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Book Review: 'Scandal On Plum Island'

No way you’re not going to keep reading a book with this opening line: “The captain wore a see-through dress.” Especially when the title of the book is “Scandal on Plum Island” and the author, Marian Lindberg, a journalist and attorney, notes on the cover that it’s a true story. This historical account, however, is not about conspirators’ favorite subject, germ warfare, on this windswept island in Gardiners Bay that’s still closed to the public, but about allegations of  homosexuality against a commanding officer, when Plum Island housed an army base in 1914. 

A few years ago Lindberg had been reading a history of Plum Island when she came across the  hitherto unknown case of Major Benjamin Koehler, who had been arrested for Conduct Unbecoming An Officer and Gentleman, and court-martialed. She persuasively argues that the invisibility of this case says a lot about the power of the military to harass antagonists, wage an unjust legal campaign, and put a lid on history. 

But it’s the larger theme that distinguishes Lindberg’s fascinating book, a cultural history of masculinity at the turn of the 20th century. A “manhood fixation” emerged in the early 1900s, she shows. America was changing economically and socially, “with old hierarchies declining, former slaves obtaining the right to vote, and women advocating for rights as never before.” The Boy Scouts of America, she points out, was “developed to rescue boys from their mothers and reunite them with a virile ideal.” Koehler, a short, stocky middle-aged man who liked to grow flowers, was a ripe target for malicious enemies, aided and abetted by a sensationalizing press and a war-minded political administration in Washington. 

Koehler was from a prominent Midwest family, a West Point graduate with an admirable record serving in Cuba and the Philippines, and from a prominent Midwest family. He was sent to Ft. Terry on Plum Island to shore up discipline at a time foreign invasion was feared from Spain. Strict, a bit asocial, and a bachelor whose devoted younger sister lived with him to run the household, Koehler according to friendly testimony seems to have been attentive to those beneath him in rank as well as critical of those above, if he thought their behavior questionable, such as happened at that Halloween night in 1913, when a captain showed up wearing “a light dress with little underneath.” A bit of crossdressing that, as Lindberg documents, was in vogue at the time at all-male institutions and in high society. Also, Koehler was prepared to turn in a superior he knew to have plagiarized at West Point, likely a major factor in setting off the “spite work” of a well-connected clique of officers who would insist that Koehler was “perversely attracted to men, sex-crazed, lewd, undisciplined, dishonest, and alcoholic.” 

Lindberg tells this tale in short chapters that end with cliff hanger sentences, and with a novelist’s skill in creating dramatic characters and poetic settings. She obviously did extensive research, reading – and re-reading – primary and secondary sources (there are 50 pages of endnotes), letters, press reports, journals, and official records, including of course, the court-martial transcript, where her legal eye picked up inconsistencies, inaccuracies, outright lies by the prosecution and missed opportunities by the defense. And to think, Koehler at least had connections to defend himself! 

No one knew how to handle “homo-sexualists,” as gays were then referred to then, certainly not the Army with its vague and all-encompassing legal code. It didn’t matter whether an accused was open or closeted, acting or passive, or just a man that did not look or act “manly” enough. For sure, “Scandal on Plum Island” is significant history. With significant contemporary resonance. 

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.
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