
“The gay and trans panic defenses are rooted in irrational fears based on homophobia and transphobia, and send the wrong message that violence against LGBT people is acceptable,” the study’s authors wrote.
The act of gay sex itself also remains a misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine, in Texas, according to the Texas Observer.
And, the LGBT Bar Association says that the defenses have been used successfully as recently as 2018 to mitigate murder charges down to criminally negligent homicide. Even if juries are told not to listen to the “panic” defenses, the “implicit homophobic bias of hearing the defense at all can still influence the jury’s decision,” according to the association. “For example, in cases where perpetrators are not acquitted as a result of a gay and trans ‘panic’ defense, the jury may still deadlock because it is unable to shake the inherent homophobia of the defense.”
This Pride Month marks 50 years since the Stonewall uprising. While it’s a time for celebration, some of the more grisly and shocking stories in Polchin’s book — as well as laws still on the book in the U.S. — are reminders that progress remains to be made.
“I don’t think we have forgotten, but we certainly have lost a sense of how acute the idea of queer criminality was in the decades before Stonewall,” Polchin said. “We have not escaped ideas of queer people as dangerous or threatening to society, even after achieving certain political and legal gains in the last 50 years. Queer people continue to experience the effects of this history, such as in housing and workplace discrimination, as victims of violent attacks and in the forcing of adults and children into the harsh practices of conversion therapy.”