On Thursday afternoon, January 26, 1950, police in Modesto, California, arrested John Oscar Allen, a seventeen-year-old Modesto High School student, and charged him with indecent exposure. Two women reported that he had exposed himself in the Lucky Market parking lot at the corner of Tenth and L. Streets. Police picked him up and questioned him in Juvenile Hall. He quickly confessed to the crime, and under police questioning, began confessing to others.
One of those crimes, according to Allen, was when he committed “a perverse act” with Charles Lloyd Martin, 23 and a Navy veteran. Martin taught history and English at a school in Turlock, fifteen miles (25 km) southeast of Modesto. Police arrested Martin at the school that very day. Robert Lee, superintendent of Turlock schools was shocked. Martin came to Turlock with the highest recommendations, he said, and his conduct at school was above reproach. He said Martin “appeared cultured and refined.”
Police investigators followed a routine practice with Allen that they used whenever they picked up someone on morals charges, especially where homosexuality was concerned. They grilled Allen, and he coughed up a name. They grilled him some more, and he soon offered up more names. Those people were brought in and they offered names. Within a couple of days, nine gay men were rounded up in Modesto. Acting police chief William Coulson said, “The operations of these people have been under observation for some time. We finally got some definite proof,” thanks to Allen’s confession. Coulson said that the “acts” were all separate and unrelated, although most of the defendants were acquainted with each other. Cash bail was set at an astronomical $20,000 (about $225,000 today). The nine men caught up in the dragnet were:
John Oscar Allen, 17, the Modesto High school student whose arrest started it all. He was charged in juvenile court with what the Modesto Bee called “a crime against nature.” This was a euphemism for California’s sodomy statute, found in Chapter 286 of California’s penal code. I’ve found no further mention of Allen’s case in the Modesto Bee, probably because his was a juvenile case.
Alfred Raymond Benjamin, 19, described as a “special student”(perhaps because of his age) at Modesto High. He was charged with two counts of “crimes against nature” (sodomy). As an adult, he would have been subject to punishment of up to twenty years’ imprisonment, based on a harsher penalty set by the state legislature just three weeks ago. He lucked out. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and served thirty days in jail before going on three years’ probation.
Charles Ernest (Chick) Fanning, 24, an unemployed beauty shop operator. He was charged with “sex perversion,” which may have been the Modesto Bee’s euphemism for having sex with one of the seventeen-year-olds. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in jail and three years’ probation. He was released early on July 14.
Vernon Edward Jenson, 20, a florist. He was charged with “sex perversion.” He pleaded guilty and was given three years’ probation after he was examined by a Dr. Ralph Gladen, head of Modesto State Hospital. Gladen said Jenson was not a homosexual but a highly penitent “foolish kid.”
H. Edgar Leeser, 38, a radio and TV repairman. He was charged with “a crime against nature” (sodomy). He pleaded not guilty. He was released on bail after the judge lowered it to $5,000 (about $55,500 today). I haven’t found any more information about this case.
Charles Lloyd Martin, 23, the Turlock school teacher. He was charged with “sex perversion.” He pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to three months in jail, but was released on May 9 and placed on probation so he could enroll in a college in Kansas.
Rolla Hargiss Nuckles, 37, a teacher of public speaking at Modesto High. He was charged with “sex perversion.” Nuckles, also a Navy veteran and war hero, was in his second year as a teacher at Modesto High. Principal Wesley Berry said he was “shocked” at Nuckles’s arrest. Nuckles was “a man with a lot of talent and has been doing an excellent job.” Berry then pointed out the obvious, that of course a conviction of “this type” would revoke Nuckles’s teaching credentials automatically. Nuckles dodged a bullet on February 20 when the charges against him were dismissed by Judge Stanton Helsley for lack of evidence. He had been held in jail for three weeks until then.
Vernon L. Stevens, 17, unemployed. He was charged in juvenile court with indecent exposure. I’ve found no further mention of Allen in the Modesto Bee, probably due to it being a juvenile case.
Burner Gene Work, 23, a window trimmer. He was charged with “a crime against nature” (sodomy). He pleaded not guilty after his lawyer argued that the charges against him should be thrown out due to lack of evidence. He was convicted in September and sentenced to two months in the county jail and three years’ probation.
California’s age of consent was (and still is) eighteen years old, which made Allen and Stevens minors as far as consensual sex was conserned. Most states had (and still have) what are called “Romeo and Juliet” exemptions, where statutory rape laws don’t apply if the adult is within five to ten years of the minor. California had no such exemption at the time. But in 1950, age of consent laws were often overlooked where males were concerned. The old “boys will be boys” adage was very much in force, even if it also meant “perverts will be perverts.” Some level of consent appears to have been assumed, even if California law did not, strictly speaking, see it that way.
Ample evidence of that attitude can be found in the stories published by the Modesto Bee, in which no one cast the younger men as “boys” or as innocent victims, nor were any of the older men accused of “molesting” anyone. That’s probably because another dynamic was in play. In 1950, society had a very elastic view of what it meant to be a “youth,” which appears to have benefited many of the adults who were arrested. The Modesto Bee reflected those attitudes when it, in keeping with the common practice of the day, referred to all but Leeser and Nuckles as “youths” in one story or another.
When I see these names in the papers, I invariably wonder what happened to them. Whenever people were arrested on a “morals charge” or for “lewd vagrancy,” their names, addresses and places of employment were typically printed in the paper. That publicity — that public shaming — only added to the sentences handed down in the courts. Teachers automatically lost their jobs. Others may have as well, or found obtaining work difficult. Some may have been shunned by their families and neighbors. It must have been an extraordinarily humiliating experience for each of these men.
But seventy years later, those very details — the names, address, employers, and so forth — are sometimes the only thing which can truly remind us that these were real people, suffering from this kind of official oppression, and not just characters in long-forgotten newspaper clippings.
Searching around the web’s vast archives yielded just scattered bits of information about most of these men. Some married, others apparently didn’t. Some apparently stayed in Modesto, as evidenced by their names appearing in city directories for many years to come. Others moved away. Burner Gene Work, who appears to have been born in Oklahoma, returned there to live out the rest of his life. Vernon Edward Jenson moved to Sacramento and married in 1954. But most just quietly, very quietly, faded from view.
One notable exception, however, is Rolla Hargiss Nuckles, the Modesto High School teacher against whom the charges were dropped.
His photo appeared in the 1950 Modesto High School yearbook, The Sycamore. He taught public speaking. “Public speaking classes take part in regional and state competition,” explained The Sycamore, “and produce a radio program over KTRB every Wednesday.” Even though Nuckles saw his charges dismissed, he was no longer teaching at Modesto in 1951. Instead, we find him back at Kansas City by April 1950, assisting in the preparations of a local theater production while there “for a visit with his mother.”
Theater was very much in his blood. According to information I was able to dig up at Ancestry.com, Rolla Hargiss Nuckles was born on July 8, 1911 in Creighton, Missouri, about sixty miles (100 km) southeast of Kansas City. He attended Westport High School in Kansas City, where he was very active in school theater, speech club, and student government. He graduated in 1928, when was voted the most “ladylike boy.” (His quote: “Gayly bedight, a gallant knight.”)
After high school, he attended junior college in Kansas City but left to go on the road with a stock company. After a spell at that, he became a barker for a carnival touring Nebraska, before landing at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. There, he joined the Dramatic Club, and was president of the local chapter of the National Collegiate Players (“one of the many units in all nation-wide dramatic movements”). In 1933, his senior year, he appeared on the Dramatic Club’s performance of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” where, according to the college yearbook, “Elizabeth Crafton stole the show and Rolla Nuckles wore lace.” Nuckles appears to have been quite the performer. As a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, he was described as “perhaps the most delectable tap dancer to nauseate the Hill in some years.”
After graduating, he joined Eva LeGalluenne’s company in New York City, then jumped to the Pasadena Playhouse, then jumped back again to New York’s American Children’s Theater. By 1936, he was back at K.U., now teaching “radio speaking” for students at the university’s radio station, KFKU, and directing radio dramas and theatrical plays. The 1939 Jayhawker yearbook says he’s the “youngest member of the dramatics department.” We also learn that “His hobbies are traveling (spends part of every simmer in Mexico and the remainder working on his master’s degree at Northwestern), his bachelor apartment, and, of all things, prize fights!”
By 1940, Nuckles found himself in Tucson, Arizona, working at the Tucson Little Theater. It’s in Tucson where he filled out his draft registration card. The next thing we know, he’s in the Navy, where he wound up becoming something of a minor war hero. Nuckles was serving in the Pacific, where he was credited with directing the rescue of 161 survivors of the Cruiser U.S.S. Helena on July 16, 1943. The Helena was sunk by the Japanese in the battle of Kula Gulf. Most of its 600 to 800 crew had been picked up at sea, but another 157 survivors eventually drifted to a Japanese-held island. The Navy sent an expedition to retrieve all 157 survivors in an operation that took place right under the Japanese’s noses. “A chief rescuer was Ensign Rolla Nuckles of Kansas City, boat officer aboard one of the destroyer-transports,” reported Life magazine. “He directed successful operations of the landing boats.” Those exploits earned him an Associated Press writeup that landed on the front-page of the hometown Kansas City Star. “The pre-dawn rescue was one of the most magnificent maneuvers in the Pacific war to date,” reported the A.P. writer, “and the audacity of going into the enemy’s own backyard through waters thick with submarines made its signal success the more remarkable.”
After the war, Nuckles hosted the radio program “Navy Reporter” for Armed Forces Radio. He wound up in Modesto in 1948 for that ill-fated teaching job. His arrest appears to have been little more than a blip in his biography. And because of the charges were dropped, it failed to interrupt his teaching career, even if he was no longer teaching in Modesto. By 1961, he was teaching English back at his old Kansas City alma mater, Westport High. He also taught drama at the State University of New York in Morrisville, Old Dominion College in Norfolk, Virginia, and St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, where he maintained a near-constant presence in the South Texas theater scene for three decades. He died in San Antonio in 2000.
On the Timeline:
For January 26, 1950:
|President:||Harry S. Truman (D)|
|Vice-President:||Alben W. Barkley (D)|
|House:||263 (D)||167 (R)||2 (Other)||3 (Vacant)|
|Southern states:||103 (D)||2 (R)|
|Senate:||54 (D)||42 (R)|
|Southern states:||22 (D)|
|Fed discount rate:||1½ %|
Headlines: President Truman approves the master defense plan for the North Atlantic defense pact against Russian attack. The U.S., Britain and France invite West Germany to send consuls to Washington, London, Paris; formal ambassadorships must wait until a formal peace treaty is signed. The Soviets erect new roadblocks on highways connecting Berlin and West Germany; U.S. threatens retaliation. Four senators (three Republicans and one Democrat) offer competing proposals for a constitutional amendment eliminating the Electoral College.
In the record stores: “I Can Dream It, Can’t I?” by the Andrew Sisters, “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” by Bing Crosby, “There’s No Tomorrow” by Tony Martin, “Mule Train” by Frankie Lane, “The Old Master Painter” by Richard Hayes, “Slipping Around” by Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely, “A Dreamer’s Holiday” by Perry Como, “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” by Dinah Shore, “Rag Mop” by the Ames Brothers, “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” by Red Foley.
On the radio: Lux Radio Theater (CBS), Jack Benny Program (CBS), Edgar Bergan & Charlie McCarthy (CBS), Amos & Andy (CBS), Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (CBS), My Friend Irma (CBS), Walter Winchell’s Journal (ABC), Red Skelton Show (CBS), You Bet Your Life (NBC), Mr. Chameleon (CBS).
On television: The Lone Range (ABC), Toast of the Town/Ed Sullivan (CBS), Studio One (CBS), Captain Video and his Video Rangers (DuMont), Kraft Television Theater (NBC), The Goldbergs (CBS), Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (CBS), Candid Camera (NBC), Texaco Star Theater/Milton Berle (NBC), Hopalong Cassidy (NBC), Cavalcade of Stars/Jackie Gleason (DuMont), Meet the Press (NBC), Roller Derby (ABC).
New York Times best sellers: Fiction: The Egyptian by Mika Waltari, Mary by Sholem Asch, A Rage to Live by John O’Hara. Non-fiction: This I Remember by Eleanor Roosevelt, White Collar Zoo by Clare Barnes, Jr., Home Sweet Zoo by Clare Barnes, Jr.
Newspapers and magazines (in chronological order):
J. Norman Lodge. “A daring rescue.” Kansas City Star (July 19, 1943): 1, 6.
“‘Helena’ rescue: Navy snatches cruiser survivors right from under noses of Japs.” Life (August 23, 1943): 41-44. Available online here.
“Turlock school teacher faces morals charge.” Modesto Bee (January 27, 1950): 2.
“Eight are under arrest here on morals charges.” Modesto Bee (January 28, 1950): 1, 2.
Associated Press. “Eight are jailed on student’s story of sex perversion.” Sacramento Bee (January 28, 1950): 26.
“Seven men are arraigned on sex charges.” Modesto Bee (January 30, 1950): 1, 10.
“Modestan admits sex perversion charge in court” (Vernon Edward Jensen). Modesto Bee (February 7, 1950): 25.
“Sex perversion is admitted by Modesto youth” (Alfred Raymond Benjamin, H. Edgar Leeser, Charles Lloyd Martin, Burner Gene Work). Modesto Bee (February 9, 1950): 6.
“Sex perversion charge against high school teacher is dropped” (Rolla H. Nuckles). Modesto Bee (February 20, 1950): 1.
“Youth jailed on morals charge gets probation” (Vernon Edward Jensen). Modesto Bee (February 22, 1950): 13.
“Youth gets jail term on sex perversion charges” (Alfred Raymond Benjamin). Modesto Bee (March 3, 1950): 4.
“Gets six month term” (Charles Earnest Fanning). Modesto Bee (March 8, 1950): 13.
“Turlock teacher pleads guilty to morals charge” (Charles Lloyd Martin). Modesto Bee (March 18, 1950): 4.
“Modestan denies sex perversion charge” (Burner Gene Work). Modesto Bee (March 21, 1950): 2.
“Morals charge denial is made by Modestan” (H. Edgar Lesser). Modesto Bee (April 18, 1950): 5.
“Crowd sees satire” (Rolla Hargiss Nuckles). Kansas City Times (April 29, 1950): 5.
“Ex-Turlock teacher’s probation terms are modified by judge” (Charles Lloyd Martin) Modesto Bee (May 5, 1950): 10.
“Probation terms of youth are modified” (Charles Ernest Fanning). Modesto Bee (July 17, 1950): 15.
“Youth is convicted on morals charge” (Burner Gene Work). Modesto Bee (September 13, 1950): 6.
“Gets two months” (Burner Gene Work). Modesto Bee (October 1, 1950): 11.
“Marriage licenses.” (Vernon Edward Jenson) Sacramento Bee (September 25, 1954): 28.
Note: Ancestry.com may require a subscription for access.
Ancestry.com FisherFamily1 Family Tree. Available online at Ancestry.com (retrieved November 28, 2020).
Modesto High School. The Sycamore yearbook. (Modesto, CA: 1950). Photo and writeup of Rolla Nuckles is on page 70. Available online at Ancestry.com. Photo of Alfred Benjamin is on page 20. John Oscar Allen does not appear in this yearbook.
Old Dominion College. The Troubadour yearbook. (Norfolk, VA: 1968): p75. Available online at Ancestry.com.
State University of New York, Morrisville. Arcadian yearbook. (Morrisville, NY: 1967): 32. Available online at Ancestry.com.
University of Kansas. Jayhawker yearbook. (Lawrence, KS: 1933): 65. Available online at Ancestry.com. “Rolla Nuckles wore lace” is on page 197.
University of Kansas. Jayhawker magazine. (Lawrence, KS, May 1939): 301, 323. Available online at Ancestry.com.
Westport High School. The Herald yearbook. (Kansas City, MO: 1928): 31. Available online at Ancestry.com. The Senior ballots are on page 60.
Westport High School. The Herald yearbook. (Kansas City, MO: 1961): 8. Available online at Ancestry.com.